HIS TRUE STORY
GROTH: You said that you always had an interest in telling autobiographical stories. Was Justin [Green] an influence, because his was one of the earliest autobiographical comics told in comics?
SPAIN: Yeah, definitely, that thing was great. At one point, I had about six copies of Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. I let people borrow them. Each comic was given with solemn vows that they would return it, and I ended up having no copies at all. It was one of the masterpieces of Western civilization.
GROTH: Right, right. Well, you know, your autobiographical stories are usually less … well, I’m trying to figure out how to put it, but —
SPAIN: They’re less tormented than Justin’s.
GROTH: Yeah, exactly.
SPAIN: Justin is a far more tormented person than I am.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Is that true?
SPAIN: Some people think that I’m not tormented enough, but you know … that’s just the way I am.
GROTH: I’m sure they’re working on it.
SPAIN: Yes. [Laughs.]
GROTH: Do you think that’s true?
SPAIN: Yes. Justin’s far more tormented than I am. I tend to be somewhat jive.
GROTH: To what do you attribute your lack of being tormented, or to put it in a more positive way, your sense of –
SPAIN: My upbeat sense of the world?
GROTH: Yeah, right. [Laughs.]
SPAIN: Well, I don’t know. I think I’ve seen the best of America. You know, for all my complaints, I have seen the best of it. When I see kids today, I understand that it’s a whole lot worse now. So —
GROTH: Worse now than it was when you were a kid?
SPAIN: Worse now than it was when I was growing up. So …
GROTH: How do you think it’s worse?
SPAIN: Well, what you pay for rent now is ridiculous.
GROTH: Yeah. Harder to exist.
SPAIN: It’s much harder to exist, and so I was able to have good times. I mean, today you’re living in this incredibly punitive society. There is a kind of war on youth. I think it was John Mitchell who said this country will turn so much to the right that you won’t recognize it.
GROTH: [Laughs.] The prophet John Mitchell.
SPAIN: Yeah, right. You know, that’s what it is. It’s interesting that the generation of hippies became sour conservatives, to the point where the people have become so vindictive that they even ignore their interests just for the thrill of punishing somebody. That’s what it is, you know, the punitive society. The United Prison Camp of America.
GROTH: Do you attribute that to both the right and the left?
SPAIN: Well, there are certain elements of that on the left, you know. You have anti-sex feminists. All feminists aren’t anti-sex, but there certainly is the “no more fun and games.”
GROTH: Why do you think the social convention moved in the direction to be, as you call it, so punitive?
SPAIN: Well, I think part of it is a decision by corporate America. The people had it too good. The Reagan Democrats are really interesting. They’re people who hate hippies, people who are really culturally conservative. They’re people who see all that kind of partying as being not a good thing.
GROTH: And yet, of course, corporate America has to push that kind of hedonistic lifestyle in order to sell more products that cater to that.
SPAIN: Yeah, that’s a factor. Well, the system has to be creating more leisure time for somebody. You’ve had a century of all this technological progress, and it’s got to be creating more leisure time. There’s only two things that production can do, which is to create leisure time, or find ways of spending it. Leisure time has to be going somewhere, and part of the whole drug thing is, half of the crack smokers are white people, but probably 90% of the people who get busted are black people. So black people become part of this economy of supplying drugs to wealthy kids who are bored, and this is something for them to do, so this a contradiction in society. The whole workfare thing, which is a way to get cheap labor. These conservatives will just lie to your face, because they think you’re so stupid. But when people on workfare say, “We’re doing the same job as this guy who’s working next to us, why don’t you pay us the same?” But then they say, “This is not really a job, this is a work experience.” Jeez, what a lovely term. And they’ll look you straight in the face and say it. But it’s just another way of extracting wealth from the mass of people and giving it to rich people, a lot of whom don’t know what to do with it, you know.
I think that it’s a problem that any society at our technological level has to deal with, which is how to use your leisure time. Do you sit around getting stoned all day? Today, you can cocoon. If you have enough money, you could just send out for drugs, for food, watch a hundred channels of TV, probably order some machine to suck you off. You would just sit in a chair.
There was a guy who worked for the East Village Other, he stayed up in the sleeping loft that I later lived in. He stayed up there for six months shooting heroin, and he had this guy who would bring him food and a plastic bag, and he would shit in the bag and the guy would take out his shit. He just stayed up there for six months. Bring him drugs and food. Of course, that was an exceptional thing, but I’m sure a lot of people are in that situation. A lot of people could do that today. And it’s more technologically feasible to do, but I’d like to think that there’s a better way to spend your time.
GROTH: So given the kind of laissez-faire attitude that capitalism imposes upon people, where do you think the punitive aspect that you refer to comes from?
SPAIN: I think part of it is people are genuinely frightened.
GROTH: So it’s a reaction against that?
