Queer Comic Artists ENGAGE a "New" Writing Genre

ENGAGE: Queer Comics Project students curated a show of original comic artwork at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum

CCA is no stranger to branching out in various genres when it comes to the arts. The college's undergraduate Writing and Literature curriculum is no exception. In spring, the ENGAGE: Queer Comics Project course provided graphic novel enthusiasts the unique opportunity to not only study writing and graphic design but also to do so within a queer perspective!

ENGAGE: Queer Comics Project enlisted the GLBT Historical Society and San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum as community partners in helping the students meet the course's goal: to examine the evolution, subject matter, forms, conventions, and the future of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) comics for archival purposes. Students also conducted interviews with queer comics writers and artists in an effort to create an oral history of this vitally important underground art scene. Visit the course blog »

The course originated fall 2010 with Writing and Literature and MFA Program in Writing adjunct professor Matt Silady team teaching with queer comic book author Justin Hall, and that developed into a regular instructor position for Hall in the spring.

"I am very proud to have played a role in connecting Justin with our students at CCA," Silady said. "Between Justin's enthusiasm for teaching and our students' enthusiasm for the comic book art form, it was really a perfect match. And because of the creativity and hard work of our students, an important part of the history of comics and queer culture has been documented. Justin's involvement at CCA has allowed us to expand our comics offerings beyond the workshop setting. The study of the graphic novel provides a wonderful opportunity for our students studying both writing and and visual art to work together in some really exciting ways."

Read Lambda Literary's feature on Justin Hall »

Despite the fact queer comics have traditionally existed in a parallel universe with more heterosexual-themed comics, they have been almost exclusively reserved for gay newspapers, published by queer publishers, and sold in gay bookstores. So as part of the course's curriculum, students created a collaborative zine of their own creative work, called Quilt Bag, and curated an exhibition of original LGBTQ comics' art at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, as a document to the creative scene they studied throughout the semester.

What is ENGAGE at CCA?

ENGAGE at CCA is coordinated by the Center for Art and Public Life and places students at the center of project-based learning with a focus on community engagement. Activated across academic programs, ENGAGE at CCA serves as a hub to connect interested faculty and students to community partners and relevant outside experts. More about ENGAGE at CCA projects »

Queer Festivities at the Cartoon Art Museum

For an end-of-semester presentation, the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco hosted a show curated by the students. The show, situated in the museum’s Small Press Spotlight area, featured original and printed art from Bay Area artists, showcasing the remarkable world of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) comics from the last four decades.

Additionally, a film project made by the students over the course of two semesters and composed of interviews of major figures in queer cartooning was shown at the event as well as copies of Quilt Bag, a student-produced zine of original material.

Curated Comic Artists

Curated works by the following comic artists were featured: Burton Clarke (Gay Comix), Jaime Cortez (Sexile), Ed Luce (Wuvable Oaf), Jon Macy (Teleny and Camille), MariNaomi (Kiss and Tell), Trina Robbins (Wimmen’s Comix), Joey Alison Sayers (Just So You Know), Christine Smith (The Princess), Mary Wings (Come Out Comix), and Rick Worley (A Waste of Time).

Hosted by Hall, the party was held Saturday, December 17 from 5:30 to 7:30pm at the museum, with comics-inspired drag performances by the uncanny Sue Casa, Trangela Lansbury, Karma Zabetch, and special guests! Many of the featured creators and students attended.

Let's ENGAGE with Justin Hall

I caught up with Justin Hall over the holiday break and asked him a few questions about his personal experience with writing queer graphic design books. I found his responses to be as highly creative as the writing genre itself!

(Editor) Tell me about your passion for creating graphic novels.

(Justin Hall) For me, it’s a passion that I’ve had ever since I was a young kid. Comics taught me how to read, and I’ve remained true to the medium ever since. The combination of visual and verbal storytelling grabbed me at a primal level and never let go, which I think is true of most true comics geeks.

