Two Asian American Brothers Tackle Race In New Comic

Martin Lee never thought much about race or racism, despite growing up of Korean descent in a predominantly white Connecticut neighborhood. So when the pandemic hit and he rediscovered his childhood hobby of cartooning (his version of baking sourdough bread), he didn’t shy away from drawing white characters.

One day in February 2021, he was listening to a podcast and heard a kid of color ask another cartoonist of color, “How come you don’t draw people who look like us?”

The question stunned Lee, who had been drawing cartoons for several weeks at the time. “Why not I draw color characters?!” he thought.

Martin Lee

Within days, Lee drew a cartoon of a Korean American boy holding up a sign that read, “Asian is not a virus. Racism is. It was inspired by the attack on Noriko Nasu and her boyfriend in Seattle’s Chinatown*. Lee sent the comic to his brother in Minneapolis. Rich Lee, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies race, recognized the character’s late-’70s style haircut and glasses – they were his own childhood haircut and glasses. And he was thrilled to see his brother incorporate race into his art for the first time.

Soon, the two men who grew up in mostly white schools were teaming up on a daily online comic–Lee’s Others– who trained an unabashed eye on race in America.

Now with over 500 comics in their business, the Lee brothers believe comics can serve as “graphic medicine” that can help people fight race and resolve past trauma. In his first presentation on the topic, Rich Lee examined the interplay between race, comics and healing, during a Zoom webinar hosted by the Health Disparities Research Program and the Health Disparities Task Force. Health Equity from the University of Minnesota.

“Lee’s Othersby visually embodying the essential components of radical healing, aims to validate the lives of people whose voices and experiences are often silenced or minimized,” said Rich Lee in the Zoom presentation.

“It refocuses life around those individuals and communities, rather than white supremacy. It also aims to promote pride, empathy, perspective taking, compassion and joy. We want our comics to serve as a model for how people can approach these topics in a supportive and caring way.

The brothers’ partnership blossomed after Rich Lee, 52, responded to his brother’s text with a thumbs-up emoji and then began suggesting other race-related topics.

“I could put what he felt into words better than he could, so that’s when we started collaborating,” Rich Lee said in a recent interview with Sahan Journal. “I would text him a dialogue and he would put it into a visual representation.”

“Somehow texting forced us to be concise,” Rich Lee said. “I always think about these things and put them in little sound sequences in my head. People would describe me as sarcastic and witty, and that easily translates into comics.

Martin Lee, 54, works full-time on comics from his home in Florida after spending 25 years teaching and five years in organic farming. As a longtime Charles Schulz comic book fan, Peanutshe said he always wondered what the other kids – colored kids – in Peanutsville were doing when Charlie Brown and his friends had their getaways.

A recent text exchange between Martin and Rich Lee.

“I thought to myself, ‘Surely Franklin isn’t the only one? Lucy would take the ball away from Charlie Brown?

He added: “As a POC [person of color] during the pandemic and in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, I wanted to tell a part of the story that I felt was missing from the original Peanuts. I wanted to tell our story.

He modeled the look of the world and its characters – including protagonist and Rich Lee lookalike Diggy – after the iconic comic book.

Confronting the Murder of George Floyd Through the Comics

In its first weeks, the comic tackled the murder of Floyd, a black man who died on May 25, 2020 while being arrested by Minneapolis police, and the rise of anti-Asian hatred during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID. And for the first time in his life, Martin Lee felt like he was paying attention and dealing with racism.

“I feel pretty woke even though people try not to use that word,” he said. “It kind of woke me up from that slumber.”

Doing the comics, Martin Lee said, helps him deal with past trauma and make sense of current events. Often, the text messages his brother sends force him to see issues in a new light or to look at something he’s been putting aside. For a time growing up, Martin Lee stopped playing the violin and getting good grades because he wanted to disassociate himself from his race by getting rid of the stereotypes of Asian kids excelling in both areas.

“He’ll be like, ‘You have a lot of internalized racism,'” Martin Lee said of his brother’s posts. “I’m trying to get through it and it takes a lot of work.”

As a POC [person of color] during the pandemic and in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, I wanted to tell a part of the story that I felt was missing from the original Peanuts. I wanted to tell our story.

Martin Lee

For the past 13 months, the Lees have published at least one comic a day, which they distribute on social media via Instagram and Facebook and Twitter.

The brothers found the process so fulfilling that Rich Lee, inspired by the Psychology Through Radical Healing Collective, a group that focuses on social justice, culture and race, began exploring how the comics could potentially be used by medical professionals, perhaps as “graphic medicine.”

He assembled a team of undergraduate students last month to begin formally investigating the matter.

Radical healing, he said in his presentation last week, “goes beyond treating the individual by amplifying the voices, strengths and connections of communities that have been oppressed, silenced and marginalized. “.

Comics as a form of “narrative therapy”

The power of comics to influence people in various ways has been recognized for years, said Rich Lee, from war propaganda to political cartoons.

Research by Elizabeth Cohen, who studies media psychology at West Virginia University, shows that comics are exceptionally effective at increasing reader engagement, said Rich Lee. Lee thinks comics can also treat trauma through something called “narrative therapy,” which helps people put their life experiences into perspective by creating a chronological account of their lives, he added.

Someone recently suggested that our comic was like a radical healing nudge,” he said, adding that a nudge could be as simple as acknowledging something as a problem.

The everyday nature of a comic allows artists to explore timely current events that often resonate with people, Rich Lee said in his Zoom presentation. “It’s important to note that comics provide structure, coherence, and perspective to feelings and thoughts that people often hold in fragmented and less organized ways.”

Because comics are readily available, he said, they could be a useful tool in clinical therapy, prompting people to explore events in their lives such as past traumas or arguments with parents.

Bryana French, an associate professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas and a member of the Radical Healing Collective, said she can imagine how the comics could help therapists assess how clients are doing.

“What I notice in my classes is that for students learning to do therapy, it can be difficult to bring up current events in a therapeutic setting. And it’s an engaging and easy way to break that ice,” she said.

French is a fan of the brothers’ comics because she “loves” that they “take the Peanuts characters and diversifying them and talking about real issues, which he connects here and better represents the population of the Twin Cities. It’s smart, engaging, and relevant, and everything in between. »

Parents and teachers can also use the comics to talk about current events and difficult topics, French and Lee said. The Lees frequently receive feedback from teachers who share the comics in class.

“It’s a way to bring psychology to the public and have conversations about it,” French said.

Although humor is a component of Lee’s Others and the brothers want their comic to remind themselves and readers to “live a joy-filled life despite hate and oppression”, comics aren’t always funny.

Like many comics with perpetually meandering stories, the comic often ends without providing easy answers to the difficult questions it raises. Peanuts’ perpetually melancholy protagonist, Charlie Brown, Diggy often ends with a joke or his own spin on worldly affairs.

“It doesn’t solve the problem,” Rich Lee said, “but it reminds us that we still have to live our lives.”

*Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said that Rich Lee was inspired by the Pyschology Through Radical Healing collective, but not a member of it, and that Martin Lee’s Asian hate comic was inspired by the attack on Noriko Nasu and her boyfriends in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.