MORE SKETCHES OF SPAIN
An interview with Manuel “Spain” Rodriquez, Part II
The second half of our two-part interview with Spain Rodriguez covers the vast majority of his professional career in comics — from the height of the underground comix era through today. His artistic output is one of comics’ most influential and enduring, stretching across a number of genres and approaches. Spain has made his mark in autobiography, where his straight-ahead action and class consciousness has set him apart from several of those who have worked that same area; history, with dramatically told stories of war drawn from interests and passions the artist has enjoyed since childhood; journalism, practically inventing from whole cloth the first-person journalistic narrative in comics in a way that is as sophisticated and compelling as any of the works Spain’s comics helped make possible; and satirical commentary, through his well-known vehicles Trashman and Big Bitch.
In this second half of a several-hour, multiple-session conversation with interviewer Gary Groth, all of Spain’s major works are discussed, as well as the various personalities involved with comics’ first great explosion of risk-taking artists. Included, too, are discussions of modern works like Boots and his adaptation of Nightmare Alley, and even an explanation of his famous pseudonym.
We begin with Spain in New York City in the late 1960s, where he worked on the East Village Other and produced his first long comix work, Manning. He had just agreed to go to California.
GARY GROTH: Let me ask you a little bit more about New York, specifically, about the other cartoonists who formed the underground hub there. Tell me how you met [Robert] Crumb.
SPAIN RODRIGUEZ: Crumb … when Crumb did the first Zap, it just hit the whole underground comics world like a hurricane — it was really a major thing. It was beautiful, just a beautiful piece of work. He’s able to convey a feeling that you’ve seen it before, it has some sort of old-timey aspect to it. He came out to New York a few times. At one point he stayed with me and Kim [Deitch]. And we had good times together. We had a lot of laughs, and he even stayed up at the E.V.O. [East Village Other] loft. When I went out to California, I stayed with him.
One of the things that this guy Joel Fabricant arranged was that we could party on down at a nightclub called The Scene. Steve Paul’s The Scene. We could go down there and get free drinks and they had great acts: Jerry Lee Lewis, Sha Na Na … you know, everybody who was playing in town played at The Scene. So we basically had it knocked. We were getting free entertainment, free luxurious pad, and it was really a good time. In a lot of ways, I wonder why I came out to California.
GROTH: I was going to ask you that.
SPAIN: I ask myself. I’ve asked myself that plenty of times.
GROTH: You eventually must have made it over to [Art] Spiegelman’s.
SPAIN: Yeah. I was over there a bunch of times.
GROTH: What were your impressions of Spiegelman when you met him?
SPAIN: Well, Spiegelman was really the first guy I met. He had ideas that were radical to me, such as experimental page layouts. I never thought of things like that. I explored a lot of that when I did Manning. I did one strip at an angle. It was really an inspiration to run into somebody who had given though to things like that, and then, just the influence of seeing all the work of different people. It really was a time – more than I could have ever imagined as a kid when I fantasized about underground comics, and artists being led away from the subway to jail.
GROTH: Bill Griffith was there at the time. Did you get together with him?
SPAIN: Sure. We all used to hang out together. We would put out a newspaper.
GROTH: Justin Green? He was there?
SPAIN: Justin Green, yeah, right.
GROTH: You met Vaughn Bodé?
SPAIN: Oh yeah. It was funny. When I first met him, he was this real conservative-looking guy. But the stuff he had done was really wild. Conceptually interesting. He ran down all the worlds he had thought up. All that German equipment that was truncated, and I had never really thought about plotting things out like that before him. My inclination is to start off, and see where it takes me, but he’d really worked everything out before hand. Years later when I saw him, he sure looked different: he had very long hair and one long green fingernail, he was rouged up and had eye liner on, and 17 earrings, and stuff like that. A big change from when he first came around. I think we first turned him on to grass.
GROTH: Is that right?
SPAIN: Yeah, right. [Laughs.]
SPAIN: Very conservative.
GROTH: Did you like his work?
SPAIN: I liked the concept of it, and I really admired the fact that he could do all this stuff in Magic Marker. Funny animal comics aren’t really my favorite kind of comics, but I could really appreciate and admire the sweep of his thought.
GROTH: You mentioned Bernie Wrightson earlier. Did you know him?
SPAIN: Yeah, I’m sure I met him a bunch of times. Artistically, I felt closer to him than to Crumb or to Kim —
GROTH: That’s interesting. Why was that?
SPAIN: Oh, because I do more of an adventure-type comic. Kim and Crumb and Vaughn Bodé, their stuff is more — it’s more kind of a funny comic. It’s a different thing.
