sequential art

The Best Cartoonist You’ve Never Read Is Eight Different People

Excerpt from All in the Family. Photo: LB Lee

Think, for a moment, about what it would be like if you learned you didn’t exist. Not about what the world would be like if you’d never been born or what it’ll be like after you die — I mean knowing for certain that you, yourself, aren’t real and never have been. That you’re a figment of someone’s imagination. Worse, that the someone who’s imagining you is doing so because of trauma and mental illness. But here’s the catch: You can’t stop thinking you do exist. You have ideas, emotions, a body type, a life story. No matter how often people say there is no you, no matter how much science they offer up to prove it, you don’t disappear. Now imagine, on top of that, struggling with questions about your sexual orientation. And dealing with the realities of being transgender and having an eating disorder. Oh, and trying to understand that many of your best friends ostensibly don’t exist, either.

Welcome to just a fraction of the burdens borne by Rogan Lee. He’s a brilliant and prolific cartoonist who, on one level, is based in the Boston area. On another level, he’s merely based inside a brain. Rogan is part of a “system” of eight-ish people who live inside a single body. They refer to themselves as a “multiple” and, collectively, they sign the Xeroxed comics they publish with the name LB Lee. “LB” is short for “Loony-Brain,” “Lee” is a pseudonym — the system is hiding from the family that sired their body. Rogan is fully aware that he is what medical professionals refer to as an “alter.” The brain he and his “headmates” occupy has dissociative identity disorder (DID), the condition once known as multiple-personality disorder. Rogan shares the LB body with more than half a dozen headmates: gruff Biff, childish Gigi, mischievous Sneak, and mature Miranda, to name a few. Some go by “he,” some go by “she,” one goes by “zie,” and the group prefers that people refer to them in total as “they.” The brain they share is unwell, and they can all be described as symptoms.

But, again, put yourself in Rogan’s place. If you knew you were an alter but couldn’t stop thinking, stop feeling, how would you conceive of yourself?

Rogan has veered back and forth on that question. To wit, in a comic called Leap of Faith, he recounts his romance with his now-husband, a slightly genderqueer, Texas-twanged fellow LB headmate named Mac. Early on, Rogan suppressed his attraction, and not just because of internalized homophobia. In text above an image of his stocky, plaid-shirted avatar leaping across a knoll (“LALALA I’M IN DENIAL LALALA!” reads a speech bubble), he explains: “My ‘reasoning’ (if you could call it that) was, ‘I can’t be gay, because I only exist as a psychological metaphor. Ergo, my existence isn’t real, my gender isn’t real, and neither is any sexuality I might hypothetically have, which I don’t. I am merely the fantasy of the Real Girl, who most definitely does exist, unlike me!’”

Nevertheless, in spite of these empirical, seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Rogan and Mac did fall in love. Their marriage, as detailed in the LB Lee comics, is, like corporeal marriages, in turns tender and frustrating, passionate and nuanced. Over the years, their relationship has allowed Rogan to grapple not just with his identity, but also with a brutal history of familial rape that the system says their body endured in its youth. And yet, even on that last count, Rogan and his headmates admit that they are unreliable narrators, struggling to sort out exactly what happened in their past and what might be inadvertently manufactured.

Experiencing Rogan’s stabs at love and truth — as well as those of headmates Gigi, Sneak, M.D., Miranda, and others — are just a few of the many pleasures of the LB œuvre, which is heretofore an unknown quantity in the comics industry. It’s only slightly overstating matters to say no one has heard of these books. LB are dirt-poor, barely getting by on disability subsidies and the hawking of their comics at conventions and local shops. But attention should be paid. In an era when memoirs about gender, sexuality, mental health, and trauma are surging in importance, LB Lee deserves to become a much-better-known name, not in spite of their work’s challenges, but rather because of them — and because of their comics’ untrained and exhilarating beauty. Indeed, by elegantly and brutally exploring the fringes of fluid identity, LB Lee makes one rethink what it means to be human.

Photo: LB Lee

“I don’t wanna go viral.” Rogan tells me while the body he occupies sits on its elevated mattress in a cramped bedroom, surrounded by comics and self-drawn portraits of the LB headmate family. The body is slender and blonde, presenting as boyish — it was assigned as female at birth, but has since undergone top surgery and adopted a masculine presentation. The body is clad in jean shorts and a t-shirt that begs, in stenciled letters, SHOW ME YOUR HUMANITY. As is typical of Rogan’s speech patterns — which are wildly distinct from those of his headmates — he is talking in a neutral American accent through a voice that’s slightly too loud and just a bit nasal. “Are you kidding? I’m a fucking tranny-faggot-lunatic existing in public. It wouldn’t be a matter of if I get Gamergated — it’d be a matter of when,” he continues, referring to the infamous conservative online harassment campaign. “Instead, I try to have this slow growth. Slow, careful growth.”

