Small Stories by Derek Kirk, Reviewed by Matt Trepal
Despite its name, Small Stories, created by Derek Kirk, is filled with big ideas. The site has two sections, one containing short, single-episode stories (hence the site's name), and another containing two sets of longer stories.
The short stories range from the silly "Interview With A Human" to the wry "Ungrateful Appreciation", or even the heartwrenching "Super Unleaded". No matter their tone, however, each of these short pieces has an important underlying theme: resistance to racism, the appreciation of comfort and convenience, the recognition of missed opportunities, or the dwindling of love.
The longer stories are, on the other hand, studies in contrast. "Oliver Pikk" is a limited series about Oliver Pikk (perhaps the most brilliant anthropomorphic character ever: an olive on a toothpick) and his roommate Leroy, an oversexed tree sloth. Oliver considers himself unloved and unlovable, a situation made more intolerable by all the action that Leroy is getting, and has reached the verge of suicide. (Un?)fortunately, Oliver's also fairly dense. The Oliver Pikk strips are perhaps the funniest of all the pieces at Small Stories – they're certainly the ones most obviously written to get laughs. Still, even here Kirk builds the humor on serious ideas such as what it takes to find love.
"Same Difference" is the other long-form story. On the surface, this story is simply about two friends – Simon and Nancy – as they try to find a man from Simon's hometown who has been sending letters to Nancy's apartment, the address of his former girlfriend. These letters prove so touching, so heartfelt, that Nancy succumbs and writes back, posing as the man's ex-girlfriend, and indicating to him that she is interested in resuming the relationship.
This is where "Same Difference" slips into deep-thinking mode. Simon is appalled by Nancy's act, yet as he agrees to take her to try to find the letter-writer, the story begins to focus on regrettable actions and the effort to reconcile oneself to them after they have been committed, since they can't be taken back. Simon is nagged by guilt over his decision to reject an invitation to a Sadie Hawkins Dance through a fairly transparent lie – one that backfires on him.
As he and Nancy wander through his hometown, Simon meets several of his old high school classmates, including the class bully Eddie, his wife, and their child, and Irene, Simon's jilted friend. After the encounter with Eddie and his family, Simon admits to a certain jealousy and admiration regarding his classmate, even though they had little to do with each other while in school. While Simon managed to leave town and "move on," as he puts it, he has not changed much from the person he was back then. But the stay-at-home Eddie, through marriage and starting a family, has grown in ways that Simon finds extremely impressive.
The writing at Small Stories is excellent and thought provoking, whether it be humorous, dramatic, poignant, or quietly satisfied. Kirk handles all these situations very deftly, conveying the emotions all the more effectively because many of the stories are presented in the first person, giving them an autobiographical feel. It is unclear as to how many of them are autobiographical (if any?), but this approach lends the heft of truth to the stories.
Kirk's art spans a wide range of styles, impressive in its variety and quality, and always appropriate for the subject matter. The Oliver Pikk strips are drawn very simply and cartoonishly, almost surreally, as would benefit a talking olive on a toothpick. Short pieces such as "Valentine's Day" and "Interview With A Human" are done in a similar cartoonish style, but others such as "Super Unleaded" and "Pulling" are rendered very realistically, in keeping with the more serious subject matter. The long-form piece "Same Difference" is drawn in a sort of intermediate style that bridges between the cartoonish and the realistic. "Same Difference" also allows Kirk to showcase his impressive digital shading skills, even if all the strips are produced in greyscale.
As with the best of literature, Small Stories entertains while it makes the reader think. Kirk has produced an excellent collection of thought-provoking pieces, short and long, serious and funny – these strips will appeal to any comics reader curious or interested in finding something beyond the firewall of more popular, mainstream genres. Those who dare to break through will find that these small stories can amount to a big payoff.