Justin Hall Celebrates "No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics"

In putting together "No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics," cartoonist and teacher Justin Hall has taken a very broad subject matter and managed to condense decades of fiction and nonfiction comics into an impressive, singular work.

The book includes many creators whose work dealing with LGBTQ themes has been lauded by critics and fans alike, including Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse and Roberta Gregory as well as offerings from creators like Eric Shanower and Paige Braddock, who tend to be known for their less politically-charged projects. More than simply a historical look back, the anthology also features its share of up and coming voices like Ellen Forney, Erika Moen and Ariel Schrag. We spoke with Hall, who teaches at the California College of Arts, about the origins, process and final result of his ambitious project.

CBR News: Just to start, I was wondering if you could just talk a little about your own background as a cartoonist and teacher.

Justin Hall: I've been obsessed with comics ever since I was a kid; some of my earliest memories were learning to read with Fantastic Four and Tintin comics. I've always known I wanted to be a cartoonist, and am so excited that my rather circuitous life path has led me back here, to making and teaching comic books!

I come from an academic family, but spent a lot of my life running from the family business. Now that I'm entering middle age, however, I find myself a lot more like my parents than I expected. Teaching has been hard, but very, very rewarding. I love inspiring a new generation of artists to make good comics, and being part of this new conversation about what it means to teach, analyze and create this remarkable medium.

"No Straight Lines" was actually my entree into teaching. I had done some guest lecturing for Matt Silady, who teaches comics at the California College of the Arts, and so I went to him and asked him to find me an intern to help with compiling the book. He responded by asking me if I wanted to turn the project into a class. I jumped at the chance, and ended up teaching two semesters of the Queer Comics Project class. Now, I'm teaching comics regularly at the school, and helping Matt design the forthcoming MFA in Comics, the first of its kind on the West Coast.

Where did the idea of compiling a collection of queer comics come from?

I curated a show called "No Straight Lines: Queer Culture and the Comics" at the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum back in 2006. We wanted to do a catalogue from the show then, but couldn't find the funding. The idea stuck with me, though, until it finally morphed into this massive project, a more comprehensive look at the history and artistry of LGBTQ comics.

I've also been working the last few years as the Talent Relations Chair of Prism Comics, the non-profit advocacy group for queer comics, and that put me in a unique position to do this book, as I had access to LGBTQ comics creators across an unusually wide spectrum.

When you first started on this, were there LGBTQ cartoonists or comics that you knew had to be included?

Absolutely! Of course there are the "big guns" in the field, whose names will hopefully bring in readers who might otherwise skip over a collection like this, such as Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Eric Shanower, Trina Robbins, Roberta Gregory, etc.

I also wanted this book to be an entry point for English-speaking audiences to some of the great European LGBT cartoonists, such as Nazario, Ralf Koenig and Fabrice Neaud. I'm very proud of the fact that the book contains the first English translations of some of this important work; English-speaking audiences tend to be quite provincial in their knowledge and tastes, and are often unaware of important artists in other parts of the world. Luckily, I was able to work with Kim Thompson and Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics, who respectively translated and lettered these translations, as well as Lawrence Schimel, who worked with me on the Spanish translations.

Finally, I wanted to make sure that some of the great cartoonists rarely seen outside of the LGBTQ comics ghetto were given their proper spotlight; folks like Jennifer Camper, Robert Triptow, Robert Kirby, Jon Macy, etc. have been making some of the best comics I know, but haven't gotten the kind of broad attention they deserve.

How challenging was it to look at cartoonists like Alison Bechdel and Howard Cruse and others with such huge bodies of work and find a way to pull the seminal works that sum up what they've done.

I had a very specific agenda here. As much as was possible, I stayed away from excerpting from longer pieces; as a reader, I often find that unsatisfying in anthologies. Of course, I still did include some excerpts when it was necessary, but I deliberately didn't excerpt from dense, complex books like Bechdel's "Fun Home" and Cruse's "Stuck Rubber Baby." These are the books for which they're best known, so I wanted readers of NSL to be surprised and delighted by lesser known selections and complete short stories that still show off their talents and narrative concerns.

