Justin Hall: The New Gay Interview
This post was submitted by TNG contributor Paul Morton.
Justin Hall has gone a little farther than most in indulging two common pastimes, travel and sex. Heâs managed to spend enough of his 39 years backpacking to have visited upwards of 60 countries, never staying put longer than the four months he spent in Nicaragua. Heâs also a part-time porn star who has appeared in about a dozen films. His memoirs would probably sustain interest, but as a comic book author, Hallâs best work has centered on retellings of other peopleâs travel and sex experiences. Heâs not an expert draftsman, but he is a wonderful storyteller, and his work often explores the most humiliating tragicomic moments which his heroes somehow transcend to achieve a vague form, sometimes only a suggestion of, enlightenment. âLa Rubia Loca,â which appeared in Houghton Mifflinâs Best American Comics 2006, tells the story of a woman who finds herself caring for a schizophrenic on a bus tour of Mexico. âI Can Take It,â which appeared in an issue of Hard to Swallow, an erotic comic Hall co-writes with Dave Davenport, tells the story of a man who experiences a terrifying simulated rape with a gun and then decides afterwards that he can handle any sexual experience.
At the moment, Hall is working on his first graphic novel The Liar, an excerpt of which appeared in Steve MacIsaacâs series Shirtlifter. Heâs also editing an anthology of gay underground comics.
Hall grew up in Providence, attended SUNY-Purchase, and after travelling for some years, wound up in San Francisco, where heâs lived with his boyfriend of 11 years. Underground comics and porn movies donât pay terribly well, so he supports himself as a massage therapist. (Heâs trained in Thailand and Santa Fe.) We spoke by phone on Feb. 25.
TNG:Â I asked Steve MacIsaac this question when I interviewed him back in August. The guys in his comics as well as your comics arenât really my type. When you read an erotic comic sometimes it can turn you on, and sometimes it can turn you off. I really enjoy your sex stories, but is there some level at which Iâm not getting your work if it doesnât turn me on?
JB: [The] primary purpose of [porn as an] art form is to sexually titillateâŠCharacter and artistry and plot and thematic concerns could be important, as well, in a piece of porn. But the primary purpose of porn, what identifies it as a genre, is sexual titillationâŠ
That being said, I get annoyed and bored with porn that doesnât have any other meat to it, so to speak, that doesnât have any other kind of substance to it. And thatâs one of the reasons that Dave and I decided to create Hard to Swallow. We wanted to make porn that was a little edgier and a bit more interesting.
Colleen Coover does a lesbian porn comic called Small Favors. I am not attracted whatsoever to two beautiful women having sex. It really doesnât do it for me. But [Small Favors is] so well done that I find it really intriguing and I think itâs a great piece of work and I like reading itâŠI find really fascinating [that] if a piece of erotica or a piece of art is done well enough you can kind of transport a reader into realms that they wouldnât necessarily go on their own. I remember reading Lolita and at the end of that book I remember thinking (creepy soft voice) âOh, yeah, budding breasts, yeah.â (laughs). I have no interest in prepubescent girls whatsoever. But the book was so profound and so good at portraying this desire that I got it â for the brief moment of reading this book â I got it. And I donât pretend to be on the same level as Nabokov (laughs). But hopefully porn and erotica can be transport-ive, as well.
TNG:Â In your porn stories you see a lot of humiliation that is not feigned humiliation. In an actual porn film you may have a scene where a character is humiliated but itâs all very theatrical. In one of your stories, three guys meet for an orgy and then they all realize that theyâre not sexually compatible with each other. When you did that, were you reacting to a lot of porn that you had seen?
JH:Â Yeah. Dave and I had a mission statement in terms of making Hard to Swallow a series that we wanted to do something that was a little more thought-provoking and a little edgier. Sex and sexuality is the primary thematic concern of porn. And itâs an incredibly fascinating, endlessly mysterious subject matter. So why is the majority of porn so fucking boring when youâre dealing with subject matter which is so amazingly open to possibilities? (laughs)
[For one issue of Hard to Swallow] I actually met this woman who was actually a gay porn reviewer for gay.com under an assumed male pseudonym. And sheâs actually a femme dyke, but she told me that, back in the day, she used to strap her tits down â sheâs a very voluptuous woman â and put on a kind of boy drag and suck guys off in the back of the Powerhouse, a bar in San Francisco. [This] is mind-blowing. This is a lesbian. But sheâs kind of fascinated with gay male sexuality and wanted to experience it and got in there and this is what she used to do. I found that so fascinating, so thatâs why I made a story out of it. Itâs got cock-sucking scenes in it, so Iâm kind of hoping that itâs still titillating to a gay male audience that is reading the book. I want them to come away from the story like, âOh, thatâs hot,â and get the sexual titillation that you would get in an erotic story but then also, kind of like say, âWhooaaaa!â (laughs) Because itâs not often that you have a lesbian in a gay male porn story. So I want them to be a little bit challenged by it and come away with a sense of how fluid and changeable sexuality can be.