GROTH: Of course, Wrightson had to be very influenced by the EC horror stuff.
SPAIN: Right. I think we were all influenced by EC’s. Every so often I hear a complaint from Crumb that he didn’t go to art school. I laugh at him — you mean you spent all this time with Harvey Kurtzman and you’re envious of me because I went to art school?
GROTH: You said you knew Bill Griffith and Justin Green in New York, and that you would occasionally hang out with them; do you have any recollections of what they were like? Was there an affinity between you and them?
SPAIN: Well, we just knew each other from the East Village Other. We got to know each other a whole lot better here in San Francisco, you know, in the early days of underground comic books. We had been putting out Gothic Blimp Works, which was an underground comics tabloid. I was turning out either a strip or a cover for the East Village Other once a week, so turning out something for Gothic Blimp Works was a whole lot less disciplined work than what I was doing for the East Village Other. But it was also more experimental. I was working on a strip called Manning at the time.
GROTH: Tell me about Gothic Blimp Works.
SPAIN: Well, at the time, in the late ’60s, underground papers seemed to take off, too, and the whole underground publishing thing as well. Crumb was turning out Zap here in California, and I don’t know why the printers couldn’t put together a comic book [sized periodical], which would have been the natural thing to do, but for some reason or other they said they weren’t set up to do it … When I did Zodiac Mindwarp, it was supposed to be a comic book, but the publishers said they just couldn’t do that format, and so the tabloid format was what was done. And the East Village Other put out Kiss, which was an answer to Screw; also Gay Power. Because at that time Stonewall had happened, so all these things were going on in the office. All these publications were being put out, and every so often I would turn something out for Kiss, then Gothic Blimp Works would come out every few months, which was actually amazing for any kind of underground publication. But we already had some discipline of turning things out with the East Village Other.
GROTH: Gothic Blimp Works was a tabloid?
SPAIN: Gothic Blimp Works was a tabloid. I’d done a cover for it, Robert Williams had done a cover for it. It was the first time I had ever seen any of his work, and Bernie Wrightson, and [Mike] Kaluta.
GROTH: You knew Kaluta then, apparently.
SPAIN: Yeah, I had met Wrightson, and — yeah, I had met them — I mean, you know, the things in the East Village Other office were always chaotic, so I didn’t really get to know them that well, but …
GROTH: Who published Gothic Blimp Works?
SPAIN: The East Village Other.
GROTH: And it was distinguished from the East Village Other how?
SPAIN: In that it was all comics.
GROTH: And what exactly was the rationale behind that?
SPAIN: It was to cash in on the underground comics thing, which had seemed like, actually was, a going proposition. It was a nice enhancement of our paychecks, and more work, and so it was good all the way around. It was also a chance for new guys to get things in. By that time, me and Kim Deitch, who had been doing a runaway strip for the East Village Other, were almost established guys.
GROTH: So what artists were in Gothic Blimp Works? You, Kim —
SPAIN: Yeah, me, Kim, Bill Griffith, and Art Spiegelman, and Yossarian, and … just a lot of the guys who were around at that time. Vaughn Bodé, he was also in there —
GROTH: Was that the publication you did Manning for?
SPAIN: I did the longest Manning strip for Gothic Blimp Works — I think it was three pages.
GROTH: Now, Manning was a bloodthirsty cop.
SPAIN: Yeah, right. It was a satire of all the cop propaganda that still infests TV. Also, the idea of a plot was starting to sink in. When I did the first Trashman, I just would make it up every week as it went along. Whatever popped into my head at the time, I’d just try to arrange it in a way that seemed to make sense, and a friend of mine had given me that ending of the scene where Trashman mows down the high society swells. It was from the guy who had stiffed me for a hundred bucks when I first came to New York, so I figured he owed me something. But living with Kim, who would meticulously plot things out, made me more aware that I could do all these things with plots. I tried a lot of experimental things with Manning, using collages, and at one point I just tilted the whole strip at a 45˚ angle.
GROTH: Well, that’s interesting, because formally you’re a conservative artist.
GROTH: I mean, you don’t go in for a lot of Spiegelmanesque experimentation.
SPAIN: I feel that experimentation really has to serve the storyline. [Jim] Steranko, who I really love as an artists, and who would really come up with all these inventive things that I found all kinds of inspiration from, seemed to take a little past the storytelling point, where a lot of the effects seem to be more for the effect’s sake rather than to move the storyline ahead. I think everything should really serve the storyline. So I still try to use experimental things, but I just try not to make them draw attention from the point you’re trying to get across.
