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. He’s 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. He’s 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, Hall’s best work has centered on retellings of other people’s travel and sex experiences. He’s 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. “La Rubia Loca,” which appeared in Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Comics 2006, tells the story of a woman who finds herself caring for a schizophrenic on a bus tour of Mexico. “I Can Take It,” 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 MacIsaac’s series Shirtlifter. He’s 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 he’s lived with his boyfriend of 11 years. Underground comics and porn movies don’t pay terribly well, so he supports himself as a massage therapist. (He’s trained in Thailand and Santa Fe.) We spoke by phone on Feb. 25.
TNG: I asked Steve MacIsaac this question when I interviewed him back in August. The guys in his comics as well as your comics aren’t 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 I’m not getting your work if it doesn’t turn me on?
JB: [The] primary purpose of [porn as an] art form is to sexually titillate…Character 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 titillation…
That being said, I get annoyed and bored with porn that doesn’t have any other meat to it, so to speak, that doesn’t have any other kind of substance to it. And that’s 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 doesn’t do it for me. But [Small Favors is] so well done that I find it really intriguing and I think it’s a great piece of work and I like reading it…I 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 wouldn’t necessarily go on their own. I remember reading Lolita and at the end of that book I remember thinking (creepy soft voice) “Oh, yeah, budding breasts, yeah.” (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 – for the brief moment of reading this book – I got it. And I don’t pretend to be on the same level as Nabokov (laughs). But hopefully porn and erotica can be transport-ive, as well.
TNG: 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 it’s all very theatrical. In one of your stories, three guys meet for an orgy and then they all realize that they’re not sexually compatible with each other. When you did that, were you reacting to a lot of porn that you had seen?
JH: 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 it’s an incredibly fascinating, endlessly mysterious subject matter. So why is the majority of porn so fucking boring when you’re 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 she’s actually a femme dyke, but she told me that, back in the day, she used to strap her tits down – she’s a very voluptuous woman – 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 she’s 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 that’s why I made a story out of it. It’s got cock-sucking scenes in it, so I’m kind of hoping that it’s still titillating to a gay male audience that is reading the book. I want them to come away from the story like, “Oh, that’s hot,” and get the sexual titillation that you would get in an erotic story but then also, kind of like say, “Whooaaaa!” (laughs) Because it’s 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: Tell me about the first time you did porn. How did it come about and what did you do?
JH: Oddly enough, I don’t watch porn. I’ve 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, “Alright, I’ve never done that.” I’m an experience whore so I was like, “Alright. let me be in this film.” And oddly enough [the director was] Joe Gage, who’s this legendary porn director. Back in 1980, he did this film called Closed Set. My boyfriend has a copy of it and it’s the only porn film I’ve ever really enjoyed. And I really respected it a lot. I think it’s 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: Oh, no, no. It was definitely adrenaline-pumping and nerve-wracking and all that. For sure, for sure. Porn is difficult. I’ve worked for Titan and Mustang and Hothouse, the bigger companies. It’s not real sex. You’re in these positions. And it’s: “Okay, we need three more minutes of fucking in this position while we move the lights underneath your balls.” And then there’s a break and you come back. It’s 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, it’s 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 I’d done maybe half a dozen films and they paired me with someone that they shouldn’t 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t get it up. And it was just nerve-wracking. [The Viagra didn’t work.] We had no injectables on the set. It was awful. And I was just pacing back and forth. “How am I going to get through this?” 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). It’s exhausting work and once you have an experience like that where you couldn’t get it up, then of course it’s in the back of your head and it’s all a mind game. It makes you question yourself the next time.
TNG: There’s 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: That’s actually not. There’s 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 they’re really amazing. I think they’re 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 it’s actually not mine. It resonated with me because I had a potentially abusive boyfriend who had problems with schizophrenia.
TNG: So when you’re writing this story did you think you were transmitting your own look to the character in the “true story” 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: When you do that are you concerned that you are taking over ownership of someone else’s story?
JH: It’s always interesting adapting someone else’s story. And yeah, I do. I definitely feel [that way] in the True Travel Tales. The biggest True Travel Tale I ever did – unfortunately it’s out of print – was in the Houghton Mifflin Best American Comics. It was called “La Rubia Loca.” 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 haven’t ever talked to her about it. I don’t know her. I never met her. So it really was my story, but I’m adapting it, making it from the point of view of someone I’ve never met, adapted from another person’s 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: You’re working on an anthology of gay comics now.
JH: Yeah, I’m working on this big project called The Best Gay Comics: 40 Years of Queer Underground Art. And it’ll be a comprehensive collection of LGBT comics. It’ll be published next year hopefully.
[In] 1971 Trina Robbins did the story “Sandy Comes Out” in Wimmen’s Comix. And it was the first comic story with an openly queer character who wasn’t an object of derision. And it wasn’t 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 Trina’s 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: 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: Yes, to a certain extent. And it’s interesting to watch the cartoonists’ response to it. There’re 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 weren’t 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 wouldn’t have been so honestly portrayed if the audience was a more mainstream audience. It’s really a remarkable scene.
But in many ways, unfortunately, the queer media ghetto is disintegrating or transforming itself. And you can’t 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 wouldn’t 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 it’s 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 don’t collect this stuff now it will be lost.
TNG: How far are you through The Liar?
JH: I’ve done all the writing. I’m about 40 pages into it. I have another 50 to 60 pages to go of drawing. I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of the year.
TNG: 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: 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 couldn’t 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 don’t think of myself as that character. I think it wigged my mother out when she saw the pages because she doesn’t want to think of me that way either.
TNG: Holy shit! Your mom reads your stuff?
JH: I do show my mom my stuff. I don’t show her my erotica stuff. (laughs) But I show her my other stuff. “Yeah my mom draws all my comics for me.” (laughs)
Using myself as a model for The Liar was more of an accident. It wasn’t a deliberate decision. I spent years with a backpack just travelling the globe. I’ve 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 you’re travelling and you’re meeting other backpackers is that you’re constantly answering the [questions:] “So where are you from?” “What do you do?” And also you have to answer those questions with the locals that you run into. You’re 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 don’t deliberately set up to be liars they do get this odd [way of talking about themselves.] You can tell if someone’s been on the road for too long.
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