The Candid Visual Storytelling of Jojo Lee

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The Candid Visual Storytelling of Jojo Lee

Jojo Lee (photo by Amir Hamja)

Jojo Lee, a Korean-American graphic novelist and illustrator based in Brooklyn, New York, has been making waves in the industry not just for their explosively colorful and detailed drawings but also their outspoken and hilarious social media presence. Last December, when Epic Games, the developer behind Fortnite — the popular online game with a multibillion-dollar net worth — offered them a mere $3,000 for a custom game illustration and its copyrights, Lee called the gig “hilarious” on Twitter and then referred them as “Fartnite®” when addressing how the compensation was unsustainable.

Both in their online persona and in their stunning works of visual storytelling, Lee walks the fine line of knowing their worth while also not taking themselves too seriously through a selective candidness that’s both empowering and grounding.

Jojo Lee holding their new graphic novel In Limbo (2023) (all images courtesy the artist)

There is a candidness in their approach to gender exploration and identity as well. Lee, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, is loud and proud about their journey toward and experiences of gender identity and presentation. But it wasn’t always this way for Lee, as depicted by their recently published graphic novel memoir In Limbo (2023). The graphic novel details the illustrator’s navigation through mental health problems, self-worth issues, and “tricky relationships” between 2010 and 2014 while they were attending high school in northern New Jersey. Having moved from Seoul, South Korea, to the United States at a young age, Lee was situated in the murky grey area of non-Korean and non-American, speaking to the book’s title in just one of several ways.

In Limbo follows Lee’s teenage years, back when they were identifying as Deborah “Deb” Jung-Jin Lee (“My parents loved the 90’s,” Lee told Hyperallergic, also noting that their brother’s name is Brad) and using she/her pronouns. Maneuvering through the adversities of loneliness, rejection from both cultures, complicated relationships with her parents, and academic struggles, Deb shows us a life of longing for things to get better while she is stuck with herself and struggles to find her agency.

Through monochromatic but painstakingly rendered and expressive panels across 350 pages, Lee presents an uncomfortably relatable retelling of tri-state-area-coded microaggressions, flunking honors physics even with the extra help (only real ones will understand), the jarringly volatile nature of Asian immigrant parenting, and the day-to-day dredge of life with depression and not meeting expectations.

Drawn using Procreate on an iPad, Lee’s moody, tonal panels depict both real and imagined conversations between Deb and her friends and family and people she encounters on the daily. With a range of stories as benign as trying to escape the grape-flavored toothpaste at the dentist to hard-hitting moments about grade-induced panic attacks and interpersonal conflicts, Lee’s sequential imaging finds its strengths in softness and texture. Every facial expression, hairstyle, and article of clothing is as gently and lovingly considered as the environments Lee’s characters exist in, as that same attention is shown in the renderings of trees, architecture, and everyday objects. Lighting, weather, and surface textures are critical elements for Lee’s narrative approach, and not a single detail is spared.

Lee depicts many uncomfortable conversations through In Limbo.

While In Limbo doesn’t outwardly address Lee’s queerness, it’s implicitly threaded throughout the narrative whether or not the illustrator intended for it. It’s seen in Deb refusing the nickname “Debbie,” it’s manifested in their stereotypically masculine Korean name Jung-Jin, and honestly, and perhaps this is a projection, it’s kind of just canonized through Deb’s internal monologue and how she behaves.

“I mean, I literally posted this Facebook status in 2010 that said ‘Is feeling mentally genderless,’” Lee told Hyperallergic while reflecting on their gender identity and expression throughout high school. “Obviously nobody liked it, but there were a lot of parts in my life where I just felt like I don’t enjoy being a girl, but I know I’m not like a boy, either.”

Some of the darker points Lee shares within the graphic novel

Lee unashamedly shares and processes some of the darkest moments and hardest truths in their life, including two suicide attempts, enduring their mother’s physically and emotionally violent outbursts coupled with loving moments and genuine interest in supporting their artistic endeavors, and a quintessentially devastating friend breakup. All of these painful events chip away at Deb, who was once frozen in a depressive purgatory — but in the yielded emptiness was space to learn and become activated. We get to see Deb begin to heal and grow confident through their art-oriented relationships, through learning to accept what can and cannot be changed, through detangling their inner turmoil with the help of a therapist, and make strides in becoming the Jojo Lee before us.

One of their upcoming projects is illustrating for Rainie Oet’s upcoming picture book Monster Seek (2026), which will explore notions of gender identity and sibling relationships for young readers.

For the next steps in their personal practice, Lee wants to bring more queer Asian characters to life in a futurity where queerness is almost of the mundane, and not the crux of their plots. “I want to avoid talking about trauma for a while,” the illustrator said. “So if I had a character that’s trans, I don’t want to write about their transition, but just mention off-hand that they’re taking testosterone.”

This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries. Swann’s upcoming sale “LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History,” featuring works and material by David Wojnarowicz, Keith Haring, Diane Arbus, Peter Hujar, Tom of Finland, and many more will take place on August 17, 2023.

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