GROTH: You illustrated a comic called Boots, which came out a few years ago. This wasn’t written by you. I don’t have the author’s name in front of me.
SPAIN: [pause] It was Harry Kamper. He’s now under the Witness Protection Program.
GROTH: Harry Kamper is?
GROTH: [Laughs.] Huh! Well, that’s an interesting introduction to your collaborator. This is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a good long time. Can you tell me how you got involved in it? It’s a long book, something like a hundred pages.
SPAIN: Oh, it’s actually about 52 pages.
GROTH: Is that all?
GROTH: Jesus! It reads like a hundred pages, Spain.
SPAIN: [Laughs.] I don’t know if that’s a good sign. It’s just 52 pages.
GROTH: So how do you get involved in this project?
SPAIN: Well, this guy approached me to do a book. He would have four pages of text, we’d get together and break it down into page layouts, and then I’d do in them in pencil, and if he approved it, I would ink the four and then he’d pay me and we’d move on to the next one.
GROTH: So he actually wrote it in prose, and you broke it down into comics?
SPAIN: Uh, yeah.
GROTH: Were you told how many pages it was going to be total?
SPAIN: He told me approximately. We had an idea of what it was — I mean, the pages on the script didn’t quite correspond to the pages we turned out.
GROTH: Did he give you a synopsis of the whole story?
SPAIN: He gave me some brief thing, but I really had no idea of what was going to happen next, so it was a job for me at first. But I got into the story, it got to be like a serial, where I would be waiting to see what would happen next week.
GROTH: I understand he’s a rich lawyer. Is that true?
SPAIN: I guess he’s rich enough to spring for 20,000 copies.
GROTH: Rich and crazy.
SPAIN: I fixed him up with [Ron] Turner, who gave him the whole run-down on the publishing world. Ron told him that few people print 10,000, and probably he should not print 20,000.
He’s some ex-CIA agent, who’s now under the Witness Protection Program.
GROTH: Well, Boots is a pretty paranoid fantasy. I’m not sure I can make out all of it myself.
SPAIN: Well, yeah, there’s going to be a #2. I mean, now I don’t think he’s so sure, but there’s a whole lot of loose ends. I was disappointed that all the loose ends weren’t wrapped up, but he wrapped up a whole bunch of them.
GROTH: Can you give me your 25-words-or-less synopsis of what the thing is about?
SPAIN: Well, a guy is shot during a gang fight, and for some reason, there is all this media attention on him, on a homeless guy, on a guy who would otherwise be obscure. Basically, the Mayor’s aide convinces the Mayor to attend the funeral, which the Mayor is reluctant to do, but will do if there’s some sort of police check on him to make sure he’s not a crack dealer or child molester. They can’t find any trace of the guy, they can’t find anything, and no fingerprints. They put it on the Interpol, and the CIA, and everybody, and what this does is jacks up the mystery, and after awhile the media is into this, and there’s this whole media frenzy: who is this guy? So the mystery begins, and it starts building from there.
GROTH: There were religious overtones, weren’t there?
SPAIN: Well, the religious right takes over the satellite, and the Moonies are involved …
BIG BITCH’S SECRET AUNT?
GROTH: Tell me how you came to create Granny McGurk.
SPAIN: Oh, Granny McGurk. Well, Thrasher Magazine started a skateboarding comic. They needed a — the character just popped in my mind. Something that would be kind of off the wall, this old lady riding a skateboard. A tough old lady, at that.
GROTH: I even detected your theme of strong women telling guys to go fuck themselves.
SPAIN: Yeah, it’s a funny thing. That’s nothing that I set out to do, but—yeah, she could be Big Bitch’s secret aunt.
GROTH: Why did they come to you?
SPAIN: I forgot exactly how it was. I met a guy, an art director, and he suggested that I drop over there, and I did. I’d done a few things for those guys, and as a matter of fact, I’m doing a series called “Speed Demon” for their new magazine called Twist Grip; so far I’m into the third or fourth episode, so that’s coming along.
GROTH: And what is this going to be called?
SPAIN: They have a magazine called Twist Grip, which is a magazine for non-Harley Davidson motorcyles.
GROTH: Are you a non-Harley-Davidson motorcycle guy?
SPAIN: My first bike was a Ducatti, but my other two bikes were both Harleys. But there are all these developments that have transpired since I’ve ridden motorcycles, and so it’s interesting to meet all the guys over there, get together, and we’d bang out ideas, and guys would come up with great ideas, and I’d come up with a few ideas too, and we bang out a plot.
INTO THE NIGHTMARE
GROTH: The project you’ve been working on for what appears to be about three years, because the first page is signed “Spain ’95”—
SPAIN: Yeah, right.
