Graphic Novel Review: In Limbo by Deb JJ Lee

In Limbo by Deb JJ Lee. First Second, 2023. 9781250252661. 348pp.

This is one of the most moving graphic memoirs I’ve read in a while and one of the most beautiful, with its detailed gray-blue illustrations. It’s going to be my go-to gift for a bunch of friends and family this year. I know it will resonate with a number of people I grew up with, Korean American and not.

It’s the story Deb’s high school years, of not belonging, of being pushed to excel at school, of the racist bullshit she endures. It’s the story of her trying to figure out who her friends are and what they mean to each other. It’s full of her doing things others want her to do while trying to figure out what she wants, and then moving toward it. That Deb was born in South Korea and immigrated to the US with her parents is at the heart of her story. Her relationship with her mother was especially painful for me to read about — it reminds me of stories friends told me of the controlling, demanding parents who seemed to be trying to find success through their kids. (Even after reading this, I’m still not sure if I was luckier to have parents who expected little from me. Though I am glad I see more of myself as a parent in Deb’s father than in her mother’s worst moments.) Minor spoilers: Deb is doing better by the end, and is working toward becoming an artist.

This is the kind of book that will make you think about someone you went to or are going to school with, I bet. My wife (she grew up in South Korea) and I have both read it and it has been the basis for a few difficult discussions about standards of beauty and how those affect us differently. I’m still trying to process what I took away from this book, and I know I’m going to reread it soon. And I have the sense that when I do I’ll be in even more awe of Lee’s craft and her ability to share her experiences.

Worth noting: This is a slightly different book if you can read a bit of Korean as the language is sprinkled throughout the dialogue. It’s not necessary to understand the story, but it enhances the book. (The Korean is sometimes but not always a repetition of at least part of the dialogue in English in the same word balloon.)


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