SPAIN: Yeah, part of it’s genuine. I really wonder about the crime statistics, which are easy to manipulate, but you suspect that something’s really going on. San Francisco, which never seemed to have a big gang scene, a few years ago there seemed to be shootings every few months, just senseless and tragic shootings. So you can understand people saying, “We just want those guys to be out of our lives.” But I just think that it’s cynically manipulated, where most of the people in jail are in jail for drugs. The drug war’s basically a culture war. The people who are supposedly anti-drugs just have their own particular drugs that they’re for. They’re not really anti-drug, they just don’t like certain kinds of drugs. It’s just that the culture that came out of the earlier part of the century approved of certain drugs and not others, and they’re fighting people who don’t take the right drugs. Police programs are basically the alcoholics versus the junkies.
GROTH: Two generational factions?
SPAIN: In the graffiti wars as well, there are two schools of abstract art fighting against one another. The kids go and put up colorful graffiti, and then it’s covered with drab graffiti. The graffiti is still there, but it’s more “tasteful.” Slightly off-colored squares, you know, like tasteful Hans Hoffman vs. Jackson Pollock. It’s probably a reflection of basic technological upheaval.
GROTH: And you’re still pro-tech, though?
SPAIN: Yeah, right. The free market is a rationing system in and of itself. It determines what’s produced, and obviously the people with more money have more votes, if you want to compare it to a political system. But in a real democracy, we all have the same vote. The trick is, is being able to use that commodity for your own interests. There’s a general rip-off going on, and it’s usually under the guise of free market rhetoric. In California, they are deregulating power companies now. What that means is the average consumer is footing the bill for these bad decisions that are made by various power capitalists. They’re giving us an 11% discount, and then there’s an $18 surcharge to pay off the bad nuclear power decisions of the power companies, so … socialism for the rich. The rich are far too intelligent to reject socialism. The rich embrace socialism while they wag their finger at us about the free market.
GROTH: Well now, to get back to your autobiographical stories. There was one autobiographical story in which you depicted yourself as a fairly tortured individual. That was “My True Story.”
SPAIN: That’s because I was a tortured individual. No, actually, when I did that, I was coming out of a bad marriage, and so I was in a tortured situation. But actually I overstated the case. Actually during that period of time I was a whole lot less tortured than I portrayed myself.
GROTH: Is that right?
SPAIN: Yeah. I was having a great time.
GROTH: It looked like you were having a great time, but you also depicted yourself as an insensitive, womanizing clod.
SPAIN: Yes, but that’s what I was.
GROTH: Can you reconcile that with progressive politics?
SPAIN: Well, I don’t know if it has to be. Everybody who associates with me associates with me voluntarily. I don’t impose myself on anybody, so what’s the problem? I don’t believe the personal’s political.
GROTH: You don’t?
SPAIN: No. I reject that. I think that the personal and the political are the opposite. Because politics basically deals with the state, which is a coercive apparatus. And the only justification for coercion is to create less coercion. So of course we have to jail people who harm us, simply because if somebody beats you up, they’re interfering with your freedom. And so the coercion of locking them up is lesser than having to sustain getting beaten up by some bully. Really the purpose of society should be to create more freedom. So in terms of personal life, in that I don’t force anybody to associate with me or beat anybody up … uh, any more. I don’t feel any inconsistency by being a womanizer. What does that mean? You tell me.
GROTH: Well, I think it just means you like women.
SPAIN: Yeah, right, really. I like sex, right. I like heterosexual sex. You go to a politically correct bookstore, and you’ll see all kinds of gay, lesbian porn, but you won’t see any heterosexual porn, so—what sort of vision is that for the future, in which the majority of people, who are heterosexual, are going to be suppressed, while a sexual minority is going to be given freedom? What’s progressive about that?
GROTH: In this one story, you do suggest an almost Crumbian ambivalence towards women, a love-hate relationship. Is that accurate, or — ?
SPAIN: No, I love them. I love women.
SPAIN: Well, maybe not unconditionally. I taught my daughter how to do the arm gesture, you know, how to give somebody the arm. “Va fungola” in Italian. Sometime later, I was rebuking her and her mom because her mom had given her a task to do that she wasn’t ready to do, and she had spilled something or something like that, so I was calling them a couple of dumb broads. Then both of them turned to me, mother and daughter, and they both gave me the arm. I was so proud.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Well, given your position that the personal isn’t political, what do you make of the current various Clinton scandals?
SPAIN: I don’t care who he fucked. I think what it is an attempted coup d’état. I think Richard Mellon Scaiffe didn’t like the last election, so he’s using the vote that really matters, which is all of his big bucks. That’s what this is. The idea that Starr is not a political hatchet man is ludicrous. There’s a guy named Dozier who was funneling money to David Hale, who’s Starr’s main witness. The woman who saw this is an ex-girlfriend of Dozier, and one of the things that they were using to discredit her was that she uses Tarot cards. Now, why is this any more of an element of discredit than the fact that Starr’s a Holy Roller? I watch this stuff continuously and read Salon magazine, and it’s utterly fascinating to me because you’re really seeing an attempted coup in progress.
