Critical Questions: Derek Kirk Kim
Critically-acclaimed cartoonist takes sci-fi for a spin.
After making a huge splash with 2003's Same Difference, a slice-of-life comedy about Korean-American twenty-somethings, Derek Kirk Kim's latest graphic novel, Tune: Vanishing Point, shows him melding the offbeat with epic science fiction. To mark his newest venture, we spoke to Kim about the similarities between Tune and his earlier projects, what kind of sci-fi inspires him, and his burgeoning career as a filmmaker.
CM: Tune: Vanishing Point is a science fiction tale, but it is also reminiscent of your breakthrough graphic novel, Same Difference, especially the early scenes, which have a slice-of-life feel. Why did you decide to mash the two genres together?
DKK: Personally, my favorite kind of sci-fi is character-driven stories that really explore the characters' backgrounds before all the fantastical elements hit so the reader can really feel the magnitude of the situation and how it affects the characters' lives. So I tried to do that with Tune.
To what degree are Andy's struggles based on your own experiences? Did you have as difficult a time as he does when you were first establishing yourself?
Not when I was first starting out. I actually got my first publishing deal while I was still in college, so in that sense, I'm not really like Andy at all. But I did drop out of art school and I do regret not getting my degree.
You go into great detail explaining how the aliens travel across dimensions, working in a comparison to a radio and how it can toggle between frequencies. When you first conceived of Tune, how important was it that the science-fiction parts of the story involve concepts that would be fairly accessible to audiences?
Well, one of the things that inspired Tune was my fascination with string theory at the time. I saw a really long documentary about string theory and its evidence for parallel universes and it triggered my imagination. I love science fiction that is spun off of real science. Also, if I remember correctly, the explanation for how the Tuner works was lifted from a documentary on radio frequencies, but I switched out radio signals for parallel dimensions. Plus it's really fun writing "Trek Babble," so to speak.
Reading your book, I was reminded of Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series, which also revolves around an underachiever and features pop culture references and reality-bending moments. Is this a recent trend, or have these kinds of graphic novels been around all the while, and there's just been more attention paid to them lately?
I'm not sure. I'm just writing what appeals to me outside of whatever may be happening in pop culture as a whole. I'm wary of the Scott Pilgrim comparison though, because if Scott Pilgrim fans pick up Tune thinking it's going to be like Scott Pilgrim, I think most of them would be very disappointed. Except for some superficial similarities which could be applied to a million comics/stories, they're totally different kinds of books. Tune is more in the vein of Red Dwarf or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. But I certainly don't mind Tune being compared to a great book like Scott Pilgrim!
A recurring theme in Tune: Vanishing Point is generational or cultural gap. There's the tension between Andy and his parents, who have very different ideas of what work and happiness should be. But there's a similar dynamic between Dash, one of the alien visitors, and her father. What do you think of the tensions that often exist between parents and their children?
Yeah, I guess it's definitely a theme in Tune. I didn't mean to make it a central theme of the story. I think that just arose coincidentally. Thank you for pointing that out, it's illuminating...
I recently re-read The Eternal Smile, which you co-authored with Gene Luen Yang, and I was struck by something very similar between that book and this one - in both cases, the protagonists are "stuck" in some kind of space, whether that's an alien zoo in the case of Tune, or a dreamscape or office cubicle in The Eternal Smile. Is there something about escape that's particularly appealing as a theme to you?
I think this might be stemming from my immigrant experience. I moved to the U.S. from South Korea when I was eight years old, and I remember it very much like being transported into a completely different world. We didn't even have an indoor bathroom in the poor section of Korea where I grew up. It seemed like science fiction to me when I first landed in America. I remember being totally amazed at the reflecting middle dividers on the highway. I thought they were little lights! Not that I'm stuck in America or anything, but that sense of being suddenly dropped into another completely different world is very palpable for me and I think it bleeds into my stories.
Tune started out as a web comic, and according to the official site, whether it continues depends on how well Tune: Vanishing Point sells. At this point, how are the prospects of more Tune looking?
Because of the return policy of bookstores, I'm told there's really no way to tell until months later. But I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed.
Finally, along with being a cartoonist, you've written, directed, and produced a number of episodes of Mythomania, a series of shorts. Are there particular influences on your filmmaking style? Also, do you storyboard before filming, and if yes, is the process similar to cartooning?
I have tons of influences for filmmaking, but they're not divorced from my comics influences. Woody Allen, [Stanley] Kubrick, Joe Matt, The Hernandez Brothers, [Hayao] Miyazaki, Zhang Yimou, Chester Brown, Peter Bagge, to name a few. They all meld into inspirations for both my films and comics, though. They're not really separate in my head. And yes, I storyboarded scenes for Mythomania when I had the time before shooting, but I didn't always have that luxury. We just put up the trailer for the second season and I hope people will check it out. We worked our asses off on it.
Thank you for the interview! Critical Mob is awesome.