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FOG! Chats With Cartoonist and Historian Justin Hall, Producer of ‘No Straight Lines’

I’ve been fortunate to be friends with cartoonist/historian Justin Hall since we’ve attended high school together almost 40 years ago.  As one the world’s authority on LBGTQ comics, Justin was the brainchild/editor of the Lambda Award-winning, Eisner-nominated anthology No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics published by Fantagraphics Books. In addition, Justin is Chair of the MFA in Comics Program at California College of the Arts, the first Fulbright Scholar of comics, and has curated international exhibitions of comics art.

On January 23, PBS’s Independent Lens will premiere the feature-length documentary No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics, inspired by Justin’s book. Justin was the Producer of the film, with Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Vivian Kleiman as the Director/Producer.

Justin and I discussed the genre, its origins, and its importance as both an art form and as a source of representation with modern audiences.

FOG!: We grew up together and were part of a very small community who read comics.  Despite sales being ridiculously higher during that time than they are now, comics were still a very underground art form.  What attracted you to comics, and do you remember the first time you came across a Queer comic?

Justin Hall:  The medium engaged my imagination as a child and then never let go. I learned how to read through comics and was always attracted to its combination of visual and verbal storytelling. And I loved the wild and bombastic sorts of stories that were told in what I was reading as a kid: American superhero stories as well as Tintin and Asterix.

As I grew older, I discovered alternative comics and fell in love all over again with what the medium could do. The first time I remember seeing queer characters in comics was in Love and Rockets, and I totally fell in love. The Hernandez Brothers weren’t interested in any kind of agenda beyond making their characters as authentic as possible.

Eventually, of course, I discovered a whole world of queer comics by creators like Howard Cruse, Alison Bechdel, and others. That inspired me tremendously in terms of my own work, and I’ve been obviously fascinated by its history ever since.

Although the subject matter wasn’t necessarily my interest, I do remember when Stuck Rubber Baby premiered in 1995 and it was eye opening.  By that time, we were just out of college, but the bio-memoir not only chronicled creator Howard Cruse’s life, but also told an ugly part of American history; in particular the homophobia, racism, and his own story of coming out.  It won the prestigious Eisner Award.  Why do you think audiences were finally ready to read the book?

Well, I don’t think general audiences really were ready. Despite its critical success, it didn’t sell well and struggled to stay in print. Howard and his husband Eddie went bankrupt finishing the novel, and he never did another major work in his career.

Stuck Rubber Baby is, to my mind, the closest thing we have to the Great American Graphic Novel. Whether or not it’s to your taste, it’s undeniably one of the greatest works in the comics medium and, as you said, it tells a distinctly American story, that of a closeted man coming out in the midst of the Civil Rights era in Alabama. But when it came out in 1995, readers weren’t ready for a monumental queer graphic novel. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home came out eleven years later, and the world was ready at that point to a queer graphic novel of that scope seriously; not only was it a critical success, but it was also a best seller.

Howard Cruse showing off a page from Stuck Rubber Baby.

Luckily, First Second has reprinted Stuck Rubber Baby in a beautiful new edition, and Howard is finally taking his rightful place in the pantheon of the greatest comics artists of his generation. There are two new books about him and his work, and I like to think our film helps to solidify his legacy. History will be very kind to Howie, which is a testament not only to his prodigious talent but also to how wonderful a person he was and how much he helped create and nurture the LGBTQ comics scene.

To my mind, he was the Godfather of Queer Comics!

Your book takes a pretty extensive look at the creators making LGBTQ themed comics, yet the film only focuses on five cartoonists;  Alison Bechdel (dykes to watch out for, Fun Home), Jennifer Camper (Rude Girls and Dangerous Women), Howard Cruse (WENDEL, Stuck Rubber Baby), Rupert Kinnard (B.B. and the Diva, Cathartic Comics), and Mary Wings (Come Out Comix).  Out of the hundreds of LGBTQ cartoonists, what was the significance of focusing on these five?

Jen Camper, Alison Bechdel, Rupert Kinnard, Vivian Kleiman, and Justin Hall on the red carpet at the Tribeca Film Festival.

It wasn’t an easy decision by any means. But we had some criteria in mind. First off, the film has a narrower focus than the book. The film is about the pioneers of queer comics, which narrows it to those beginning their careers in the 1970s and 80s.

Then, of course, was historical importance, and all of the creators we profiled fit the bill as those who broke new ground in some important way: Mary Wings created the first lesbian comic book and Rupert Kinnard created the first Black queer characters in comics, for instance.