GROTH: Were you a big fan of Steranko’s in the ’60s?
SPAIN: Oh yeah, I still am. I really like his stuff.
GROTH: You still are?
SPAIN: Yeah, I still am. I just got some comic that has a lot of reprints of his stuff, but I haven’t seen too much new work of his.
GROTH: It’s interesting that you would like his work so much, because so much of his work is pyrotechnics.
SPAIN: Yeah. Well, yeah, right. I —
GROTH: As opposed to content. There’s not much content there.
SPAIN: Yeah. And I think that’s a valid criticism, but the pyrotechnics are great. Perhaps he needs somebody to write him a good plot that can have a lot of pyrotechnics.
GROTH: When you say you eventually discovered the concept of a plot, what was your fiction reading like at this point?
SPAIN: I had read a lot of science fiction, and I was continuously reading things. I think at that point I was reading a lot of H.P. Lovecraft … a lot of that old pulp stuff that was really before my time, so it was fun to become acquainted with.
GROTH: Speaking of pulp stuff, you started Trashman in New York, right?
SPAIN: In New York, yeah.
GROTH: That was for the East Village Other?
GROTH: Can you tell me how that came about?
SPAIN: Well, I don’t know exactly how it came about, but it was one of those nights that I would stay up all night being stoned and listening to the radio and drawing. Some of it I could patch up to be a comic strip. At some point those strips became Trashman. Maybe I got the idea from Jonathan Leek, who started the Resurgence Youth Movement. By this time, he had become a stern Maoist. But on the other hand, he still had preserved his wacky tendencies. He was talking to toasters, and stuff like that. So the idea began to take root.
GROTH: Now, of course, Trashman was an overtly political strip. How much Marx had you read? How much had you actually studied of revolutionary politics?
SPAIN: I went through a period where I read a lot of philosophy. Something about Marx really rang true. When I first started bringing Socialist stuff around the factory, I thought, “Ah, I’d better be real careful about this stuff.” What I found out was that guys in the plant were real receptive and there’s a real sense of class war on the plant floor, because they’re really trying to squeeze as much work as they can out of you. We were all young guys, and we also wanted to fuck off as much as we could. So that struggle was definitely there. The whole piecework thing, which they cram down your throat, is in reality a wage cut. They see how much you’re producing. In order to get the wage that you’re getting, you have to produce more, and then if you produce anything over that, they give you a bonus along with a lot of hype about productivity and competitiveness. But it’s a transparent shell game. And everybody understands this. Yeah, there are certain aspects of Marxism that … it seems to be the idealization of the working class. It seems like wishful thinking. Workers are just as capable of reactionary attitudes as anybody. There are certainly a lot of wealthy progressive and humanistic people.
But on the shop floor, it’s very clear that you’re getting screwed and they’ll screw you as much as they can, and you’ve got to fight back. And if you’ve got a good union, you’re in a lot better shape than if you don’t, so … so much of that stuff rang true. Marx is a little dense. German philosophy talk is a little hard to understand, but the Weekly People would explain things in an understandable way. I’ve read more Marx as time goes by. I just did a cover for a book called How to Read Marx.
GROTH: Right. I have that.
SPAIN: That’s pretty good at clarifying some of that dense text. But you really see the class struggle going on all the time. For example, the MAI (Multi-Lateral Agreement on Investment). I don’t know whether you know about that. It’s a super-NAFTA that would basically have an unelected council of businessmen that could override environmental laws, workers’ safety laws. It really is this capitalist world government that would make democracy obsolete. Obviously every rich person is not a bad person, but the basic tendency of that conservative outlook is authoritarian and antidemocratic, and something that anybody but the most servile person has to be against.
GROTH: Well, I guess this isn’t the time to get into that.
SPAIN: Right. I have to sort of hold myself back from another political tirade.
GROTH: You did a fairly small number of Trashman strips for the East Village Other before you moved to San Francisco.
SPAIN: I actually did a chunk of them.
GROTH: About 20 pages, I think.
SPAIN: Yeah. I did a few — there are a few that I know I did that aren’t in the collected Trashman that I —
GROTH: Oh, is that right?
SPAIN: Yeah, as I read through it, I thought, “Well, where’s this strip, where’s that strip?” So there’s a few that aren’t there. But I don’t know exactly where they are. But there’s somebody somewhere around that’s got a big collection of these.
GROTH: Trashman is a fascinating mélange of revolutionary politics, sci-fi, and pulpy plots.
