Get to Know a Grantee - Professor Justin Hall

By Maureen Heydt

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

Justin Hall
Justin Hall of San Francisco, California spent this last semester in Brno, Czech Republic serving as a Fulbright Scholar to Masaryk University. Hall is a celebrated comics creator, and professor of comics at the California College of the Arts, who was ecstatic to participate in the Fulbright program’s mission of international education and exchange. Hosted by the American and English Studies department at Masaryk, Hall is in fact, the first Fulbright Scholar in comics ever to date. I caught up with him in Brno to find out what that means to him, what’s changed in the field of comics since he first started, and how his Czech students enjoyed making their own comics as their final exam. 

-------------------------------------- Fast Facts ----------------------------------------

U.S. Position: Assistant Professor, School of Humanities and Sciences, California College of the Arts, CA
Czech Affiliation: Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University, Brno
Project: Comics in the Czech Republic
Major: Discipline/Specialization: Arts/Arts


Hello! Can you please give a brief introduction of yourself?
My name is Justin Hall, and I’m an assistant professor of comics at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I’m here on a Fulbright teaching the history and cultural context of American comics for both graduate and undergraduate students at Masaryk University in Brno. I’m also a cartoonist, as well as a teacher of comics.

What courses are you teaching this semester at Masaryk?
It’s called ‘The American Graphic Novel - History, Context, and Analysis,’ and it’s basically a combination of reading and analyzing a number of graphic novel texts. I’ve introduced them to a lot of comics theory, and we’ve covered things like page layout, panel transitions, lettering styles, and other comics specific formats. We also talk a lot about story-telling, how it relates to these graphic novels, and about American identity as well, because I picked graphic novels that deal with different aspects of American culture and history. On top of that, I’ve also given lectures on the history of American comics, and the students make their own comics! They came in expecting to take a lot of tests, and I said, “No tests! You’re just making comics.” Some were shocked at first, or scared of having to draw, but they quickly adjusted, and the work they’ve been producing is extraordinary. I would say at least as good as the work produced by my art school students. It’s really kind of amazing. I think a lot of them have been very hungry for people asking them what their stories are, and probably the Czech education system is not particularly good at that.

For the final project, I gave them an option to make a final comic, or they could write an essay. And out of 29 students in both classes, only four picked the essay. The comics they’ve been producing have been really extraordinary, and a couple of them even actually on the professional level. It was a bit of a shock to be honest!

That’s amazing! And what are some differences you have perceived between Czech and American university students, if any?
I came in worried that the Czech students wouldn’t interact with me as easily as I’m used to in America, because I run a class that’s very much about discussion. I want the students to challenge me, and I was worried that wasn’t going to happen here, but the worries were unfounded! I have found a tremendous level of vibrant interaction; students challenging me, coming up with their own ideas, being vocal about everything. I think some of this is the nature of the Masaryk American and English Studies program, that they already have this kind of pedagogy in place, but also I make sure of it. I have the students all sit in a semi-circle, and I just force them to talk, until they are used to talking with me and it seems to work. It’s been really good, and also their level of English is quite high in this department, which has also been really helpful. I would say from my particular situation, there’s been very little difference. These Masaryk students are some of the best in the whole country; it’s a very high level. It’s been amazing.

And on a university level, how is your host institution, Masaryk University, different from your home institution, California College of the Arts?
Very different! CCA is an arts college and Masaryk is a massive institution that takes up what seems like half of Brno, with many different departments, so the scale of everything is different. But in the Czech Republic, it seems that most faculties are very separate from each other and they operate very autonomously, more so than in America. When you’re in your faculty, your department here, you feel pretty much like that’s your world. I have virtually no interaction with the other faculties, except for a couple of lectures I did at the Faculty of Education, which also has an English department.

I also love the sense of history, that Masaryk is an older institution in an older city than what you can get in America, and that kind of gravitas is a nice feeling.

Do you think your semester here in Brno will effect or influence your teaching back at CCA?
Yeah, you know, my students here were in some ways more academically rigorous, and now I want to bring that back, and force my art school students in San Francisco to read more books! [laughs] I mean, if I can get my academic students here to make comics, then I can make my art school students read more books.

I think it also just makes me a better teacher, to be forced to do similar courses in other environments. I’ve also done a number of guest lectures in the Czech Republic and around Europe this year, and that’s forced me to think about the way that I present my material, to make sure that it makes sense, and that I’m drawing logical conclusions that can be understood across language barriers and cultural knowledge.

