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 Trashmans 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: Lets see... maybe the first comic book I ever saw, I
mustve 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 couldnt make it work out. But
I was really intrigued by that idea for some reason; I kinda knew
what an out-house was. I couldnt read or anything, so the whole
comic wasnt there.
A: When did you first become interested in creating comic books of
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. Id been into comics, Ive
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 didnt 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 didnt 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: Its 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, its
more accessible than anything else.
A: Do you and have you explored other artistic media or fields?
S: In terms of illustration, Ive done everything from murals
to rubber stamps, including a pin-up on the side of a B-25 and doing
movie sets, so Ive tried just about everything. Right now were
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. Trashmans 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. Id been involved in left-wing
politics since the early 60s 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 wasnt a writer, so they said
to just leave the voice balloons empty and theyd just paste
different things in them. So thats 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 dont 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 weeks 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. Its 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 todays
society, removed from his original context in the 60s?
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.
Its not anything I can readily identify with; it doesnt
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; theyre just kind of anarchistic. Theyre
even kind of appealing, except these people will put a lien on your
property if you dont obey their vision of authority. The anti-abortion
movement really shows this schizophrenia on the right, where theyre
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
dont 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 mustve done in 67 or 68, and I
could really see a Kirby influence, kind of a Marvel Comics influence.
Certainly Ive 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 Id
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 hes 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 Lichtensteins 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 dont
know what Lichtensteins 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 thats around us, in a different way, and to me thats
good. I really appreciate the idea of popular art forms being liberated
from this sneering attitude, and he mightve 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. Its 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
Millers 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: Thats hard to answer. Its certainly flattering to think
so, but were 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, theyre 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 were 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. Its 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 theyd 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 dont know, I just kinda like sex and violence.
A: Youve 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
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 50s 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 didnt 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 didnt like the faces;
they felt the faces I was drawing were not pretty enough.
A: In the 60s, 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 industrys 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, Im working on a computer comic book,
but the thing that I wonder about is that everybody doesnt have
these computers. What youre saying has been noted by a lot of
people, that the whole comic book industry is in this slump. You kind
of wonder if its 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 were
doing- itll be interesting to see how itll turn out. Another
thing thats 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 hes having a hard time. The
storys a pretty good story. So its funny- Im kind
of on both sides of this question right now. I really have no idea
how itll 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.