SPAIN: Yeah, well, I like those pulpy plots. There’s something about the serials, those Saturday-matinee serials. They have this minimal plot line and maximum action. So when I did the last Subvert comic, I tried to set up something like that where I had a minimal plot so I could just do a lot of action. Which is the trend of a lot of movies, too. It’s funny, because action is really a space-filler. You can make it as long or as short as you want, and it’s beside the point of the basic plot. The basic plot, you have a basic problem, and usually a McGuffin, some sort of object that everybody’s after, and then the action’s something that’s many times not really essential but can also be interesting in and of itself.
GROTH: You just mentioned Subvert comics. You published that in San Francisco, didn’t you?
SPAIN: Oh, yeah.
GROTH: Now, can you tell me at what point you moved from New York to San Francisco?
SPAIN: Well, I came out here at the beginning of ’69, and went back to New York, and stayed there until December of ’69, and then got a good ride out here.
GROTH: What was the lure of San Francisco?
SPAIN: Well … a lot of it was that I had a good ride out here.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Those were the days.
SPAIN: Yes, right.
GROTH: It’s practically the same thing Crumb said, I think. He just lucked into a ride out there, and landed there, and that was that.
SPAIN: Yeah, I had a ride — with Crumb’s date, actually.
SPAIN: Her name was, the name she went by was Lark Clark.
GROTH: Lark Clark?
SPAIN: Yeah. Crumb said he once pushed her face into a bunch of spaghetti or something like that.
GROTH: À la Cagney.
SPAIN: À la Cagney, right, yeah. That tough guy.
GROTH: I always think of Crumb and Cagney together.
SPAIN: Yeah. [Laughs.]
GROTH: Explain how you got this ride with Lark Clark?
SPAIN: I had known her, and at some point she had gotten a new Volkswagen, and needed somebody to drive with her across country, and I was just in the state of mind where I could have stayed in New York or I could have come out to California. There was all this stuff happening in California. Of course, there was a lot of stuff happening in New York, too. But she tilted the balance.
It took us about two weeks to get out here. The ride across country was interesting. At some point, the car broke down in a small western town, and I’ve never had this kind of attention before or, thankfully, after. It started off with us opening up the I Ching, and the I Ching saying something to the effect that strangers in a hostile place should give nobody a hard time. OK. With that I could hear the car starting to cut out. We got to some garage, and I assumed that everybody worked on Volkswagens. But we went to this garage and the guy said, “Volkswagen? What the hell’s that?” He told us that there’s one guy in town who might work on it, we might try this garage down at the end of the street. We had to get someone to push the car to get it started at that point. We got to the garage and the garage said, no, they didn’t work on Volkswagens, but there was another guy down at the end of this other street who might just help us out. So what I did was, I would stop the car in the middle of the street so somebody would have to give me a push. Lark Clark had her son, who was a baby at the time. At some point she became indignant because I was doing this unethical thing to the other drivers by stopping the car in the middle of the street and she walked out in a huff. So I was left with this car in this hostile town with this baby. Somebody finally gave me a push —
GROTH: She left the car without her baby?
SPAIN: Yeah, she just strode off without her baby. So once I got the car going, I saw her walking down the street and I slowed it down enough to say, “Meet me at that garage at the other end of the street, and just do it.” So we got down there, and at that point the people in the garage were not glad to see me. So I told her, “Listen, we’re really in a bad situation. Nobody knows what a Volkswagen is here. There’s one guy who might work on it. But I got to go find him, and I can’t get this car started, so I want you to wait here with the baby. You’ve really got to do this, because we can’t leave the baby, blah blah blah.” So I walked through this town, and everywhere I went, like I say, I’ve never had this kind of attention before. People were coming out of doors and yelling at me. Cowboys were trying to pick fights with me. Everywhere I went, people were locking their doors, and it was just a wall of hostility. People were swearing at me, people were driving by cursing me out.
GROTH: [Laughing.] You weren’t used to this?
SPAIN: Well, not in New York. In New York, I was a normal guy.
GROTH: To what did you attribute this?
SPAIN: Well, I had long hair, I had this jacket that was from Afghanistan that a good friend had gotten me—
GROTH: Foreign, yes.