And how is living in Brno different from living in San Francisco?
Brno is much smaller, much sleepier. It’s a very comfortable, lovely town, and it’s been a great place to spend a few months. There’s good food here, a decent cultural life, and beautiful architecture. Now, there’s the Christmas markets, which bring a lot of people to the city squares, and it feels really dynamic. There’s almost no tourists, so it feels like this European gem that a lot of people don’t know about. It’s also really well-situated, only two and a half hours from Prague, one and half from Bratislava or Vienna, and four hours from Budapest, so I’ve been able to make use of that as well.

Besides size, one of the main differences is the homogenous nature of the population. In San Francisco, I’m used to living in a Latino neighborhood that is flooded with pretty much every kind of people you can possibly imagine, and that doesn’t really happen here. San Francisco is also a really queer-friendly city. Queer culture is a really important part of the city’s cultural life; it’s certainly what I interact with, and queer culture is much more subdued here.

Why did you choose to do a Fulbright to the Czech Republic?

My friend and colleague at CCA, Rebekah Bloyd, had been to the Czech Republic on Fulbright assignments before, and has kept up a running relationship with the Masaryk American and English Studies department, and she convinced them that they needed someone to teach graphic novels and comics. Then she came to me, and asked if I wanted to come to the Czech Republic, and I said, “Okay!” I had been through the Czech Republic in 1999, and very much liked the place then, and was excited to come back. I’ve also been looking for an opportunity to not just travel, but to live and work in another country.

And what is your overall impression of life in the Czech Republic?
I haven’t been to the smaller towns. I’m sure life is quite different there, but being in Brno, Prague, and some smaller towns like Zlín and Olomouc, I see a well-developed country with a high standard of living, and a people who seem engaged with the world around them, with a healthy dose of sarcasm and cynicism, which I find really refreshing and wonderful.

What is the biggest benefit of international education in your opinion?

For faculty, I think it’s amazing because you get to see different pedagogies at work, see how different departments run, and also see what’s similar. Also, it’s been great to see how an American Studies department is run outside of America, and what things are fascinating to students. For example, a lot of the students and faculty are very much interested in ethnic studies, in particular Native American and African-American studies. I think that’s exotic to them, which can be a tricky word to use, but that makes perfect sense because it’s in the same way that I find the Roma community here fascinating, but they tend to be invisible to people who actually live here.

I think for students, it’s got to be incredibly advantageous to be in another culture, see how that cultures operates from the inside, and try to learn something in that academic context. It’s very easy for us to live in our own reality bubbles. Travel forces you outside of that, and forces you to realize that there are people who don’t live the same way you do, and therefore don’t have the same preconceptions you do, or even the same interests necessarily.

What does the Fulbright mission mean to you?
I think specifically the opportunity to have this experience of living and working in another country. Also, the opportunity for academic exchange across international boundaries. It’s already seen to be opening up doors and possibilities for me with teaching, and academic and creative work in places around the world, so that’s incredibly important. My field is comics, which is a relatively small and young field, and I really want it to be as international as possible. I think we have a lot to learn from each other, because every comics culture is slightly different, and the more we can foster this kind of international cooperation, the better! The Fulbright is a fantastic venue to do that.

What was most rewarding for you during your Fulbright semester?

I think the experience of living and working abroad has been incredibly useful. I love the fact that when I’ve gone away from Brno, coming back it feels homey. I spent years on the road with a backpack, and I’ve visited over 70 countries, but this kind of experience is different, because it enables me to set down roots. There are relationships and friendships I’ve developed here that will continue and last past the semester. And just that feeling of homeliness, that Brno will always feel like a little piece of home, and that’s invaluable. I was walking through the Christmas markets last night, just strolling through my adopted hometown, that’s what it felt like. It was really special, in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if I was just here for a few days. I needed to be here for several months to have that feeling. Hearing the church bells in the fog, and knowing where they were coming from, that really means a lot.

I read that you have “consumed everything from fried locusts to a cobra’s still-beating heart floating in a cup of Redbull.” So then, what’s your favorite Czech food?
I love the soups! From cabbage to leek soups with poached eggs in them, they have been amazing. Also, halušky is my jam!

And how has the field of comics changed over the years you have been practicing it?
Quite a bit. When I started there was no internet, well there was, but there wasn’t. I made my first comic in 2001, and I found a comics community by taking that comic to conventions to sell it, and interacting with people there directly, but it took me many years to get to that point without any sense of community. Now, my students can make a comic, put it up online, and have a community instantaneously. It’s quite remarkable how democratized the production of comics has gotten through the Web. The other big change has been how comics have moved into the academic sphere. Now, there are programs in Comics Production and Comics Theory, and I’m very jealous of my young students, because if I could’ve taken the program I’m teaching in now, I would have. Instead, I tried to cobble together a Comics major for myself out of fine arts programs back in 1989 and 1993, and that was not as satisfying as it could have been.