GROTH: A coup of prigs?
SPAIN: Yeah, right. I think I mentioned it earlier in this interview, this is a preview of what will happen when the right takes over. You will have some moralistic pecksniff checking you out, taping your conversations, etcetera. This is what the religious right is.
GROTH: Well, you know, the biggest or most prominent difficulty with the proposition that the personal isn’t political, I think, comes into play with sexual harassment. What’s your take on that?
SPAIN: Oh, that’s different. You know, it’s one thing to say something to somebody, but if you’re shouting something in someone’s ear, it becomes a form of assault. Besides, an employer-employee relationship isn’t really personal. There is that element of potential economic coercion.
GROTH: Or a President.
SPAIN: Or a President, right. I mean —
GROTH: Do you think there’s any legitimate inquiry, in terms of whether Clinton is hitting on women, and coercing them because of his position of power?
SPAIN: Paula Jones’ case is about whether he did it, and whether she suffered any adverse consequences as a result of turning him down. On both counts the court seems to have ruled that there’s a lack of evidence. Grabbing Kathleen Willey’s tit, that is a form of assault in my opinion. On the other hand, when you see those letters Kathleen Willey wrote to Clinton … If you were Hillary, that might disturb you a little bit, because those letters seem to be a little more than just some political supporter who agrees with Clinton’s program. So it becomes a complicated thing. Yeah, of course, grabbing some woman under almost any circumstance could lead to a potential charge of assault. Everyone should be free of assaults on their own person. On the other hand, Paula Jones is so clearly some pawn of these right wing guys that it’s hard to take that stuff seriously. What’s interesting is, the women’s movement has been chastised for hypocrisy, whereas the so-called pro-family movement isn’t called on the carpet for hypocrisy in that they made no complaints about Starr trying to get Monica Lewinsky’s mother to testify against her. This is your so-called liberal media.
GROTH: And even the right’s got its hypocrisy in denouncing Clinton, but not Clarence Thomas.
SPAIN: Yeah, correct. The Rutherford Institute suddenly becomes a champion of women’s rights? That was a very quick conversion.
GROTH: Well, it’s so opportunistic on both sides …
SPAIN: Well, I’m glad to say I didn’t vote for Clinton in the last election.
GROTH: Did you refrain from voting?
SPAIN: No, no, I voted for [Ralph] Nader. You know, at least I voted for something good. It was closer to what I wanted, but I guess if it definitely was a choice between him and Dole, I would have voted for him. You know, I kind of like Dole. Bush and Quayle had the same effect, of somebody scraping their nails on a blackboard, to me. I found them personally repulsive. Dole’s kind of a sinister guy. Reminds me of Stephen McNally in those ’40s movies. So I personally found him somewhat appealing. But of course I would never vote for him.
GROTH: One thing occurred to me reading your autobiographical stories, is that you seem to have been influenced — and tell me if this is even remotely true — by [Jack] Kirby.
SPAIN: Yeah, I guess there was an influence. Jaccaber, who runs the Psychedelic Solution in New York, showed up at my house with a piece I had done. I vaguely remembered doing it at the East Village Other office on Avenue A. They published it in Grand Street. It really does have this Kirby influence. At the time, I had been reading a lot of Kirby. He really had a sense of action, he had a real two-fisted style, and I love the interview with him in Comics Journal. I liked that better than his work, even. It’s interesting seeing how cartoonists evolved — when I was teaching, I would tell my students that they should get into something like sports or dancing, get into some physical activity, so when they drew the body, they would have some feeling as to how the body worked. That’s an intuitive feeling. It’s interesting seeing artists who do and artists who don’t. But Kirby definitely was a physical guy, so when it was clobbering time, it was very convincing.
GROTH: You weren’t athletic, were you?
SPAIN: I never went out for sports —
GROTH: But you were still physical?
SPAIN: I did a lot of jumping around. I used to run a lot.
GROTH: Visually, the autobiographical stories are different from, for example, your Big Bitch stories. Stylistically, there is a much greater use of blacks, the panels are denser, more crowded, there’s less negative space. There’s something purposely proletarian and naturalistic about them. I’m thinking especially of something like “Evening at the Country Club” which, bizarrely enough, looks like a combination of Kirby and Jack Davis. Very powerful, grungy, physical, and violent, and every panel is completely crammed.