SPAIN: And I think I looked like a hippie, you know. So I finally got to this old guy, and he said, “Sure. If you’ll bring it down here, I’ll see what I can do for you.” And when I went back to the place, I decided to take what I figured was a shortcut. I figured if I could cut through these streets, I could get there quicker, time being of the essence. The guy told me, “I’ll be closing in 15 minutes,” so I had to get it there. I finally got to the gas station, and I said to the people there, “Listen, if you guys give me a push, I’ll be out of here, you’ll never see me again.” Three or four guys jumped up and gave me a push. And I took it to this guy, this nice old guy welded this part in the distributor, and it was this real meticulous job, holding this tiny part, trying to weld it. But he did it, and the car started. I assumed the guy would charge me 40 or 50 bucks. The guy charged me six bucks. And I just got out of there, and I was just so happy to get the fuck out of that town.
GROTH: What state was this?
SPAIN: This was in Wyoming. Something like Greenbanks, Wyoming. You know, that’s one place that I will avoid. So … we’d been dawdling on the road, just taking it easy. At some point, my money was running out, and I had to get to San Francisco. Lark Clark, she would get into these free-love communes and try to get everybody to fuck everybody. That was her thing.
GROTH: That was her thing?
SPAIN: Yes, this was her thing, yes, right. She was a true sexual iconoclast.
GROTH: I bet she was successful at it.
SPAIN: Yeah, you go to these places, and guys would be porking each other, and everything. Yeah, she was really a classic Love Child. It was good times crossing the country with her.
GROTH: Fun while it lasted, huh?
GROTH: I guess you never kept in touch with Lark Clark.
SPAIN: Yeah, I eventually lost touch with her. Every so often she would come to town and I’d see her. But I did lose touch with her. Crumb mentioned her in a strip. I think he wrote her original name in some sort of advertisement on the back of one of his comics.
GROTH: Fondly, I hope.
SPAIN: Oh yes. Right. She was … yeah. Dana Crumb hated her guts.
GROTH: I would expect no less.
GROTH: So you arrived in San Francisco. Can you tell me a little about how you started to meet people, or how you started to move in your new social circles?
SPAIN: Well, the last time I was here, I had already met [S. Clay] Wilson, and I knew Crumb — at one point I stayed in his place.
GROTH: How did you meet Wilson?
SPAIN: I did something for Zap. That was Zap #4, I believe. I did something while I was staying at Crumb’s, so … you know, I’d met everybody already. [Victor] Moscoso, I knew Gilbert [Shelton] from New York.
GROTH: You actually did something for Zap when you were out there on a temporary trip?
SPAIN: Yeah. I wasn’t sure whether I was going to stay in California. The East Village Other gave me a ticket to come back, and I’d never flown across country. I was easily swayed, as you can see. They gave me a ticket, so I flew back to New York and worked for the East Village Other again.
GROTH: Zap was a pretty closed community. How did you get invited to appear in Zap?
SPAIN: I think it was a little more open at that point, because after me and Robert Williams, Moscoso and Wilson decided they didn’t want anybody else in, and so then it became a closed thing. Well, Crumb gave Zap to the artists. It’s something he didn’t have to do. It was really an act of generosity on his part. Zap is a collective, made up of the most uncollective guys there are. So in setting it up the way he did, everybody had veto power on anybody new coming in. This is something that rankled Robert because he wanted to see a lot more open attitude in Zap, and he just didn’t have the power to impose his will. One thing he could have done was set things up so that if an artist didn’t have anything in a particular issue, then he would lose his vote in the next issue. That would have been one way to offer an incentive to have something in every issue and give himself more influence. But nobody had done this before. I trace the present unhappy state of Crumb with Zap to that, to our general inexperience, and Crumb’s generosity. Even though, when you look at the Zaps, we turned out 13 good issues, so there are arguments both ways. The limited group of artists became something of a format that kept Zap from being some sort of a generic underground comic which many underground comics tend to be. But there were a lot of good guys who should have been in Zap. A lot of guys who are good artists and who crank it out regularly.
GROTH: You think Crumb’s a little disillusioned with Zap now?
SPAIN: Well, yeah. Yes. That’s what he says. In the next Zap, we’re featuring the great artist’s punch-out between Crumb and Moscoso. He did his version, and me and Moscoso did a reply to him.
GROTH: So you went back to New York, and then you finally hitched a ride with Lark Clark, and moved to San Francisco more or less permanently, I guess.
SPAIN: Yeah. Permanently.
GROTH: How long after you got there did you publish Subvert?
SPAIN: Um, let me see. I did Subvert, I did Mean Bitch Thrills, which actually sold about 40,000 copies or more. At that point, it looked like underground comics were going to be a going concern. They even had a few underground comic conventions.
GROTH: They had one in Berkeley, right?
SPAIN: Right. So things seemed to be going along OK until about ’73, which interestingly enough is the time when American wages peaked. American wages have been downhill since ’73.