It’s a sunny afternoon in the Boston area, a few hours after I met the LB system at a noodle shop for lunch. Rogan’s headmate, Sneak, had previously proposed over email that we merely get cupcakes because LB are more or less broke, and they were elated when I informed them that my employer would happily spring for a meal. LB are very much estranged from the body’s well-to-do family, so money is always an issue for them. They make hardly any of it right now, but they also fear making too much of it. They face a cruel catch-22 shared by countless Americans: If they get above a certain level of wealth, they’d no longer be entitled to government benefits, but likely still wouldn’t have enough to provide for themselves. “People are like, ‘Oh, have you considered Kickstarting?’” Rogan says. “Well, here’s the problem: What if my Kickstarter becomes way too successful? I get the money that I’m not legally allowed to have and I lose everything for one fucking book, a success I may never be able to replicate again.”

If that one book were to exist, it would likely be a collected edition of LB’s remarkable and gripping four-part narrative All in the Family. You won’t find the series on Amazon or any digital-comics retailer. Hell, you probably won’t find it anywhere unless you somehow stumble across LB’s store or you live within a ten-mile radius of the apartment where the body dwells.

I happened to be in Cambridge, Massachusetts a few months ago and stopped by one of the oldest and best comic-book stores in the country, Million Year Picnic. I have a general policy where, if I’m visiting a comics shop, I ask if they have any photocopied pieces from local creators — the idea being that I can’t find that stuff anywhere else, so this is my one shot to discover it. The policy has led me to buy a metric ton of mediocre, self-indulgent crap, but every once in a while, something magical appears. I asked the guy behind the checkout counter what local stuff he liked and his voice dropped to a hushed volume. “Dude,” he said, “you have to check out LB Lee.”

Photo: Matthew Norris/MGNorris Photography

No further explanation was given, nor did I want any. I flipped through the local-comics shelf and, of all the LB comics, was most struck by the cover to the first chapter of All in the Family: a crucifix of black flame is suspended in midair with accusing eyes etched into its crossbar; below that is a blank-faced, crown-wearing human that envelops three more figures, one of them grinning awkwardly and the other two wearing masks etched with ominously banal smiles. I picked it up and went back to my room to dive in. What I found between the covers made my jaw drop.

All in the Family is one of the most brutal and engaging comics I’ve ever read. It begins with a page both charming and intriguing, in which the author informs the reader that what they are about to read is the work of a “multiple system — a.k.a. multiple personalities.” The internal dramatis personae are presented with headshots and brief summaries: “Rogan, grumpy artist,” “Gigi, spooky girl,” “Mac, fabulous hubby,” “Falcon, retired imaginary pal,” “Sneak, ray of sunshine,” “Miranda, voice of reason.” I’ll admit I was skeptical, having read in the past about individuals who purport to have multiple personalities out of self-delusion or a desire for attention. But still, I’d never read a comic made by anyone even claiming to have the disorder, so my interest was piqued.

The first handful of pages look crude in comparison to what follows — as I’d learn later from Rogan, those initial pages weren’t initially intended for publication, but rather were made as drawn diary entries during a time when the system was plagued by ominous nightmares. The first panel depicts a simple sketch of a brain along with text reading, “For two weeks now, I have been crazy. More so than usual.” We see panels of the system’s body struggling to stay awake and walking through a corridor while hugging itself. A faceless black mass occasionally follows it. “I feel like I’m being hunted,” the narration reads. “I am afraid. But I don’t know what’s hunting me.” The body yells at the mass: “What do you WANT? TELL ME WHAT YOU WANT!” The narration goes on: “But it never answers. It just follows me. Waiting.”

One of the core components of DID is eerie gaps in memory that fill themselves in at inopportune times, and the system eventually realizes that they’re being haunted by the ghost of a headmate who vanished years ago for reasons none of the others can remember, a teenage “androgyne in a manky leather jacket” named M.D. She returns to full form and brings with her a recovered memory of unspeakable agony. A disturbingly paced trio of panels lays it out. Panel one: a blank background and text reading, “Yup. Grampa totally molested us.” Panel two: the word “MOLESTED” written hundreds of times, to the point where it’s barely legible and the image looks like furious static. Panel three: another blank background, this time with tiny letters at the very bottom reading, “Fuck.”

What follows is a whirlwind narrative that is made compelling by its specificity and idiosyncrasy. Over the course of the four installments — which you can purchase as PDFs here — Rogan recounts months of agony and investigation. Although he’s the headmate in charge of making most of the comics, all of the headmates feature in the narrative as characters and all of them deal with the trickle, then flood, of awful memories that come to the system’s brain. It becomes clear to them that their grandfather, with the help of their aunt, repeatedly raped them over the course of their childhood. As of the time when these memories were coming back, LB were still in contact with their parents, but the filial relationship deteriorates as the system asks the parents about the trauma and find only resistance and denial. The terrifying climax arrives when various clues are strung together and LB come to the conclusion that their father also raped them.

