Small Stories add up to a Big Deal: Shaenon Garrity talks with Derek Kirk Kim

Derek Kirk Kim, the creative force behind Small Stories Online, has his first print comic collection coming out next month – Same Difference and Other Stories, collecting all the episodes of "Same Difference" from the site (with a new font) and some other work. He also has a comic on, Half Empty, which spawned on his own site and moved to Serializer while still in mid-story – a story that features a comic book artist seeking a job after dropping out of art school, much like Kirk Kim himself did.

Derek Kirk Kim, the creative force behind Small Stories Online, has his first print comic collection coming out next month – Same Difference and Other Stories, collecting all the episodes of "Same Difference" from the site (with a new font) and some other work. He also has a comic on, Half Empty, which spawned on his own site and moved to Serializer while still in mid-story – a story that features a comic book artist seeking a job after dropping out of art school, much like Kirk Kim himself did.

Tell us a little about your background. You grew up in Korea and moved to the US as a kid, is that right?

DEREK KIRK KIM: Yeah, I immigrated to America with my mom and younger brother when I was 8. And thank the gods for that! We were poorer than poor in Korea, and I’d probably be working 16-hour days delivering fried chicken right now if we hadn’t moved to America. Hm, of course I’d actually be making money delivering chicken as opposed to making, oh… NOTHING… making these soul-sucking comics… Hm, maybe it’s time to move back…


A few years ago you went back to Korea to teach English. Was Korea as you remembered it?

DKK: No, not at all. I grew up in a… well, a slum, and I never got to see the glossy side of Korea at the time. Seoul these days is a completely different universe than the poor section of Inchon that I came from. And I’m not talking America poor, I’m talkin’… everyone in the neighborhood shared one outhouse, and every month there were these guys whose job was to scoop the shit out of all the outhouses! Talk about your crappy jobs… (no pun intended, really) I always knew when that day was cause I could smell it from a mile away as I was walking home from school. It was unbearable… So you can imagine how shocking it was to see all the modernization and neon and glitz of Seoul when I went back. Course, for all I know, it could’ve always been there, but I never got to go to Seoul when I was a kid.


How did you get interested in comics?

DKK: Since I grew up in Korea, comics were always around. It’s just a normal thing for a kid to read there, not like some freakish growth that everyone makes fun of you for like here in America. And like a typical Asian kid, I was really into giant robot comics/cartoons at the time. I have this very vivid memory of making what must’ve been one of the first comics I ever made — it was a Gundam comic! Now I can’t stand that nonsense! I still love Mazinger Z (Tranzor Z in America) though. Mazinger‘s the real deal. I used to dream of driving Mazinger and impressing all the kindergarten girls. I guess some things never change…


What comics did you read in your formative years?

DKK: I can’t remember specifically what I read in Korea, but I remember a lot of robots and such. I’m sure there was a lot of Tezuka in there, as a lot of comics in Korea were translated and imported from Japan. Once I got to America, it was all about superheroes of course, cause there was nothing else available! Stupid American comics industry…

Anyway, I really got into Spider-Man, and a little later X-Men. Oh, and I bought every issue of Samuree strictly for the butt shots. I wholly blame the American comic book industry for the warped individual I am today. Not only did they warp any sense of reality I might’ve had, I really do think they seriously damaged my ideas on sexuality and male/female roles. Anyway, around my senior year in high school, I found a copy of Hate #2 in a quarter box (in a mall of all places!) and it was all over after that. Through Hate, I discovered the world of alternative comics and there was no going back. At the same time, I was discovering straight-forward fiction(as opposed to fantasy fiction which was what I was primary reading prose-wise in early high school), and enrolling in Creative Writing over and over in college sealed my fate.

More than anyone, I probably have Betty Smith to thank for my conversion to writing about myself and the world around me. One summer, my dad rented out this cabin next to a lake for a week, and I found a copy of Joy In The Morning by Betty Smith on a bookshelf. I spent an entire day indoors reading and finishing that book, instead of going waterskiing and fishing like everyone else. I couldn’t stop reading it! And I realized I how much time I had been wasting reading all this fantasy nonsense… Betty Smith really opened the doors for me and paved the way to "harder" fiction later. Also around my early college years, I discovered Zhang Yimou and Woody Allen in film and was totally blown away.

All these things conspired to mold me into the writer/artist that I am today… Wait, lemme just add one last thing on this topic though; I wasn’t dissing ALL fantasy before, I have nothing against GOOD fantasy(ie: any Miyazaki film/comic, The Princess Bride, A Wrinkle In Time, Bone, etc.), I’m talking about all the D&D-derived garbage where a writer with a third-grade writing level–whose day job is pushing out novelization of Dolph Lundgren movies–is reciting his latest Gamma World campaign and calling it a novel. Just had to get that off my chest…


How the hell did you learn to draw so damn well? Also, where did you go to school?

