Lela Lee is an internet success story. Actually, make that success story, period. In the space of sixteen years, the cartoonist, actress (She’s appeared on Scrubs numerous times), and Los Angeles native has gone from relative unknown to one of the most recognized individuals in California’s Asian-American community. Her strip Angry Little Asian Girls has become an internet sensation in itself, and made characters such as the angry Kim, soul-sistah Wanda, and depressive Xyla recognizable figures in their own right.
Not bad for a child of immigrants from Korea. I caught up with Lee, and she reminisced about her life, career, racism, the challenge of being Asian-American, and much worse.
RacketJohn: Where did the idea for Angry Little Girls come from?
Lela Lee: I came up with Angry Little Girls as an umbrella name to house the original character Angry Asian Little Girl and her friends. She was “born” my sophomore year in college at UC Berkeley where I was an angry young college grad mad at the world. I grew up as one of a handful of minorities [in San Dimas], so I was made fun of for being different. My parents were really strict and just trying to assimilate. I couldn’t really talk to them about the mean things kids said at school. One time I did, and they just responded “Be nice.”
They just wanted us to get good grades, and become doctors or lawyers. I was also the youngest, and I could never talk back to my three older sisters or my parents, so I just bottled up a keg of gun powder by the time I got to college.
RJ: What are some of the influences on your work?
LL: Charles Schultz, Jules Feiffer, Matt Groening.
RJ: How has the reaction been from friends and family?
LL: Fans love it, and the family doesn’t really care. My mom doesn’t understand how I feed myself.
RJ: Do you receive criticism from critics that [Angry Little Asian Girls] is “too PC” or “not PC” enough?
LL: No, not really.
RJ: How do you balance your artistic integrity while running a business?
LL: I was making merchandise as another way of making art. Products are just useful pieces of art if you think of it that way. As for running a business, I grew up at my parents’ dry cleaners the Boulder Dry Cleaning Pickup & Delivery, so I think running a business was something I learned from being around my mom. She accomplished a lot for a immigrant woman. And I know the value of asking for help.
RJ: Thank you for your time.
–Interview by John Winn