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Martin Lee never thought much about race or racism, despite growing up Korean American in a mostly white neighborhood in Connecticut. So, when the pandemic hit and he rediscovered his childhood hobby of cartooning (his version of baking sourdough bread), he didn’t think twice about drawing white characters.
One day in February 2021 he was listening to a podcast and heard a child of color ask another cartoonist of color: “How come you don’t draw any people who look like us?”
The question stunned Lee, who had been drawing cartoons for several weeks by that point. “Why don’t I draw characters of color?!” he thought.
Within days, Lee drew a cartoon of a Korean American boy holding up a sign that said, “Asian is not a virus. Racism is.” He drew inspiration from the attack on Noriko Nasu and her boyfriend in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District*. Lee texted 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 bringing race into his art for the first time.
Soon, the two men who grew up attending mostly white schools were partnering on a daily online comic strip–The Other Ones by Lee–that trained an unapologetic eye on race in America.
Now more than 500 comics into their venture, the Lee brothers believe comics can serve as “graphic medicine” that can help people address race and resolve past trauma. In his first presentation on the topic, Rich Lee examined the interplay of race, comics, and healing, during a Zoom webinar hosted by the by the University of Minnesota’s Program in Health Disparities Research and Health Equity Work Group
“The Other Ones by Lee, by visually embodying the core components of radical healing, aims to validate the lives of people whose voices and experiences are often silenced or minimized,” Rich Lee said in the Zoom presentation.
“It re-centers life around these 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 role model for how people can address these topics in supportive, caring ways.”
The brothers’ partnership bloomed after Rich Lee, 52, responded to his brother’s text with a thumbs up emoji and then began suggesting more topics related to race.
“I could put to words what he was feeling better than he could, so that’s when we began to collaborate,” Rich Lee said in a recent interview with Sahan Journal. “I would text him dialogue and he’d put it to visual representation.”
“Texting, in a way, has forced us to be concise,” Rich Lee said. “I’m always thinking about these things and putting them into small sound bites in my head. People would describe me as sarcastic and witty, and that easily translates into comics.”
Martin Lee, 54, works on the comics full-time from his home in Florida having spent 25 years in teaching and five years in organic farming. As a long-time fan of the Charles Schulz comic, Peanuts, he said he had always wondered what the other kids–the kids of color–in Peanutsville were doing when Charlie Brown and his friends had their escapades.
“I wondered, ‘Surely Franklin is not the only one?’” Martin Lee said, referring to the Black character Schulz introduced in 1968. “What would a character that looked like me think when Peppermint Patty would be sleeping in class, or when Lucy would pull the football away from Charlie Brown?”
He added, “As a POC [person of color] during the pandemic and in the wake of the George Floyd murder, I wanted to tell a side 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 his characters–including protagonist and Rich Lee doppelganger, Diggy– after the iconic comic.
Confronting the George Floyd killing through comics
In its first weeks, the comic strip addressed the murder of Floyd, a Black man who died on May 25, 2020 while being arrested by Minneapolis police, and the rise in anti-Asian hate during the COVID pandemic. And for the first time in his life, Martin Lee felt like he was paying attention to and processing racism.
“I feel pretty woke even though people try not to use that word,” he said. “It kind of woke me up out of this slumber.”
Making the comics, Martin Lee said, helps him deal with past trauma and make sense of current events. Often, the text messages his brother sends forces him to view issues in a new light, or, to examine something he’s pushed aside. For a time growing up, Martin Lee stopped playing violin and earning good grades because he wanted to disassociate from his race by shedding the stereotypes of Asian children excelling in those two areas.
“He’ll say, ‘You have a lot of internalized racism,’ ” Martin Lee said of his brother’s messages. “I’m trying to come to grips with that, and it takes a lot of work.”
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 health-care professionals, perhaps as “graphic medicine.”
He assembled a team of undergraduate students last month to start formally studying the issue.
Radical healing, he said in his presentation last week, “moves beyond treating the individual by amplifying the voices, strengths, and connections of communities who 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, Rich Lee said, from war propaganda to political cartoons.
Research from Elizabeth Cohen, who studies media psychology at West Virginia University shows that comics are exceptionally good at increasing reader engagement, Rich Lee said. Lee thinks comics may also address trauma through something called “narrative therapy,” which helps people put their life experiences in perspective by creating a chronological narrative of their life, he added.
“Someone recently suggested our comic is like a radical healing nudge,” he said, adding that a nudge could be as simple as recognizing something as a problem.
The daily nature of a comic strip allows artists to explore timely news events that often resonate with people, Rich Lee said in his Zoom presentation. “Importantly, comics provide structure, coherence, and perspective to feelings and thoughts that people often hold within in fragmented and less organized ways.”
Because comics are easily accessible, he said, they could be a helpful tool in clinical therapy, prompting people to explore events in their lives such as past trauma or arguments with parents.
Bryana French, an associate professor of psychology at the University of St. Thomas and amember of the Radical Healing Collective, said she can envision how comics may help therapists assess how clients are doing.
“What I notice in my classes is that for students learning how to do therapy, it can be hard to bring up current events in a therapeutic setting. And this is an engaging and easy way to break that ice,” she said.
French is a fan of the brothers’ comics because she “loves” that they’re “taking the Peanuts characters and diversifying them and talking about real issues, that it connects to here and better represents the population of the Twin Cities. It’s smart and engaging and relevant and all the things.”
Parents and teachers can also use the comics to talk about current events and difficult topics, French and Lee said. The Lees get frequent feedback from teachers who share the comics in class.
“It’s a way to get psychology out to the public and have conversations about it,” French said.
While humor is one component of The Others by Lee and the brothers want their comic to remind themselves and readers to “live a joy-filled life in spite of hatred and oppression,” the comics are not always laugh-out-loud funny.
Like many comic strips with stories that perpetually meander, the strip often ends without providing easy answers for the difficult questions it raises.Like Peanuts’ perpetually melancholy protagonist, Charlie Brown, Diggy often signs off with a joke or his own twist on world affairs.
“It doesn’t resolve the problem,” Rich Lee said, “but it reminds us we still have to live our lives.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story should have said that Rich Lee was inspired by—but not a member of—the Pyschology Through Radical Healing Collective, and that Martin Lee’s comic about Asian hate was inspired by the attack on Noriko Nasu and her boyfriend in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District.