GROTH: Do you think there’s a cause and effect there?
SPAIN: I wonder. You know, that whole afterglow of the Summer of Love seemed to last well into the ’70s, when there seemed to be a decision at some level to reduce the standard of living of the average American. I’ve always looked upon Richard Nixon as the powers-that-be saying to the public, “I want you to go into the woods and pick the switch that I’m going to whip your ass with.” Nixon was the switch with which to whip our collective fannies. Things were never quite that good after Nixon. You could feel the happy smile among the Reagan Democrats. Their little asses were red in contrition for the “excesses” of the early ’70s, late ’60s. Things were great while they lasted. But you can still see the hand-wringing among conservatives about the ’60s.
GROTH: Well now, when you say things were “great,” what do you mean?
SPAIN: There was a lot of good times, underground comics were doing great, San Francisco was rocking out …
GROTH: Yeah. Of course, there was enormous social turmoil, and Vietnam was reaching its peak, students were getting shot …
SPAIN: Right. That’s right. Yeah, and all that sort of thing was going on. I ended up living with a bunch of people who were really involved in political protests. I got to know people from the San Francisco Mime Troupe. So yeah, that kind of political ferment was really building up. The whole thing about the anti-war movement, it had stops and starts and periods of discouragement, then it would pull itself up by the bootstraps. Because the war was so horrible that even if you got discouraged, you knew that they’re still sending off people like yourself that get killed, really for nothing. The documents that have come out show they even knew that the war couldn’t be won, but kept sending American youth into this meat grinder.
GROTH: Did the social-political activism over that period dovetail with your own conception of revolutionary politics?
SPAIN: Yeah, it did more or less. A lot of the political activism was more student-based than working-class based, because the students were the ones who were getting drafted.
GROTH: Yeah, and you were in the blue collar camp, more or less.
SPAIN: I was more like an old Leftist in some ways. Today, a lot of the Green Movement is too anti-tech for me. After Critical Mass, which is this thing once a month where the cyclists stop traffic, trying to get everybody to get out of their cars, I would have a whole lot of misgivings about voting for a Green candidate. It’s come down to the anti-tech versus the pro-tech people like myself.
GROTH: You’re pro-tech?
SPAIN: Yeah. The two cultural trends at the end of the 20th century are the Futurists versus the Functionalists. If we drop to the technological level of, let’s say, the Mennonites, the Pennsylvania Dutch, we could definitely have a sustainable future. Whereas if we keep building nuclear plants and gas guzzlers, we’ll probably end the species. And so, you see, some people are Functionalists, and they want to see the human species go on, and other people just want to see this gleaming-chrome future. I’m really one of the people who wants to see the gleaming-chrome future, but I think we’d have to make certain adjustments. For example, if ten percent of our power can come from photovoltaics, why not build ten times as many photovoltaic plants and run everything off solar energy? Including cars. I don’t want to live like a primitive person. At least in that sense. Right now I’m starting to work on something called Alien Apocalypse 2000. The person I’m working with is an Earth First person, so we have interesting philosophical discussions.
GROTH: Philosophical collisions, I would think.
SPAIN: We’re able to carry out things on an amicable basis. We have personal respect for one another. I’m not out to trash them, because it’s all compared to what? Charles Hurwitz should be in jail. People like Charles Hurwitz are vandalizing our national patrimony by destroying some of the last of our redwoods to fund their little junk bond schemes. But, on the other hand, I’m not giving up my car so some Chinese bigwig can drive his. There’s got to be another solution. Plus, I just don’t believe in animal rights. I wish it was cold enough in San Francisco so I could wear a fur. As it is, I wear as much leather as possible. I think that animal rights are a symptom of degeneracy. So we have that philosophical difference, also.
GROTH: Do you have any animal companions?
SPAIN: Well … my wife and my daughter have badgered me into having a rabbit.
GROTH: No pun intended.
SPAIN: [Laughs.] Right, no pun intended. But it doesn’t make any noise, and I refuse to deal with its feces or take care of it. I’m higher on the evolutionary chain, and it should be taking out my shit.
GROTH: And you have the additional option of being able to eat it if it gets uppity.
SPAIN: That’s right. That was certainly a selling point. But I hate dogs and I’m allergic to cats.
GROTH: Well let me get back to Subvert. Rip Off published that.
SPAIN: Oh yeah, except the last issue was published by Justin Green’s brother who died recently, Keith.
GROTH: Rip Off was Gilbert and Jack Jackson and Fred Todd, I think.
GROTH: How did you connect with them?
