Building a Bridge between Theory and Practice: An Interview with Justin Hall

by Blanka Šustrová

 

What was your first contact with comics? A humorous strip in the newspaper or a comics magazine you persuaded your parent to buy for you? Justin Hall, a cartoonist and an Assistant Professor in Comics at the California College of Arts, grew up with comics. Thanks to the Fulbright Program, he came to the Department of English and American Studies last year and taught a course on comics, which is still a rather new academic field. Being a creator as well as a scholar, his goal is to build a bridge between these two worlds of theory and practice. Rean on and discover the origins of comics, Justin Hall’s own work, how the medium might evolve in the near future and enjoy the recommendations.

What do you teach at the California College of Arts?

 

I teach a course called The Introduction to the Graphic Novel, that one is for undergraduates. They read graphic novels and I do lectures on history, explain how comics work as a medium, what are text-image relationships and then they make a lot of comics. The students have to make two major projects, a mini comic in the mid-term and a final collaborative comic. The college started a Master of Fine Arts in comics 3 years ago and for that I teach The History and Cultural Context of Comics – that is, everything from North American comics, to European comics, to Japanese manga. It is a huge course. I also do one-on-one mentoring with my students. It is tricky teaching comics because there are no textbooks yet. It is so new as a field that we do not really know what the canon is. So when I teach the history of comics, it is just my research. It is exciting but it is also a tremendous amount of responsibility.

 

Instead of writing a thesis, the students make art?

 

Yes, their thesis is a graphic novel or some other major project in comics format. The academic work around comics has just started, it is an interesting field that is developing, but it is very odd for cartoonists because we are so used to being ignored. If you are a painter or a playwright, you expect that if you do well, your work will be reviewed and analyzed by people who do not actually paint and write plays, by critics and academics who are not themselves practitioners – that has never been true of comics before. So now all these academics are suddenly interested in comics.


It is so new as a field that we do not really know what the canon is. So when I teach the history of comics, it is just my research. It is exciting but it is also a tremendous amount of responsibility.


I got a teacher contacting me about a story I have done in the No Straight Lines anthology, and sent me a list of questions his graduate students had come up about my piece and I was very surprised. I thought, why do they care? They are not cartoonists! (laugh) We are so used to have only comics professionals and fans care about comic books that the idea there will be professional critics coming to us and theorising about our work is rather new to us.

 

It is probably because of where the medium comes from. There will always be a huge platform for literature studies and art studies, but these are considered „high culture“. But comics came from satirical cartoons from newspaper in 19th century. And newspapers are a medium for the masses. In the 1930s comic superheroes emerged, whose target group were children and young teenagers and I think that at least here in the Czech Republic most people think that comics are for children or the child-like.

 

Yes, this is even embeded in the words we use. We call them comics, comic books, comic strips, and that comes out of the idea of the “funny pages,” which were the comic strips of the newspapers, the humorous stips. Most comics now are not for children and are not funny. But we are stuck with this language around it, which is very problematic. The same thing applies to manga, the term for Japanese comics. It means “whimsical pictures,” or “silly pictures.” Hokusai, the painter and printmaker living in the Edo period in the 18th and 19th century, was the one who actually developed the term.

However, there was a movement in Japan in the 1960s and 70s to create the term gekiga, which means “dramatic pictures.” And around the same time in the US, Will Eisner came up with the term “graphic novel,” but that is a problematic term as well because not all comics are fiction and therefore not “novels.” You have something like Alison Bechdel‘s Fun Home, which is one of the greatest memoirs ever made, or Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi – are these “graphic novel memoirs?” Or simply “graphic memoirs?” It gets confusing! Therefore, in the California College of Fine Arts we decided to call our program an MFA in Comics, as that’s the easiest term for most people, and the least pretentious.

There is not only a problem with genre but also with formal aspects of the comics, like length for example.

 

Exactly. Comics can incorporate book-sized works like graphic novels, or serialized monthly magazines, comic strips in a newspaper, satirical editorial cartoons – those are all comics, coming from the same basic form. The difference between them is quite large. If you think about poetry: it could be the epic poetry of Homer, but it could also be a haiku! You have these tremendous variations in form, and the same goes with comics. It is imperfect to use the word “comics” but it is the best we currently have in English. The best term for it is the French term bande dessinée, which means illustrated strip – it is not about the genre, not about the content, it is about the form of the medium. Unfortunately, in English we are stuck with comics, but we have embraced it. And I actually love the low-brow roots of the form. It gives me a lot of pride and joy. The artificial distinctions between higher and lower culture drive me crazy.

 

You are a true postmodern man!