SPAIN: There’s nothing really conscious. I don’t set out to have a different style with Big Bitch. In the autobiographical work, I have a lot of reference material, because every time I go back to Buffalo, I do a lot of sketching, and collect Buffalo material. I try to get buildings, old signs, etc. The version of that neighborhood is not completely accurate, but it’s close to accurate. I’ve been back there a few times. The neighborhood has certainly changed a lot, but the physical layout hadn’t changed that much. I could see places that had changed, but I try to keep the story consistent in itself. Actually, the prime source for the layout of that was a poster I did called “The Origins of the Beat Generation.” It’s a big poster of a gang fight. Just as I was finishing it, someone came over to my place who’d been there, someone I met in New York who was an older brother of somebody I hung out with. He was at that fight, and he told me it had actually taken place down the street in front of this church. The locale I have is better, in front of the Deco 28. It happened about six months later than the date I put on the poster.
Somebody put out a book on Buffalo ’50s culture, and they traced down that gang fight, so when I did it, I just had a general idea. But as I did that — as I did all the Tooté strips, I just tried to keep it consistent within itself …
GROTH: How accurate are the depictions of the characters, because —
SPAIN: I actually have a picture of Tooté.
GROTH: Because even minor characters look incredibly individualistic, idiosyncratic, and authentic. There’s a story titled “Hard-Ass Friday Night,” and all the characters in it are distinctive.
SPAIN: Yeah, well I drew all those guys at some point or another.
GROTH: Back then?
SPAIN: Back then.
GROTH: You actually use those old drawings as reference?
SPAIN: No. I have no idea what happened to those drawings. But when you draw something, it helps to stick it in your mind. There’s a real great photographic record of that stuff. This guy who’s a Road Vulture, collected photographs of that time. So there’s a lot of material around, and I’m still in contact with a lot of those guys, so …
GROTH: And the dialogue also seems incredibly authentic or even verbatim; was some of the dialogue stuff that you actually remember hearing?
GROTH: There’s one panel in here where a guy named Bob Debuff —
SPAIN: Oh yeah, Bob Debuss.
GROTH: He was picking on a fellow Road Vulture, and the Road Vulture says, “I wear my hair like this because I’m cool and if you don’t like it, you can just fuck off.”
SPAIN: That’s exactly what he said, right.
GROTH: And you just remembered this from — I don’t know, 15 years previously?
SPAIN: Yeah, a lot of that stuff stuck in my mind.
GROTH: In an odd way it reminds me of Kirby, because there’s such a no-nonsense quality to the physical confrontations. Obviously, Kirby was exaggerated, because he was doing primarily superhero stuff, and what you’re doing here is much more naturalistic. But in the sixth panel on this page, you have a drawing of this guy’s head with a big boot coming down on it, and a word balloon saying, “Get fucking down there.” So there’s not a lot of frippery here.
SPAIN: Yeah. Well, Buffalo’s a low-smile area.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Tell me a little about Fred Tooté, who’s in at least a few stories.
SPAIN: Yeah, I think I’m working on about the eighth story he’s in. Fred Tooté — we were good friends, and he was a good artist.
GROTH: And he was also a bullshit artist, right?
SPAIN: Yeah, he was also an incredible bullshit artist. He could have been a great cartoonist. We had this idea that we were going to become cartoonists, but we were both too out-to-lunch. I myself have always been a habitual drawer, just always drew. I just never stopped drawing. And I think — this is the sort of thing I’ve gone back and forth in my head — but if I had been more together, I could have encouraged him to develop that part of himself, and maybe he wouldn’t have died an alcoholic.
GROTH: Oh! He’s dead?
SPAIN: Yeah, he’s dead. In one of the strips I have a part where he says that he always had this premonition that he would die a horrible death, and it was something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. He fell asleep with a lit cigarette butt, burned himself up, and lived on for a few days, died that way, and … years later, I tried to contact his son, who just told me, “I can’t help you.” He refused to talk to me.
GROTH: I wonder why?
SPAIN: I imagine that they just figure I had a bad influence on him. I’m sure we just had a bad influence on each other. But neither of us needed too much influence, you know. We already had our orientation, but when we got together, we had a lot of laughs, had a lot of good times …
GROTH: Was “Fighting Poets” a real story?
SPAIN: Yeah. It’s a real story. It’s a bunch of different stories put together. It didn’t quite happen in that chronological order. A lot of the Tooté stories are real stories, but they’re put together in such a way that hopefully gives them a good plot.
GROTH: What is your conception of your responsibilities to autobiography? I mean, how accurate does it have to be, and how much do you think you can play with what really happened?
SPAIN: Well, I don’t make up stuff, maybe some minor things I’ll make up to move the plot along. Basically, it’s all true, and like I say, the chronology might not be exact, and I fiddle around with it a little. But it’s basically all true.
GROTH: There isn’t a lot of invention.
SPAIN: No. It’s hard to top that stuff.