SPAIN: I had known Gilbert from New York, and they were one of the people who published things, so I did some work for them.
GROTH: Did you meet Jack out there?
SPAIN: I met him here.
GROTH: It seems like you two would have a lot in common, a fascination with history …
SPAIN: Yeah, I love his stuff. His stuff is great, he did Commanche Moon, and the book about Juan Seguin in Texas. Great stuff. It’s a great way to teach history. Have you ever seen that Texas history book, done in comic book form? Incredibly racist. Mexicans are referred to as greaseballs, and things like that. It’s a great way to teach history if you just take that racist bullshit out.
GROTH: Whatever didacticism there is in Trashman is leavened by the pulpy quality of the plots, the sci-fi elements, and frivolous sex. To what extent were you trying to put forth an agenda in Trashman, and to what extent were you just trying to put together a good adventure story?
SPAIN: Well, both were concerns. All art has some sort of political context. Some more than others. Some things are fairly didactic. Things like The Fountainhead are basically propaganda pieces.
GROTH: A 1,000-page tract.
SPAIN: Yeah, right, really. And [Steve] Ditko’s stuff is interesting, but that stuff becomes so preachy, and you have to have some affinity for that point of view if you’re going to put yourself through reading all that. My model is television and mass media in general, which also carries with it certain assumptions. It is in its own way no less didactic than The Fountainhead or Steve Ditko, it’s no less didactic than Trashman or anything else. I just happen to have a minority point of view.
GROTH: Well, no, if anything, I’d say it was less didactic, and—
SPAIN: Well, good, because I mean it to be less didactic.
GROTH: Yeah. Fewer speeches than in Mr. A.
GROTH: Or The Fountainhead.
SPAIN: Yeah. I think that it goes over better that way. So my model in a lot of ways is more mainstream. Television has more of a subtext of propaganda; I think police programs are classic propaganda. Lying propaganda at that. In no cop program do you see anything about cops shoving billyclubs up some guy’s ass, or even when they touch upon cops’ planting evidence on people, it’s all done in some way that justifies it. I was watching something on Law and Order where the cops are agonizing about lying in court. This is a joke. The Philadelphia police department has been caught planting evidence on people, and the New Orleans police department was actually running a murder-for-hire racket, etcetera, etcetera. The great thing about underground comics is that there’s an opportunity, however limited, to come out with something that is more realistic.
GROTH: When you were doing the Subverts in San Francisco, you must have been in the process of learning the form.
GROTH: I don’t have a really tight chronology of your work, so I don’t know how your work played out, but I have a feeling that you did Trashman first, and then moved into doing historical and autobiographical stuff. Is that about right?
SPAIN: Yeah. The first thing I did that was really autobiographical was in Young Lust. Which I started to dip my toes in talking about my own experiences, and —
GROTH: What story would that have been?
SPAIN: There was a story called “Raw Meat.” It was about a gang bang some time in the ’50s in an optometrist’s office.
GROTH: That wasn’t the story about rolling the gay guy?
SPAIN: No. I think rolling the gay guy might have been before “Raw Meat.” Yeah, that was “Dessert.”
GROTH: “Dessert,” right. Which was ’76.
SPAIN: Yeah. OK, so it was already that late. Right after that, we did a color version of Young Lust, and that’s when I did “Raw Meat.”
GROTH: Wasn’t Young Lust edited by Bill Griffith?
SPAIN: Yeah, that was Bill’s … Bill and Art [Spiegelman].
GROTH: How did you get involved in that? Did they just invite you in?
SPAIN: Yeah, another thing I put out was Insect Fear. Let me think … Insect Fear might have had something that was about people I knew. “Plate Job,” that was the name of it. In Insect Fear #3. We put out three issues of Insect Fear.
GROTH: What other artists were in Insect Fear?
SPAIN: Insect Fear—Wilson, Justin [Green], there was a woman, her last name was Melendas, she did the back cover … I forgot whether Trina had anything in any of the Insect Fears … Jim Osborne … Kim did some stuff for Insect Fear. I don’t know whether Rory Hayes ever did anything for Insect Fear. We always used to hang out together, so that if somebody had a comic going, whoever wanted to be in on it usually would just jump in —
GROTH: Was there one person more or less in charge of Insect Fear?
SPAIN: Yeah. Well, I was in charge of Insect Fear. I thought up the tide, and did the first issue.
GROTH: And who published that?
SPAIN: Print Mint.
GROTH: Was it a pretty fairly free period at that point, where you could get almost anything published that you wanted?