Tell us a little about the three sections of the book. How did you come to those three categories?

First and foremost, the anthology is a collection of some excellent stories to be enjoyed in and of themselves, but I also wanted the book to serve as a primer to the remarkable hidden history of LGBTQ comics. These stories have been detailing queer lives and culture for over four decades now, and from a unique perspective. I felt that it was important for the material to be put into an historical and cultural context, and so I organized it all into three sections.

The first, "Comics Come Out: Gay Gag Strips, Underground Comix, and Lesbian Literati," gathers work from the feminist and lesbian underground comix, the gag strips of the early gay newspapers and magazines, and culminates with the creation of the anthology series "Gay Comix." The second, "File Under Queer: Comix to Comics, Punk Zines, and Art During the Plague," shows the continuing impact of the Gay Comix/Comics series, along with the emergence of punk zines and mini-comics, and of course artistic responses to the horrors of AIDS. The third, "A New Millenium: Trans Creators, Webcomics, and Stepping Out of the Ghetto," showcases work from the growing number of transgender cartoonists, and details how queer comics are moving onto the internet as well as crossing over into the mainstream and out of the queer media ghetto.

Did you want to strike a balance between fiction and nonfiction comics?

The breadth of artistic approaches in LGBTQ comics has continually fascinated me, and nowhere is that as evident as in the continuum between the incredibly personal and profound memoir comics and the outrageous flights of fantasy and imagination in the fiction stories. And of course there are the comics that utilize elements of both. Representing the diversity of creative vision in queer comics was a huge part of my mission with the book.

Having searched through decades of queer comics, I'm curious about your thoughts on the role of the Howard Cruse-founded publication "Gay Comix" on comics and queer voices in the medium?

"Gay Comix" (later "Gay Comics") was hugely important; it was the spine of the LGBTQ comics movement for almost two decades. Many important creators cut their teeth with stories in that series, and due respect must be given to the editors who guided it over the years: first Howard Cruse, then Robert Triptow and finally, Andy Mangels.

To focus on Howard's contribution, he and his publisher Dennis Kitchen saw the need for a comprehensive anthology bringing together the wild experimentation of the early gay men's comics and the literary aspirations of the lesbian comics, and created a true banner bearer for LGBTQ comics in general. It's hard to imagine now the artistic and personal courage of those early cartoonists, who often braved coming out of the closet in an industry not known for its tolerance, in order to create real and profound stories that would change the lives of many readers and creators. Howard is rightly known as the godfather of LGBTQ comics, both for his undeniable status as one of the world's great cartoonists, and for this seminal moment of creating community around queer comics.

Are there any cartoonists included here who you discovered for the first time in the process of assembling this? Are there any creators who you came across who have largely been ignored or forgotten or are simply out of print?

Of course there were many surprises while compiling this book! I was continually amazed, and remain so now, at the tremendous depths of LGBTQ comics. In particular, I learned of queer European cartoonists that I hadn't known about before, such as Isabel Franc and Susanna Martin; also, there are whole worlds of queer webcomics emerging now that hold lots of surprises.

As for creators who have been largely ignored, and who are very much out of print, giving them some deserved recognition, and trying to ensure that they would not be forgotten, was a huge part of why I wanted to make this book. Recently I received a card from the surviving partner of Shawn, one of the early cartoonists I include in the book, saying how glad he was that the book was made and that his deceased partner's work would live on in some form, preserved for another generation. That letter brought tears to my eyes and makes all the hard work worth it.

Was there anything you wished you could have found more of to include in "No Straight Lines?" Any aspect of queer life and experience you would have liked to include or have more of in the book?

As it was, we really had to push to have as many pages in the book as we wound up with, and still keep it at its cost point. This is a very dense collection, full of a massive amount of material. But of course, I could have done even more with another 328 pages!

