Travels with tranny

Queer cartoonist Justin Hall takes on uncanny trannies, flaming punks, and "the death of paper."

By Marke B.

PICTURE IT: You're young. You're gay. You're smooth-bodied and moderately OK-looking. You suddenly wake up to find yourself naked in a deserted country landscape, bound hand and foot to tracks in the path of an oncoming Amtrak train. Its distorted horn sounds loudly as it quickly approaches to pulverize you beneath its razor-sharp wheels. Who you gonna call to save you?

Not Glamazonia, the Uncanny Super-Tranny, that's for sure. Twinks in trouble aren't her thing. She'd take one look at your sorry, hairless ass, grunt, and fly off to see if there's any hot, stubbly Italians in need of her superhero services. Sorry, Chuck – better luck next life. Kisses!

Smoosh.

Glamazonia exploded on the Bay Area comics scene a couple of years ago, the creation of queer cartoonist Justin Hall, who describes her as "a slut who wants to make sure no one steals her spotlight – really fucking vicious." She's a hefty-teated wig whiz with a dazzling array of ever-changing superpowers, most of them sexually oriented. She recently acquired a cute sidekick, the baseball-capped, cartwheeling Rent Boy ("I'm not gay, just trade"), but she mainly films him scrambling haplessly out of awkward situations, selling the footage on eBay as part of her "Barely Legal Super Sidekicks Show Their Stuff" video series. Hey, as she says, a girl's gotta eat.

The super-tranny with a heart of golden showers has courted her share of controversy – not least because she's a judgmental megabitch with a fabulous wardrobe (we all know how that is). She makes no bones about preferring to rescue those who'll "give something back" and often throws those whose clothing choices she abhors right to the wolves. Sent here in a phallic shuttle from the doomed planet Cutron (which was swallowed into a black hole between its queen's legs), and landing in Smalldongsville wearing nothing but silky diapers and a training wig, Glamazonia learned early how to use her powers of glamour to conquer the farm boys of her village.

Well, that's one origin story. It tends to change depending on who's asking. Glamazonia's probably the first superhero in history to tailor her birth narrative to better suit whatever hunk she intends to manhandle. But the moral stays the same: If you ever want a giant-busted drag queen to fly in and save your miserable faggot life, you damn well better be her type, darling.

All true

Glamazonia is just one of the stars in Hall's illustrated stable. Hall – a Brobdingnagian boy toy of a man with a large, excitable frame, a thousand-watt smile, and boundless enthusiasm for cartoons – has become a fixture in Bay Area comics circles and produced several series that showcase his broad range of interests and generous wit. A native of Rhode Island, he's been obsessed with comics ever since his mother read him the Golden Age Wonder Woman collection with a Gloria Steinem prologue. "That clearly turned me gay," he says.

Now 34, he divides his time between his job as a professional masseur and a de facto booster for the Bay Area comics community – and queer comics in general.

"I moved here because the Bay Area has such an incredible comics history," he says. "And there's a huge breadth of stuff going on – the Alternative Press Expo, SF Zine Fest, WonderCon, you name it. There's the opportunity to work with other cartoonists, go to comics jam sessions, get to know other work. It's a great place to be, not only for artists, but also for people who just love comics.

"And comics are available everywhere here. There's not many places left in the country where you can walk into a bookstore and see comics on display. Retailers willing to take a chance on locally produced pieces of narrative illustration – that's pretty powerful."

Besides Glamazonia, who has her own book coming out this fall, which Hall wrote and co-illustrated with local artist Jason Brown (www.leviathanink.com), Hall also created Nkota, an escaped slave of the great Thesanyi Empire and hero of A Sacred Text, Hall's first full-length comic. The 47-page adventure story based on the Dead Sea Scrolls features a daring mix of gay sex and religion, and in 2001 it won him a grant from the Xeric Foundation, a nonprofit established by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cocreator Peter A. Laird to financially assist self-publishing cartoonists.

And then there are the various protagonists of his True Travel Tales comics series. In each of the four volumes, Hall illustrates stories he's gathered from friends about their adventurous sojourns around the world. Psychotic breaks on a Mexican bus tour, metaphysical rainforest visions, drug-addled romances, botched coke-smuggling missions, sex in ancient temples, punk rockers on fire – all are dutifully chronicled and illustrated in Hall's down-to-earth, journalistic style.

