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The World of Justin Hall

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A Sacred Text was my first published work, and remains my most ambitious project to date…primarily because I was too naïve to understand the enormity of what I was trying to do. It was a story that was ultimately beyond my abilities at the time to accomplish properly, but looking back on it now, I’m proud of how ambitious and uncompromising it was as a first piece. Despite the awkward illustrations, faltering dialogue and clumsy lettering, I feel like I told a good story that had more raw heart to it than almost anything I’ve done since.

The story is of an escaped slave of a great empire who seeks to return to his homeland. On his way, he comes across a mysterious religious community hidden deep within the desert. There he discovers a profound connection with its people, and ultimately must play a crucial role in their destiny.

A Sacred Text is set in a fantastical world, but it’s very much inspired by the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I was traveling through the Middle East when I came up with the idea; I had just seen the Dead Sea Scrolls in their museum outside of Jerusalem and was tremendously inspired by their mystery. Who had saved these texts and hidden them in the desert, and what happened to the community that had written them and followed their teachings?

The same day I saw the Scrolls, I sat down in a café in Jerusalem and wrote the first draft of the script in five hours. I tried to incorporate the thoughts on religion, culture and sexuality that had been bouncing about in my head during the half-year I spent wandering about North Africa and the Middle East. The basic premise I built the story off of was what if it was a non-believer, a foreigner and an illiterate who saved those Scrolls? What if it was an infidel (such as me) that saved the Word?

-Justin Hall
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What I came up with was about as completely unmarketable a book as is humanly possible. A Sacred Text features a gay, black man as the main character, and a Middle Eastern religious community that is wiped out by a godless empire…and it was published just as the United States was invading Afghanistan and confronting the Taliban.

Luckily, I received the September 2001 Xeric Award (from the foundation created by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Peter Laird) for A Sacred Text, and so was forced to actually self-publish the thing. I probably would have balked at doing it without that encouragement. Up until that point, I was making comics for myself, but had never had the courage to get my material out there.

For many years, I was embarrassed by my fledgling effort, but now I look at A Sacred Text with fondness. Despite its flaws, I’m proud of my first child.

-Justin Hall
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TRUE TRAVEL TALES
Swallowing a cobra’s heart! Outrunning a tsunami! Anonymous sex in an ancient Egyptian temple! Smuggling cocaine from Peru! Hindu piercing rituals! Punching out a stalker in Morocco! The best stories happen on the road.

In 2003, I started True Travel Tales, a collection of autobiographical and biographical travel stories, and my first continuing series. It ran for four issues, and continues as the occasional mini-comic. It was an obvious project for me to take on, as I was a compulsive traveler at the time, spending many months at a time wandering around the globe with a backpack. In aggregate I’ve spent several years of my life traveling, and have visited over sixty countries.

I think of myself as an experience junkie, and travel has always been the easiest way for me to submerge myself in a continual stream of new and exotic situations. Since my best stories and those of my friends take place on the road, it made perfect sense for me to base a series of comics on travel. I even figured out a way to pack my Bristol board paper, ink and brushes in my backpack so I could draw and make comics as I wandered about.

One of my pet peeves is travel “stories” which just read as “look at this exotic thing I saw.” That’s not a story; it’s what you tell your friends about when you get home from your trip. A story needs plot and character, as well as setting. In True Travel Tales I really tried to make all the stories good narratives first and foremost, with the location creating the situation and affecting the characters. The series is, of course, a mixed bag, with some of the stories more effective than others, but in general I think I achieved my goal of creating travel stories that were genuinely compelling and challenging narratives.

-Justin Hall
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I think I grew a lot as a storyteller during my run on True Travel Tales. The biggest validation was when the third issue, subtitled “La Rubia Loca,” was accepted into the first Houghton Miflin Best American Comics collection in 2006. At 48 pages, it was the longest entry in the anthology. It told the story of my friend who was a driver for the Green Tortoise, a hippy bus line out of San Francisco, on a trip down to Mexico. A Swiss passenger stopped sleeping, and on day four, had a psychotic break and began manifesting multiple personalities. My friend had to smuggle her out of Mexico (at one point shooting her up full of valium, tying her up and throwing a sheet over her to sneak her past security guards) to make sure she didn’t get institutionalized down there. It’s an insane story.

I’m not traveling as much these days. I have more commitments and obligations in my life now, and I’m finding satisfaction staying put and making comics and living my life in San Francisco. I no longer live out of my backpack. But I know there are still some big trips in my future, and I’ll definitely be making comics out of them when the time comes.

-Justin Hall
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Glamazonia the Uncanny Super Tranny first appeared as a series of one-page comics I did back in 2003 for the Gay League website. She has since shown up in several venues, from the Prism Comics Guides to the S.F. Bay Guardian (once gracing its cover with her presence), and even as part of a museum show. There is a 28-page mini-comic collecting most of her stories, and now I’m working on a large, full-color book (thanks to the Prism Comics Queer Press Grant).

When I created the character, I expected her to be a small side project with a very limited audience. After all, she’s a parody of gay culture and the superhero genre, and I figured the intersection of the two would only be amusing to a small group. Instead, she's found popularity beyond the gay comics geek community. To be honest, I still don’t know exactly why, but I’m rolling with it.

Glamazonia was inspired by several things, the most obvious being San Francisco’s infamous Trannyshack, a drag show that ran every Tuesday night at midnight for eleven years. Trannyshack was a remarkable institution, combining drag with edgy performance art and irreverent insanity. If you walked away from a night at Trannyshack not covered in fake blood, glitter, or some unidentified fluid sprayed from a toy gun or some queen’s crotch, then you were too far away from the stage.

Glams also owes a lot to Diane Noomin’s wonderful Didi Glitz, a character from back in the heady days of the early underground women’s comix. Glam’s huge, helmet-like hairdo exists somewhere between Didi’s bouffant and the wigs of Heklina (Trannyshack's emcee).

-Justin Hall
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One tricky thing for me to figure out was whether Glams was a transsexual woman or simply a drag queen. In the parlance of underground San Francisco drag culture, “tranny” is often used by and about drag queens, but this isn’t the correct terminology, obviously, and it was important to get everything straight (so to speak), as the character became more visible outside of the underground worlds of gay fanboys and hipster queens.

Eventually I realized that I just couldn’t imagine Glams with a defined, male “secret identity,” and so therefore she was transsexual and not a drag queen or cross-dresser. Of course, there are many different kinds of trans people, each coming to the identity and experience from different perspectives. I have trans friends who are solely interested in passing as the gender that they have claimed for their own; I have others who embrace their trans self as a queer identity in its own right. Glams is an out, straight, trans woman who comes out of the gay culture and has a deliberately campy and flamboyant persona.

And she can fly, shoot lasers from her eyes and kick some serious ass.

-Justin Hall