GROTH: You don’t have to. What do you think of Harvey Pekar’s stuff, which is almost in autobiographical terms the opposite of yours —
SPAIN: Yeah, I like his work a lot. You go through that stuff, and some will be not so great, some will be great. The thing that he has down so courageously is his own dialogue, his own internal dialogue.
GROTH: One of your other modes, of course, is history, and especially East European/Russian history. What prompted you to do history in comics form?
SPAIN: Well, I was certainly influenced by Kurtzman’s work, which really made history come alive for me. And what you get as history is generally such a fairy tale that I just attempt to counterbalance it with a different point of view. Being Spanish, you really understand that there’s a different point of view than the official history, because Spaniards have a unique place in the Anglo-American view of history. And, as you can imagine, Spaniards don’t quite see ourselves in the same way that we are portrayed in the official view. I guess that gives me a dissident’s perspective on things. When you look more, you see that it’s not just Spaniards who are inaccurately portrayed. There’s an official point of view, certain things are ignored and certain things are focused on. One can have a different focus, just as legitimate, so it’s my pleasure to present that focus.
GROTH: I assume in researching these stories, you tried to get outside mainstream historical sources to more radical historians.
SPAIN: Well, yeah. A lot of it I knew already, a lot of it was stuff that I picked up later. In Anarchy Comics, where some of those historical strips appeared, there’s a certain amount of research, but then there’s a whole lot of history that any amount of reading will show that the popular view is just plain propaganda …
GROTH: A couple of your stories that have to do with dog fights, “Blood and Sky,” and “Lily Latvick, The Rose of Stalingrad,” reminded me very much of the Kurtzman-Alex Toth collaborations.
SPAIN: Well, thanks. Toth is the guy that I really admire.
GROTH: Oh, do you?
SPAIN: Yeah. It’s interesting. Toth is the first artist that I really recognized as a kid. He did something for Mystery in Space, one of those comics. And just the way the story was laid out, it evoked something of that science-fiction dream state that I could flip into when I was a kid. I’ve had this sort of thing happen to me three times: When I was a fairly small kid, when I was older, and once in, it must have been about 1977. It was a semi-dreamlike state of mind that I could just flip myself into, and it was better than being stoned. At some point I realized that when I was getting stoned, I was just trying to revive that state of mind. But it had nothing to do with getting stoned. I must have been maybe ten to 12, or maybe even later. It faded off as I got older. But it really was triggered by science-fictional imagery.
GROTH: Without drugs?
SPAIN: Yeah, right. I was around ten or l2. But certain things could act as a talisman to do that. And this strip by Toth was one of those things that evoked that feeling. It was really a great feeling. It was better than being stoned.
GROTH: Alex Toth is better than being stoned!
SPAIN: Having been stoned plenty, I know whereof I speak. But there was this other period, it must have been in 1977, and it seemed to be triggered by three things. There was some movie, a late ’40s comedy, the song Blue Bayou by Linda Ronstadt, and a dream I had about strange ’30s airplanes flying around my old neighborhood that could trigger something I felt as a kid in the late ’40s. I understand that revealing this to the world will remove any doubts that I’m an inveterate space-case, but most of my friends have probably guessed that already. Besides, I seldom miss a deadline. Anyway, for a few months I was able to tap into an altered state similar to the state of mind triggered by a strip done by Alex Toth sometime in the early ’50s.
GROTH: I felt that among your historical stories, “The Blue Boot” was particularly appalling on a personal, political, and historical level. Where did you dig that story up?
SPAIN: It comes from The 900 Days of Leningrad by Harrison Salisbury.
GROTH: You have a love-hate relationship with Stalin, and I remember many years ago I was in San Francisco, and we were sitting in a local tavern and I seem to remember you telling me, “Well, you know, Stalin wasn’t such a bad guy.” I didn’t know shit then, I was thinking, “Gee, I thought he killed a lot of people.” Do you think you do have a love-hate relationship with Stalin, or how would you characterize it?
SPAIN: Well, I do think that he really was such a bad guy. He also did great things. They recently had a documentary on Stalin and they were digging up every piece of unsubstantiated gossip and all kinds of distorted ways of looking at things to condemn Stalin. The thing about Stalin is there’s plenty of well-documented things that you can use to condemn Stalin; you don’t have to go into the kind of distortions that they did.
GROTH: I was going to say, you don’t really have to fabricate anything.
SPAIN: Right. The guy they had solemnly intoning about Stalin being a mass murderer was another mass murderer, Henry Kissinger. [Laughter.]
GROTH: Well, they must have been trying to be ironic.
SPAIN: Well, it reminds me of when Poland had a military Communist government, they had a program called “Let Poland Be Poland.” They had representatives of different countries getting up and talking about how bad it was to have a military dictatorship, and the last country they had getting up and lecturing Poland about the evils of military dictatorship was Turkey, which was a military dictatorship at that time. This is evidence of how stupid they think we are.
