Words by Gianluca D’Elia
Photos and Art by Justin Hubbell
When you think of comics, it’s only natural that superheroes or funny strips about cats might come to mind. That’s what Justin Hubbell thought they’d create too when they first pursued a career as a comic in college. But fast forward about a decade later, and Hubbell’s most well-known works dig a little deeper than laughing at your favorite feline. Their sold-out 2020 book “In A Word: Trans” narrates the process of transitioning and coming out as transgender and non-binary through comic art, offering humor, education, and personal stories.
Early in their career, Hubbell was in the closet. They recalled experimenting with gender in college, but not feeling ready to talk about being trans until they were 23.
“Once I was all the way out, I became obsessed with making work that would’ve really helped me when I was younger,” Hubbell says. “I think you’ll find that a lot of artists in the trans community try to create works that help other people, whether it’s with transitioning, dysphoria, bullying, anything.”
Scroll through Hubbell’s Instagram feed and you’ll find a whimsical world where differences are celebrated, often through a color palette of lilac, light blue, yellow, black and white. Step into their home studio and you’ll experience that same magical feeling, with homemade witch hats laid across the dining room shelves and pride flags adorning the doors and windows.
Education and empowerment are the most important goals of Hubbell’s work — but humor and entertainment are high on that list too. They are open about their life experiences, whether it’s being part of the LGBTQ community, struggling with their mental health, or living life as a neurodivergent adult with complex ADHD.
“I suspect y’all may feel more comfortable if I strictly identified as neurodivergent…” one pastel–colored comic reads. “When I explain that I have disabilities, it can hurt how weirded out people become.”
Meanwhile, a more humorous recent comic about trans history highlights the life of controversial Roman emperor Elagabalus, who, according to the comic (and historians), “had many lovers of multiple genders.” Part of the comic depicts Hubbell standing next to Elagabalus and saying, “I find this dope as hell,” while holding a book titled “Thirsty Gay History.”
All Trans Wrestling
Every once in a while, there’s a cheeky news story where a woman lives to be over 100, and when reporters ask her the secret to a long life, the answer is “avoiding men” (or drinking a Dr. Pepper a day).
Hubbell recalled hearing a story like that a few years ago. It resonated with them on a deeper level. At the time, they were avoiding masculine things too—they wanted to explore the feminine with no distractions. But they later realized that they could engage with masculinity on their own terms, and even use it in their artwork.
This is why Hubbell’s latest comics have been focusing on wrestling. “It’s the nerdiest, gayest option,” Hubbell quips, explaining that engaging with a sport seemed like a great avenue for trying to understand men better.
“There’s a lot to pull apart and criticize in the world of wrestling as a non-violent feminist. I expected to go into it and feel upset and offended. What I found was something I never heard, ever: predominantly straight men talking about other men with love, and discussing pain and heartache.”
Learning about the human side of professional wrestling caught Hubbell off-guard. Everyone is vulnerable, everyone is wrestling with something. “I was shocked to learn that The Rock suffers with depression and low self-esteem — I didn’t see it coming,” they recall.
They started working on a fictional series of wrestlers called ATW. The acronym is short for “All Trans Wrestling,” but also for “Art Therapy Works.”
Through this work, Hubbell not only aims to boost their own confidence, but to help other trans and non-binary readers find a voice as well, especially those who might be struggling with self-harm or suicidal thoughts.
“By studying wrestling, I realized that much like hip-hop artists or Shakespearian soliloquies, they have to shout into a microphone about how great they are,” Hubbell said. “I couldn’t do that. I felt silly doing this, but I developed a wrestling persona.”
When Hubbell was going through therapy and processing traumatic events in their own life, they said it helped to have “a persona outside of myself that was stronger.” Creating fictional pro wrestler characters helped. Now, through comics, there’s an entire collective of those characters, such as the tag-team heel champions Rumor and Innuendo (a heel is a wrestler who portrays a villain). Each character awaits someone on social media who might relate with them and find a bit of strength through their wrestling personas.
Across every medium they create art in, Hubbell hopes to provide some of the resources they couldn’t find when they were struggling with their identity and self- esteem. A theme that appears across most of their work is reclaiming one’s own narrative.
Restorative narratives and reclaiming narratives are so therapeutic. Even a simple switch from “the world is dying” to “we can do it” makes an enormous difference. What a skill to have, especially earlier than later.
Hubbell’s work continues to make an impact in Rochester and beyond. As Pride Month celebrations began in June, the widely known LGBTQ organization The Trevor Project shared one of Hubbell’s cartoons on Instagram. That post reached more than 25,000 likes.
Their four-panel comic, titled “You don’t have to show pride to have pride,” highlights that whether or not one’s LGBTQ pride is visible, and regardless of whether someone is ready to disclose their identity, they still deserve to be celebrated. The first illustration shows a person walking, with a silent thought bubble with a lesbian symbol; the second shows a person sitting under a tree with a journal; the third shows a person typing on a laptop, and the fourth person sitting alone on a bed next to a few different Pride flags on the wall next to them.
If this is the first Justin Hubbell comic a social media user is seeing, they’re in luck, because this one sums up the message and mission of Hubbell’s work so wonderfully. By selflessly offering their own vulnerability and wisdom gained through life experiences, Hubbell reminds viewers that they’re not alone, everyone’s journey is different, and that they are valid — wherever they may be in that journey.
Keep up with Hubbell’s art by following their Instagram, @justinhubbell. There, you’ll also find a Kickstarter to support a special Pride edition of their book, “In A Word: Trans.”