The Candid Visible Storytelling of Deb JJ Lee

Deb JJ Lee (picture 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 additionally their outspoken and hilarious social media presence. Final December, when Epic Video games, the developer behind Fortnite — the favored on-line sport with a multibillion-dollar internet price — provided them a mere $3,000 for a customized sport illustration and its copyrights, Lee known 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 gorgeous works of visible storytelling, Lee walks the tremendous line of figuring out their price whereas additionally not taking themselves too critically via a selective candidness that’s each empowering and grounding.

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

There’s a candidness of their method to gender exploration and identification as nicely. 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. Nevertheless it wasn’t at all times this manner for Lee, as depicted by their just lately printed graphic novel memoir In Limbo (2023). The graphic novel particulars the illustrator’s navigation via 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 ebook’s title in simply considered one of 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 liked the 90’s,” Lee advised Hyperallergic, additionally noting that their brother’s title is Brad). Maneuvering via the adversities of loneliness, rejection from each cultures, sophisticated relationships along with her dad and mom, and educational struggles, ebook Deb exhibits us a lifetime of eager for issues to get higher whereas she is caught with herself and struggles to seek out her company.

Via 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 ebook Deb and her family and friends and folks she encounters on the each day. With a variety of tales as benign as attempting 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 of 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 vital components for Lee’s narrative method, and never a single element is spared.

Lee depicts many uncomfortable conversations via 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 ebook Deb refusing the nickname “Debbie,” it’s manifested of their stereotypically masculine Korean title Jung-Jin, and actually, and maybe it is a projection, it’s type of simply canonized via ebook Deb’s inner 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 person appreciated it, however there have been plenty of components in my life the place I simply felt like I don’t take pleasure in being a woman, however I do know I’m not like a boy, both.”

A number of the darker factors Lee shares throughout the graphic novel

Lee unashamedly shares and processes among 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 creative endeavors, and a quintessentially devastating pal breakup. All of those painful occasions chip away at ebook Deb, who was as soon as frozen in a depressive purgatory — however within the yielded vacancy was area to be taught and change into activated. We get to see ebook Deb start to heal and develop assured via their art-oriented relationships, via studying to simply accept what can and can’t be modified, via detangling their interior turmoil with the assistance of a therapist, and make strides in changing into the Deb JJ Lee earlier than us.

One among their upcoming initiatives is illustrating for Rainie Oet’s upcoming image ebook 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 nearly of the mundane, and never the crux of their plots. “I wish 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 wish to write about their transition, however simply point out off-hand that they’re taking testosterone.”

This text, a part of a collection targeted 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 lots of extra will happen on August 17, 2023.