(Laugh) I think the world is getting more sophisticated with that. The Japanese are way ahead of us. I remember going to see Japanese fine art in a gallery and there were a lot of things inspired by manga. One of the biographies of the artists said she was a failed manga artist. She tried to do manga, but it did not work so she became a fine artist, a painter, instead. You would never see that in an American gallery. „I wanted to be a cartoonist but I was not good enough for it, I did not have enough skill so I became a painter instead” (laugh). Comics are stuck in this weird limbo where it is on the one hand associated with children’s material, and low-brow material, so people think of it as a low art. On the other hand, it is extremely difficult to make. You have to be a writer, an illustrator, a designer, a calligrapher, and a book designer – for one person to create a comic on their own it is tremendously difficult. But it does not require a lot of resources.  It is very DIY (do-it-yourself). You only need a piece of paper, a pen, and a photocopy machine.

 

Is that how you started?

 

I come out of a punk scene, a “mini-comic” (hand-produced comics) scene – and that was what we did. I was making little handmade books, photocopying, stapling by hand. And I would swap these and sell these in independent comic book shows. Unlike in the world of literature, where they look down on self-publishing, in the comics world it is the sign of street cred. Everybody did it at one point. I have a publisher now but I still enjoy doing handcrafted magazines. It connects me to fans in a different way. I love that kind of punk rock aesthetic to comics. I was interviewing Alison Bechdel because I am doing a film about queer comics and she said she got into comics because there was no pressure. You would make something, people would accept it and you would get better eventually. And her early stuff was terrible. As you go through the process, you are forgiven a lot, the community is very supportive and you can get better at your own pace. I love that about the comics community.


We call them comics, comic books, comic strips, and that comes out of the idea of the “funny pages,” which were the comic strips of the newspapers, the humorous stips. Most comics now are not for children and are not funny.


If you do it yourself, the punk style way, can you find enough audience with the big companies producing hundreds of comics, like Marvel or DC? Surely you cannot live from it.

 

I was never able to make a living out of comics. That is why I started to teach. I am also a massage therapist, which is how I would make my money before I became a professor. I have been making comics from 2001 and out of the generation of the early 2000s, some of my friends are making a living out of it now. I am happy about where I am in the sense that I do not have to make a living out of it so I can make the weird work I want to make. A lot of it is really gay, a lot of it is really strange, and I do not have to worry about if I am able to sell it.

 

It is a good thing when a hobby does not become work.

 

Yes, because my friends who make a living out of it have to think a bit more about production, deadlines, and the market. It is very difficult to make a living in underground or alternative comics.

You know, there is a set of historical accidents that happened in the US that led to the fact the comics is a medium dominated completely by one genre, namely superheroes.

It is incredibly weird. I grew up with superhero comics, but like every indie comics creator, I have a love-hate relationship with them. They are amazing, bizarre, and interesting. They say a lot about American history, culture and identity, because they are very distinctly American. Still, working in a field that is 80-90% one genre is ridiculous. Imagine working in the film industry if 90% of films were westerns! I mean – westerns are fine, but why? How is that possible? It has gotten better now, but for years I would say, I am making comics, and people would assume – oh, you are making superheroes. They would immediately assume that. I had to constantly fight against the embedded opinion that comics were either for kids or superhero comics. It was exhausting.

 

I guess these assumptions have a specific reason.

 

Superheroes such as the Shadow or the Green Hornet were developed in the early 1930s in serialized radio shows. Then, in 1938, Action Comics #1 comes out, with Superman on the cover. Taking the idea of superheroes and creating stories about them in a visual medium was like hitting the jackpot – sales were unbelievable. Then come Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and hundreds of other superheroes, all trying to cash in. Going into World War 2, some of the superheroes become propagandistic – like Captain America. In the first issue, he punches Hitler in the jaw. Almost all of the comic books at that time in US were created by poor Jews living in ghettos in New York. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee who created Marvel Comics were Jews – their real names are Jacob Kutzberg and Stanley Martin Lieber. And Bob Kane who created Batman is actually Bob Kahn. They would anglicize their names so they would sound less “ethnic.”

But at the end of the war, however, superheroes were over. No one wanted them anymore. Think about the service men coming out of the war and the general American population exhausted by the war, they were growing up and didn’t want simple superhero stories anymore. So by the end of the 1940s there were only three superheroes left – Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – in continual publication.

 

Were there any other genres published at the end of 1940s and in the 1950s?

