Meet Deb JJ Lee, the author and illustrator of In Limbo, a debut YA graphic memoir about a Korean-American girl’s coming-of-age story—and a coming home story—set between a New Jersey suburb and Seoul, South Korea.
Can you tell us what inspired you to write In Limbo?
In Limbo came from an experiment in 2018–a four-page comic on Twitter about trans-generational language barriers. I had just graduated from college and was going through a bit of an identity crisis after moving cross-country to the west coast. It went around (thanks to Michelle Zauner of Crying in H-Mart for retweeting) and to my surprise, my agent suggested I should expand on it as a graphic novel. This felt completely insane because that Twitter comic was about the second one I’ve ever drawn. Reading is also a lifelong witness and I was also very self conscious of my writing (and still am). Four pages already felt like a mountain of work, how could I draw 350 of them?
To be honest though, I think I spent most of my life itching to make a narrative like this. I must have been around 10, the end of elementary school for me, when I first thought about a similar project. Then it was middle school, and then high school, college, adulthood, and at 22 I think that comic was the push that told me (and my agent) that I had a chance at a project such as this. And I’m glad I waited that long—I needed that time and separation for a few years to process all the trauma I’ve been through since age 6, and drawing the book was just one endless therapy session. Now that it’s done, I remind myself regularly that making In Limbo was for my own benefit, and now that it’s out, it can be anyone’s. Despite any criticism, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. I’m free.
Tell us a little about what it is like to both write and illustrate a graphic novel. Did it develop in steps, and how long did it take you?
It was an absolute scramble. I had no idea what I was doing 99% of the time over the 3-4 years I spent on the book.
I initially had the synopsis, which was developed during the making of the pitch back in December 2018. Once we got picked up by First Second, I began making the thumbnails—just following what I had written for the plot, keeping the doc open on my laptop as I sketched through my daily quota on paper. I didn’t even think about dialogue, I just wrote whatever fit the storyline and didn’t look back for months. In Limbo eventually came up to be 500 pages, which was cut down and edited around for the next year, and then I started drawing the finals right at the start of 2020. But at this point the thumbnails were barely legible since my approach to storytelling and illustration had exponentially improved over the last year or two. The dialogue didn’t make any sense, and the story wasn’t the one I wanted to tell. So I kept changing it around as I went, drawing the pages first and fitting in whatever text fit the speech bubbles. I would complete about one page a weekday (I’ll elaborate on how often I had to start from scratch at the last minute), which ended up taking two years. The ending must have transformed three times. In Limbo, save for a few freelance assignments, was all I did through the pandemic. I started it in the Bay Area in 2018 as an employee of big tech, and finished it in 2022 in Brooklyn as an independent illustrator.
What was your favorite part of the creation process?
Probably just *doing* it. Executing the finals. Albeit slow and tedious, I love seeing a project being visually closer to the finish, a progress bar inching to 100% completion. One panel may take me between 2-5 hours to render, but it still has me closer to the end.
I made a ton of mistakes in this process, as a newcomer in the world of comics. The terms “roughs” and “pencils” were unheard of in my sphere and I didn’t even have a proper script. To be honest I think I was starting from scratch almost every day. The learning curve was so high for me that a few years later my thumbnails were completely nonsensical by the time I revisited them for finals. I would redo the whole thing—change the dialogue, the paneling, do the pencils, make sure it fits the page before it, and render it all in one workday. It was a miracle that it turned out the way it did.
How do you hope this book will be used in classrooms and libraries?
Ideally, In Limbo will be used as a non-sensationalized story to teach about mental health, the struggles of growing up, and expanding your worldview as a teenager. The book is a lesson that everyone is a flawed three-dimensional being. I know it’s marketed as a Korean-American diaspora book, but I think that categorization should come second to everything else. It’s not just having an (abusive!) tiger mom, or not belonging in either your current or native country. It’s about learning to grant and ask for forgiveness to those we’ve hurt and those who have hurt us in return.
Tell us about a library, librarian or educator who made an impact on you as a child (or as an adult!).