GROTH: Well, whoever got Kissinger in there must have a good sense of humor.
SPAIN: Or just utter contempt.
GROTH: Or maybe he thought it takes one to know one.
SPAIN: Yeah, right. The thing is Stalin was really a great military leader in World War II. Stalin won World War II, if not singlehandedly, fairly close to singlehandedly.
GROTH: Well …
SPAIN: Look it up. How do you want to look at it? If you want to measure it by time fought, you want to measure it by territory conquered, you want to measure it by casualties …
GROTH: Do you really think Stalin deserves that much credit as opposed to the Russian people and various other Russian military leaders? Because he also gutted the military and set the military back many years in the late ’30s.
SPAIN: By purging all those guys like Tukachevsky.
GROTH: He did himself and his country a great disservice by doing that.
SPAIN: You can make that argument, but in the first place, you didn’t have to do anything to get bumped off by Stalin. If he just woke up one night and had some paranoid notion about you, then you were in trouble. Who was the guy? I think it was Rakosovsky, who was purged, and at some point they just brought him out of the prison camp and brought him into the General Staff, and gave him back his medals and his position and everything. He was standing there, completely bewildered —
GROTH: Just get out there and kill Germans?
SPAIN: Yeah, right, go out there and kick ass for Stalin, right. And he did. But Zhukov, who most people have never heard of, is the greatest military leader of the 20th Century. He and Stalin. If anybody doesn’t think so, let me call their attention to the Battle of Kursk, which I’m sure you know is the greatest tank battle in history. Stalin was involved in planning up to a very minute level. When you hear people saying that they should have let Patton go all the way to Moscow — if they had, it’s doubtful he would have returned.
GROTH: Do you admire the kind of ruthlessness that’s required to be a great military leader?
SPAIN: I don’t know that admire is the right word. I’m glad we haven’t had to fight that kind of war on our own soil. But we certainly have our share of skeletons in our closet. And we’ve been in the most ideal situation you could have. I mean, it’s hard to make a direct comparison of Russian history to American history. You really appreciate how great America is when you read about Russian history. There’s a good book, it’s called Blood and Laughter, about the underground press in Russia. And at some point in Russia it was forbidden to use the word “constitution,” so people didn’t even know what that word meant. Russia comes out of history [under] suppression that America never really saw, and that Europeans, maybe Spaniards and Eastern Europeans and people living in the south of Italy, saw recently, but most of western Europe hasn’t seen for a few centuries. So we can be glad that we haven’t had that kind of history except, of course, for black people. But this is the history Russians come from. So from that perspective, Stalin isn’t that surprising. It’s not a question of admiring Stalin, even though there are certain aspects of him that are admirable. He stayed in Moscow and faced down Hitler. But on the other hand, being an enemy of Stalin was bad, and being a friend of his wasn’t that much better.
GROTH: There wasn’t that much distinction.
SPAIN: Right, there wasn’t that much distinction at times, but on the other hand, he was really a fascinating guy. In other words, I don’t know that admiration is the right term, but on the other hand, it’s completely fascinating.
GROTH: What did you think of Lenin?
SPAIN: Oh yeah, Lenin was great. You know, Lenin is in my opinion the most admirable guy in the 20th Century.
GROTH: And why is that?
SPAIN: Because he was the one guy who created the first government that was a government for working people. In fact, in the United States, the term “democracy” wasn’t really in major usage until the Russian Revolution. Suddenly America started using the term “democracy,” and then the whole New Deal resulted from the Soviet Union showing that workers could take power and run a government which made the American business class more conducive to granting reforms. Now that there isn’t a Soviet Union, the American business class is more determined than ever to roll back all those reforms. So Marx is proven to be correct once again when he said that the capitalist system cannot reform itself.
GROTH: Don’t you think that even Lenin, though, towards the end of his life, started perverting Marxism, and discrediting it by the oppressive methods he was starting to use?
SPAIN: In the first place, it was a society that just had a history of incredible repression. And it was not a situation where if you resign power, if the Bolsheviks decide to hold an election and lost, they could retire to the countryside. Look at what they were up against: if Reds caught White officers, they would put them on an iceberg and use them for target practice. But when Whites captured Bolsheviks, they would stick them into the boiler of train engines. The atrocities of the Whites were really ghoulish. That was the situation they were in. Plus, Russia was invaded by 15 countries. You know, if you look at the American civil rights record during that time, this was the time when, in America, lynchings were common. If you want to compare Soviet society with contemporaneous American society, look at things as they really were. This is a society that paid a certain lip service to freedom, on the other hand, thought nothing of carrying out the most blatant repression that you can imagine. So, yeah, Lenin did what he had to do to stay in power, and so did everybody else. But Lenin was at least on the side of working people, and Woodrow Wilson was not. Woodrow Wilson was the guy who was making the world safe for democracy, as he was jailing political opposition in America.