TNG:Â Tell me about the first time you did porn. How did it come about and what did you do?
JH:Â Oddly enough, I donât watch porn. Iâve never bought a porn film in my life. But I met this guy from Titan and I hooked up with him and he told me what he did. And I was like, âAlright, Iâve never done that.â Iâm an experience whore so I was like, âAlright. let me be in this film.â And oddly enough [the director was] Joe Gage, whoâs this legendary porn director. Back in 1980, he did this film called Closed Set. My boyfriend has a copy of it and itâs the only porn film Iâve ever really enjoyed. And I really respected it a lot. I think itâs an amazing piece of work. Joe Gage was actually doing a remake of Closed Set and that ended up being my first porn film. So I got excited about that. I was excited to meet Joe and work with him.
TNG: And there was no nervousness about this? It was just complete relaxation?
JH:Â Oh, no, no. It was definitely adrenaline-pumping and nerve-wracking and all that. For sure, for sure. Porn is difficult. Iâve worked for Titan and Mustang and Hothouse, the bigger companies. Itâs not real sex. Youâre in these positions. And itâs: âOkay, we need three more minutes of fucking in this position while we move the lights underneath your balls.â And then thereâs a break and you come back. Itâs a whole day shoot.
Well, how do you maintain an erection through all that?
Yeah, well Viagra helps. As do injectables, which are sometimes used on set. Mostly not, but sometimes they are. But yeah, itâs difficult. You definitely get into a crisis of faith when you find yourself in situations where you have a hard time getting an erection. I had this one situation after Iâd done maybe half a dozen films and they paired me with someone that they shouldnât have. The director made a mistake and thought that I knew this other guy and that we really liked each other and that we really wanted to do a film together. And we met up and we had never met each other before. And he wasnât my type at all. Very sweet kid, but he had a lot of mousse in his hair. Twinkie. Just not my type whatsoever. And I couldnât get it up. And it was just nerve-wracking. [The Viagra didnât work.] We had no injectables on the set. It was awful. And I was just pacing back and forth. âHow am I going to get through this?â And luckily there was another guy on set, who was a hairy daddy who came over and gave me a kiss and I immediately sprang to attention and was able to finish the scene. (laughs). Itâs exhausting work and once you have an experience like that where you couldnât get it up, then of course itâs in the back of your head and itâs all a mind game. It makes you question yourself the next time.
TNG:Â Thereâs one story in one of your comics that I think is your own personal story, the one with the Russian gymnast. [In the story, a teenager falls in love with a sexually repressed, abusive boy in his Russian class.]
JH:Â Thatâs actually not. Thereâs a series called Straight to Hell, which is a zine started by Boyd McDonald, called the Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts. And it basically takes these kinds of true sex stories that are written into the magazine. Most of them are anonymous and I think theyâre really amazing. I think theyâre just the most remarkable gay stories out there. And the brutal crazy honesty of them is just shocking. And it can be really hot at times, but also just really amazing. So this was an anonymous story that I adapted into a comic book that I ran across in Straight to Hell. So itâs actually not mine. It resonated with me because I had a potentially abusive boyfriend who had problems with schizophrenia.
TNG:Â So when youâre writing this story did you think you were transmitting your own look to the character in the âtrue storyâ that is told?
Yeah, I was actually. I had long hair then and I made the character have long hair. And I basically made the [the other] guy look like the man I had this relationship with.
TNG:Â When you do that are you concerned that you are taking over ownership of someone elseâs story?
JH:Â Itâs always interesting adapting someone elseâs story. And yeah, I do. I definitely feel [that way] in the True Travel Tales. The biggest True Travel Tale I ever did â unfortunately itâs out of print â was in the Houghton Mifflin Best American Comics. It was called âLa Rubia Loca.â And that was kind of the most extreme example of this. A friend of mine told me this jaw-dropping story and I adapted that into comic book format. But I actually shifted the point-of-view to another person who was in the story and I havenât ever talked to her about it. I donât know her. I never met her. So it really was my story, but Iâm adapting it, making it from the point of view of someone Iâve never met, adapted from another personâs story. So it gets really, kind of meta. (laughs) But yeah, I definitely consider these stories my stories. The act of adaptation, the act of biography-creation is still very much a creative act and that piece is my piece.
