Sifting Through the Trash: Spain and Trashman

by Jon Ascher, 1998

Part I: Background

Spain (a.k.a. Manuel Rodriguez) is an underground comix artist (in this paper, "comix" refers to underground comic books, "comics" to all comic book genres). Though Spain has worked on many comic books and strips, with many various characters over the years, he is most famous for his character "Trashman," who appeared regularly in comix and magazines from 1968 through 1985. Spain is still apt to occasionally draw a Trashman strip or two to this day.

Spain began publishing his comic strip work in 1967, after moving to New York City from Buffalo, in the broadly influential underground paper, the East Village Other. It was in the pages of the E.V.O. where Trashman first appeared in 1968, published one page at a time. This was a tumultuous time in America, a time when society was torn over an unpopular war in Viet Nam, while the home front was plagued by racial tensions, violent conflicts between police and students, riots and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Radically liberal political and drug-oriented subcultures seemed prophetic of dramatic change.

These contemporary social issues are all manifested in Trashman comix. Trashman, a blue-collar hero and champion of the radical left, defending the impoverished masses against the tyranny of the fascist military forces of the rich and powerful, is a rugged militant leader dressed in black, wielding a machine-gun, whose jaded and mysterious eyes are always receded in shadow. Trashman's strength and power to overcome a myriad of oppressive forces (from the police/military to the "Fighting She-Devils") is rooted in his keen insight and sensitivity to the universe around him. "Harry Barnes, known to the world as Trashman, trained by the elusive Sixth-International as a master of the para-sciences is able to change his molecular structure or decipher a crack in the sidewalk."

As an archetypal "every-man's-hero," Trashman has been the perfect vehicle to embody Spain's own political attitudes. Spain, who was a member of The Road Vultures, a Buffalo biker gang, and has supported such leftist groups as the Socialist Labor Party (S.L.P.), has imbibed his Trashman strips with his own potent mix of revolutionary attitude and leftist sympathy. Spain's political perspective has been summed up as "Marxism of a sufficient libertarian bent to enable him to contribute to Anarchy Comics.”

As much as Trashman’s character and stories epitomize the political-revolutionary sentiments of the time period, the comix also reflect the post-modernist attitudes in art that are rooted in 1960's America. While Pop Art defied the puritanical modernist tradition in painting by focusing on "kitsch" subject matter and abandoning any painterly quality of a man-made image, the underground comix genre was breaking as many rules as it could in the comic book world. Explicit sex, violence and very adult, generally satirical subject matter were typical defining traits of this fresh movement.

To understand how Spain and Trashman fit into this comic book rebellion of the mid-60's, a little history is in order. In 1950, E.C. Comics (Entertaining Comics) introduced a "new trend" of horror comics, with such titles such as Vault of Horror, Crypt of Terror (Tales From the Crypt) and Haunt of Fear, and imagery including such things as decapitated heads on the cover. E.C. also published Mad, a humorous comic with a lot of counter-culural attitude. Parents, religious groups and conservatives were terrified by the violence in comics that was so popular among youth. In the mid-1950's, comic books were scape-goated for any sort of deviant youth behavior, and censorship of comics became a popular notion. In 1954, a Senate committee on juvenile delinquency held hearings on comic books, and later that year, Fredric Werthurn's book Seduction of the Innocent was published, a paranoid guide to the ill effects of comics on youth. In one section, the book demonstrates that young comic book readers can interpret hidden subversive messages in comics. For instance, an image of the triangular shadow of a comic character's collarbone meeting the shoulder is juxtaposed and linked with an image of the triangle of pubic hair where a woman's crotch meets her legs. In October 1954, the comic book industry created the Comics Code, censoring the content of comic books to a level comparable to a G motion picture rating. E.C. re-vamped its entire comic book line in 1955, and in 1956 the company went under and ceased all comic book publications.

