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The Girl and The Fury

The Angry Little Asian Girl is angry about boys. She is also angry about racism, sexism, fitting in, not fitting in, love, her hair, her depressed friend, perfect people, stupid people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, the weather, religion, apologies, her dolls and her mother. Born in the winter of a college student’s discontent — UC Berkeley, circa 1994 — she is the brainchild of Lela Lee, creator/illustrator of an entire army of Angry Little Girls who storm the pages of Lee’s comic strip of the same name. This month, Lee’s first book comes out, a collection of her “Angry Little Girls” comic strip, which has slowly but steadily been amassing a following since it appeared in its original online weekly format in the late ’90s. Nevertheless, Lee, who is also a film and TV actress, doesn’t look particularly angry when we meet at a cozy Main Street bakery in Santa Monica. As we sit down for tea (decaffeinated) and questions (loaded), she seems, in fact, almost chipper. But looks can be deceiving.

L.A. WEEKLY: What inspired you to create Angry Little Asian Girl in the first place?
LELA LEE: I felt betrayed by my conservative, sheltered upbringing. I started learning about sociology, women’s and Asian-American studies, stuff I had felt my whole life, namely that we minorities got the short end of the stick. We were all just trying to fit in and be white. I was expected to be docile. I was expected not to have an opinion and, if I did, never to share it.

When did you first draw the comic strip?
I went to a Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted animation festival and got very upset. It was supposed to be funny. But I wasn’t laughing. I was more offended than anything. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That night I got out my typewriting paper and Crayola crayons and drew her. I stuck her in a drawer for four years. Eventually, I turned it into a little video. Ironically, when I started taking it around to different festivals, Spike and Mike picked it up.

Is there a secret to her appeal?
People responded strongly to this character. It was like an electric current. I had given a shape or persona to this feeling of frustration at being the underdog in terms of race. There’s an activist quality to that, which people get scared of. But they don’t get uncomfortable around a cartoon. I mean, look at her. She’s cute. She seems so harmless.

Tell me about the other characters.
Wanda is always happy. She’s my little galactic scout. Maria is the crazy Latina. She’s the bigger-picture person, whereas the other ones are pretty detail-minded. Xyla is depressed, a doomsday kind of girl — and she has no arms. Deborah’s the disenchanted princess. There’s a cat and a dog. And a chicken.

What does your family think about it?
My family is pretty embarrassed. I started making T-shirts for the comic strip, and my mother said, “Reee-ra, why you make so many shirts? Stop!” When I started making calendars, my dad said, “Don’t waste your money.” They gave up on me. But it’s a good feeling. I can do whatever I want. It’s liberating. They think I’m crazy.

Do you think of yourself as more a graphic artist or an actress?
Seventy-five percent graphic artist. Twenty-five percent actress. If I had to make a choice, I would choose artist.

You were second choice for the part of the geisha Pumpkin in the upcoming film adaptation of Memoirs of a Geisha, then ultimately passed over. What happened?
Oh yeah! I read for that. But in the end . . . when there are big-budget movies, they’ll read everybody in town, everybody in the United States, but they always cast famous mainland actors. They have bigger international pull. They have bigger names. But for an Asian-American actor, it’s frustrating, since we’re sort of caught in the middle.

Are you a chronically angry person?
No. It’s unfair for the people that know me, but if a friend does something that bothers me, I just store it up. Then I explode.

Who do you think would win in a fight, Emily Strange or the Angry Little Asian Girl?
I don’t know. Emily, maybe. She seems taller. So it’s not fair. Emily seems more serious.

Do you have a favorite episode?
Yes. The one where she’s sitting in a little chair in her room with scissors and dismembered dolls all around her. And she’s sipping tea.



ANGRY LITTLE GIRLS | By LELA LEE | Harry N. Abrams | 80 pages | $15 hardcover