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New 'Tune,' Same Key From Cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim

By the time cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim was 30 years old, his prodigious talents had already won him an Eisner award, an Ignatz award and a Harvey award, the top three honors of the comics field. Chalk that up to the simple fact that in the much-plaudited Same Difference and Other Stories, which he first serialized on his website and later self-published (it has since been collected and published commercially), Kim wrote what he knew: It's a story of self-deprecating, disaffected 20-somethings besotted with pop culture and beset by lassitude.

His characters — most, like Kim, Korean-American — didn't share their parents' rigorous work ethic, preferring to while away their days discussing love, life and bathroom habits as they struggled to understand and be understood by the world around them. Kim captured it all with empathic, wistful humor and deft, expressive line work.

Like Same Difference before it, Kim's latest graphic novel began life as a Web comic; the first pages of what fans have come to know as the Tune series appeared online in December 2010. At this writing, 18 chapters have been posted; Tune: Vanishing Point collects the first 10.

Kim eagerly revisits many of the subjects and tonal qualities that earned him so much initial acclaim. We meet Andy Go, a callow art student whose decision to quit school worries his parents, with whom — it may not surprise you to learn — he lives. He's crushing madly on fellow art student Yumi, though he's convinced he has missed his opportunity with her. Reluctantly, he attempts to enter the workforce, only to have his efforts repeatedly confounded. (Kim gets in a decent swipe at mainstream comics when Andy endures a lecture on the importance of realistic anatomy from a superhero comics editor whose walls teem with posters of women smuggling medicine balls under their spandex.)

It's engaging stuff — certainly Kim's artwork is cleaner, smoother and more expressive than ever. But it begins to feel awfully familiar. Andy is a funny but troublesomely voluble narrator whose running commentary is rife with metaphors that wheeze with effort ("as reliable as a mullet sighting at the Indy 500"). After a while, all those glib jokes at his own expense — which strike exactly the same characterizing note each time and serve only to underline what the artwork has already so efficiently established — distance us from Andy and from the book.

But just then — aliens! Mysterious, possibly sinister but cute-as-all-get-out aliens! When a pair of beings from an alternate universe recruit our young hero for a job that is not what it first appears, their presence adds to the tale exactly the z-axis the reader has been hungering for.

Once Andy's interactions with these helmet-headed beings (known as Praxians) take center stage, Kim gets out of his own way and lets his dialogue and his character's "acting" (body language, facial expression) take up the narrative load. As a result, Tune starts to move at a refreshingly crisp pace; jokes land lightly and true, and we find ourselves back on Andy's side for good.

The Praxians don't show up until the final chapters of this first volume, which, yes, ends on a cliffhanger. But this is by no means the first adventure tale to dawdle in the early going (Tom Bombadil, anyone?). And, as those of us who've read the next chapters can tell you, when this series really starts to hit its stride you'll be glad you were around for the starting gun.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.