Growing Pains: Same Difference / by Erik Sugay

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Getting caught lying is an experience I dread – forehead sweating, tongue stumbling, eyes darting every which way searching for some sort of reprieve. Even with the proliferating success of recent television programs acclimating audiences to the association between cringe-worthy situations and comedy, I still find it difficult to see anyone under that unique pressure. Same Difference revels in this, so you can imagine how hard it was for me to read, doing all I could to avert my eyes knowing the story wouldn’t progress unless I did look.

Same Difference is almost entirely about character development, so it’s difficult to discuss the story without spoiling anything. Generally, life, love, and teenage idiocy are touched upon, with perhaps the most powerful themes being reflection and regret.

Right at the outset, you’re thrust into the amiable characters’ lives, joining them for an everyday meal. The plentiful pop-culture-based dialogues set the timeframe for the story. (Tellingly, not one reference was lost on me.) Similar to meeting someone new in real life, a great way to comfortably get to know someone is through conversational middle ground, and these skillfully used references serve to easily bridge that gap between the reader and the characters. The repartee is clever and the knack for which they glean some wisdom from the random discussions never feels unnatural. Rather, that they can quickly weave through bouts of hilarity and seriousness without batting an eye establishes how good of friends these main characters are.

Outside of random conversations, the main characters ensure that criticizing others is part of their daily routine. These demeaning attitudes initially come across as off-putting, but a portion of the story is committed to how they come to acknowledge and choose to deal with their own imperfections. The characters are several years removed from high school, but it’s intriguing to see how adolescent decisions continue to shape their present selves, for better or for worse.

One scene perfectly encapsulates that tumultuous teenage life, displaying how much of the misery in high school is self-inflicted and usually rooted in some misguided idea of self-importance. Many choices made when you’re younger are based on reasons that, at the time, make perfect sense. But when you look back on them, hopefully older and wiser, they’re almost impossible to comprehend, let alone justify. Hoping to see whether, and how, these characters grow through reflection is one of the story’s strongest aspects.

Helping ground the setting is how normal and honest everything is presented. For example, more than a few panels are dedicated to the characters singing in a car or coming up with plans for the day while using the bathroom (a font of bright ideas if there ever was one). Derek Kirk Kim, author and illustrator, chooses not to shy away from the humdrum of personal, everyday life.

The monochromatic illustrations are relatively simple, but scene angles and page placement are expertly chosen. The story wouldn’t be half as effective without the spectacular use of recurring panels. Similar images repeated with just the slightest of variations really drive home the painful sincerity of emotions.

Embarrassment, disappointment and regret are shown and buried in characters' faces with such quickness that the sting of each is palpable; Kim’s proven himself adept at making readers feel what his characters feel. Looking away whenever I expected an uncomfortable scene would’ve been a disservice to the overall story and I’m pleased I never did. Without going through the fall, there’d be little reward in experiencing the rise, and being able to grow along with these characters is why Same Difference is such a treasure.

TL;DR  A keen depiction of how your choices define you. Characters crack wise and learn something about themselves. They’re given the opportunity to mature, and you can’t help but hope that they take it.

Winner of Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz Awards, Same Difference is written and illustrated by Derek Kirk Kim. You can try and pick up a previous version, published by Alternative Comics, here. Otherwise, you can preorder the beautiful hardcover edition (releasing Dec 6) with awesomely transparent jacket cover, published by First Second.