“That’s the fun of it”: An Interview with “Best Erotic Comics” Artist Justin Hall

I’m very proud and happy to present the first in a series of interviews with the artists of Best Erotic Comics 2008. One of the things I’m most proud of with this book is the wide variety of first-rate comic artists I was able to showcase, and I was thrilled to have the chance to talk with some of them directly and find out more about how they work, how they approach comics in general and dirty comics in particular.

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?

“Birthday Fuck” is part of a series of true-life sex stories of gay male porn stars that I’ve been doing for my erotic comic Hard To Swallow. It’s been a fun and interesting project, narrating the private escapades of guys who have such public sexual personae. Having acted in gay porn films myself, and living in San Francisco where so many of the gay porn companies are located, I have a bunch of friends in the industry and have been able to interview them for this series.

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?

Erotic comics are pretty separate from the mainstream, especially gay erotica. Hard To Swallow has pretty low distribution in comic book stores… Most of our sales come through book distributors, who sell to gay bookstores, and gay erotic art events like the Folsom Street Fair and the Tom of Finland show. This is in contrast to my other comic books, such as True Travel Tales, which are sold pretty much only at specialty comic book stores and conventions.

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.

In addition to the divide between erotic and mainstream comics, gay comics have always existed in a parallel universe to straight comics. Strips are published in gay newspapers and websites, and comics collections are sold in gay bookstores, with very little penetration (excuse the term!) into comic book stores or other kinds of newspapers. This has started to change recently, with the major bookstores, comic book stores, and conventions showcasing the work of openly queer creators with crossover appeal… Queer erotica, however, remains almost completely ghettoized.

It’s one of the reasons I’m 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?

My definition of porn is that the primary goal of the piece is sexual arousal. That being said, I want my erotic comics to work on three levels: that of cartooning artistry, compelling narrative, and arousing fantasy. The story is unsuccessful if it doesn’t engage all three… Sex montages held together with a negligible story are just boring, no matter how beautiful the illustrations, and don’t do justice to the awesome potential of the comics medium. I pride myself on creating erotica that is challenging and artistically interesting as well as hot.

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.

“Birthday Fuck” is a true story — but the caption says it’s someone else’s true story told to you, not autobiographical. And I know you’ve done other comics that tell other people’s true stories. Is it harder to tell someone else’s story than it is to tell your own? When you do the condensing and tinkering that always has to be done when telling a true story, do you worry more that you might be getting it wrong when it’s someone else’s story? Or do you just let go of trying to make it perfectly accurate, and just try do it well and as interestingly as you can?

I’ve always been drawn to true stories. Being freed from figuring out what should happen in a story allows me to focus on how that story should be told. Also, true stories have a kind of resonance and power to them that’s really attractive. It’s always easier to interest someone in “this crazy thing that happened to me” than to “this crazy thing that could have happened to me.”

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.

As for the person whose story I’m telling, I try not to worry about their reaction too much. Of course, I want them to like the work, but I think of it like drawing someone’s portrait… there are going to be people who complain that I made their noses too big, but they’re missing the point; the picture isn’t really them, it’s my art, and they’re the inspiration.

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?

My erotic and non-erotic works don’t have much to do with each other in terms of their audiences and markets. I wish they did, as I feel like they certainly have a lot to do with each other artistically and thematically… My true-sex stories clearly relate to my true travel tales, for example. However, I’m afraid that a good part of the audience I built up doing the travel stories aren’t going to read my sex comics, and visa versa.

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?

Creating a good, porn comic is certainly satisfying, but not exactly erotic. I’m certainly not beating off all the time while drawing or I wouldn’t get anything done! It’s much more about the craft, and the joy of creation… Doing the research for the comic is another matter, however! I often have to look at a bunch of porn for inspiration and reference materials, and that can take a bit longer than it should…

When I was starting to put together Best Erotic Comics 2008, I noticed right away that there are a huge number of gay male comic artists doing excellent erotic work. If I hadn’t been trying to maintain a sexual preference balance in the book, easily a quarter of the book could have been gay male — maybe more. Have you noticed this as well? If so, what do you think accounts for it? Why are there so many gay male comic artists doing good erotic work?

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.

Also, I think there’s a particularly interesting movement happening in gay porn comics right now. Tom of Finland and his imitators have dominated gay erotica for so long, there’s been very little that’s new and exciting for quite a while, and just now I think we’re finally witnessing the birth of a new generation of gay artists who are looking to other kinds of inspiration and coming up with original imagery. It’s a very exciting time, actually…

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?

I’m helping put together a reading of prominent, queer cartoonists at the 3 Dollar Bill Cafe in the LGBT Center on Saturday, February 23rd for this year’s Wonder Con. I’ve done events like this before, and they’ve been a lot of fun. Comics make good readings, it turns out.

I’ve 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.

Also, I’m on the board of the Folsom Street Fair, organizing their new Artists’ Area, which provides free booth space to select queer, erotic artists. I’m really excited about that, and hope to help grow it into a major venue for erotica. Any artists, from cartoonists to photographers to painters and everything in between, who are interested should check out the Folsom website. We’ll have the application info up soon.

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?

Well, Dave and I are making more Hard To Swallow comics. We’re at work on number 4 right now, and it’s going to be a good one! You can check them out at the Hard To Swallow website.

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.

I’ve 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 I’m doing, through my website.

Justin Hall loves comic books, and he especially loves comics about sex and travel. Best known for True Travel Tales, his comic book series of true-life adventures from the road, Hall has also been featured in numerous other publications, such as the Houghton Mifflin Best American Comics 2006, the S.F. Bay Guardian, and “Boy Trouble,” as well as in various museum and gallery shows. Hall also produces the gay porn comic “Hard To Swallow” with fellow pervert Dave Davenport. You can check out his work at allthumbspress.com, and his porn comics at hardtoswallowcomics.com.

“That’s the fun of it”: An Interview with “Best Erotic Comics” Artist Justin Hall

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