Long before Justin Hall became the first Fullbright Scholar in Comics and editor of the queer comics history anthology, No Straight Lines, the award-winning comic artist was an out gay traveler, collecting stories (his own and others) for his comic series, True Travel Tales (cover of one of the issues pictured here).
Hall, whose work on LGBTQ+ history adorned San Francisco bus kiosks, recently sat down (virtually) with Out Traveler to talk about his adventures, the comic, and the future of queer travel.
(Pictured, True Travel Tales, Miami: Brooklyn page 1)
So first, tell me a little about how you got into traveling.
I always had a strong need to adventure, so a couple of days after I graduated high school, a small group of friends and I took off for Europe to backpack around. It’s funny, after all the travel I’ve done since in all sorts of remote places in the world, that was one of the most brutal experiences of all. We had no idea what we were doing and wound up sleeping in train stations, on the streets of Paris, on a Greek beach, on a park bench in Istanbul, in a French phonebooth. I actually made a comic about the phonebooth experience that I’m pretty proud of.
When was this that you were backpacking around? I was in Germany in 1984-85 and recall how it was as a young person just traveling with a backpack and staying with people you just met. Without cellphones it was quite different.
That first trip to Europe was in 1989. It was indeed very different back then. There was a sense of community among backpackers because we had to rely on each other for information about where to go and how to get there. We had to talk to each other (and to locals) because there were no phones and no way to learn things without asking someone.
(Pictured True Travel Tales, Miami: Brooklyn page 2)
How travel changed since then?
When you went somewhere, you really went there completely. My first big trip after Europe was six months bumming around Africa with a friend in 1993, and that was where I really felt it. The infrastructure was so underdeveloped in most places that there was almost no way for a poor backpacker to call back home via landlines.
We communicated with family and friends via Post Restante. My parents would write me a letter addressed to “Justin Hall, Post Restante, Main Post Office, Accra, Ghana” and I would go to that post office, show them my passport, and hope there was mail for me. I’d write back telling them that I’d probably be in Harare, Zimbabwe in a month and they should try to write to me there. Sometimes I would get their letters and sometimes not.
On the one hand, this made travel incredibly exciting; it was completely immersive with no distractions from home. On the other hand, it was also scarier. I got sick with malaria in Tanzania and almost died in a local village hospital, and my parents had no idea.
I vividly remember when email became a thing… I was traveling in Central America when I got my first Hotmail account and realized the world was going to change completely.
(Pictured True Travel Tales, Miami: Brooklyn page 3)
What was it about travel that inspired you creatively?
My first full comic was inspired by the Dead Sea Scrolls, which I saw in their museum outside of Jerusalem. I wrote the script for A Sacred Text in 5 hours in an Israeli café surrounded by raucous young soldiers with serious weaponry, and then when I got home, I spent the next year illustrating it.
After that, though, I began a series called True Travel Tales, which were all true stories from the road that I either heard from others or that had happened to me. I would sell these comics at the comic conventions, and that was how I met other creators and became part of an artistic community, something that is far easier for new generations of cartoonists to do online, of course.
Tell me about the comics you started to draw back then.
My early comics are a mixed bag, of course; in many ways, they’re clumsy since I was learning my craft, but I was also attempting some interesting things in my naiveté. I’m proud of a lot of that work.
I’m a creator who started making professional work late (I was 30 years old when A Sacred Text was published). The advantage to having begun my career late, though, was that I’ve always had a wealth of life experiences to draw from when creating my stories. And many of those experiences came from travel.
(Pictured True Travel Tales, Miami: Brooklyn page 4)
Have comics always been how you see/interpret the world?
Not solely, as I’ve also enjoyed other art forms and experiences on their own terms, but for sure comics color a lot of how I make my way through the world. I’m someone who loves the combination of verbal and visual storytelling; it’s what feels most natural to me. Abstract art, for example, generally feels pointless to me. If it’s not telling a story, it’s not worth my time.
What kind of stories were you most inspired by?
I was adamant, when starting my True Travel Tales series, that I wouldn’t fall into the trap in which so many travel narratives find themselves. Too often, a travel “story” is simply, “hey, look at this exotic thing I came across.” That’s not a story, it’s an impression. I wanted to create narratives in which the characters are changed by what they see and do and the places in which they find themselves.
Travel is an incredibly complex and morally dubious activity, and as such presents fantastic possibilities for good stories. When we travel someplace, we change ourselves and we change the places in which we travel, in both positive and negative ways. This fascinates me, as well as the power relationship of the traveler and the “traveled.”
