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Comic Artist Lee Lai Draws What It's Really Like to Fall in Love

Comics that capture the insecurities of intimacy.
September 1, 2016, 1:38am
All images courtesy of the artist

All those non-places that make the world seem a bit more mythical simultaneously defy categorisation. Illustrator and comic maker Lee Lai pins these moments onto the page and dusts away their uncertain edges. Her drawings are micro universes that explore queer friendships and complicated relationships—an empty playground as the sun sets; the glowing laptop screen illuminating your boyfriend’s face as he drifts to sleep. A testament to her fluidity and versatility, Lee Lai’s resume ranges from album art for band Two Steps on the Water to the cover of the latest Lifted Brow, as well as a number of other literary journals. The Creators Project caught up with them to learn more about the quiet magic of her work. The Creators Project: You work between two cities—what distinguishes the creative energy of Melbourne from Montreal? Lee Lai: Overall, I actually think the creative energy of Melbourne and Montreal are very similar. They're both heaps romantic places that artists can thrive pretty well in, if they know how to find the cheap places. I'm in a kind of new relationship energy with Montreal and it means I make things more intently and ferociously than I did in Melbourne, which is my hometown and everything I've known growing up. I think it's a fine balance between needing the new and novel to be inspired and energised, and also the familiar—to be comfortable and oriented enough to actually get the work done.

So do you feel like your identity is stretched between both places? Yeah, definitely. I have pieces of queer chosen family in both places and feel the pull in both directions. I think if my blood family was here in Montreal though, that homesickness for Melbourne would ease a whole lot. There's something my friends and I talk about a bit—the need to be around people that "look like you", whether that being an artist, or transgender, or mixed race person.

How do those bonds and the experiences shine through in your work? At the moment, it feels like a particular type of coming home, being able to take off all the jackets and put down the guards. And sometimes I think it means being able to hold each other's stuff, with the tenderness and sensitivity and empathy built from having the hard conversations. What kind of themes have you explored recently that have excited you? Bodies in general feel so good coming out of my brush. I think I tend to paint high drama lighting in low drama settings—a lot of domestic scenes. Lately, I've been trying to ease up on the detail and the fanciness of my drawings—it's hard—and focus on prioritising writing, mostly dialogue. Lately, I've wanted to write [comics] about anger—expressing and digesting anger, and how it builds or shatters trust. I want to explore themes of intergenerational trauma, loyalty, relationships between parents and children. But these things come out faster than I can pump out those panels, which I'm working on.

My interpretation of your work is a showcase of awkward, messy intimacy, especially between non-heterosexual couples. Was it a natural decision for you to explore relationships? Yeah it's entirely unavoidable that my work ends up being a big reveal of my goddamn bleeding heart. I'm such a sucker. I'm interested in the challenge of trying to take on an individual, internal voice—but mostly I love writing and drawing out the full spectrums of reactions that two (or more) people can have for each other. It is so messy, and I love it. Do you think writing about relationships is cathartic, or is it more complex than that? I definitely think writing about these things is cathartic. The terrifying lurch of falling into a thing— falling into love, an argument with a friend, a new feeling of betrayal, whatever the feeling—is kind of buffered by the knowledge that I can process it, with friends and family or in my work.

How do you think these representations differ from our understanding of partnerships in the wider world? I wish the messiness was talked about more, and with less shame. I'm not sure I know any relationship, romantic or platonic, that doesn't fluctuate through insecurities, anger, jealousy, competitiveness, spitefulness, frustration or fear, at some points. As well as all the good things. My mum raised me saying something along the lines of, "relationships should feel easy, but they're super hard work" and I guess I'm fleshing that out now.

The textures and colours of your illustrations are very distinctive and evocative—what’s the process behind that? My process is pretty simple actually, I use more or less the same couple of brushes for everything, and a palette restrained to a few tubes of gouache. Everything gets pencilled first—that’s the more dry, unromantic bit—and then I get to have fun with a brush. In an effort to try loosening up, I've started separating most of my work into different layers, so I can play with collage and let go a bit in the background, and still maintain tighter lines. I thought my palette had stayed completely consistent for the last few years, but I've noticed that certain fluctuations coincide with particular life events. What is it like working with musicians to develop album art? The concepts for the Two Steps on the Water cover and singles illustrations were actually in the lead singer’s hands—June. She gave me all the room with the aesthetic decisions, though. I particularly like working with musicians, it feels closer to collaboration than a regular commission.

Do you have any advice for someone seriously considering shifting their artistic focus into comics? 

The first thing that comes to mind is to learn by doing, and not overthink it. There's a million resources out there for comic making—amazing independent cartoonists running workshops all the time, there's great podcasts and websites and theory books like Scott McCloud's. But I think the most useful things I've learned are through practise and failure—a cliche, but true. I think it's an exciting time for comics, and now more than ever there's no "right" way to make comics. Which means experimentation and figuring out specifically the best way for you to write and draw is important— and not getting too bogged down by how it should look. Also, maybe this goes without saying but for anyone considering it seriously, it's worth remembering that there's really not much money in comics. So do it because you love it. Comics are hard work but they should feel easy. See what I did there? You can find out more about Lee Lai here and follow her on Instagram. Related: Improve Your Comics by "Distancing the Narrative" Female Photographers Tackle Gender Roles and Relationships 'The Garden of Earthly Delights' Gets a Queer-Feminine Overhaul