No Straight Lines began its life as a book, compiled and edited by American comics artist, advocate, and educator Justin Hall and published by Fantagraphics Books in 2012. At first, Hall’s aim was to create “the definitive history of queer comics.” It was during his research, however, when he realized he was doomed to fail, as the world of queer comics was much larger than he anticipated. Instead, No Straight Lines came to be a celebratory collection of LGBTQ comics and their creators.
Now, No Straight Lines is to take on a new life as a full-length film documentary. No Straight Lines: The Story of Queer Comics will continue to tell the story of how LGBTQ comics evolved from a marginalized underground scene to that of mainstream acknowledgement that we know today. Filmmaker Vivian Keiman and Justin Hall are both heading this project. They have also announced a Kickstarter fundraiser for the documentary, launching as of this article’s publishing with a set goal of $38,000.
In celebration of No Straight Lines’ Kickstarter launch, Comics Beat was fortunate enough to speak to Justin Hall, discussing subjects such as his book, the documentary, and the state of queer comics as we know it today.
How does it feel knowing that “No Straight Lines” is nearing 6 years since first publishing?
It’s pretty wild, actually! While part of me feels like it was yesterday, it’s also clear that the world has changed, I’ve changed, and queer comics in particular have really exploded.
I’m glad the book came out when it did, as in retrospect it was the perfect moment to create an overview of the previously (mostly) neglected history of LGBTQ comics. Looking back, this was right as a sort of dam burst in queer content and openly queer creators flooded the internet, the alternative comics scene, and even sloshed over into the mainstream of western comics in previously unimaginable ways. I like to think my book had a little something to do with paving the way, not just in the comics industry but also in bringing comics into the queer literary world; the year after No Straight Lines won a Lambda Literary Award, the Lambdas introduced a Graphic Novel category, for example.
Jennifer Camper and I were recently talking about how for decades all queer cartoonists essentially knew each other; there were so few of us that we all milled about in the same artistic scene. Now, there’s simply no way to know all of the queer comics creators! There are far too many people out there making far too much amazing, diverse work to keep track of it all. It’s an incredible shift.
When first doing the research for the collection, what were some of the thoughts and emotions that you found yourself experiencing?
Both queer history and comics history are often invisible, and certainly left out of the text books. I feel passionately that we should know the pioneers who came before us, to pay homage to their legacies, to give respect to their struggles, and to learn from them so we’re not constantly recreating the wheel.
LGBTQ history is often the history of oppression and resistance, which can be difficult to process. I had some intense times reading some of the early comics about coming out or the AIDS crisis. But, there were also all of these transcendent moments of humor and wisdom and sheer fabulousness! And I saw the glorious, messy, DIY promise of the comics medium put to the best possible use by a scrappy, diverse community telling uncensored stories to each other. It was tremendously inspiring, when all was said and done.
I remember the absolute last copy of the first print run, which I sold at Comic-Con. It was to a middle-aged, straight woman who was buying it for her teenage, gay son. She told me that she was getting the book for him because she wanted him to know his history and lineage, and she couldn’t tell that story to him herself. She thanked me for creating the book for the both of them and I promptly burst into tears. Then we hugged it out. It was an incredible moment.
Where did the idea come from to do a documentary version?
Honestly, it took me by surprise! I was in the gym when a filmmaking friend, Dan Zeitman, came up to me and asked if I had considered making a documentary film based on the book. I’m not a filmmaker myself, so I just kind of smiled and nodded, which is often how I handle new information, and then suddenly I was on a multi-year long journey. Dan dropped out of the project early on, but it continued with other filmmakers (I made the trailer with Greg Sirota), eventually landing with Vivian Kleiman, who is the real deal. She’s a Peabody Award winning documentarian and really took the project to the next level. It’s been quite a process, but I’m so glad to see the light at the end of the tunnel and to have faith that this movie will be worthy of its subject!
What will the documentary cover differently than what was in your book?
They’re very different animals. The book starts off with a short but dense historical essay on the history of queer comics and then launches into a collection of short works by around 100 cartoonists. The film, on the other hand, will focus on around 5 cartoonists, tracking the arcs of their personal and artistic journeys and putting those into a historical and cultural context. It will create an emotional investment in the lives of these artists, which is not something that the book every attempted.
The movie can’t possibly be a comprehensive overview or academic history of LGBTQ comics in only around 90 minutes; on the other hand, film has a gravitas that’s particularly arresting when creating a portrait of an artist. The film will use those personal stories, along with the art itself, archival footage, and b-roll shot at conventions and other venues to illustrate broader trends in comics and queer history, and we’ll be using a lot of short interviews with other LGBTQ artists as a sort of Greek chorus throughout.
How has been the experience of connecting and talking with these various queer comics creators?
It’s been phenomenal! Alison Bechdel, Howard Cruse, Jennifer Camper, Mary Wings, these folks have been my artistic heroes for so long! I’ve also known them all personally for years, but to really get up in their business with a camera and a set of probing questions is a very different sort of thing, especially when it comes to a reclusive sort like Alison. Getting to film her home in Vermont was a very special and intimate thing, and I think it comes out in the pretty remarkable footage we got with her.