DKK: I went to the Academy of Art in San Francisco for three years and dropped out as soon as I had my first publishing offer. I was such a fool…


Any other members of your family draw?

DKK: My brother draws once in a blue moon, and some extended family members on my birth father’s side draw. But those extended family members are all in Korea and we have no contact with them. I feel utterly alone in the family that I know. Art is practically a bad word in my family. I really don’t know how I came out of there. I feel so alone in my family. I’m so envious of artists whose parents and family members truly understand and appreciate their gifts… They don’t know how lucky they are.


What print comics did you work on before Small Stories?

DKK: Nothing worth noting. Well, there’s Duncan’s Kingdom, but I didn’t write that, I just drew it. Luckily it was written by the uber-talented Gene Yang. Right now we’re working on a way for two males to produce a baby. Well, I am anyway, but Gene’s gonna find out soon enough…


Your graphic novella Same Difference recently ended. What has the reader reaction been?

DKK: It’s been more than I could’ve ever hoped for. I was really surprised at the amount of feedback I got. I don’t really know what else to say… It was really amazing… and I was very grateful that people cared at all.


Where did the inspiration for Same Difference come from?

DKK: Oh, man, so much of that story is based on real events… I think people would be pretty shocked if they knew which parts of that story were real. I kinda took a bunch of interesting incidents from my life and people around me and went a step further. Sort of a "what if" to all these curious things that were happening around me. Also I had a lot of guilt surrounding this blind girl I totally dissed back in high school (the whole first part where Simon disses Irene and even fakes a phone call to his mom is, sad to say, completely autobiographical), and it was SUCH a relief to get it off my chest. It really was like therapy. Besides all that, there were all these themes about maturity and letting go of childhood and such that I really wanted to get across.


Your comic Half Empty is running weekly on How autobiographical is Half Empty?

DKK: Not very. It’s probably the least autobiographical of all my stories. It’s funny though, people automatically assume that it is. I guess cause they know I went to art school… But besides the dropping out part, the rest is mostly fiction. I never pined after Fashion majors for one thing.


You seem to have a real gift for writing and drawing believable female characters. What advice do you have for cartoonists creating characters of the opposite sex?

DKK: The key is just not thinking about gender. Just write a character as a PERSON, not a representation of a gender. Of course gender plays a part, but if you’re approaching that character like a real person, gender issues will bleed in naturally. Well, as far as a person from the opposite sex can take that. And of course, it always helps to partially base your characters on people you know. Nancy for example has a lot of my best friend, Helen, in her. If I had never known Helen, I don’t know if Nancy would’ve came out the way she had. Probably not. That’s not to say Helen will get a single cent from my royalty checks. Not a red cent. It’s mine. All mine.


There’s a lot of pooping in your comics. Why is this?

DKK: Everyone poops. Pooping is fun. Pooping is good. And poop is a good metaphor for life, too — so much variety! There’s slushy, chunky, nutty, rubbery, stringy, grainy, sticky, soupy, goopy, messy, gamey, stinky, heavy, dry, wet, short, long, thick, thin… Aren’t you sorry you asked?


When can we expect to see the Xeric-funded Small Stories print collection?

DKK: Late May, early June.


Last year you turned down an offer to draw a Scott McCloud-scripted Superman comic. Why? And is Scott still giving you a hard time about it?

DKK: I’m insane. Also, I HATE drawing comics. I mean, I hate drawing my own comics — drawing that many pages of Superman… I don’t know, I think I would’ve killed myself before I got halfway through the project, to be completely honest with you. And no, Scott’s just the best. He doesn’t give me a hard time at all. He gives me a hard time when I shove his daughters out of the way to get Julie Strain‘s signature at conventions though. He’s no fun.


What tools do you use to create your comics? Are you using the computer more since you began doing webcomics?

DKK: Y’know, back when I first started I used to despise computers and thought someone was less of an arteest if they used it to manipulate their art. But these days I’m the biggest computer whore. I don’t know what I’d do without it. I don’t do any actual drawing inside the computer, but I do all the lettering, white-out work, filling in blacks, and cut and pasting on it. It’s heaven. To ink I use Copic multiliner. That’s it. Oh, and I use regret, anger and bitterness to write.


Recently you changed your pen name from Derek Kirk to Derek Kirk Kim. What inspired this change?

DKK: I just got so tired of people emailing me and bugging me about my name and ethnicity.


What do you have planned for Small Stories in the future?



What comics are you reading these days? How about webcomics?

DKK: I don’t have any time to really read these days. It’s really depressing. But on the pot, I’ve been reading snippets of "Side Effects" by Woody Allen. Oh, and a bunch of mini-comics I got at APE. Also, I made a new’s years resolution to finally read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf which has been on my bookshelf unread for years and years or inflict serious damage on myself. As for webcomics, I read Narbonic and nothing else. Kee hee hee…

Shaenon Garrity