Hard To Swallow

I have a confession to make.

I’ve always preferred erotica to porn.

While I appreciate the voyeuristic nature of adult films, erotica can lead you down paths that are less realistic. Paths into territory that’s hard to portray on a screen. Genres you wouldn’t expect. Whether getting off, or just exploring sex in a deeper way, erotica’s a powerful genre, and I’ve always preferred using my imagination to fill in the blanks.

The same holds true for erotica in comic form. Comics have often ventured into new territory. The powerfully muscled superheroes that are best-known in the medium have always had an erotic thrill on their own. I’ve previously enjoyed Patrick Fillion’s over-the-top musclemen and Jon Macy’s beautiful imagery in Fearful Hunter.

I was thrilled to be introduced to a new project by Northwest Press called Hard to Swallow: Ten Years of Gay Male Comics by Justin Hall and Dave Davenport.

I recently had the privilege of speaking to Justin and Dave about their work. Justin has a history of comics work prior to Hard to Swallow, having written A Sacred Text, True Travel Tales, and Glamazonia. This was Dave’s first venture into comics, having previously worked as a tattooist and a video game artist.

“I have to give Dave the credit for the inspiration for pushing us to do an erotic book,” Justin indicated. “Dave is an old, dear friend as well as an incredibly talented artist, so I would have followed him into any creative endeavor. But I’m so glad he picked smut! Now we’re collecting the whole series into one volume, plus adding around 50 pages of new material.”

Dave cited the early issues of the underground comics Gay Comics as inspirations for content, and Love and Rockets for format. Justin added that the confessional sex stories of Straight to Hell and the gei manga of Gengoroh Tagame were also strong influences.

As collaborators, they pretty much worked around each other, with free reign to do as they pleased, offering each other feedback as needed.

“Dave was the one who noticed that I kept on flipping the heads of the penises in my illustrations,” Justin confessed, “an odd sort of dyslexia!”

Dave explained that the format of Hard to Swallow was different than other erotica.

“The material is a 45/45 split between Justin and myself (10% for a guest contributor),” Dave noted, “which allowed readers to get a good feel for our respective voices and styles, and also enough variety to feel like you made a few friends, and weren’t just getting too intimate with just one of us.”

Hard to Swallow also explores more daring content.

“Dave and I wanted to make erotica that was both personal and challenging,” Justin stated, “and that showed all sorts of characters you don’t normally imagine in gay porn. If sex and desire represent one of the great mysteries of human existence, up there with birth and death, why shouldn’t good, interesting art be made about it? We wanted stories that you could jerk off to, but would also make you think.”

“One of my favorite pieces, “Fluid”, is the true story of a femme dyke who used to strap her tits down, put on boy drag, and suck off guys in the back of the Powerhouse bar in SF. She got caught by a guy, who ended up being even more turned on by the idea of a woman getting him off in a gay bar. I drew a hot cocksucking scene to turn on my readers… but I also wanted them to think about the fluid nature of sexuality.”

Hard to Swallow spans multiple genres, from various types of speculative fiction to true stories.

“My stuff began with some non-fiction, but by halfway through the series had become entirely fiction,” Dave pointed out. “My fiction has been from kaiju/sci-fi to horror tropes used in an erotic fashion as opposed to gory/scary. People have said it’s surprisingly sweet.”

While Dave’s work was low on the kink spectrum, Justin’s pieces went in different directions.
“I did a serialized pirate story, Tales of the Hard Roger, that got pretty dark and kinky, with lots of cabin boy bondage and rape. That was fun to do, and really stretched me as an artist.”

“During the Hard to Swallow run,” Justin explained, “I went in the opposite direction of Dave, becoming more interested in doing memoir and biographical sex comics. At the time, I was also working in the adult film industry, and I was interviewing other gay porn stars about their personal sexual experiences. I was fascinated by the private sex lives of those with very public sexual personae. One of the best of those was when I asked Tober Brandt to describe the moment he realized he was a pervert… it’s a great story!”

The outside contributors to Hard to Swallow are a fascinating bunch, from rough unknowns to polished professionals.

“Bill Sherman in the first book was great,” Dave exclaimed. “He’d only ever done self-published Xerox comics before, but his stuff was exactly the kind of playful smut I was going for myself. He surprised us with a cute polished piece.”

Other contributors of note include Brad Rader, of whom Dave is an “unabashed fan of his work,” as well as Drub, Steve MacIsaac and in the new volume, new work by Jon Macy and Victor Hodge.

Both Justin and Dave enthused about working with Zan Christensen, the founder of Northwest Press.

“He’s one of the few people in comics who is both a great creative storyteller AND can make a spreadsheet, create a website, and do math,” Justin told me. “Plus, he’s a good guy who treats his creators and readers well. I don’t ever want to self-publish again beyond some fun mini-comics.”

I wondered how the changing queer culture affected their comics and outlook.

“There are so many queer voices today,” Dave offered,” that it’s easier to find like-minded people, even in niche cultures. We set out to fill a gap in what was available, and today there are so many fun erotic books to choose from. It’s not so lonely anymore.”

“I was surprised to realize that pups and furries are fans of my work,” he confessed, “but of course they would be. And the proliferation of eroticized werewolves these days… I run the risk of being seen as a copycat now. Oh, the humanity!”

They find the most pleasure when their stories are relevant to fans.

“I still get the occasional message telling me how important my stories were to someone,” Dave admits. “That makes all the difference to me, that our book served its purpose.”

If you want to pick up Hard to Swallow: Ten Years of Gay Male Comics, check out the Kickstarter It’s still underway and can use your support.

Also, if you’re in the Seattle area or in town for Emerald City Comicon, both Justin Hall and Dave Davenport will be appearing at Jetspace Magazine’s SuperHard Comicon party at the Seattle Eagle on April 9th. Make your plans to attend!

Until then, see you in the funny papers!