(Pictured True Travel Tales, Miami: Brooklyn page 5)
I know what it’s like to have a busload of giggling tourists pull up and take pictures of me while I’m in assless chaps heading to Folsom Street Fair; conversely, I’ve been the foreigner invading a marketplace gawking at its (to me) exotic delights as the locals look at me with furrowed brows. I’m interested in both of these perspectives in my stories.
A good example of this moral complexity is in my comic about the Tinku, a harvest fertility ceremony performed by indigenous groups in the central highlands of Bolivia. It’s a drunken and bloody ritual (someone usually dies every year) with a certain dangerous beauty to it. I described the event in its dramatic intensity, including when a man stumbled up to me and said, “You take all your pictures and you take this moment away from us, and what do we get? Nothing.” He was right, of course, but on the other hand, I have so many stories of profoundly positive connections as well.
One funny final thought: When I came out with True Travel Tales #1, I included an exhortation to people (especially Americans) to travel more, because it’s the best way to both learn more about the world and more about ourselves. A reviewer later said, “Hall begs us to travel more, but all of his stories are about difficult and dangerous situations…which makes me want to stay home!”
(Pictured True Travel Tales, Miami: Brooklyn page 6)
You’ve visited over 75 countries — which were your favorites?
I love different places for different reasons, of course, from food to natural beauty to friendliness to fascinating cultures to dynamic cities. Nicaragua, Cuba, Egypt, Thailand, Spain, Ghana, Japan… I love so many places! I will say that I keep going back to Berlin for the outrageous nightlife. And of course, I have friendships and working relationships in places like the Czech Republic, where I taught under a Fulbright grant, and Denmark, where I regularly teach at a comics school.
Some of those places obviously didn't have LGBTQ+ friendly laws. Did you ever feel unsafe as a gay man traveling?
To be honest, I’ve rarely felt in any real danger as a gay man while traveling, and I make a point of never being in the closet no matter where I am. A lot of that is obviously because of my privilege as a big, masculine presenting, cis, white man. But I also find that being completely without shame or guilt in presenting my identity is disarming to folks in places where they’re used to queers being weakened by self-hatred. I’ve had many fascinating and challenging conversations with people around the world on the nature of sexuality and gender.
Mind you, I have had some close calls. I was at an underground drag show in Havana a month before it was raided and all the people thrown in jail; I was also on the Queens Boat on the Nile in Cairo a few weeks before it was raided and everyone jailed as well. I’ve had clandestine hook ups in potentially dangerous places all over the world, but I’m also old enough to have cruised parks in the US when I was first coming out, so danger has been intertwined with sexuality throughout my life. And the one time I’ve had a bottle smashed in my head while someone screamed “faggot” at me was here in San Francisco!
(Pictured excerpt from True Travel Tales, Johnny Be Good)
Did you keep drawing your Travel comics while doing your other comics?
As True Travel Tales petered out, I began my erotic comics series Hard to Swallow with Dave Davenport (we each did half of the stories in each comic). Most of the stories I did were also true tales…not of travel this time, but of sex. But I found that my stories had a similar bent; in the same way I wasn’t interested in “check out this cool place” travel stories, I was also not interested in “check out this hot sex” erotic tales either. I wanted to make erotic comics that challenged the notion of what was sexy and why, and how sex and desire become the context for dramatic change.
Is traveling still important to you? Where are you looking forward to going when the world reopens?
Traveling is still a focal point of my life. And there are so many more places I want to visit! I was hoping to go to Colombia for my 50th birthday in February, but I doubt that will be possible given the pandemic. I’m also hoping to do another Fulbright, this time teaching comics in Beirut, a place I’ve always wanted to experience. And of course, I’m itching to get back to Berlin! In the meantime, though, I’m planning to travel with a friend in his camper van through some of the national parks… That seems like the safest way to scratch my travel itch during the pandemic, and there are so many things I haven’t seen in my own backyard.
(Pictured excerpt from True Travel Tales, 7 Balloons)
What's the best thing about traveling while LGBTQ+?
I think LGBTQ people often only travel to queer destinations because they’re afraid of, or not interested in, what could happen outside of those places. I’ve met hundreds of other travelers all over the world and less than a handful have been openly queer outside of the obviously queer destinations. This makes me sad, but I get it.
I try to find queer culture, as underground as it might be, wherever I go. And this can lead to a truly magical connection, one that makes me grateful for being gay.
For example, I met some guys cruising one of the central parks in Havana back in 1997. They trusted me enough to tell me of the secret drag show I mentioned earlier. Without being able to put up fliers or advertise normally, these men would pass information about their illegal parties mouth-to-mouth. If I were straight, I would never have been able to access that!
I have a very different sort of travel experience when I go someplace like Berlin or Madrid. I love hitting the town in such places, and I’m eternally grateful for the ease with which gay men in particular are able to connect, to have sex, and to have fun together. Straight visitors can’t even come close!