In 1961, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee created the Fantastic Four for Marvel Comics, and thus ushered in the "Marvel Age" of superhero comics that dominated the mainstream throughout the sixties. Meanwhile, another influence was being felt in comic books outside of the mainstream. R. Crumb, an artist with a tough, angst-ridden line-style first published his Fritz the Cat in 1965. In 1967, the first issue of Zap! came out, an uncensored anthology comic book that published the likes of Crumb's Mr. Natural, and provided a forum for a variety of independently published underground comix work. This could be seen as the beginning of the "Underground Comix Age."

Publishing his work in the E.V.O., Spain was blossoming as a distinct member of this underground genre, and when Trashman appeared in 1968, he quickly became a staple of underground comix. Trashman strips took the mainstream superhero genre and threw it into a new playground. Suddenly, four-letter words and slang color the language, the manly hero includes sex as one of the activities demonstrative of his prowess (plate 1), and the exhibition of violence goes farther than ever, with mothers carrying babies being shot-up by evil corporate military helicopters (plate 2). But all of this hyperbole comes across as very tongue-in-cheek; a parody of all that is kept "behind-the-scenes" in mainstream comics. Typical of a post-modern work and an underground comic, Trashman conveyed a subtext of admission to being a comic book. Spain was always apt to slip it into his comix the fact that he was really "in on the joke." One series of panels reads, "O.K. Trashman what kind of bullshit is this?" "What do you mean?" "I mean, we face off more than our number of modern well armed police-traks in these old clunkers, wipe them out with the loss of one. What is this, the casualty report from Viet-Nam?" "You heard Dr. Kranker. It was all figured out thru numantics. It's just odds and fixed points and all that stuff." "Fuck you! Do you expect me to believe that shit?" "Shhh! Don't blow it man. There's all those readers out there watching."

While Spain borrowed the dynamic composition and dramatic action from the likes of Jack Kirby and superhero comics, his artwork did not follow the evolution of the mainstream look towards cross-hatched rendering and realism in comic art like that of Neal Adams. Spain rather stuck to a bold, stark style with exaggerated bulbous forms and harsh darks. He developed and maintained his own punchy brand of comic book cartoon-stylization that worked only in the realm of comic books. While many trends in comics have incorporated painted illustration and various "artsy" media and techniques that attempt to elevate the comic book to a "higher" or "finer" artform, Spain's work has always demanded that it be accepted and appreciated on its own terms, or not at all.

After publishing in the E.V.O. for two years, Spain moved to California where he continued to produce Trashman comix. He published lengthy Trashman stories in the first three issues of the Rip Off Press title "Subvert Comics" from 1970 to 1976, and has since published Trashman in such publications as High Times, Heavy Metal, Weirdo, San Francisco, and Zap!. In 1989, Fantagraphics Books published Trashman Lives!, which collects Trashman's stories from 1968 to 1985. Spain is currently working on drawing an internet comic book called Dark Hotel, for the on-line publication Salon Magazine. Nearly thirty years since Trashman's birth in 1968, just as proclaimed in 1968, it is apparent that "all those readers out there" are still watching...

Part II: Interview with Spain Rodriguez

Ascher: When were you first enticed by comic books?

Spain: Let’s see... maybe the first comic book I ever saw, I must’ve been about four, I saw this fragment of a Plastic Man comic, and they had an out-house that was a helicopter, and I kept trying to draw it, but I just couldn’t make it work out. But I was really intrigued by that idea for some reason; I kinda knew what an out-house was. I couldn’t read or anything, so the whole comic wasn’t there.

A: When did you first become interested in creating comic books of your own?

S: I was able to draw, from the second grade I picked up drawing, and my mother was a painter so she showed me a few tricks. By the time I was a teenager I could draw pretty good, and by that time E.C. comics were coming out, Mad, Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, Tales From the Crypt and stuff like that. I’d been into comics, I’ve just kinda grown up on them.

A: Nowadays, if one were to self-publish a black and white comic, the average cost would be one thousand dollars for a minimum print-run of three thousand copies . This seems like a pretty steep and risky investment for someone starting out. Did you find it difficult to fund your work when you started publishing in 1968?

