I've resisted picking up Derek Kirk Kim's Same Difference for a while for what might be a silly reason: the illustrations are in black and white. Ever since I started reading graphic novels, I've been more than a little prejudiced against black and white art, no matter how good that art may be. But I've pretty much read through my entire library's small collection of full color graphic novels whose stories seemed remotely interesting to me, so it was time to buckle down and move on.
There's no better place to start than Same Difference, a much-lauded book featuring characters in their twenties, which First Second re-released in a "deluxe edition" in 2011. By much-lauded, I mean that it garnered Kim three major comics awards when it was first published in 2003: the Eisner, the Harvey, and the Ignatz award for new talent. Pretty impressive, yes? Plus, I really dug Kim's illustrations in The Eternal Smile, so I hoped I would like them equally in black and white.
I needn't have worried - Same Difference deserves the accolades. By saying that, I realize this review won't add much of anything new, since the world has had almost ten years to figure this out on its own, but for the two of you who hadn't heard of this book until now, this is for you.
Simon and Nancy are two friends going through a quarter-life crisis. They're in their mid-twenties, a bit directionless, past high school but not quite settled into adulthood yet. They're eating lunch together when Simon gets a blast from his past: he sees Irene, a former high school friend of his, waiting at a bus stop. Rather than go and talk to her, he instead recounts to Nancy the story of their friendship, a story that still makes Simon feel deeply ashamed of his actions.
Later, the two are at Nancy's apartment and Nancy admits to Simon that she's been receiving letters in the mail addressed to a former tenant from a lovesick man named Ben - and she's been writing back, pretending to be Ben's object of affection. Ben lives in Pacifica, which just happens to be Simon's hometown, and the two decide to go to Pacifica, hoping to get a glimpse of the man Nancy's been stringing along. Not only is Ben not what they expected, Simon also runs into Irene - and he can't avoid speaking to her this time.
The best thing about Same Difference is the way it manages to be both funny and poignant at the same time. I laughed out loud at so many moments. At one point, after high school Simon realizes what a giant...jerk...he's been, he's depicted as just that in the panel. There might not be anything funnier than a picture of a giant sad-faced...jerk. (Three guesses: What do you think my favorite part of Superbad was?) And Simon and Nancy are great wise-crackers, constantly ribbing each other like good friends do. Often, the humor is a lead-in for something a bit deeper: reflections on life, past experiences that haunt us, and mistakes we continue to make into adulthood. It's never heavy-handed, though, and it's done in only 80 pages with black and white artwork that perfectly captures both the humor and the poignancy.