True Travel Tales solidified Hall's reputation as a cartoonist of diverse narrative strategies: Each tale is a rough gem that serves not only as an exciting story of a strange encounter, but also as a comment on the narrowness of many Americans' travel experiences. "People need to get out more" is how Hall puts it. "I think it's really important right now that Americans get out in the world." All of the above comics are put out through Hall's All Thumbs Press (www.allthumbspress.com), but he also works with such queer comics organizations as the Gay League (www.gayleague.com) and the nonprofit Prism Comics (www.prismcomics.org).

Voracious appetite

One of the most entertaining characters in Hall's comics is Hall himself. A voracious world traveler (his boyfriend has banned all maps from hanging in their apartment because he doesn't want to spend his time "staring at the other woman"), he's also incredibly candid about his lust for sexual adventure. Case in point: the story he is contributing to the upcoming True Porn 2 collection (www.trueporncomic.com), titled "Only in San Francisco."

"A while back I was making out with this man at the Hole in the Wall, and this other guy came over and hung out for a while and then asked us back to his place. The guy was really drunk and ended up passing out naked on the bed. He was one of those gay men with a little gay fluffy dog, you know? And the dog got all excited and started licking the guy all over, starting at his toes and working his way up. It was the most thorough tongue bath I've even seen ... clearly this was not the first time this scene had taken place. Occasionally Drunk Guy would wake up and moan, 'No, Fluffy, no,' only to slip back into unconsciousness. This would stop Fluffy for all of two seconds, and then he'd be back at it.

"Me and the other guy watched and laughed for a while, and then went back to trying to have sex – but he kept grabbing for my balls, and I told him, 'Hey, man, I'm not into ball-play.' Turns out the guy was into stuffing people's balls up their asses. He was only into stuffing peoples' balls up their asses. I was out of there.

"As I left, I turned and saw Ball Guy slinking toward Drunk Guy as the little dog was buried in Drunk Guy's crotch, licking away.

"All I could think was, 'Wow. That guy's gonna wake up in the morning with dog spit on his cock and his balls up his ass.' "

Can't wait to see the illustrations.

When not communing with his large cadre of comics characters, Hall's also a "panel whore," moderating the yearly Queer Cartoonists panel at the Alternative Press Expo and appearing on panels at comics conventions such as SPX in Washington, DC, and San Diego's Comic-Con.

"Queer comics fascinate me, in part because of their outsider status even within an outsider art form," he says. "Traditional comic book publishers and retailers don't understand the queer market, so queer creators work outside that world, publishing instead with gay publishers and in gay newspapers."

Hall believes even established independent publishers can have "issues" getting their queer comics to readers. "Fantagraphics, the largest independent comic book publisher, launched an excellent gay erotic book [Sticky] only to cancel it within three issues because they couldn't find a market," he adds. "This killed the gay pirate book that I was going to pitch to them, as well. They don't know how to get their queer-targeted books to where queer people can see and buy them, like the gay bookstores. I mean, I know how many gay men buy porn, and everybody loves pirates, for god's sake. They're just not going to look for it in the comic book stores full of repressed straight boys.

"But in the Bay Area at least you can see how things are always changing, moving on. It's a result of having such a great community of artists and people here exchanging ideas and working together."

Come together

That sense of community – among queer and nonqueer cartoonists, cartoonists who specialize in minicomics or self-published, limited-edition works, and those cartoonists and literary zinesters who get picked up by large distributors – comes up a lot in conversations with other local cartoon mavens.

"The biggest trend right now in self-published comics, and local comics in general, I think, is the trend towards collaboration and community," says Andrew Farago, curator at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum. "I make sure to keep an eye on the local scene, especially in terms of our Small Press Spotlight gallery, and I'm seeing a lot of artists coming together to create these great one-of-a-kind works right now, exploring each others' talents. The scene isn't as isolated as it used to be. All you have to do is talk to one artist, or look one person's name up, and suddenly you're turned on to twenty or thirty more. Everyone's connected."

Calvin Liu, organizer of the recent San Francisco Zine Fest and publisher of the biannual literary magazine Bullfight Review, agrees: "One of the most exciting things, for me, is seeing such a sense of community gathering force in the Bay Area. It was great to see so many local minicomics contributors and zine people coming together for Zine Fest to share their ideas and publications in person. I feel that there's definitely a segment of our population still very dedicated to anticommercialism and guerrilla publishing, people still saying, 'In your face,' to the mainstream, which leads, in the world of zines at least, to both a diversity of voices and a dedication to forming a community."