 

There was a massive increase of crime, horror and romance comics. More women were reading comics. And the numbers are astounding. There were 150 romance titles on the shelves! Horror comics, war comics, and westerns were everywhere, and they were selling well. True Crime, which told dramatized real-life crime stories, was selling about 2,7 million copies per issue at the end of the 1940s. If an X-Men comic breaks 100 000 copies for an issue now, that is a big deal. And now we have twice the population they had back then. Comics were the most popular medium in the United States then, bigger than film or television. But there was a tremendous amount of social pressure on them as well. It was the McCarthy era, and there was a lot of concern that these comics led to juvenile delinquency.

The 1950s were important in America because that was when we created the teenager as a cultural category. The idea there is a young adult culture that is in opposition to the rest of adult culture – that is very new, that happens after World War II. And we think of it as a cultural battle around rock’n’roll, but the first battle was actually about comics. There were comic book burnings all over the United States, sponsored by schools and churches. And this increased the public and media hysteria around them. Mind you, comics publishing was unregulated, there was no Hays Code like for film. And especially the horror and crime comics had a psycho shock value. Their covers became increasingly gruesome and weird. All this culminated in 1954 when Fredric Wertham wrote the book Seduction of the Innocent. He was a psychiatrist who had hated comics for quite a while. It triggered a U.S. Senate investigation, which was televised. The prosecution showed these cover images – one of them is very famous – a woman with a decapitated head and a guy holding the head with a bloody axe. Everybody freaked out. Well, understandably. After that, the comic book publishers got together to create something similar to the Hays Code but far more draconian, an internal industry censorship called “the Comics Code”. There was a Comics Code Authority (CCA) seal on the upper right-hand corner of every American comic book for decades.

When did it end?

 

In 2011. Archie Comics had it last. It was unbelievably severe. You could not make fun of an authority figure, no police person, no official.

 

Well, that sounds a lot like here in the socialist era.

 

Very much. You could not show any sexual perversions, and all sexuality must lead to the sanctity of marriage, so romance comics were doomed. Vampires, zombies, werewolves, and other creatures were not allowed, so the horror comics all folded. This thing came down like a hammer. It almost killed the industry. Half of the publishers went out of business within a couple of years.

 

But these restrition were only to comics, not to literature as such.

 

No, just comics. Because the idea was that comics are for kids. But the readers in this point were more in their twenties. Teenagers and early twenties. But 1954 is also the first year a rock’n’roll song got into the popcharts. And in 1955 Elvis Presley came. The adults won the comics battle but lost the rock’n’roll battle.

There were only a few superheroes left and then some funny animal comics and Archie. In 1956 editors who have been working in sci-fi reintroduced the superheroes that have been canceled earlier. They were given new origins and new identities – like the Flash or the Green Lantern. Superhero comics expanded and then by 1961 we have Marvel Comics. Lee and Kirby came out with Fantastic Four #1 and it just exploded. They did more complex characterizations and dynamics between the characters; they helped reimagine superheroes and breathe new life into them. But because of this weird history they did not have a lot of competition. There were no romance comics anymore. And romance comics used to sell millions of copies and outsell all the superhero stuff. As did crime, horror, war, and other genres.

 

Let us move closer to the present day – what about the 1980s and 1990s?

 

The comic book stores started to develop; they would sell the works that did not have the comic book seal on them. That opened a market for making and selling different kinds of material, like underground comics. It allowed for people like Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes to come up and do amazing work.  And now the bookstore market is opening up – that’s also a big deal. Of course, bookstores are closing down (laugh) but it is normal to sell comics, or at least larger graphic novels, there now.

I actually have an iPad big enough to have an entire page of comics presented on the screen so I now mostly read single issues on a tablet. But most tablets are still not good enough. I would say, though, that graphic novels are still a growing market in print as well as digitally.

 

In the past few years we have seen the rise of the web comic. It is short, it is punny and often very up to date.

 

Web comics have their own history. They have been around pretty much since the internet started. But they have gotten much more sophisticated. They have basically taken the place of newspaper strips. I mean they are not dead yet but they as well might be. After Calvin and Hobbes ended, looking at a newspaper strip is just depressing (laugh). Considering what they were back in the early 1900s, when each comic would get a full page at the newspaper, which was amazing.

A lot of cartoonists are serializing their big, longform comics on the web and they develop their fanbase that way, then do a kickstarter to create a printed collection of the book. Web comics are opening a whole new area of possibilities.


Comics were the most popular medium in the United States then, bigger than film or television. But there was a tremendous amount of social pressure on them as well. It was the McCarthy era, and there was a lot of concern that these comics led to juvenile delinquency.


 

How do you think the form might evolve?

