Dami Lee on How to Be Everything At Once

Dami Lee, cartoonist and writer … in an H Mart. Photo by Eunice Yooni Kim

This interview was originally published in the August 24th, 2018 issue of The Slant, a weekly newsletter featuring Asian American news, media and culture. Want more features like this? Subscribe today for free.

Read the transcript of this interview.

As a three-time immigrant and part-time ex-pat, cartoonist Dami Lee has had her share of struggles with belonging, navigating new cultures, and understanding her identity. In her new book, Be Everything At Once, Lee tackles the challenges of growing up and adulting through the lens of her cartoon mini-me.

While she didn’t always use comics to share her story, her experiences drawing cartoons for her college paper and her move to Korea shortly after graduation sparked a more artistic lean for her as she adjusted to her new life. “[When] I moved back to Korea, drawing comics and uploading them online was a good way to stay in touch with my friends back at home,” Lee says.

Lee was inspired not only by day-to-day quips and inside jokes, but tweets and gag humor as well. One of her early comics featured a tweet turning Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” into misheard lyrics.

Lee didn’t expect the response — someone even got a tattoo of the “four eels” character (“that was insane,” she says). But it also caught the eye of an agent, whose husband saw it on Reddit. That led to the first conversations about what eventually became Lee’s book.

“Originally the concept of the book was misheard lyrics translated into comics. But the editor from Chronicle actually said, ‘I think your story is more interesting and we should focus on that.’ So we changed the concept of the book.”

Now, her book and most of her comics center on a pink-sweatered character, the cartoon version of Lee herself, a la Lizzie McGuire. “It feels weird to say that it’s me, but yeah,” Lee says. Lee’s faux her navigates Lee’s real life — whether it’s documenting her creative process, giving her younger self advice, or wondering why she spends so much time on the timesuck of the Internet.

Be Everything At Once is Lee’s first foray into print. Never-before-seen comics document the trials and tribulations of growing up and navigating multiple identities and challenges, and even get a bit more personal. Lee says this was new, pivoting away from the jokes and puns she’d focused on earlier in her career.

This gave Lee free rein to try a narrative arc, something she hadn’t had much chance to do online. “It’s more arranged to tell a story and my personal experience,” Lee says. “I use those comics as a way to document things that happen, like a visual comic diary.”

Even as she transitions to print media, Lee says there’s even more that she can share, tackling topics more complex and nuanced than what can fit into four panels.

“It’s hard because so many of the things that happened [during my move to] Korea, like the process of finding a job when you’re a foreigner, the little differences… those can be really hard to capture,” Lee says. “There are heavier topics and more personal things that I want to draw about. But at the same time, I’m not sure if I want that to be public. I also do worry that if I tell this story, is there anything that I can have just for myself?”

For now, Lee is focusing on launching her book. She’s hosting a book launch in Brooklyn on August 29th, in conversation with fellow cartoonist Adam Ellis. But she still talks about her success like someone who never expected this to occur. Reflecting on her recent first visit to Comic-Con, Lee says, “I did a signing there, and I was so nervous that nobody would show up. But people were actually there and that was the first time I really got to talk with people in real life.”

Lee may downplay her virality, but she’s the cartoonist behind a number of memes and comics that span the far reaches of the Internet. She still runs into her cartoons from time to time, much to her amusement. “There’s this flag comic that gets memed a lot. I was on Gypsy Housing and someone posted about their apartment and wrote ‘a little bit about me, I love a good dank meme’ and they posted the comic. I keep seeing my memes and running into them, and it’s really funny.”

With the debut of her book, Lee captures a generation of ambitious, forward-thinking twentysomethings — who might wish they could still fit into kid-sized crop tops. “I like to think the whole book is an encapsulation of who I am,” Lee says.

Dami Lee’s book Be Everything At Once is available now. Lee’s hosting a book launch in Brooklyn, NY on Wednesday, August 29th, where she’ll be in conversation with Adam Ellis and answering audience questions. Follow her on Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter for more.