TNG:Â Youâre working on an anthology of gay comics now.
JH:Â Yeah, Iâm working on this big project called The Best Gay Comics: 40 Years of Queer Underground Art. And itâll be a comprehensive collection of LGBT comics. Itâll be published next year hopefully.
[In] 1971 Trina Robbins did the story âSandy Comes Outâ in Wimmenâs Comix. And it was the first comic story with an openly queer character who wasnât an object of derision. And it wasnât sexual.
[Robbins] was actually a straight woman. And she did this comic about her roommate. In 1973, Mary Wings, who is a San Francisco writer and cartoonist came out with Come Out Comix, which was a response to Trinaâs short story. And that was the first time that an openly queer person had done an entire comic book. And this was the beginning of the LGBT comics movement. By 1980, Gay Comix came out, edited by Howard Cruse and [it] had a whole range of creators.
TNG:Â How do the trends change through the decades? How does AIDS show up? Did it show up in comics before it showed up everywhere else?
JH:Â Yes, to a certain extent. And itâs interesting to watch the cartoonistsâ response to it. Thereâre a lot of attempts to create humor around it. Some of those early gay comics are really fascinating because they were essentially being sold in gay bookstores and serialized in gay newspapers and they werenât really in the comic book stores and the mainstream bookstores. They were an internal conversation essentially within the queer community. And as such, they have a kind of honesty to them that is really quite remarkable. So they deal with AIDS. They deal with racism in the gay community, issues around body image, all these kinds of stuff that maybe wouldnât have been so honestly portrayed if the audience was a more mainstream audience. Itâs really a remarkable scene.
But in many ways, unfortunately, the queer media ghetto is disintegrating or transforming itself. And you canât really support yourself as a cartoonist now within the queer media ghetto. And some people are able to move out of that into the mainstream. Alison Bechdel is the perfect example for this. She started with Dykes to Watch Out For and she survived for 25, 30 years making comic strips about the queer community within the queer media ghetto and she was able to make a living at it. Now she wouldnât be able to. But because the mainstream is now open to hearing queer stories and also is more interested in reading comics she was able to make her graphic novel Fun Home which was a crossover success. So Fun Home would not have been possible in 1980, but Dykes to Watch Out For would not be possible in 2010. So I find that transition really fascinating and that is a big part of what the book is going to be about.
I want to kind of catalogue this whole kind of growth of queer cartooning as it moves into the mainstream. I think itâs a particularly important moment to collect this stuff because a lot of the early material is going to get lost. The publishers are going out of business, the gay bookstores are going out of business. A lot of people have died of AIDS and if we donât collect this stuff now it will be lost.
TNG:Â How far are you through The Liar?
JH:Â Iâve done all the writing. Iâm about 40 pages into it. I have another 50 to 60 pages to go of drawing. Iâm hoping to have it finished by the end of the year.
TNG:Â From what I saw in the excerpt in Shirtlifter you have again that long-haired hero who seems to be a younger version of you. Is that purposeful?
JH:Â Yes and no. I used a lot of photo references for the other characters and I much rather would have had someone else model for the main character in The Liar. But I couldnât find someone. I knew I wanted him to have long hair and it was just easier to use myself as a model. I feel a little bit tricky about that. I donât think of myself as that character. I think it wigged my mother out when she saw the pages because she doesnât want to think of me that way either.
TNG:Â Holy shit! Your mom reads your stuff?
JH:Â I do show my mom my stuff. I donât show her my erotica stuff. (laughs) But I show her my other stuff. âYeah my mom draws all my comics for me.â (laughs)
Using myself as a model for The Liar was more of an accident. It wasnât a deliberate decision. I spent years with a backpack just travelling the globe. Iâve been to maybe 60 countries. And I oftentimes travel with my art supplies. So I sometimes settle down in some place in Laos or the Mekong Delta and find a little bungalow for a dollar a night and draw for a week. I would run into people who were really compulsive travelers. They had basically left 10 years ago and never gotten home. They just wandered around the globe. I found those people really fascinating. One of the things you do when youâre travelling and youâre meeting other backpackers is that youâre constantly answering the [questions:] âSo where are you from?â âWhat do you do?â And also you have to answer those questions with the locals that you run into. Youâre constantly answering questions about your own identity. And people who have been on the road for 10 years, 15 years, a story that you repeat over and over again gets this weird sheen. So even if they donât deliberately set up to be liars they do get this odd [way of talking about themselves.] You can tell if someoneâs been on the road for too long.
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