S: Actually I started in ‘67. I started doing stuff for the East Village Other. I did a weekly strip and it eventually evolved into Trashman. I didn’t have any problem with that. By the time I moved out to California, which was the end of ‘69, comics were in full bloom, so I didn’t have any trouble. We had kind of a low page-rate, it was twenty-five bucks a page, but rents were low; I could make a living.

A: For an artist and illustrator making a living, comics, especially independent and underground comix, is a notoriously low-paying field. As a man of considerable talent and a vision that has proven potent for three decades, why has comix been your primary medium of expression?

S: It’s the one way a person can reach the full range of storytelling, somewhat akin to a movie, with a minimum of filters. If you do a movie, you obviously have to get the money to put something together. Comics are relatively cheap. It is labor-intensive; basically, the artist is everything from the janitor to the director, and everything in between. But if you really have that itch to tell stories, it’s more accessible than anything else.

A: Do you and have you explored other artistic media or fields?

S: In terms of illustration, I’ve done everything from murals to rubber stamps, including a pin-up on the side of a B-25 and doing movie sets, so I’ve tried just about everything. Right now we’re working on an on-line comic. We have some good guys working on it.

A: You are most widely known for your character Trashman, a hero of the common people, fighting a military battle against a tyrannical government. Trashman’s early published stories were contemporary with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968, the riot at the Democratic convention in Chicago in ‘68, and the killing of American students by the National Guard at Kent State in 1970. Trashman epitomized a radically leftist sentiment of a society disillusioned and disenchanted with America, during an unpopular war in Viet Nam and racial battles at home. How did you first develop Trashman in his post-nuclear world, and his very socially conscious stories in light of contemporary events?

S: There was all this stuff going on. I’d been involved in left-wing politics since the early 60’s in Buffalo. When I started working for the East Village Other, I was putting out a weekly strip, and it was whatever I could think of at the time. The first thing I published was called Zodiac Mind Warp. I wasn’t a writer, so they said to just leave the voice balloons empty and they’d just paste different things in them. So that’s what I did with Zodiac Mind Warp, but then I started doing this weekly strip and I just sorta stuck stuff in there, whatever would come into my head. Eventually I had this idea of a character- I don’t know, this thing just came together, and the name Trashman, the idea that he could pick up all these messages from various things, the cracks in the sidewalk and things like that- he had this “Random Alert Factor.” It just kind of evolved, you know, different things. First, he had the ability to change into last week’s copy of the East Village Other. When I came out here, the East Village Other folded soon after. I kept on doing him for a bunch of years, and I still like to do some when the occasion comes up. It’s hard to know the exact process, to nail down what night- at the time I was a night person and a lot of these ideas would come to me at four-o-clock in the morning.

A: What political significance do you think Trashman has in today’s society, removed from his original context in the 60’s?

S: Well, it seems as though the protests of today have taken less of a working-class perspective, even though you have a resurgent labor movement, and Trashman was mostly focused on the working-class. What you have going on out here in California, with a lot of ecological anti-clear-cutting movements in Northern California, is an attempt to combine an ecological focus with a working-class perspective. You have all these tangents, like anti-abortion protestors, which is basically an attempt to make the government carry out the theological determinations of various heads of churches. You have kind of an interesting splintering of focus from strictly class-issues to these other issues. You can compare that stuff to militant lobbyists- someone whose feeling is that everyone should play chess or something. You have things like animal rights, spraying people who wear furs, and that sort of stuff. It’s not anything I can readily identify with; it doesn’t seem to have much of a class-character.

A: It seems the radical right now have there own brand of rebellion with their midwest militia groups.

S: Right. There was a thing on Law and Order, in which they had a trial with some of the militia, and a lot of the program of the militia sounded very appealing, and certainly rational compared to a lot of the programs of the militias that are really amazingly irrational- all these people wanting to be free individuals, and the government not having laws; they’re just kind of anarchistic. They’re even kind of appealing, except these people will put a lien on your property if you don’t obey their vision of authority. The anti-abortion movement really shows this schizophrenia on the right, where they’re always talking about getting the government off our back, until they want the government to do what they want to do, and then they want the government in our bedrooms, on our back and on our front, and any which way they can get the government in. Somehow the contradictions don’t register on their consciousness. You see these militia people, up in Montana they had that stand-off that lasted so long. These guys lived off government programs and had taken the money, taken it to Las Vegas, and suddenly they decided to become anti-government.