GROTH: Speaking of world-class leaders, what is your assessment of Roosevelt?
SPAIN: Well, he was certainly better than Hoover.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Don’t go out on a limb now, Spain.
SPAIN: [Laughs.] There was that reform impulse in America, and at the beginning of the century, there were people who were really trying to make American democracy work. There were many reformers. They also gave us Prohibition and drug laws, but I’m sure they were well intentioned. There’s always that impulse in America, of people who actually believe in democracy as opposed to the cynicism of the people in power who just look at it as window-dressing for their own self-interested goals. But on the other hand, this is the history of America, of people who are appalled to see their fellow citizens suffering. This touches them. So, I think you give credit it where it’s due.
GROTH: What is your opinion of the thesis that Roosevelt actually saved capitalism from itself?
SPAIN: I think that’s a strong argument. I think that there’s a certain amount of ambiguity in all of us. You can always really speculate about someone’s real intentions. Johnson is an even better example. Here was a guy who just couldn’t stop pressing the war in Vietnam. On the other hand, you get the impression that he really did have a genuine feeling for poor people. There was also a whole lot of ferment going on, which certainly helped that side of him come to the fore. If somebody does a good thing, you have to give them credit for doing a good thing. Even Nixon did some good things. On the other hand, there’s always some ambiguity. You can always make the case that they just did it because they had to do it. There’s good aspects to capitalism as well as bad. To me, a whole lot of what occurred in the Soviet Union was the result of this feudal society that preceded them. The American Revolution didn’t automatically bring about democracy as we know it today. You can’t just walk into a country and take over and wave a magic wand and make everything the way you want it to be. It’s always a struggle, a struggle for every person to try to do their duty as a citizen and become involved in the political process when you’d rather be sitting around watching the game. Roosevelt backed a Republican for governor in a California election against Upton Sinclair, a Democrat, and used his support to get the Republican governor not to oppose the New Deal, so you always had those machinations.
EXPLICATE OR EXTRICATE
GROTH: Well, to shift gears dramatically, one thing I discovered looking through your work, and something Jay Kinney touched on in his introduction to the Trashman collection, was that you depict very strong and liberated women. Big Bitch is the most prominent example, but you also did a character called Sangranella, who is basically a ruthless female undercover agent. And what is interesting about it is it could be seen as politically correct or politically incorrect, depending on how you look at it.
GROTH: In one Big Bitch story in that character’s collection, she takes on about five guys at the end of the story — sexually.
SPAIN: Oh right, that’s the one you’re talking about, where she’s with a rock star.
GROTH: Yeah. And at first, it looks like she’s being sexually taken advantage of, but in fact, they’re actually playing into her hands, and she becomes the sexual predator, and by the end of the story, the men are all whipped dogs who are crawling around, and she’s just kicking them in the ass, saying ‘You bunch of limp-dick assholes, come on, get it up, I’m not through with you yet.’ So I was wondering if you could explicate your feelings about how you depict these women characters.
SPAIN: I don’t know if I can explicate myself.
GROTH: Do you think this is demeaning to depict her like this?
SPAIN: Yeah, I kind of do think it is a little demeaning.
GROTH: And what do you mean to do when you depict her like this? Because in a sense, you’re having it both ways.
SPAIN: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think I am having it both ways. I don’t know how to explicate myself on that one.
GROTH: [Laughs.] You’ve got to extricate or explicate, one of those.
SPAIN: Either one. I mean, I … I’ll have to talk to Algernon about that one. I had misgivings when I was doing it —
GROTH: I was going to ask you about Algernon Backwash.
SPAIN: He wanted to be here, but he just had other commitments.
GROTH: There was another story, a satirical story that also has this double edge to it, where … you’re not big on plots, I’ve got to really decipher this sucker. Well, she’s sent out as a secret agent on a train, and the female antagonist grabs her, and ultimately overwhelms her and trusses her up. And her faithful manservant, Asquith, which is another perverse element of Big Bitch, finds her, unties her, and then Big Bitch takes revenge on her opposing secret agent, lacing her food with Tabasco sauce and putting Wacky Glue on her toilet seat. And at the very end, there’s a kind of capitalist triumph, with women wearing these high-heeled shoes that the oppressive Soviet regime is trying to suppress. So it’s a pretty complicated story in six pages; can you talk a little about all the political currents you were dealing with there?
SPAIN: Yeah, well, you know —
GROTH: I mean, there’s feminism, totalitarianism, capitalism, fetishism —
SPAIN: — I like them babes wearing high heels. All those elements are there. Actually, the government that was looking out for its female citizens would attempt to regulate their footwear. I had been to Russia, and one of the things I liked about Russia was the fact that women had this somewhat out-of-style footwear, and —
GROTH: By which you mean high heels?