Comics’ relative newness as an art form also makes it thrilling to work in (well, new at least in its modern incarnation -- of course, you can make an argument that cave paintings are comics; thus making it humanity’s oldest art form).

Unlike poetry, for example, which has so much historical weight to it, comics have this wonderful DIY culture that stems from the fact that we’re just beginning to figure out what we can do with the medium. Working in a form where we still don’t know what’s possible, and where we’re still in the generation creating the first real canon of great works, is tremendously exciting.

Comics and graphic novels seem to be growing in acceptance as a “legitimate” writing genre. What’s your take on this trend?

Get used to it; it’s only going to continue. There’s now a large enough body of indisputably world-class work in the comics medium to command attention from the general public and from the world of academia, and not just from anthropologists of pop culture.

Describe the typical queer graphic comics writer. Are there stereotypes within the industry that need to be overcome? If so, describe them and any solutions you might offer.

The comics industry doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to embracing queer creators and content, unfortunately. Traditionally, LGBTQ comics haven’t been granted shelf space in comic book stores or serialized in mainstream newspapers or published by mainstream publishers; instead, they’ve existed within the queer media ghetto of gay bookstores, newspapers, and publishers. This isolation has actually made for a fascinating artistic scene, however, as queer comics have provided a unique, uncensored window into the queer experience for the last four decades.

This is changing now, due to the steady erosion of the queer media ghetto and the broadening acceptance of queer creators and stories by the mainstream. The comics industry is changing rapidly, along with the rest of society, and opening up to LGBTQ work.

What’s the career outlook for a student who wishes to specialize in comics?

Well, it’s not always an easy path. In the US, there’s the mainstream industry, mostly composed of superhero comics, where you can make a living if you’re successful, but if you want to make “alternative” comics and graphic novels, you have to forge your own way. Luckily, book publishers are cashing in on the growing interest in graphic novels, so a major work can move out of the underpaid comics industry.

How does one get started? What’s the process?

Comics is an incredibly difficult medium, requiring a tremendous amount of cross-disciplinary skills. If you’re going to successfully do it yourself, you need to master writing, illustration, design, lettering, editing, and possibly coloring, on top of the skills specific to cartooning itself.

Yet the art form has a unique DIY tradition, and so remains very open to newcomers trying all sorts of experimental approaches. There is no one right way to make comics, and creators throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. The comics community tends to value that kind of attitude and supports these sorts of wild experiments. It’s an exciting and rewarding creative scene.

My advice to a new cartoonist is simply to make comics. Make your own minicomic (a self-printed, hand-stapled zine), and then rent a table at a local comics convention and see what the reaction is. You’ll make friends and contacts who will help support your creative goals.

One of the great perks that CCA provides is free table space at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) here in San Francisco every year. This is the country’s largest independent comics convention, and the CCA table allows students to sell their minicomics and participate in the conference without having to deal with their own table. It’s a great experience, and one that I wish I had had access to when I was just beginning in the field.

You take this writing genre down yet another ostensibly smaller road (i.e., Avenue Q), so does the queer angle help students speak more directly to their audience or does the specificity isolate the writer?

With creators in niche markets, there’s always that dilemma, that balancing act between writing for an underserved community that needs strong voices and provides a supportive audience, and the dangers of ghettoization and isolation. I don’t think it’s something that you ever solve, per se, but rather something that you continue to navigate throughout your career, especially if, like me, you aren’t content making one kind of book your entire life.

Who are some of the publishers who are supporting this relatively new genre?

I’m happy to say that I helped pressure my friend, Charles “Zan” Christensen, into creating the first real LGBTQ comics publisher, Northwest Press. He’s one of those rare creatures who is a gifted creator and loves comics, but who also can make spreadsheets and do long division: perfect for a publisher. My Glamazonia the Uncanny Super Tranny book was published by Northwest, and I’m pleased to say that we got a Lambda Literary Award nomination out of it. He’s going to continue to do great things.

