Today's Meet Your Creator post features Angry Little Girls cartoonist Lela Lee!
How did you begin your career as a cartoonist/When did you start cartooning?
I never thought I'd be a cartoonist. When I first got to college, I was unsure of what I wanted to major in. So I took any class in subjects I thought were interesting. I took sociology, film studies, women's studies, Asian American studies, rhetoric, and drama. I was searching for something that would interest me. I was also very unhappy, but couldn't articulate why. It was probably a combination of the immense pressure my parents put on me to succeed and become either a doctor or a lawyer. I was also uncomfortable being between two cultures, my parents' culture and American culture. Navigating cultures and my teen years and figuring out how to be a female were stressful for me, though I was unaware at the time that those things caused my discomfort. I was unhappy, and the classes I took made me even unhappier because I learned about racism, sexism, colonialism, all the isms. I was upset at the world I was inheriting as a young person. I also learned that the situations I had experienced growing up in an all-white neighborhood were experiences shared by other minorities. In my Asian American studies class, I intrinsically knew and had experienced this growing up, how invisible Asians were in the media. I doodled a little Asian girl hoping one day it could be a doll that was sold in the marketplace.
Even though the classes made me upset, the classes were necessary because the knowledge, combined with my childhood upbringing, were the ingredients to a recipe that came out of me my sophomore year, when my friend who thought I was too grumpy took me to the Spike and Mike's Sick and Twisted Festival of Animation. It was at the festival, where I watched sexist, chauvinist and racist cartoons, that I became furious. My friend took note of my anger and challenged me to make a cartoon about myself. That same night when I got dropped off, I went straight to my room, got out some markers and typing paper (we typed papers back then) and starting drawing "Angry Little Asian Girl, The First Day of School." I was in a video workshop class that met on Tuesday nights. Class was in the art studio basement on campus and it was for no credit, so no one ever did any work for that class. The teacher had shown us the animation table and how to set the camera on the stand to shoot the image. I remembered I could use that, so I signed up to use the equipment. I had no idea what I was doing, so I just sort of fumbled along and put it together. After I was finished, I watched it and decided it was too angry. I hid the VHS tape in a drawer. I never thought about it again. But I knew I wanted to be a storyteller in some way, so I continued to write plays and screenplays, secretly, because they were so bad. And I kept acting in drama classes.
It wasn't until about four years later when a friend showed me "South Park's Spirit of Christmas" that I brought out my VHS tape of ALAG. I showed it to my friends and they said it was funny. I was out of college, but working at my mom's dry cleaners. I had a lot of free time behind the counter, so I drew four more episodes. I was also volunteering at American Cinemateque as a photographer so I could see films for free. I had become friends with the programmer. She asked me what I did besides take pictures for her. I told her I was an actress and that I had made some shorts called "Angry Little Asian Girl." Her interest was piqued. She told me to send them to her. I did and she immediately called me to tell me she was going to show them before a feature film. She sent my shorts to critics and the critics of the LA Times and LA Weekly both gave Angry Little Asian Girl glowing reviews. I was stunned. It was very primitive animation. In fact, the characters don't even move in them. I went to the screening and about 20 people came up to me afterward and told me Angry Little Asian Girl said what they wanted to say and that they had similar experiences growing up. At that moment, I decided to make T-shirts. I drew two images of ALAG. One where she was flipping two middle fingers and another censored version where she had her hands on her hips, yelling. I had 300 shirts made. Then I called my friends and begged them to buy a shirt from me for $20. They did and soon my phone was ringing from people I didn't know wanting to buy the shirts. It was 1998 and the Internet was still a new thing. I launched the website www.angrylittleasiangirl.com and sold the shirts online and out of the back of my car. I drove my sister's Toyota Corolla station wagon that had a card table, cashbox and box of shirts at all times. Whenever I saw a crowd, I'd stop and set up to sell shirts.
When I was tabling, I got a chance to talk to people. What I got from that experience was that non-Asians loved ALAG but thought they couldn't partake because it was politically incorrect for them to wear the shirts. I also learned that women had a lot of anger issues. Women are not allowed to express anger and if it comes out, it has to be in a feminine way. It was invaluable to learn these two things. I had gotten a lot of buzz and MTV caught wind of the videos. They sent a messenger to get a copy of the VHS tape. I was very excited. I waited by the phone. Days turned into weeks and I heard nothing, so I called them. The feedback I got floored me. The MTV executive (who was an Asian man) said "there's no market for Asians." I was upset. I thought he was wrong. I was selling out of my shirts and every morning, I was mailing packages filled with T-shirt orders to customers across America. I was going to show this executive that he was wrong. If I couldn't get Angry Little Asian Girl out into the world on her own because she was Asian, then I was going to do it another way. I was going to make Angry Little Asian Girl the main character of a comic strip called "Angry Little Girls."
Based on my interactions with people who I met as I sold shirts, I created other characters who expressed anger differently. I created Deborah the Disenchanted Princess, Maria the Crazy Little Latina, Wanda, the Fresh Little Soul Sistah and Xyla the Gloomy Girl. I went weekly to the library to check out books on cartooning. I drew every day. And then I'd go to the art store to experiment with different pens and papers. I finally had it to a place artistically that I could take it out. "Angry Little Girls" was my Trojan horse. I had packaged Angry Little Asian Girl with other diverse girls. She was part of a movement of girls of color who were angry in different ways. I took a meeting at the WB network. And I was excited again. The executive called me the next day to ask if I had a lawyer but he wanted to discuss removing the Asian girl before negotiations began. It was disappointing to hear that the Asian girl should be made invisible. I walked away from that negotiation. I wasn't interested in making something that would render ALAG invisible, because that's exactly what I felt growing up. I knew I had to take the Angry Little Girls characters and storyline out to the audience and have the audience be the authority on these characters, not the networks that were not being authentic. So I made a goal to get my books published.
In April 2005, my first anthology of comics was published by Harry N. Abrams. With no marketing, it went into its fourth printing in two months. When my editor called me to tell me this, I thought she was joking. I published five more books and made a successful line of merchandise. And always during this time, I was drawing a weekly comic strip. I also made more animated episodes of Angry Little Asian Girl. I think after 20 years, society has evolved and the Internet and TV are so interwoven. There's a direct and instant commentary of what people think. Race is a hot-button issue that everyone has an opinion on. So I hope it's time -- finally -- that I can have a show on network television called "Angry Little Asian Girl," its original name.
What inspires you?
I get inspired by funny, ironic moments. I'll always jot those things down. I also try to read a lot. I used to be in a book club before I had kids, but now I just read on my own, very slowly.
- That Angry Little Asian Girls has been around for 20 years.
- In 2012, I was nominated for a Harvey Award.
- I've inspired a bunch of other Angry Asians.
- ALAG is now a slang acronym
Your favorite childhood comics/Comics you read today
Upcoming projects or appearances?
My upcoming project is getting Angry Little Asian Girl on television.
I do speaking engagements at colleges that touch on race and gender and social activism. My next appearance will be at Cal State Fullerton in November.
Is messy. But I cleaned up before I took these pictures.
I also draw out my ideas on scratch paper before I draw it onto a large Bristol sheet with pencil. Then I ink with Rotring art pens. Then I scan them in to the computer and color in Photoshop.