Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Unstuck In Career: Tune, Volume 1

It's always a delight to see a new book from Derek Kirk Kim, whose sense of comic timing and skill as a cartoonist come together to make even well-trod territory seem fresh and funny. In the first volume of his comic Tune (based in part on his webseries Mythomania), he combines three ideas: the minutia of being an art/illustration student (including the delusions of grandeur and return to earth), the difficulties of being Asian-American and the crushing weight of expectations from family, and a Kurt Vonnegut-esque sci-fi twist. This being Kim, he finds a way to combine all three and even throw in a love story, turning ideas that would dissolve into cliche in the hands of lesser cartoonists and making them pop off the page.

Young Andy Go decides to quit art school, thinking he was good enough to get top-drawer illustration work at the New Yorker by sheer dint of his genius. His two nerdy friends (and their nerdiness practically announces itself with a scream on the page) are dubious as to this prospect, as is his best female friend, upon whom he has a deep and unspoken crush. The nature of their relationship and the uncertainty regarding her feelings for him actually make up the bulk of the book's emotional narrative, as Kim actually finds a clever device for Andy to gain intimate knowledge as to her true feelings: he accidentally gets his hands on her sketchbook diary. Kim adroitly gives his protagonist information that utterly delights him, but also puts him in a tough spot because it's unclear as to how he can use this information.

All of that is secondary to the book's main plot: Andy's search for a job after dropping out of art school and living with his parents, who are understandably (though histrionically) upset about his lack of employment and early exit from school. That prompts an extended, humiliating and hilarious job search that ends with Andy accepting employment in an extradimensional zoo as one of its exhibits. The best part about this development is how it is treated with near-indifference by nearly everyone. While Andy fears for his life and sanity at some points, his parents merely tell him to hold out for dental insurance. The almost oppressively mundane nature of Andy's life drags even this showy genre turn down, especially when it becomes clear that one of the extradimensional aliens is forced to employ his ditzy daughter as one of his assistants. Everyone's just trying to make a buck.

The book is in crisp black & white, with panels that employ bright use of negative space plopped onto pages that look like starry skies. It's a clever technique that plays on the book's central idea: the intermixing of the mundane and the bizarre in such a way that the bizarre becomes mundane. His figurework is excellent, especially in terms of body language. Despite the "cute" character design, the realistic use of body language lifts the character interactions out of the realm of cliche and into a sphere where one feels like these are real, knowable characters. It's a perfect First Second book, one that emphasizes story, character, whimsy and genre elements. I can't imagine a more ideal publisher for Kim's work, and Kim has done well in gearing this project for a First Second audience.

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