A: In your art, when you were starting out in underground comix, were there any influences on your style from comic books, either mainstream, like Jack Kirby or Ditko or Neil Adams, or underground, like R. Crumb?

S: Somebody recently turned up a piece that I have only a vague recollection of doing, that I must’ve done in ‘67 or ‘68, and I could really see a Kirby influence, kind of a Marvel Comics influence. Certainly I’ve been influenced by Crumb and Wilson, everybody. The first person I was ever influenced by was Spiegelman, who was the first cartoonist I really met. I came to New York, and he had this idea of fooling around with the page layout, things I’d never seen done before. I continuously see stuff that I really like and has an influence on me.

A: Since you mentioned Art Spiegelman, he recently gave a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. There was a section that particularly interested me, in which he discussed Roy Lichtenstein, the Pop artist famed for his large-scale painted reproductions of comic images. Spiegalman said that he’s always resented Lichtenstein, that the attitude behind his paintings seemed to say, “Look at this trash I found and have consecrated with my attention.” As a comic book artist whose work was contemporary to Lichtenstein’s and the Pop movement, what is your opinion of the exploitation of comics in their paintings?

S: I liked Lichtenstein and I liked a lot of the stuff he did. I don’t know what Lichtenstein’s attitude was, his attitude may well have been what Art expressed, but what he did was draw attention to comics. A lot of times things happen in funny ways, and you know the old saying goes that art has a life of its own. Even if his attitude was condescending, the whole result of Pop art was focusing on everyday, contemporary objects, and I think that was a good thing. I think that art of the twentieth century has attempted to breakdown the idea of art being high-brow and low-brow. And again, Spiegalman may well be right, maybe he did have a condescending attitude, but his attitude not withstanding gave focus to comic books, and we were able to see comic books in a slightly different way, not to mention all sorts of stuff that’s around us, in a different way, and to me that’s good. I really appreciate the idea of popular art forms being liberated from this sneering attitude, and he might’ve had a sneering attitude when he did those paintings, but I think the result of it was to open up this way of thinking that focused attention on everyday objects, comic books being one of them. Comic books, in a way is like a lens to see other things. It’s kind of an interesting focus where you have this one lens, looking at another lens. The result, I think, has been good.

A: Your brand of political satire in a post-nuclear world pre-dates many works with similar traits. The 1983 Ridley Scott film "Bladerunner" contains futuristic imagery strikingly similar to yours, and Frank Miller’s 1986 graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns" by Frank Miller for D.C. Comics was a story of Batman, set in the future, that satirized and criticized American society under Reagan during the cold-war. Do you see your work as being influential in pop-cultural works such as these and others?

S: That’s hard to answer. It’s certainly flattering to think so, but we’re all a product of these cultural forces. I may have gotten there first; certainly a lot of people thought that "Road Warrior" was resonant of the third issue of Subvert Comix- "Highway Zero," that sort of thing, and maybe it was. These ideas are out there. The artist pursues a cultural thread, and there are other people pursuing that cultural thread as well, so you exchange these ideas, they’re thrown back and forth, amplified, then the cultural thread goes underground, then it pops up again, often. And getting back to the whole Pop art thing, that whole thread of American popular culture- that is the area we’re working in, this non-highbrow art seems to be more vital. Inevitably, the painting world will see it to be more vital than the kind of unapproachable thing that usually carries the fine art world. These ideas are out there. My antenna was and I still try to keep it out there. And I see myself as having part of a very specific cultural thread. It’s interesting, ‘cause when we did underground comix, the thing that developed was putting a lot of detail, just packing the panel with detail. I saw this thing about film noir, and one of the techniques was that they had this full focus, where they’d focus on stuff in the foreground and stuff in the background. This was a completely unconscious thing that spontaneously happened. I consider myself as being part of that cultural thread of film noir and E.C. Comics and that sort of thing, and there we were unconsciously aping these movies of the forties. Stuff bounces back and forth.