Community in diversity is what inspired Hall to bring together a ragtag fleet of well-known local cartoonists – Jesse Reklaw, Lark Pien, Renée French, Andrice Arp, Fredo, in addition to himself – for a gallery show of their work. "Ink: Bay Area Cartoonists," running through Sept. 18 at Amaru Gallery (www.amarugallery.com), is an attempt to highlight the various artistic strategies of Bay Area cartoonists, as well as to emphasize the commonalities among them.

"The comics elite tends to be a straight white boys' club," Hall says. "But there's a huge historical tradition against that in the Bay Area. Sure, on the one hand you've got legendary figures like R. Crumb – who were subversive in just being who they were, of course – but on the other there's people like Trina Robbins, Adrian Tomine, and tons of queer artists who inspired the current generation to express themselves as who they are.

"Now, the diversity of Bay Area artists comes out more in the forms that the cartoons take. You've got people who will only self-publish in limited editions, people involved with big-name publishers, minicomics superstars, people influenced by graffiti art, people who draw to scale – lots of different publishing and illustrating strategies. I like to think the show encompasses and reflects that."

'Low' and behold

"Ink" also gave Hall an opportunity to try out a theory of his own. He challenged all the artists participating to treat their original panels and works as "fine art," an especially daring suggestion since many people – cartoonists included – still view comics as "low," not "high," art.

"I'm obsessed with that ever-shifting line between 'high' and 'low' art," Hall says, "and how it is that comics are always somehow positioned on the 'low' end. I want to see if a movement like that of photography or lithographs or the 'art of the book' can be started with cartoons, to bring them into the fine arts world, or allow them to move freely between the two worlds of 'low' and 'high' as they do in Japan or France, so they feel equally at home on a magazine stand or hung in a gallery."

The cartoonist believes that today's fine art purposefully revolves around obsolete technologies. "In art school, I was a printmaking major, learning block printing, lithography, etchings, and silkscreen techniques," Hall says. "All of these technologies were developed primarily to mass produce images as quickly and cheaply as possible. Now they're all firmly in the realm of 'fine art,' because there are other machines like the offset press, which makes image reproduction faster and easier. When these techniques became impractical commercially, they became fine art, because fine art is seen as precious."

He draws a parallel between photography's movement from "low" to "high" with the advent of digital technology. "My grandfather was a photographer, and he remembers when his friend Edward Weston became one of the first photographers to be taken seriously by museums and the fine art establishment," he recalls. "Working in a darkroom is now an esoteric and 'artistic' skill, because it's not how images are created and distributed for the masses any longer.

"So to me it's only logical that, like darkroom photography and professional lithographs, comics begin to make the transition from streetside displays to gallery art. At the beginning of the potential death of paper, is there anything more esoteric than printing leaflets full of pen-and-ink drawings?"

Hall is referring to the looming temptation for many cartoon artists to abandon comics as handmade, handheld objects and make the transition to Web work. He wants to preserve the tactile nature of comics by encoding them into the fine arts genome. But the revolution against comics shedding their earthly bodies and permanently beaming up to the Ethernet may have already begun, especially among minicomics artists, who strive to produce not just little books of drawings, but also desirable, real-world objects. When you walk into a store like Needles and Pens and see the candy-colored display of lovingly crafted minicomics, your first instinct is to pop them in your mouth – they're so cute. No one wants to pop a Flash animation in their mouth.

"I think the Web is great for getting out a snapshot of your work, or for setting up an online community of like-minded artists, or for making your work available for sale," "Ink" exhibit contributor Jesse Reklaw says. The local minicomics guru co-owns, with Thien Pham, Global Hobo comics (www.hobocomics.com), which specializes in minicomics distribution. "But as far as reading comics goes, it's very uncomfortable – it hurts your eyes, it's not ergonomic, it somehow takes away the value of comics as an object."

Still, a case could also be made that despite whatever feelings some minicomics artists have about the Web, the communal ease of the Internet may in fact be spurring the current feeling of real-time "community" among local artists. After all, community is not such a new thing, and Bay Area Web cartoonists like Shaenon Garrity (www.narbonic.com) and Mark Fiore (www.markfiore.com) manage to dazzle with their virtual work while still being accepted into the local cartoonists' fold. In fact, Reklaw sees an escalation of what he characterizes as a "minicomics arms race" of creativity – and product – going on at shows like APE, maybe as a reaction to online publishing. "Handmade things like dolls, silk-screened covers, T-shirts, and other stuff to go with their work," he observes. "People are treating their comics more as 'things,' reviving old forms of printing production and the like so that their work kind of exists more in the world. They're personalizing it, which is cool."