I wish I made more connections with librarians and educators when I was a kid. I was far too shy; my social anxiety would skyrocket before entering any public space in fear of encountering familiar faces. I remember crying and begging my parents to not force me inside the library because I was terrified of running into anyone from school.
With that being said, I’m giving the honors to Dylan Vitone, a design professor from Carnegie Mellon who made an impact on my career. In my senior year of undergrad I wanted to switch careers from working as a UX designer in Silicon Valley to becoming an illustrator. I ultimately realized there were no resources at CMU, so I went to the professor in my program that everyone went to for “creative” advice. He didn’t know me that well at the time because I didn’t make too much of an effort to interact with him in the previous three years, but still he would give me mock illustration assignments every week to help me build my portfolio from ground-zero. He took me seriously in the school when no one else would, connecting me to the very few alumni who made it into illustration, registering our school for the Society of Illustrators so that I can enter their scholarship competition (which eventually connected me to my current literary agent), and proofreading my cover letter to the NPR Illustration internship, which, against all odds, I ended up receiving for that summer.
What advice would you give to aspiring graphic novelists?
You only have one body. Or more specifically, don’t sell yourself short on how long it takes to write (and draw!) a graphic novel. Communicate with your editor as soon as you realize you need more time—their best interests should be in you as a creator and your well-being. I found that it’s not enough to just estimate how long you think it will take on an average speed; typically you’ll need much longer to account for burnout and any extra time-sensitive projects. I learned to be kinder to myself on the days where I would rather do anything than get up and draw a page by just taking the day off and walk around Lake Merritt (Oakland, CA) or Prospect Park (Brooklyn, NY). For perspective, I thought IN LIMBO would publish in 2021. It’s now 2023.
I also found that readers don’t need a fancy steak dinner for every meal—not every page needs 110% of your effort. Make that masterpiece-page truly stand out by having some lighter pages in between them! Knowing this earlier would have saved me much more time.
What was your favorite book when you were a young reader? Were you reading comics/graphic novels then, too?
It would have to be Brian Selznick’s “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” that inspired me in ways more than one. I wasn’t allowed to read manga or graphic novels as a kid but I successfully convinced my parents to buy me a copy of the book because (A) it was twice the size of most books I read at the time and (B) half of it was prose anyway! It impacted me in several different ways—in my childhood I would copy some of the drawings, but as I grew older, I appreciated more of how the book in itself operated like a movie, with many spreads being treated like a frame of a live-action film (which ended up taking home several Oscars in 2011). “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” was a giant inspiration to me of how I drew IN LIMBO, taking great liberties in how I would occasionally treat each page, like a movie.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Deb JJ Lee is a Korean American artist currently living in Brooklyn, NY. They have appeared in the New Yorker, Washington Post, NPR, Google, Radiolab, PBS, and more. Books they have illustrated include The Invisible Boy by Alyssa Hollingsworth (Roaring Brook Press, 2020) and The Other Side of Tomorrow by Tina Cho (HarperCollins, 2024). They enjoy reality tv, sparkling water, and pretending to be an extrovert.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
By Deb JJ Lee
On Sale 3/7/2023
A debut YA graphic memoir about a Korean-American girl’s coming-of-age story—and a coming home story—set between a New Jersey suburb and Seoul, South Korea.
Ever since Deborah (Jung-Jin) Lee emigrated from South Kora to the United States, she’s felt her otherness.
For a while, her English wasn’t perfect. Her teachers can’t pronounce her Korean name. Her face and her eyes—especially her eyes—feel wrong.
In high school, everything gets harder. Friendships change and end, she falls behind in classes, and fights with her mom escalate. Caught in limbo, with nowhere safe to go, Deb finds her mental health plummeting, resulting in a suicide attempt.
But Deb is resilient and slowly heals with the help of art and self-care, guiding her to a deeper understanding of her heritage and herself.
This stunning debut graphic memoir features page after page of gorgeous, evocative art, perfect for Tillie Walden fans. It’s a cross section of the Korean-American diaspora and mental health, a moving and powerful read in the vein of Hey, Kiddo and The Best We Could Do.