It is here that I must point out that there is no conclusive proof that LB’s family members molested them. While that ambiguity is true of so much sexual abuse in the world, the situation is more complicated here. Amnesia about personal history is one of the defining aspects of DID, but recovered memories are a profoundly controversial matter in the psychological community. Without getting too far into the weeds, suffice it to say there are those who say there is no such thing as a recovered memory, and that such abrupt reminiscences are manufactured, either deliberately or accidentally, by the patient. LB are entirely aware of this debate and will be the first to tell you they’ll understand if you don’t believe what they say. “At best, all I can say is I’m doing my best to tell the truth as I know it at the time, with the caveat that my knowledge is probably significantly more flawed than the average person’s,” reads a recent message for LB’s Patreon subscribers. “I can use that uncertainty to build the discussion, and give my readers more to think about. After all, what better way to show all narrators are unreliable than to engage with that directly?”

Photo: LB Lee

There are also those in the medical and scientific communities who say DID is over-diagnosed and that many people who claim to have it actually don’t. However, although I’m no expert, I’m inclined to say LB aren’t fakers. DID has debilitated them and created massive problems for their collective life — they can’t hold down a job and they’re alienated from people who get uncomfortable with their abrupt switches from one headmate to another (Mac has a Southern accent, Miranda has a British one, Sneak sounds like a squeaky doorpost, and so on, turning a conversation into an auditory rollercoaster ride). It’s unclear to me why a person would make all that up for the meager reward of interesting comics that are hardly read by anyone. Given that DID is widely thought to be induced by childhood trauma, Occam’s Razor suggests that we’re dealing with a brain that endured horrific transgressions in its youth and, as is true of all DID patients, saw its sense of self shattered into splinters.

That said, there was a time before the abuse and the subsequent regime of the headmates, when the body was simply occupied by a single personality, which LB refer to as the Original Girl. LB say their body was born with the name Erin (they decline to give her surname) in 1988 in Texas and raised there by a financially comfortable, emotionally repressed family. LB recall sexual abuse from as early as 1993, but it wasn’t until roughly 2000 that the Original Girl started to share her brain with sassy M.D., the first headmate to arrive. Then, throughout the early 2000s, more arrived.

Initially, the Original Girl figured these were simply imaginary friends. As Rogan recalls, “You leaf through our journals, you see us talking about each other, or to each other, or having fights over what to do, but” — and here, he adopts a sarcastic tone — “oh, it wasn’t real or anything.” The Original Girl’s consciousness died while the body was being raped by a boyfriend (a physically existing person, not a headmate) in 2005.* But even then, hard as it is to understand for an outsider, the headmates still assumed they were imaginary and the Original Girl would reappear. It wasn’t until the spring of 2007, when the system discovered other multiples on LiveJournal, that they recognized that this state of being wasn’t going away.

Art provided solace. In her teens, the Original Girl had gotten into comics. First came Marvel’s X-Men stories: “If you feel like a freak, X-Men is there for you, friend,” Rogan says. Later, she was elated to discover the work of cartoonist Sam Kieth, who has a knack for visually and verbally depicting fractured consciousnesses: “Our Original Girl was like, Man, you can really depict these amazing psychological states of mind through comics in ways that you can’t really do with any other medium,” Rogan recalls. While attending college, the system adopted the LB moniker (it was initially a roommate’s nickname for the system) and made its first comic — a brief exercise called MPD for You and Me (“MPD” being short for “multiple personality disorder”), created for a class assignment. LB were still closeted vis-à-vis DID at the time, so they passed this off as fiction. But it was the beginning of a calling.

Rogan argues that there is no better medium for depicting DID than comics. You can try to represent the lived experience of the disorder simply through words, but what are you supposed to do to show how distinct every alter is without visuals? You can stage a film or play in which different actors play different alters, but at that point, you’re ceding control of your narrative to other humans. Meanwhile, in comics, you can show how each alter looks, speaks, and thinks within the confines of the brain, while acknowledging that the alters aren’t “real” in the conventional sense. Take, for example, a comic’s thought bubble: “Everyone knows that that thought bubble does not literally exist,” Rogan says, “but there it is, speaking for someone. And we can also utilize each other’s different art styles. Like, if you read All in the Family, you know that Gigi draws like a kindergartner.” Voilà, an astoundingly complex brain filled with individual, non-corporeal people is presented in a way that anyone can understand. LB’s comics are a quiet expansion of how we understand sequential art’s power.