Also, I would say that there’s more of a sense of general respect for the form than ever before. In the past, if I said I made comics, I would be in a defensive crouch because the person would be like ‘oh, okay you love superman’ or ‘you make little kids’ comics’ and I’d have to explain to them how it’s not just for children, and it’s not just superheroes, and you can do anything within comics because it’s a medium, and not a genre. Now, I don’t have to explain that so much and most people now say, ‘oh, cool!’ And that’s new! They don’t look down on me now. I still get it, but rarely now. It’s a good change; we’re hopefully becoming more like the French or Japanese markets, which treat comics much more seriously.

Why are you most drawn to using comics as a way to tell your stories?
I’ve always been fixated with comics. I don’t know any other medium really; it’s so natural that the question doesn’t even occur to me, but if I had to analyze myself, I think there’s something about the combination of the verbal and visual medium that is also static and read, as opposed to watched, that is really compelling. I grew up with books, and I love books, but I love the idea that there’s a potential complexity for telling stories through a combination of imagery and the written word that is unequal. Every medium has its strengths and weaknesses, but what comics can do is unparalleled. It’s such a new field that we’re still exploring the basics of this, for example, what it can do with time, with depictions of identity, points of view, and it can do things that prose books or film animation cannot do. It’s really exciting to explore that! But I also just think that they’re cool. On some level, they’ve always just been kind of wondrous and magical to me, and I want to keep playing in that thing that makes me feel that way.

Who or what are your biggest influencers?
Growing up as a kid, I loved the Jack Kirby comics, he was the creator of the classic Marvel superhero comics. I also consumed Tin-Tin and Asterix. As a teenager and beyond, I became obsessed with Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers, which I would argue is perhaps the great American comic book. Since then, a lot of the major graphic novels have been inspiring, such as Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Howard Cruz’s Stuck Rubber Baby, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, Lynda Barry’s 100 Demons, and the works of great cartoonists such as Joann Sfar, Ulli Lust, Osamu Tezuka, and Gengoroh Tagame.

Are there any projects you are working on right now?
I’m working on a graphic novel, tentatively entitled Castle and Creek. It’s set in the National Guard Armory in San Francisco which was abandoned for decades, and was recently bought by Kink.com. I became fascinated with the building, which is this remarkable castle-like structure that takes up almost half a block in San Francisco, and there’s a creek that runs through the basement. It’s called Mission Creek, and it used to run through this section of San Francisco that I live in, but it’s all been paved over, and the only place it runs free is in the basement of the Armory. So I came up with a story about a man who dies in the creek during the 1930’s labor unrest in San Francisco, a closeted gay man, and he becomes a ghost that haunts the Armory. Then there’s a modern couple- a young man who comes to San Francisco to be involved in the porn industry for the first time, and there he meets an older male actor, and the two of them have a relationship, but part of this is hampered by the ghost who is interacting with them. It’s a very strange story, and it also has an entire meta-narrative that’s a parody of the golden age of Wonder Woman, which I’m obsessed with. It’s going to take me a couple more years to produce, but I am working hard of it, and I’ve also been writing a script for a comic series set in the marijuana industry of Northern California.

You are most likely the first Fulbright Scholar in Comics ever. What does that mean to you?
It’s a huge honor. It is tremendously validating, because I’ve made comics my whole life, and when I started in this field, it was something that I loved deeply, but had a problem getting cultural validation and academic recognition. That is swiftly changing, which is wonderful to see and be a part of, and having the Fulbright program accept me as an international scholar, worthy of being sent to Europe to talk about the history of American graphic novels and comics, is a milestone that I think means something. I’m tremendously honored to be a part of that. There’s a gravitas and a recognition that the Fulbright program brings to anybody, and for me to bring that back to the comics field- I’m hoping it will be very valuable, and hopefully open up the possibility for more comics scholars to do what I just did. That would be wonderful. Comics are awesome! And people need to understand that.

And is there anything else you’d like to add?
The Fulbright organization here has been amazing! I’m sure that not every country is lucky enough to have one that works as well as ours does here. They are smart, organized, incredibly sweet, and professional, and I owe them a great deal and think they’re amazing! Props to them!

Professor Hall with his students

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