Inky Inc.

Whatever its implications for the future of comics, the "Ink" show is a success on a purely visceral level and showcases some surprising aspects of the artists' diversity.

Reklaw's original panel Little Blue Monster depicts Grover being arrested on a Bronx-like corner of Sesame Street – but the handcuffs are too big for his dainty wrists. Grover protests, "But I'm just a little blue monster!" as he's shoved into a squad car, to which the arresting officer retorts, "A little blue monster ... who's going down for MURDER!" It's really fucking funny – even funnier that it's hanging in a gallery.

Reklaw also shows a series of beautifully executed watercolor tiles and miniatures that are almost mogul-like in detail, featuring various mutant imaginings: Dancing Lessons presents a bloblike dog in a tutu, clearly distressed at its situation. Mistakes is a self-portrait with giant, melting hands.

The offering by minicomics girl Lark Pien (www.larkpien.com) is a bit braver. She's already an accomplished artist in several media, so it's no surprise that her tiny oils – like Vessel, which depicts a thyroid's-eye view of a severed baby's head – have a Francis Bacon-like intensity of color and brushwork. A large abstract painting, Field, which hints at an underwater rose garden, blazes with tactile agility.

The cat portraits by Andrice Arp (www.hi-horse.com), with titles like Jane Eyre and Tom Sawyer, work either as one-off literary jokes, soulful feline metaphors, or simply yummy little pictures of cats with funny names. Her Two Catsuit Guys with Dolls and Bunny Boat are nightmare riffs on Where the Wild Things Are nostalgia, while her giant watercolor-and-gouache cover for the recent Hi-Horse Omnibus anthology (Alternative Comics), with an octopoid leviathan gripping a Jules Verne submarine against a field of sea monkeys, whips that same nostalgia into a burbling frenzy.

Juicy, streetwise portraits of grime-covered locales and abandoned souls by Fredo (www.altgeek.net) revel in cheeky vulgarity. Modern Chestnuts is a collection of snapshots of scenes that look like they're set in tenements. In one frame, a gross blob of a man slumps deliriously against a bathroom sink, groaning, "Kuh ... kuh ... I just picked the scabs and let the pus run. Kuh, kakh ... nasty bitch." In another, a pomaded layabout advises, "If you don't stop turning the screws, you're gonna get a beard." His colored miniatures of overweight, middle-aged wrestlers posed threateningly at the viewer summon both the flabby body politic and the bankrupt entertainments of contemporary life.

The big name in the show, Renée French (www.reneefrench.com), has the smallest contribution, but perhaps the most powerful. French is already well-known as one of the "fine artists" of the comics world: Her work combines otherworldly draftsmanship with a lyrical playfulness that grabs you by the throat and whispers "Why not?" in your ear. Three original panels depict (though not in any discernible order) two small children in totemlike masks rolling an unconscious, mummified woman into an open grave and placing tiny stuffed animals on her shoulders. The woman's eyes open in horrified panic as she glances around and tries to assess her situation. Two untitled works present tiny detailed illustrations of dreamlike objects – her drawings of a rat's tail, a quartet of male nipples, tiny stains on a pillow, an orange's navel, and what looks to be a strawberry prepped for a Cesarean are miracles of feathered graphite.

And Hall's own contribution? Larger-than-life originals from his True Travel Tales series. One panel exclaims, "I love to eat!" and catalogs all the weird foods (jellied eel, anyone?) he's encountered and enjoyed on his hunger-fueled peregrinations. A giant-size series (Favorite Foods) features close-ups of Hall hilariously thrusting runny eggs, ice cream, and a strangely eyeball-shaped piece of sushi into his gaping mouth.

Stacked in a newsstand or hanging in a gallery, advancing queer agendas or thigh-deep in commercial pleasure, defining themselves against the Web or hacking into its chances, cartoons are still one of the most plastic of art forms, constantly shifting strategies to infiltrate each new media and survive technology's curveballs. Stronger than a super-tranny, fueled by comic appetites.

'Ink: Bay Area Cartoonists' runs through Sept. 18 at Amaru Gallery, 510 Valencia, SF. Summer hours are Tues.-Thurs., 1 p.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 1 p.m.-11 p.m.; Sat., noon-11 p.m.; Sun., noon-9 p.m. (415) 552-3787, www.amarugallery.com. Marke B. has a big thing for queers who color outside the lines. He writes the Bay Guardian's biweekly Super Ego clubs column. Flame him at superego@sfbg.com.