They are also a clarion call for greater empathy toward the mentally ill and those with unconventional identities. I spoke to multiple medical professionals with expertise in DID and asked all of them if it would be a problem for me to treat LB’s alters as individual people. I was worried that acknowledging the headmates was somehow encouraging the disorder when I should be trying to convince them that they’re actually a single person. I was told in no uncertain terms that the latter, actually, is the more dangerous approach. In fact, the medical consensus is that it’s almost impossible for people with DID to unify back into a single personality, so there’s no sense in trying.

“I commonly talk to my patients as ‘you all’ and they refer to themselves as ‘we,’” says Dr. Richard Loewenstein, the medical director of the Trauma Disorders Program at Baltimore’s Sheppard Pratt Health Systems and a professor at the University of Maryland. “Just say you’re mostly interested in understanding and want to be very respectful and make sure you’re not treading into territory that may cause undue distress.” In other words, although being transgender or gender-nonconforming is very different from having DID, the same principle, so radically important and newly acknowledged in mainstream thought, applies: If someone with an uncommon identity wants to be called something, it’s your duty to comply, however awkward it may seem at first.

That’s not the only respect in which LB’s comics feel eminently of the moment. They also play into a much-needed trend in contemporary literature — especially comics — toward frank discussion of mental illness. There are plenty of memorable depictions of DID in film and prose: Sybil, The Three Faces of Eve, and M. Night Shyamalan’s horror film Split being some of the most notable. LB’s headmates despise most of these fiction and nonfiction accounts and the stereotypes they reinforce. “If you want to come out as multiple to someone, there are very few things you can give them to reassure them you are not, in fact, an axe murderer,” Rogan says. “My comics are, in a way, a desperate attempt to create the resources that I couldn’t find.”

Photo: LB Lee

They accomplish that task beautifully. Although All in the Family is primarily a piece about excruciating pain, many of LB’s works are expressions of the ecstasy that can come in spite of mental illness — indeed, they explore the unique joys that one can only experience if you have DID. For example, Alter Boys in Love digs into the romance between Rogan and Mac, and one is left with a kind of envy of the fact that the LB brain is able to find love and even sex — although Rogan declines to describe the external physical manifestations of that — within itself. A short comic called What’s Great About Multiplicity? features short works by various headmates, not just Rogan, in which they talk about how being multiple allowed them to survive and escape abuse, experience a sense of community, and have shared dreams inside one headspace. Speaking of community, comics like LB Goes to Alaska show the system’s relationships with other systems and the special friendship that comes among a group of misunderstood outsiders.

That friendship is woefully necessary, given how impoverished and isolated LB are. According to Rogan, their biological family was perpetually in denial about the DID, assuming everything would return to “normal” eventually. Not only did that not happen, but LB had to cut off all ties with their family after the events of All in the Family. The family denies any and all of the rape and molestation, and Rogan says their father is trying to track them down to convince them that he never raped them — ergo LB asking that I not reveal where, exactly, they live in the Boston area. They recognize that there’s a chance he didn’t rape them and that their memories are false, but they can’t stop the memories from existing and torturing them. They have to live with their own truth, however unreliable others may find it to be.

“I didn’t want to believe it,” Rogan says. “Now, it’s been four years and I’ve been at this whole miserable process long enough that I’m just like Eh, it is what it is. I’ve just kind of come to my own peace with it.” Once again, we see a way in which LB’s comics are profoundly relevant at this particular moment in time: As a society, we are grappling with the question of how much we should believe those who accuse others of sexual misconduct. Comics like All in the Family force the reader to confront that question with a unique urgency, reminding us of the leap of faith we take when we believe an alleged survivor.

As of now, readers are few and far between. The LB system doesn’t seem to mind that much. They collect the government disability subsidies they get due to their DID, go to therapy, and make a little money selling their comics and getting Patreon-subscriber support, all in an effort to achieve that “slow, careful growth” Rogan talks about. They’re planning to collect the four parts of All in the Family in an omnibus edition sometime soon, though it’s unclear when. They just put out a book of prose fiction called Infinity Smashed. They are, in their own way, on a healing path.

Part of me is nervous about publishing this article, for fear that LB will go viral and the financial apple cart will be turned over. But wonderful art deserves an audience, and perhaps LB can find enough success to become a full-time artist. Publishers should pick up the digital editions of LB’s comics and take note of this boldly honest and lucidly emotional talent — or perhaps I should say talents, plural. And if that doesn’t happen, there’s always the hard-won comfort of creation, which will always remind the headmates that they exist and have value. “Work is my self-care,” Rogan says. “I get to be something besides a trauma sponge.”

*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Original Girl died in 2004.

The Best Cartoonist You’ve Never Read Is 8 Different People