One of the most dynamic trends in LGBTQ comics right now is the growing amount of stories about genderqueer and trans realities. I see this in my position on the Prism Board, and I find it tremendously exciting. It feels like we're nearing a tipping point with this material, and I think in the next few years we'll be seeing some amazing new work along those thematic lines. I wish I could have included more of that cutting edge, but a lot of those books are coming out now or in the next few years. Still, I'm thrilled that "No Straight Lines" is the first place a lot of readers will be introduced to the likes of Edie Fake, Dylan Edwards and Christine Smith.

It seems like there are more LGBTQ characters in comics than ever. There's a gay teenager in Archie Comics, gay superheroes are getting married -- do you think that's true and how do you feel that those characters and portrayals are different than what is presented in the work we see in "No Straight Lines?"

Absolutely the comics mainstream has changed its approach towards queer characters and themes in the last few years, and it's wonderful to see (though of course there still remains much more to be done). Now, LGBTQ readers can feel increasingly invested in comics, in seeing their lives given respect in the shelves of the comics stores, and straight readers can see queer characters treated in non-pathological and positive ways. I can't overstate how important it is for a young queer to see her/himself in the pages of an Archie comic, and I give tremendous props to folks such as Dan Parent who have made that happen, after the comics industry has been so long in the wilderness.

That being said, there remains an important role for LGBTQ comics, distinct from all of that. It is the job of the mainstream to assimilate queer characters, but it falls to queer comics to dissect queer identities and examine in more profound ways the queer experience. A gay superhero or Archie character is never going to give the same profound and complex insight into queer realities that Alison Bechdel has been able to provide with her work, for example.

We're at a time when the queer bookstores and newspapers that helped nurture these comics are dying out. I'm curious about your thoughts on the internet, the growing acceptance and understanding of queer culture in culture more generally and what that means going forward.

The growing acceptance of LGBTQ people has a bittersweet taste, if I'm honest here. On the one hand, it's what we've all be fighting for all these years, to be accepted for who we are, and to be given equal rights and responsibilities in society. But a genuine culture, along with some remarkable comics, was created out of the experiences of resistance and oppression, and a part of me will be sad to see queer culture lose its edge and be watered down as we are increasingly assimilated into the mainstream of society.

Queer community, queer culture, and queer comics will continue, of course. The internet provides new markets and new opportunities for creators, and establishes truly international and cross-cultural communities. The growing queer presence at comics conventions (including the emergence of specifically LGBTQ conventions such as Bent-Con, Gaylaxicon and Yaoi-Con) will to a certain extent replace communities built around gay bookstores, newspapers, and publishers.

One of the things I most wanted to do with "No Straight Lines" was to provide a sense of history and culture for future generations of queers. LGBTQ culture, as opposed to ethnic culture, has rarely been passed along through families; we learn of our history and our legacy through our created communities.

"No Straight Lines" can be a teaching tool within the family as well, however! The most profound moment for me when debuting the book at Comic-Con in San Diego was when a woman came up to me and told me she wanted to buy the book for her 18-year old gay son. She showed me a picture of him and told me how proud she was of him. She felt the book would help him learn about his heritage as a queer man. It was literally the last copy at the convention (we sold out quickly, which was gratifying), and it was the most moving moment for me.

"No Straight Lines" covers such a broad topic and a lengthy period. Do you have thoughts for an anthology that you'd like to see next - Manga? Erotica? Stories about the AIDS crisis? And would you be interested in assembling a book or are you exhausted after this one?

"No Straight Lines" was pretty exhausting, I have to admit! I worked hard on this book over several years, and it was a labor of love. If I did a follow-up, I would love to do a book on queer erotic comics, which have their own history, community and artistic traditions. I'd also love to see a similar collection of queer manga, but I personally don't have the expertise to make that.

Right now, though, I'm excited about getting back to making my own comics. After a couple of years of being focused on editing, compiling, and teaching comics, it feels wonderful to have a pen in my hand and to be making comics again! I've got lots of stories of my own that are clamoring inside my head for attention, and it's time to get to work.

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