A: Your work has always been satirical and very tongue-in-cheek with sex and violence, which seems to distinguish it from the content of pornographic magazines and movies, and violent comics, movies and television that are left unchecked by any acknowledgment of their own content to make a sociological statement. What point do you make about American culture with the sex and violence in your work?

S: I don’t know, I just kinda like sex and violence.

A: You’ve obviously built for yourself a cult following of fans with Trashman. Have you found that you have offended people as well, with your radical political messages, explicit sex and violence in your work?

S: I certainly hope so.

A: It seems the underground comix genre cropped up in reaction to the censorship of comic books that began in the 50’s with the Comics Code Authority, that drove out of publication explicit comics like E.C. Comics. Have you ever had to deal with or fight censorship of your work?

S: Actually, I have an interesting story. One time I did an illustration for a skin book, and it was interviews with various super-studs, guys who were sexual athletes. They sent me the script and it had these big areas X-ed out. What they did was they X-ed out any area that any of these guys were reflective about what they were doing, which is the most interesting part of the article. The article made these guys mindless sexual robots. So the illustration I had was this Superman-type figure in a booth being surrounded by women converging on the booth. I tried to have a variety of women, blondes, brunettes, redheads, full-bodied women, thin women, etc. I realized I didn’t have any black women, so I made a few women black. I sent it in, and it turned out the editor hated black women, and was really pissed that I had any in. So the art director was offended by this, and took it to the guy above him [the editor], and he thought black women were fine, but he thought all my women were ugly. So what they ended up doing was blanking out the faces, so all these faceless women were attacking this guy in the phone booth. Basically, what they did to my illustration was what they did to the article. About the same time, I was working on a thing with a radical group. It was when food prices were going through the roof. So I had all these different characters representing various people, and they didn’t like the faces; they felt the faces I was drawing were not pretty enough.

A: In the ‘60’s, new printing technologies allowed for small print-runs that were cost-effective, and thus allowed independent and underground comix to flourish . Today, much of the mainstream comic book industry’s audience is being lost to c.d. roms and video games . How do you see technology, like publishing on the internet or multimedia c.d. rom comic books affecting the world of comics?

S: Right now, as you know, I’m working on a computer comic book, but the thing that I wonder about is that everybody doesn’t have these computers. What you’re saying has been noted by a lot of people, that the whole comic book industry is in this slump. You kind of wonder if it’s going to crawl out of it. But on the other hand, you wonder whether computers will become so plentiful that c.d. rom comics will have that much of an audience. This thing we’re doing- it’ll be interesting to see how it’ll turn out. Another thing that’s just out that I did is a graphic novel called Boots. The guy who published it is trying to get it into big stores like Borders and things like that, and he’s having a hard time. The story’s a pretty good story. So it’s funny- I’m kind of on both sides of this question right now. I really have no idea how it’ll turn out. Certainly these technological forces- computerized things, certainly seem to be coming down the road.

A: This is one of the most controversial questions I could ask a comic book artist, pertaining to the art world. Although comic book art has galleries and even museum collections dedicated to it today, the legacy of twentieth century art criticism which is still largely upheld has been to view comic books and strips as low-brow, commercial, kitsch, beneath the realm of “art” and even detrimental to so-called high culture. Do you think that comic books can be considered art?

S: Yes of course, and I hope it is detrimental to high culture. Yeah, it is low-brow, and I for one like it that way.

click here for DIES IRAE, illustrated by Spain Rodriguez, created and written by Justin Wertham.

DIES IRAE is the story of Steve Kirby, a martial arts instructor for the NYPD who loses his wife and son in the World Trade Center attack on September 11.

Steve embarks on a crusade against the Bush Administration when he realizes that President George W. Bush is cynically exploiting 9/11 for his personal gain and for the purpose of instituting a dangerous right-wing agenda.