The Candid Visual Storytelling of Deb JJ Lee



Deb JJ Lee (photograph by Amir Hamja)

Deb JJ Lee, a Korean-American graphic novelist and illustrator primarily based in Brooklyn, New York, has been making waves within the trade not only for their explosively colourful and detailed drawings but in addition their outspoken and hilarious social media presence. Final December, when Epic Video games, the developer behind Fortnite — the favored on-line recreation with a multibillion-dollar internet value — supplied them a mere $3,000 for a customized recreation illustration and its copyrights, Lee referred to as the gig “hilarious” on Twitter after which referred them as “Fartnite®” when addressing how the compensation was unsustainable.

Each of their on-line persona and of their beautiful works of visible storytelling, Lee walks the high quality line of realizing their value whereas additionally not taking themselves too significantly by means of a selective candidness that’s each empowering and grounding.

Deb JJ Lee holding their new graphic novel In Limbo (2023) (all pictures courtesy the artist)

There’s a candidness of their strategy to gender exploration and identification as properly. Lee, who’s nonbinary and makes use of they/them pronouns, is loud and proud about their journey towards and experiences of gender identification and presentation. However it wasn’t all the time this manner for Lee, as depicted by their lately revealed graphic novel memoir In Limbo (2023). The graphic novel particulars the illustrator’s navigation by means of psychological well being issues, self-worth points, and “difficult relationships” between 2010 and 2014 whereas they have been attending highschool in northern New Jersey. Having moved from Seoul, South Korea, to america at a younger age, Lee was located within the murky gray space of non-Korean and non-American, chatting with the e-book’s title in simply one in all a number of methods.

In Limbo follows Lee’s teenage years, again after they have been utilizing she/her pronouns as Deborah “Deb” Jung-Jin Lee (“My dad and mom beloved the 90’s,” Lee advised Hyperallergic, additionally noting that their brother’s identify is Brad). Maneuvering by means of the adversities of loneliness, rejection from each cultures, difficult relationships together with her dad and mom, and educational struggles, e-book Deb exhibits us a lifetime of eager for issues to get higher whereas she is caught with herself and struggles to search out her company.

By way of monochromatic however painstakingly rendered and expressive panels throughout 350 pages, Lee presents an uncomfortably relatable retelling of tri-state-area-coded microaggressions, flunking honors physics even with the additional assist (solely actual ones will perceive), the jarringly risky nature of Asian immigrant parenting, and the day-to-day dredge of life with melancholy and never assembly expectations.

Drawn utilizing Procreate on an iPad, Lee’s moody, tonal panels depict each actual and imagined conversations between e-book Deb and her family and friends and folks she encounters on the every day. With a variety of tales as benign as making an attempt to flee the grape-flavored toothpaste on the dentist to hard-hitting moments about grade-induced panic assaults and interpersonal conflicts, Lee’s sequential imaging finds its strengths in softness and texture. Each facial features, coiffure, and article of clothes is as gently and lovingly thought-about because the environments Lee’s characters exist in, as that very same consideration is proven within the renderings of bushes, structure, and on a regular basis objects. Lighting, climate, and floor textures are crucial components for Lee’s narrative strategy, and never a single element is spared.

Lee depicts many uncomfortable conversations by means of In Limbo.

Whereas In Limbo doesn’t outwardly tackle Lee’s queerness, it’s implicitly threaded all through the narrative whether or not or not the illustrator meant for it. It’s seen in e-book Deb refusing the nickname “Debbie,” it’s manifested of their stereotypically masculine Korean identify Jung-Jin, and truthfully, and maybe this can be a projection, it’s type of simply canonized by means of e-book Deb’s inside monologue and the way she behaves.

“I imply, I actually posted this Fb standing in 2010 that stated ‘Is feeling mentally genderless,’” Lee advised Hyperallergic whereas reflecting on their gender identification and expression all through highschool. “Clearly no one appreciated it, however there have been lots of components in my life the place I simply felt like I don’t get pleasure from being a lady, however I do know I’m not like a boy, both.”

A few of the darker factors Lee shares inside the graphic novel

Lee unashamedly shares and processes a few of the darkest moments and hardest truths of their life, together with two suicide makes an attempt, enduring their mom’s bodily and emotionally violent outbursts coupled with loving moments and real curiosity in supporting their inventive endeavors, and a quintessentially devastating buddy breakup. All of those painful occasions chip away at e-book Deb, who was as soon as frozen in a depressive purgatory — however within the yielded vacancy was house to be taught and develop into activated. We get to see e-book Deb start to heal and develop assured by means of their art-oriented relationships, by means of studying to simply accept what can and can’t be modified, by means of detangling their inside turmoil with the assistance of a therapist, and make strides in turning into the Deb JJ Lee earlier than us.

One in all their upcoming tasks is illustrating for Rainie Oet’s upcoming image e-book Monster Search (2026), which can discover notions of gender identification and sibling relationships for younger readers.

For the following steps of their private observe, Lee desires to convey extra queer Asian characters to life in a futurity the place queerness is sort of of the mundane, and never the crux of their plots. “I need to keep away from speaking about trauma for some time,” the illustrator stated. “So if I had a personality that’s trans, I don’t need to write about their transition, however simply point out off-hand that they’re taking testosterone.”

This text, a part of a sequence centered on LGBTQ+ artists and artwork actions, is supported by Swann Public sale Galleries. Swann’s upcoming sale “LGBTQ+ Artwork, Materials Tradition & Historical past,” that includes works and materials by David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Diane Arbus, Peter Hujar, Tom of Finland, and plenty of extra will happen on August 17, 2023.


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