GROTH: — is Nightmare Alley, which I understand was the third or fourth book in the Neon Lit series.
SPAIN: It’s the third book, yeah.
GROTH: And the second book came out two or three years ago.
GROTH: I’m not sure if there’s even a fourth book in the planning stages, or —
SPAIN: Yeah. I think he has a contract for seven books or something like that.
GROTH: It appears that this was a major piece of work that spanned three years of your life.
SPAIN: Yes, it did, yeah.
GROTH: It’s a tremendous amount of work. It frankly looks like you put more effort into this than just about anything else in recent memory.
SPAIN: That’s the way it feels, yes.
GROTH: The drawing is crowded with detail. And of course, the story plays into your love of pulp and the lurid side of life.
SPAIN: The novel’s a cult classic. You mention it to certain people, and they know it. I gave it to my father-in-law, and at a certain point he recognized it as the movie about the geek. It has a certain following.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Were you familiar with the novel before you — ?
SPAIN: I never — I’d seen the movie with Tyrone Power. It was done in ’46 or ’47.
GROTH: Was it good?
SPAIN: Uh, yeah. Yeah, I saw it, and I made a special effort not to see it [recently], because I didn’t want to just do a comic book version of the movie. But I remember the movie as being really gripping.
GROTH: Can you tell me how you got involved in doing this?
SPAIN: Well, I’ve known the publisher, Bob Callahan, for awhile. And … we had done some small things together, and so this came down the line, and … the sad thing that happened is, this guy up in your area, I think his name’s Zingarelli, a real good artist, he’s done some really great things. Callahan put out a book called JFK, and it’s about all these conspiracy theories. He did the art for it —
GROTH: Right. Mark Zingarelli.
SPAIN: The thing was, he was supposed to do it, but then his kid died, so, you know, that’s not a circumstance under which I wanted to get to do this … I’m really sorry — I’d never met the guy, but I’m certainly sorry that that happened. I was really sorry I ended up taking up with a book under those circumstances.
GROTH: You know, now that you’ve mentioned it, I think I remember hearing that. He lives just north of here, and he’s a very good artist.
SPAIN: Yeah, yeah, he’s a great artist. So … I wish him the best, man, I don’t know how anybody can carry on with a thing like that, but — yeah, I took it over. He had already written a treatment for it, but I just went through the book myself, and did my own treatment of it.
GROTH: When you say you wrote a treatment, how do you mean that, exactly?
SPAIN: I wrote a rough outline. Then I penciled the whole thing. So that took awhile. And I just had a sense of the basic things I wanted to have in there. The whole book is great. His raps in there are priceless, so I had to cram as much of that stuff in there as I could. There’s a few scenes I had to leave out because they weren’t essential to the plot. The book could really go on indefinitely. But I basically banged out a treatment, and we would send them to them for approval at various intervals.
GROTH: Now, who is “them”?
SPAIN: Avon Books. They had to approve it. So they hung onto the pencils for a long time. They finally gave me the go-ahead to ink it.
GROTH: Did they give you a specific page count?
SPAIN: No, there was a general page count. We thought it would be like 111 pages — I guess Perdita Durango was 111 pages.
GROTH: Nightmare Alley is actually 128 pages. I think this is the longest thing you’ve ever done. Did that present new problems for you?
SPAIN: Well, it was a big challenge. It’s like working out a Gothic cathedral by yourself. It presented me problems, but the book was so well written that it was really a pleasure, even though a kind of a masochistic pleasure, to just bang everything out, and to try to do credit to the guy’s script, because he just handled all these different characters in there, and he’s really a sympathetic guy.
GROTH: The lead character is sympathetic? Stan Carlyle?
SPAIN: Stan Carlyle, right. There’s all these flashbacks to Stan’s childhood, and to Molly’s childhood, so you kind of get some idea where they’re coming from.
GROTH: Did you say you thought Stan Carlyle was a sympathetic character?
SPAIN: Oh, no. Well, I mean, he is and he isn’t. You know. You can kind of sympathize with the guy. The guy’s certainly an able guy.
GROTH: [Laughing.] That’s what I was going to say.
SPAIN: I don’t want to give away the plot. [Laughs.] What can you say? But I mean, on the other hand, there’s some real sympathetic characters in there. I was glad to see him go after Grindle for all that bread.
SPAIN: There were parts I had to edit, like the descriptions of Grindle in the book, you really get some idea of how much of a mogul he is.
GROTH: Well, it certainly seemed like something that was right up your alley.