Fantagraphics Books, the largest of the independent comic book publishers in the states, has been amazing to work with on my forthcoming book, No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics.

Your course is part of the ENGAGE at CCA curriculum. Describe the benefits for the students with this type of course.

It seems like the academic world is really paying attention to the idea of project-based learning. Having the students work visible to the outside world changed their attitude to it; they had to really own it and take pride in, and responsibility for, the work they were doing, as it was going to reach a wide audience outside of their peers at school.

Can curricular programming such as ENGAGE at CCA make a difference? What differences, if any, did you witness from the beginning of your course to the end in terms of student awareness and commitment to community building?

The big benefits to this kind of curriculum are that it connects the students directly to the community. (One of my students created an internship at San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum. She was able to meet the folks there, see how they worked, and forge the social connections that can enable the start of a creative career.) ENGAGE also provides for innovative and experimental courses. Since the pedagogical focus of the course is a specific, individual project, you allow for a lot of unusual courses with unique learning opportunities. And the curriculum creates a team-building spirit within the class.

Aside from your own work, who are some of the other “big guns” in this industry that younger writers need to be aware of?

Well, I’d hardly consider myself a “big gun,” but I appreciate the kind sentiment! Alan Moore, Osama Tezuka, Alison Bechdel, the Hernandez brothers, Joan Sfarr, Fabrice Neaud, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Art Spiegleman, Howard Cruse, Marjan Satrapi, and Rutu Modan should be on the radar of comic graphic writers.

Americans also need to see what’s being created in Japan, France, Israel, and other places to truly see what the medium is capable of. One of the things I want to do at CCA is bring this international flavor to the comics curriculum; I spent years backpacking around the world and trying to dig out local comics communities, and I’d love to bring this passion to bear in the classroom.

Who is your biggest inspiration as a cartoonist? Do you currently have a mentor?

I’ve never had a mentor, though some wonderful folks such as Robert Kirby, Jen Camper, and Paige Braddock have certainly helped me along the way. My big obsessions as a kid continue to inspire me to this day, such as Hergé, Jack Kirby, and Wendy Pini, but as an adult creator I guess I’d have to say that the Hernandez brothers’ Love and Rockets remains my ultimate aspiration; in many ways, it’s the Great American comic.

What’s your take on the Cartoon Art Museum? In other words, what does this museum offer that makes it so unique?

There are precious few museums dedicated to comics art in the world, and it’s very fitting that San Francisco, the birthplace of the underground comix movement and to this day one of the hotbeds of alternative comics, should have one of the finest. It’s a truly wonderful resource, speaking as a creator, an educator, and a fan of the medium. And they were a joy to work with during the ENGAGE: Queer Comics Project course.

CCA’s queer graphic comics course is certainly unique in that it’s probably not a typical writing elective at colleges in the Midwest. Did you seek out CCA in order to pursue this genre? Do you feel supported by your peers?

Of course, making the project into a course tripled my workload instead of reducing it . . . but I found out that I love teaching comics and have decided to continue at CCA. The Writing and Literature Program and the administrators of the ENGAGE curricular emphasis were tremendously supportive in creating this unique course (this was literally the first time most of this material had ever been handled in an academic setting), and taking a chance on me as a teacher. I can’t imagine it would have been so easy in most schools, Midwest or no.

Did you rent the Superman outfit or pull it out of your closet?

My friend, Chuck Beaver, actually made it! Yup, he’s an even more of an OCD geek than I am, as anyone who’s ever tried to actually sew and cut spandex can attest to. I borrowed it from him, and unfortunately have to return it. I’m just hoping he forgets about it until after Halloween, or at least Folsom Street Fair.

About CCA's Writing and Literature Program

Students in the Writing and Literature Program make a rigorous investigation of literary traditions and explore the challenging, subtle craft of writing. The program benefits greatly from the Bay Area's rich literary history and dynamic writing culture, and its students become part of CCA's diverse community of artists working in a broad range of media. Learn more, including how to apply »