 

One of the things I find very interesting about webcomics is that some people are playing with what the medium can do, formalistically. They’re using something called the “infinite canvas” – you can move between panels in ways that would not normally be possible on paper. You can have animated gifs, interactive bits. Some creators are really pushing what can be defined as comics at all. But even printed comics are experimenting more, as the medium becomes more mature and advanced. You can see that in how comics deal with the concept of time. In film, you get the depiction of time fed to you, the audience must accept it the way the director has created it. In comics that is not true. You have to manipulate the reading experience. The distinction between the reality of time and its depiction allows for a certain plasticity. For example, there is a comic called The Amazon. It tells the story of a man who is in the Amazon rainforest and encounters an indigenous tribe. You see the action happening in the illustrations, along with three different text boxes. One of these text boxes represents the protagonist’s immediate reactions and thoughts, written in a standard font. The next text box is in cursive script on lined paper, which represents what he writes in his notebook at the end of the day. The third is a text box done in typewriter font that represents segments of the book he writes about his experiences a year later. It is all happening on top of itself, all three of these text boxes representing different time periods but all on top of the illustrations telling the story in the moment. In a comic page you can have a huge number of time frames, lying on top of each other. You cannot do that in any other medium. It is such a new medium in a lot of ways, so you can see all sorts of experimentations with the form. Certainly Alan Moore has experimented with it. There are pages of Promethea that can be read from any direction, or can be folded out and connected and read in any order.

But actually, I think what will happen that comics as such will continue and new kinds of hybrid form will emerge. And that is really exciting. It’s already started with web comics that employ all these weird things that would not be impossible on the printed page.  

 

Adam Ellis does four-panel comics and the fourth panel is usually an animated gif.

 

I think that it is incredible. Scott McCloud created the book Understanding Comics, and that was the first attempt to really understand how comics work as a form. He did the book in comics form itself, which is really amazing. That triggered the field of academic comics theory. It gives a language to people who are trying to figure out how text and image relate to each other. That is incredibly useful for digital platforms, for all new media. Having huge blocks of text without any imagery? That is not going to happen anymore. If you click on a website and it is a solid text, you will not read it anymore. With the printing press, it was difficult to put pictures into books, you would have to have another machine for that. But if you look into the past, we have always had tapestries, illuminated manuscripts. . .  I mean we always tried to combine imagery with text.

Comics theory creates a platform that will be very useful for everything from advertising to website construction to multimedia. There are so many forms that need to figure out how text and image and also image and image relate to each other.

 

Why did you choose the medium? Why not to shoot films, write screenplays?

 

Comics obsessed me when I was a kid and I never grew out of them. That is how I learned to read. It was always my favourite. I am definitely a story teller, I like narrative. I do not really like abstract art, but I do like stories. And there is something about how comics approache story and images, the manipulation of time – which always worked for me.

 

Who inspired you? Or who still inspires you?

 

The Hernandez brothers, who created Love and Rockets. They continuously blow my mind. I grew up reading Tintin. It is also great that the more sophisticated manga is now translated into English. Looking at the work of Osamu Tezuka is fascinating. He tried absolutely everything. I would argue that Tezuka is the most important cartoonist ever. In Japan, he is called manga no kamisama – the god of manga.

I also love the more underground stuff, but it has to have a good narrative. Those formalistic comics that are getting away from narrative – I’m not that interested in them.

 

Do you think about writing a textbook about all this?

 

Balancing between being in academia and being a creator – that is what I do a lot. I found out I really love teaching and there are very few academics who can make comics and also talk about them. I think of myself as a bridge between these two worlds, which is an important thing right now.


 

Justin Hall and Re:Views Magazine recommend:

 

In print:

Osamu Tezuka: Astro Boy

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez: Love and Rockets

Hergé: Tintin

Art Spiegelman: Maus

Alan Moore: Watchmen

Daniel Clowes: Ghost World

Charles Burns: Black Hole

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home

Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis

Phoebe Gloeckner: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Charles Schultz: Peanuts

Max Cannon: Red Meat

Andersonn/Sjunnesonn: Bosnian Flatdog

 

On the web:

Owlturd Comix

The Pidgeon Gazette

Sarah’s Scribbles

Megan Nicole Dong

War and Peas

Hark! A Vagrant

Things in Squares

Extra Fabulous Comics

 


Justin Hall

Justin Hall is a cartoonist and an Assistant Professor in Comics and Writing and Literature at the California College of Arts (CCA). He created comic book series called True Travel Tales, Hard to Swallow (with Dave Davenport) and Glamazonia. He is also the editor of a collection of LGBT comics No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics, which won a Lambda Literary Award and is now being made into a feature-length documentary film. Hall is involved in non-profit organization Prism Comics, which is an advocacy group for LGBT comics and in 2006 he curated the first museum show devoted to LGBT cartooning for San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum.

He lives in San Francisco with his husband and their pet python.
All the illustrations accompanying this interview are Justin’s work.

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