SPAIN: Yeah, it was. The book is interesting to me, because it’s really a proletarian novel. There’s all these great proletarian novels that are in effect banned. So it’s both things. It’s a proletarian novel, and it’s a cult classic. I identify with the writer’s point of view, there’s probably not too many guys that I can identify with as much as I could identify with [William] Gresham, so if he was around, I would want him to think that I had done a good job with what he gave me, so there was a special cause for me to try to do right by the guy.
GROTH: Did you feel the need to amend your style at all in an effort to visually capture the atmosphere of the novel?
SPAIN: Not consciously. I’m always trying different things. There’s obviously a limitation as to what I can do, but I’m always trying to explore just what those limitations are. Because the author can think of circumstances that I’ve never done in a comic book before, I had to try to draw new things, and that was part of the pleasure of it. Some people are real circus aficionados. I never really have been, but I did as much research as I could, and tried to come up with enough stuff, looking at machines, and trying to get that authentic feel. I tend to work to the end, but leave empty spaces, and then I go back and fill them up. So when I go back, I’m fresh, and a lot of times I would try to explore the detail … things would come out, things I had remembered, things I would think up, and …
GROTH: When you say you leave empty spaces, you mean in particular panels?
SPAIN: Yeah. In other words, I don’t fill every detail in the panel. I first ink the basic stuff, and take it as far as I can. At some point, I don’t feel like going on, [so I] just move on. And then once I get to the end, I just go back and — or if I’m in the middle of something, I’m looking through what I’ve done and I get some idea I just put it in. Justin Green, when he did Binky Brown, he would hang all the pages up in his room. He said he’d just be compelled to work on them. I don’t hang the pages up, but if you go back through your own work, you always want to touch up this or touch up that, or something will come to mind, because you dry up. At some point you just shoot your wad for that time, and then you just have to rest up. But when you come to it again, you’ll be in a different state of mind, and something will pop into your mind that you couldn’t imagine when you had reached that point of creative exhaustion, so … That seems to work for me. At some point you just have a feel for drawing people. Other times you just have a feel for drawing architecture. What I got into in Nightmare Alley was interiors, so I was watching movies, and looking at things, trying to think of the way some interior would look.
GROTH: Well, you also capture the circus atmosphere really well.
SPAIN: Oh, thank you. I tried to. But of course, the writing is so good, you know. The guy lays everything out, and the character Stan is a real believable guy.
GROTH: Do you make any kind of qualitative distinction between the work you write and draw, and the work that you draw from someone else’s writing? Do you prefer one over the other, or — ?
SPAIN: Well, if it’s good, if somebody has a good story, that’s more of a pleasure to do. I just learned how to write the hard way: bang out a plot and as we were talking about earlier, when I first did Trashman, I just would do whatever came to my head. And after a while I realized you needed a well-thought-out plot. And then just watching television and watching movies, and things like that, being a couch potato, you develop an appreciation for writers and even hack writers who crank out stories. When you see a crappy story, you learn to appreciate the good story, so you try to come up with a plot that’s somewhat intelligent and fun …
GROTH: Well, you’re not big on plots.
SPAIN: Well, I can crank out fairly elaborate plots, as you noted. I can get into an elaborate plot, but … any piece of art has to give the audience a certain quantity of something. And it can be various combinations. Some things can have lousy plots, but you like them because they have good characterization. Some things just don’t make it. They fall short of delivering to the audience. But somehow, a good piece of work makes you walk out of the theater, or finish reading a comic book, feeling satisfied. And a lot of times the plot is kind of predictable. The fact is, we spend our whole life watching movies and watching TV. We’ve probably seen more of this stuff than any generation has ever seen. We’ve seen every plot there is since we were kids, right? So somebody coming up with a new plot is fairly rare. But there’s still room for some creative things, and there are still areas that you can create. In action alone there seem to be endless possibilities. You can see a lot of things that are poorly done that can be improved on. Every so often you see a movie with a plausible fight scene. Like in The Young Lions where it looks like a real fight, where people actually get exhausted. The best one is Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers. You ever see that?
SPAIN: You know, where people are stumbling, and getting out of breath, and tripping over tables, and stuff like that. [Laughter.] So there’s always that room for improvement of the genre. I just try to take my shot at all that stuff, and try to do the best I can.
GROTH: It sounds like you’re a big movie watcher.
SPAIN: Yeah, I’m just a media aficionado in general.
GROTH: What kind of fiction do you enjoy reading most?
SPAIN: I read more non-fiction than I read fiction. Philip K. Dick was the guy that I last was really into. I read just about all of his science fiction novels, one after another. What’s interesting is, I think that Boots has kind of a Dickian plot.
GROTH: Yes, right.
SPAIN: But the guy never heard of Dick.
GROTH: [Laughs.] The same kind of mystical angles.