We also took into account artistic merit and professional accomplishments, which meant that Howard and Alison needed to be included as the two biggest names in the field.

Finally, we needed people who were good on camera and had interesting personal journeys, which meant that we had to have Jen Camper, for instance.

We also had a “Greek chorus” of younger queer creators who we interview in the film. They comment on the work of the pioneers and provide context. Most of them are former students of mine or faculty from the MFA in Comics program at California College of the Arts.

Maia Kobabe (Gender Queer) is one of those “Greek chorus” members. At one point, e says that comics are a great medium for queer memoir because there’s so much flexibility in how you can depict yourself. Do you think this is a common theme amongst LGBTQ cartoonists?

Absolutely! Especially for trans and non-binary creators, visual representation is tricky in memoir. How do you depict a young trans person who might have a self-image very different from how they’re perceived during their childhood, for instance? Comics being an illustrative medium is incredibly useful; as Maia, who’s a former student of mine from our CCA MFA in Comics program, says, “You can draw yourself however you want.”

Representation matters. And to have a platform in comics where marginalized people can depict themselves and their own communities FOR their own communities is incredibly powerful.

Art by Alison Bechdel.

You have to understand that until fairly recently, queer identities were either erased or labelled as sick and deranged.

Mary Wings hadn’t even heard the word lesbian until she was 19; she thought she was the only person like herself in the world. She made Come Out Comix in 1973 to help make sure that no other young woman had to go through that confusion and sense of shame.

We LGBTQ people had to make our own stories to represent ourselves. Queer comics were not just self-expression in the early days; they were survival. And, though the world has changed significantly, that still holds true to an extent, especially now for trans creators.

Where can one discover Queer comics of all stripes? And for parents who want to support their kids, what all-ages LGBTQ comics titles would you recommend?

Our film focuses on the time that queer comics existed almost solely in the insular LGBTQ media world of queer publishers, distributors, newspapers and magazines, bookstores, etc.

Now, that world has largely disappeared as queer material has been allowed into the mainstream (to a certain extent) and the internet has replaced traditional retail spaces. Instead of walking into a gay or feminist bookstore, you can simply Google “queer comics” or “all-ages queer comics” and come up with long lists. Or you can go to your local comic book shop or library (as long as they’re relatively cool and progressive) and ask!

For the past several years the big two publishers DC and Marvel, have made efforts to introduce Queer characters.  Some have suffered criticism as the publishers changed the gender preferences of established characters, while new Queer characters have been given a more welcoming reaction.  Do you think that this is simply pandering to an audience, or do you feel it doesn’t particularly matter?

I don’t think this movement is simple pandering. As I said before, representation is important. I’ve seen it literally save lives, when queer kids can see role models who are like them and validate their existence.

DC and Marvel LGBTQ+ characters by Luciano Vecchio

Also, readers of every kind benefit when the characters and themes in our stories are more diverse and better reflect that actual variety of people who exist in the world. It’s simply better storytelling.

Finally, if superhero comics want to keep up with an evolving world, they need to continue to do better with these sorts of identity issues. Keeping the world of superheroes entirely straight, cisgender, White, etc. won’t allow them to find new audiences who care more about seeing themselves and the diversity of their world reflected back to them than keeping sacrosanct a non-inclusive canon of characters.

If superhero comics don’t grow up in this way, they risk only appealing to a dwindling fanbase that has been reading the adventures of the same characters for decades, and never finding the new readers necessary to survive.

How would you speculate how your life and identity would have been if you had had access to all-ages queer comics growing up?

Wow, it’s really hard to say! I’d imagine that my coming out would’ve been easier and happened sooner if I’d had comics to read as a child with queer characters depicted in validating and supportive ways.

As it was, comics did help me in my journey towards understanding my queer identity. I remember reading V for Vendetta as a teenager and crying my brains out. The storyline of the imprisoned lesbian brought home in this visceral way that if a Holocaust were to occur again, I would be in those concentration camps. It was a sobering but profound revelation and has helped me not take my safety or my civil rights for granted.

What upcoming projects are you working on?

I’m working with Fantagraphics to produce a ten-year anniversary edition of the No Straight Lines book, which I’m really excited about. It’s due out this year and I’ll be adding new material to the book.

Also, the work never ends as Chair of the CCA MFA Comics program. I love teaching and I love my students!

What takes up the bulk of my creative time these days, though, is working on my graphic novel combining historical moments in queer San Francisco history with memoir about my gay-ass life in the city. It’s being published by Abrams Books and will be coming out sometime in early 2025.

For more information about Justin and his work, visit
JustinHallAwesomeComics.com

 

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