How wonderful to able to watch (and film) Howard at his kitchen table chatting with Denis Kitchen about creating the Gay Comix series back in 1980, or to watch Alison inking a page of art as she describes the inspiration for Dykes to Watch Out For, or to have Mary play her accordion for us as her two terriers sing along in her backyard, or to have Jennifer tell what it was like to create comics about the AIDS crisis and how one of her comics was censored by the U.S. Postal Service, or to have Ed Luce sitting in the midst of piles of punk zines in the Goteblüd store as he explains how his Wuvable Oaf is a love letter to big, hairy guys, or to have Scout Tran show me how to shoot a slingshot in her fabulous S.F. warehouse art space. There’s this marvelous and powerful intimacy and sense of trust that comes from filming someone, and I feel like it’s giving me an opportunity to get to know my friends and heroes that much better.
As mentioned, making a book and making a documentary are such different beasts. What insights or obstacles have you met with so far in getting this new project underway?
I’m used to making comics and putting together books, which are very personal struggles requiring massive amounts of time and energy. Creating the book No Straight Lines was a labor of love that required years of research and developing personal connections with the artists I included.
Film, on the other hand, requires resources as well as time and drive. It’s not a DIY sort of medium, unless it’s super scrappy with very low production values, which is not something I wanted for this project. You need money and you need collaborators with equipment and various skill sets. Every time we’d get some momentum these last couple of years with interviews, b-roll footage of conventions and other events, and cutting new scenes, we’d have to stop because we’d run out of money. Then it would be all about raising more funds.
Mind you, we’ve had some wonderful and gratifying success with fundraising, so I don’t mean to complain; we’ve received grants from the California Humanities, the San Francisco Foundation, and the Berkeley Film Foundation, on top of some generous private donations. And we have a good source of funding ready to help with post-production (editing, animation, music, etc.). We just need to raise this last chunk of money through the Kickstarter campaign to finish the actual filming and we should be good to final finish this baby.
As a comics person, I’m not used to thinking about money in this way when I develop a project. But, the positive side is that as a filmmaker you need to engage your community all along the way. You have to reach out and get help and get others involved and excited about what you’re trying to accomplish.
And luckily, this is a movie that everyone can get behind. Who wouldn’t want to see this film? After all, it’s going to be a beautiful homage to an important creative community and its largely hidden history.
In the introduction to the book “No Straight Lines,” you talked about how you first set out to make THE definitive queer comics collection, and failed in doing so because of the sheer scope of queers comics and their creators. How much more daunting of a task has it been in light of LGBTQ web content creators?
Oh my goodness, yes! So much more! I wrote that statement in the introduction because I was blown away by the scope of the material I was uncovering during my research. I had thought that they history of LGBTQ comics was much smaller than it was, but once I started pulling at the strings more and more and buried content became unearthed and I realized it was simply impossible for one book to create a definitive overview. That project would be an order of magnitude more difficult now, though!
There’s so much out there now on the web, and so much of it is really, really good. Alison Bechdel actually says in one of our interviews with her that she’s glad she got into comics when she did, because back then there was no pressure. Everyone was so hungry for basic representation that it didn’t matter if the art wasn’t very good. She described it like buying a condo before the housing boom. Now, expectations are much higher. Luckily, I think it’s still a very supportive and encouraging community that allows creators their learning curves.
I’m also tremendously excited by the new directions queer comics are taking. We’re seeing more work done by trans and non-binary creators exploring their lives and experiences; we’re seeing more genre work, like queer sci-fi and horror; we’re seeing queer comics being embraced in mainstream venues like conventions and comic book stores, as well as on the web; we’re seeing more international queer stories and genres; such as BL, yuri, and gei komi, and more translations from Europe; and we’re seeing the big companies like Marvel, DC, Image, Boom, etc., embrace LGBTQ characters, creators, and fans. It’s a new world full of possibilities!
You also acknowledge in your book that queer comics are everyday intermingling with the industry at large. In light of this, why is it still important to have books or documentaries such as “No Straight Lines”?
Let’s be very clear: this new world of acceptance and openness only came because of the hard work of the previous generations of cartoonists and activists. We wouldn’t have a gay Archie character and a lesbian Batwoman if it weren’t for Trina Robbins having the guts to create the first lesbian coming out story in Wimmen’s Comix #1 in 1972 or Rupert Kinnard creating the first African-American LGBTQ characters in his strip Cathartic Comics in the late 70s. It’s essential to have projects like No Straight Lines so we understand who deserves our respect for fighting the good fight for all those years. Both cartoonists and queers often don’t know their own hidden but important histories, and I aim to put a stop to that in my own small way!
I would also say that there will always be call for independent queer comics, even as the mainstream opens up to LGBTQ characters and themes. It’s the job of the mainstream to assimilate and normalize queer people into their stories and their imagined worlds, but it’s the job of the queer underground to critique, poke fun at, and celebrate from an insider’s perspective the remarkable diversity of queer lives with all their hopes, fears, and fantasies. We should never lose the queer underground, but instead continue to nurture it for future generations.
What do you hope to accomplish with this project?
I want No Straight Lines the film to continue the project of the book, to shine a well-deserved spotlight on the courageous and creative storytellers who paved the way for the wonderful flowering of LGBTQ comics content that we’re witnessing today. I want us queer cartoonists to be able to see ourselves, our personal journeys, and our art on the big screen, and I want to give other folks the opportunity to witness how amazing this artistic community really is. I want this film to help inspire the next generations of comics creators to be the best artists they can be and to dazzle the world even more with their stories. And I want that mom who bought by book at Comic-Con and her gay son to go to the movies together and share some popcorn as they watch a piece of hidden history come to light.
Please visit the documentary’s Kickstarter at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1077551457/no-straight-lines-four-decades-of-queer-comics. Also, be sure to check out No Straight Lines’ website, nostraightlinesthefilm.com, to see the documentary trailer and sign up for updates.