SPAIN: Yeah. It was not only real easy to get published, but it was sold through headshops so we had a great distribution set up. At some point they cracked down on headshops, though. Having underground comics would identify them as being dope-oriented establishments, so they would drop underground comics.
GROTH: Why would you publish at one underground publisher over another?
SPAIN: I don’t remember there being any special reason. When I came to town, I already had an Insect Fear started, so … I had a cover and a story, I got other people to do stories, it was real easy because everybody was really up for it. Zap was done by Print Mint, so I brought it over there, and they were happy to do it, and the same with Mean Bitch Thrills. At some point I did Subvert with Rip Off, because I knew those guys. There wasn’t any really special reason why I would go to one person rather than another. Last Gasp came a little later, and I think they were the ones who started putting out Skull comics. And so, I began to work with them, but it was a period of prosperity.
GROTH: Relatively speaking.
SPAIN: Well, yeah, given what we were used to. At the East Village Other, for a while I was making 15 bucks a week, and you could kind of live on that through one thing and another. One thing that helped a lot in those days was being on food stamps. That certainly helped us to survive, and helped me to —
GROTH: I was going to ask you how you actually earned a living through this.
SPAIN: Yeah, when I had to look for a job, I would write down I was an underground cartoonist.
GROTH: There weren’t too many openings.
SPAIN: Right. There weren’t too many openings, right.
GROTH: You were doing work for Zap, and you were doing a handful of your own comics, like Insect Fear and Subvert. You also got involved in Arcade, which was edited by Art and Bill. Can you tell me what it was like working with Art and Bill?
SPAIN: Bill and Art. You know, things were starting to slip already at that point, and we were trying to turn out a slick, professional publication, and having a Crumb cover was always a big seller. For Crumb, it was something closer to his vision in that it opened a venue for new artists, and it wasn’t the closed thing that Zap was. And so it was a hopeful thing, and …
GROTH: What were Bill and Art like as editors?
SPAIN: They were just fine. I mean, there wasn’t too much editorial control … Nobody bugged you. You were given so many pages, you did the pages, and that was it. The closest thing to any kind of editorial direction was when I did Insect Fear. The stories were about psychological terror, so one of my requirements was you had to have insects crawling up the walls. I think that was the closest to any kind of editorial imposition that I’d ever heard of. I thought that would give the book some sort of editorial cohesion.
GROTH: Did you ever do any work for Raw?
SPAIN: No, I never did. I helped them staple some copies together one time I was in New York, but I never did anything for Raw.
GROTH: Well, then you did work on Raw …
SPAIN: [Laughs.] Well, yeah. I guess you could say that. I forget what issue it was. I just happened to be in New York, and so I helped put them together.
GROTH: What prompted you to do autobiographical work? The earliest autobiographical work you did was maybe ’76.
SPAIN: Well, there’s all these great stories from my old neighborhood. There were many stories I wanted to do, but I never thought I was skilled enough to do them up to that point. There are many great stories that come out of the Road Vultures, but they require a certain level of facility and a certain ability at plotting that I just didn’t feel I had before that time. I had all these guys’ faces in my head. At one time or another I drew everybody’s picture. I could draw everybody from memory. As a matter of fact, when I was in the Road Vultures, we would have these pads. I would do murals of motorcycles roaring over cops’ bodies. I would draw all the guys on bikes. It really outraged the Buffalo Subversive Squad. After we moved out of the apartment, they would send cops down to take photos of my work. The best one of those murals I did was inspired by a movie with Virginia Ding-Dong Bell. I don’t know if you know who she is.
SPAIN: She was this semi-porn star from the ’50s, a big-breasted woman. She was beautiful in a strong Slavic way. I saw her in a movie, and I was really taken by her. So I drew her on the wall of an apartment of a woman I was staying with. I drew her with pasties and a G-string on, just like in the movie. The only problem was that it didn’t look like Virginia Ding-Dong Bell. It looked exactly like Lady Bird Johnson. I really didn’t mean to do it that way — it was really just bad portraiture. I really didn’t have anything against Lady Bird Johnson, and even drawing her in this situation was not in my eyes demeaning in anyway. But, once I had drawn Lady Bird Johnson, I did know how to draw Johnson. So I drew Johnson and the Yellow Peril behind him, and I just filled up the wall. After we left there, boy, the Buffalo Subversive Squad was very interested in that. You know, this is real evidence of the sort of goings-on that they didn’t approve of. Especially having seen the stuff that I had done previously of motorcycles roaring over prostrate bodies of cops. I don’t know whether they still have it, but there was probably a file of my artwork with the Buffalo Subversive Squad for a long time.