SPAIN: Well, they just had more clunky shoes.
GROTH: I see.
SPAIN: Which were more fashionable in America a few years earlier. But then stiletto heels came back, so in Russia they hadn’t quite gotten around to that.
GROTH: You’re not pro-stiletto heels?
SPAIN: They’re OK, but I kind of prefer those clunkier ones more.
GROTH: “Sawtooth pumps.”
SPAIN: Yeah, sawtooth pumps. In Russian they don’t have a “th” sound. They have something that’s close to it, but not quite, so when I wrote that, in Cyrillic letters, I had to come as close as I could. And the other thing is, when the Russian woman is sitting on the toilet, she’s saying in Russian — let me see — something like, “Hooey, jopa,” and I forget the other word. They’re the three swear words I knew in Russian. Which is something like “dick, ass,” and oh — and “peesda,” “peestola,” or something like that, which is “cunt.”
GROTH: So these are actually real words?
SPAIN: Yeah, these are actually real words. There was a Russian film crew that stayed at my house that night, the crew was at a big peace march that walked across the country. When the head of the crew saw that strip, he got a big kick out of it, and he took me aside and showed me how to write it correctly. And there was a woman who spoke English, and as he was taking me into the other room, she said something like, “Oh, he likes to speak that fuck talk.” So there’s a certain authenticity there, which — I don’t know whether that extricates me from my political ambiguity, or —
GROTH: Well, good try. It’s such a concise series of ideological conflicts — feminism, totalitarianism, capitalism, all vying for some sort of control.
SPAIN: Right. Big Bitch really represents capitalism.
GROTH: Well, capitalism and feminism, because the last panel she’s in, she’s being eaten out while eating her ice cream cone. That’s got to be a triumph of some sort for her.
GROTH: And in the last panel, there’s certainly a triumph of capitalism. OK, we’ve discovered that you’re really equating feminism with capitalism.
SPAIN: Well, I don’t know if I equate them or not —
GROTH: Now we see your secret agenda.
SPAIN: Yeah, right. Sometimes my agenda becomes unclear even to myself. I visited the Soviet Union in ’87 and did some drawing in my notebook while I was there. In my notebook I did a drawing of all these Russian women marching in rank. I think it was published in Comics Journal. They all had this somewhat out-of-date Russian footgear. The title was “Shoe ’87” in
Russian. When I was leaving the Soviet Union I had an Intourist cup. I had a tape from an American woman who lives in Russia who didn’t want to translate it in Russia, and I had a bunch of other stuff that might be considered questionable. The customs agent went through everything, I had fit some kind of profile. I fit a profile in Russia, I fit a profile in Finland of the kind of person who gets his bags searched. The guy went through my bags and ignored everything except my notebook. He went through the book, and when he got to “Shoe ’87” the guy just stopped, he looked at that for a long time. Finally he let me go. [Laughs.]
GROTH: A fellow traveler, no doubt.
SPAIN: Yeah, so … I liked Russia.
GROTH: At what point did people start calling you “Spain”? Your first name is Manuel.
SPAIN: When I was about 12, I was changing around with a bunch of Irish kids and they would all tell me about how great Ireland was. One day I said to them, “Spain’s great, too.” They said, “Spain? Spain isn’t shit, Fuck Spain!” And so a series of wars ensued that culminated in —
GROTH: In defiance, you took the name.
SPAIN: Well, they started calling me “Spain.” I became Spain, the personification of being Spanish, which was fine with me. We were good buddies, but we would have these little wars. It culminated on the roof of a small garage in my back yard. My parents weren’t home. The rules of the game were I would try to get up on the garage using any means at my disposal, and they would keep me off using any means at their disposal, which included throwing chunks of metal that we found around the yard. They would try to whip me with – this stuff is somehow lying around my yard, these long strips of rubber. And I finally threw this piece of metal, and it hit Dave McKane in the head and drew blood. I was really sorry, and at that point we realized that we really didn’t want to hurt each other. I was genuinely sorry that I drew blood, and we pledged eternal friendship, and that was the end of our little war. But by that point everybody was calling me “Spain.”
GROTH: And it stuck.
SPAIN: And it stuck.
GROTH: Huh! So what were you called before you got that nickname?
SPAIN: They just called me “Manuel.” Then, kids would stand outside your house and call your name until you came out, or you’d go over to somebody’s house and go, “Oh Tommy, oh Tommy.”
GROTH: And you can became comfortable with that nickname?
SPAIN: Yeah. That’s what everybody called me.
GROTH: Half the people I know don’t even know your real first name.
SPAIN: Well … it just seems I’ve been fated to carry this name. When I first started drawing comics, people confused me with Rodriguez, the guy who does stuff for the National Lampoon, so it was clear that “Spain” was going to carry into my comic book career.