SPAIN: Yeah, all the weird turns, and — Dick can really keep you going on. I was never bored reading Dick. I was into science fiction as a kid, and if somebody can come up with something new, I’ll be happy to hear it. But you know, if I’m watching things on TV, monster movies and stuff like that, I — I like the Jurassic Park ones. I can appreciate things just from an action-content point of view. But on the other hand, I really like that kind of social commentary that Dick did, the way he would satirize things. But the thing about science fiction is that when it’s good, it can capture the unexpected nature of existence. If you were to go back to 1950 and give somebody a history of what happened up to this date, it would seem like the most bizarre science fiction. Even though in some ways things are pretty much the same as they were in the ’50s.
GROTH: You are doing something for Salon’s online magazine in collaboration with Justin Green and Paul Mavrides?
SPAIN: Yeah. It’s called “Dark Hotel.” The latest word is it’s coming up in September. It was supposed to come out last November. “Dark Hotel” is a great idea thought up by Bob Callahan: there’s a night clerk who sends you up to various rooms, and in each room, there’s somebody who will tell you a story. So each of us has a story that we tell, in 12 episodes. And it’s going to be online, they were trying to get an individual sponsor for it, but they couldn’t get anybody. But it’s just such a neat idea, the stories are so good, that they just got to put it on.
GROTH: Can you tell me what the stories you’re doing are like?
SPAIN: I’m doing a story that’s based upon the CIA Safe Houses that they had in San Francisco in the ’50s and early ’60s, where they tried out LSD on different people. And Paul’s doing a story about the ghost of William Burroughs that haunts the hotel and speaks in Mayan hieroglyphs. Interestingly, the guy who taught Burroughs Mayan hieroglyphs was the executor of the Lovecraft estate. And Justin’s doing a story … I think Mary Gaitskill is the author.
GROTH: And how does it unfold on the screen visually?
SPAIN: Well, they had a version of it up, in which there were four panels per episode, so you go into the hotel, and you go into the lobby, and there’s a guy, Drago, who’s the night clerk, and there are various rooms. You press the button on the room. I also designed the front of the hotel, and you can go up an elevator. You can go the long way, or you can go the short way. Bob and me had differences of opinion on this. When I was into Star Trek, the Next Generation, I wanted to be there at the beginning and see each time the spaceship went through all those galactic effects. So my opinion was that each time you have to go through all this stuff, go to the night clerk, and go up the elevator, and stuff like that. He said that a lot of people would just get annoyed at that, if you go to some online thing, you just get tired of that shit, so he wanted to have some way so you could just go directly to the story, then there’s four panels, and that’s the episode for the week, and the next week will be another episode.
GROTH: How much work have you done on this?
SPAIN: I’ve done all 12. I’ve finished mine. I think Justin and Paul have two or three to go.
GROTH: Twelve episodes.
GROTH: And this may come out when?
SPAIN: It should come out in September.
GROTH: Would they ever do a hard-copy version?
SPAIN: There’s talk about that, yeah.
GROTH: Do you think comics is progressing as a medium? What do you think of the post-underground generation of cartoonists who followed you?
SPAIN: They’ve got one guy in Zero Zero, that guy … White …
GROTH: Oh, yeah, Mack White?
SPAIN: I’m a provincial guy …
GROTH: [Laughs.] How do you mean that?
SPAIN: I like the kind of comics I do. I like realistically drawn bizarre tales. You know, I’m not really that broad about what I like — a lot of work that is good but not up to my notions of draughtmanship I tend to ignore. It’s funny, I sent George Evans a bunch of Zaps.
SPAIN: And he liked my stuff, but he said, ha ha, how do you manage to get on with all those surrealists?
GROTH: Like Moscoso —
SPAIN: Yeah, right. You know, I appreciate a lot of stuff, but the stuff that I really like is that adventure genre, so …
GROTH: Which is almost an anomaly in underground comics —
SPAIN: It’s a real anomaly. Right.
GROTH: I mean, Crumb I’m sure doesn’t like any of that stuff.
SPAIN: Ah, but all that stuff is really his school, all that funny comic stuff, so —
GROTH: Yeah, yeah, but not action-adventure, I mean.
SPAIN: No, not action-adventure. But in a sense, my stuff is closer to some aspect of Crumb rather than the real surrealist stuff. In Raw — there was all that surrealist and expressionist work and much of it gets through my biases. I see the bizarreness, the surrealism of everyday life.
SPAIN: And Crumb does too, in that sense. I can only handle so many shaggy dog stories, although I have to admit that life is often like that. I’m learning to appreciate a wider range of things, but still a lot of the more arty styles get old quick for me. Still, I prefer the adventure-type thing. I’m sort of a committee of one on that. I’m hooked on good draughtsmanship.