Today’s interview is with Justin Hall, best known for his True Travel Tales comic series, and known to Best Erotic Comics readers as the artist of the sweet, kinky, hilarious, and seriously dirty “Birthday Fuck.” Justin and I talked about the comics industry, the sex industry, the challenge of telling true stories, the balance of arousal and artistry in erotica, and lots more.
Please note: Some of the content of this interview, and some of the images illustrating it, are not appropriate for minors. If you’re under 18, please do not continue reading.
Tell me about your piece. What inspired it, what were you trying to accomplish with it, etc.? I know why I like your piece and why I included it in the anthology — but what do you think makes it stand out?
Jacob Scott (his porn name) is an old friend of mine, and full of good stories, so I figured I’d get a good, juicy, sex tale out of him. And I was right… “Birthday Fuck” was a blast to illustrate, and also stretches boundaries a bit for a gay porn story, which I definitely like to do. All the characters in the story get pushed past their normal sexual behavior, which makes for good drama and some hot tension. Also, I got to draw a dominatrix getting eaten out by her boyfriend, as he’s also getting fucked in the ass by a built, tattooed, porn star… what’s not to love?
Do you see erotic comics as a separate genre from mainstream comics? Or do you see your erotic work as being an integral part of the comics world?
Dave Davenport (my co-creator on Hard To Swallow) and I knew this was going to be the case, so we deliberately gave the book a spine and an ISBN number so it could be sold in gay bookstores… Normally, bookstores won’t touch comic books in their traditional, magazine format because they can’t shelve them without a spine or sell them through their computer systems without an ISBN.
It’s one of the reasons Iâm so excited about being in this anthology, as this is an opportunity for my erotic work to be shown alongside the work of all sorts of creators, and for all kinds of audiences, not just gay men.
When you’re creating sex comics, is it important to you that they be arousing to the audience? Or are you focused entirely on other artistic goals?
Making porn comics presents a different set of challenges than doing other kinds of comics. On the one hand, I have more to juggle, as keeping a story sexually arousing adds another consideration to deal with. On the other hand, it forces me to simplify other aspects of the story, such as character and plot. There’s only so much narrative space you can let pass before getting back to the money shot.
I’ve learned a lot from doing erotica (I’m a better illustrator than before, and am more comfortable using dynamic paneling and pacing, for example), and I definitely intend to do more… but if I only did erotic stories, I’d feel stifled. There are too many other kinds of stories and themes that I want to explore.
Whether the story is mine or someone else’s, though, doesn’t matter much to me. In both cases I feel like the most important thing is to create a good narrative, and the absolute truth is kind of secondary, in the same way that when you tell a story to a group of friends you feel free to streamline the tale a bit and rearrange some of the details to fit the telling. It’s a natural approach to story-telling… we all do it, and as long as the bones of the story are true no audience is going to begrudge that narrative urge.
Are there any special challenges that come with telling a story about somebody else’s sex life? Is it hard to capture somebody else’s erotic mood?
It’s a blast, peeking in at someone else’s sex life, with all its quirks, kinks, and idiosyncrasies, and then trying to get it down in an enjoyable story. It can certainly be a difficult challenge, but that’s the fun of it.
I’ve always felt that one of humanity’s greatest blessings is the variety of our sexual desires and experiences. Telling someone else’s sex story just brings me into an even greater appreciation of that diversity.
You do non-erotic comics as well as erotic ones. How has your adult work affected how your non-adult work is received? Has it made it harder to get your non-erotic work published or recognized? Easier? Why do you think that is?
On the plus side, I do feel grateful to have my feet in such completely different artistic communities, indy comics and the queer, erotic arts scene. There are some interesting characters in both, that’s for sure…
Do you find that working on adult comics is an erotic experience? Or when you’re doing the drawing, are you just focused on the craft of your work rather than the eroticism of the scene you’re creating?
Hmmm… That’s an interesting question. I imagine one reason is that the gay male community is in general the most pro-sex. If a gay man makes it through the process of coming out (and most don’t, unfortunately), then there’s often a certain sense of liberation. We’re already outside the box… the rules don’t apply to us anymore, or at least we get to recreate them on our own terms. That’s why gay men have so much more sex than straight people, and are more likely to form unorthodox relationships, like three-way partnerships and open marriages. Also, we don’t have to deal with all the virgin/whore bullshit that women do, which I imagine can come up, perhaps subconsciously, even in the lesbian community.
It’s only natural that our art should reflect this sexual liberation as well. Gay men have the opportunity to be more sexual (at least within the community), and we like to write and draw about it.
You’ve said that you think your experience as a sex worker gives you a perspective that’s unique, or at least unusual, in erotic comics. Can you talk a little more about that?
Well, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do this series of true sex stories of gay porn stars, of which “Birthday Fuck” is one, without having worked in the industry myself. There are so many interesting aspects to sex that come up when you work on a film (sex- as- business, sex- as- celebrity, sex- as- group- activity, sex- as- work, etc.), and those are all wonderful points of inspiration for me to work with as a cartoonist.
Besides actually making comics, how else do you involve yourself with the cartooning world?
Iâve also been organizing and moderating the annual Queer Cartoonists’ Panel at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) here in San Francisco for four years now. That’s been a blast… I’ve found out that I really enjoy moderating discussions, for some reason, and it’s given me an opportunity to meet all sorts of interesting creators.
I’m a compulsive traveler, and try to check out local comics scenes wherever I go. I found a truly impressive comics tradition in Cambodia… I’m now on the board of a non-profit supporting Cambodian comics, Siewphewyeung, or Our Books. You can check out their work at their website.
Oh god, there’s more too… I keep myself way too busy with all this work that doesn’t pay, and then have occasional meltdowns because I’m not drawing enough and instead doing all this community and promotional work. Still, I’m not the stereotypical cartoonist who’s anti-social and just chains himself to his drawing board. I actually like people, and I like doing things…
And finally — what are you working on now?
As for my non-erotic work, I’m working on a graphic novel right now called The Liar, which I hope to have done by the end of the year. It involves a cross-country road trip with a young, compulsive liar and a middle-age closet case in a truck. It’s kind of like a buddy road movie, but with drugs, manipulations, and inappropriate behavior in truck stops.
Iâve also got a few new pieces coming out in various anthologies, like the new Prism Guide 2008, Juicy Mother 2, and the Book of Boy Trouble 2. You can stay abreast of all that, and pretty much everything else Iâm doing, through my website.