There it is.
The cover of “SUBVERT COMICS #1” 1970.
In or just before 1976, that’s the first underground comix image that captured my attention and imagination. Never let go of me. Spain, “Spain” Rodriguez.
I always owed him an immense thank you. Still do. Maybe he knows, wherever one moseys off to after this life is done.
Nine or ten years-old. That was my age. Lack of parental guidance — lack of real parenting — can be a really wonderful thing if turned to one’s advantage. Freedom to look at what one damn well pleases as a young person, especially if that young person is artistic and curious, is a gift from HaShem. It was in my case, on the whole.
To paraphrase HST in a different context, I would not recommend this way of life to anyone, but it worked for me. Certainly, do not place your child in such a circumstance on purpose — not now.
Yeah, I was pretty fuckin’ weird for a kid in good and bad ways.
Wasn’t interested in alcohol; less interested in drugs, even dope (i.e. weed). Just didn’t appeal to me, though I had no problem with them to whom it appealed as long as they weren’t assholes. I really hung around, at that time, with next to no one. No, actually, no one at all. I was a loner at that time.
I’m unsure I preferred it that way or not; just worked out that I wasn’t looking for friends at that time. Ah, but don’t waste a moment feeling sorry for me. Don’t need or want that. Things could have been much, much, much worse.
What I had in my favor in the small town of my birth was a resource — a public college, ROTC college, fully funded, strong liberal arts school. Which meant a library. A really well-stocked library. Not huge, but for a ten year-old, plenty. It seemed inexhaustible to me. The stacks were aisles and aisles of mysteries. Not mystery novels, but genuine mysteries — books on every conceivable subject.
And there I was, every day after school, and most all days and half the nights during the summer, wandering the aisles. I knew how to use the card catalogue, but found that just wandering and remembering the regions of the shelves and subjects covered was better. I was on no mission. Just looking for books, books of any sort, anything interesting.
Not “kid books.” Lies and shit, for the most part that stuff was. I began reading at 3, had it down by 6. Past that, it was just using my time to read whatever came into my hands and looking up whatever I didn’t understand. And looking stupid enough that adults couldn’t censor my activities — easily done. If one looked up “innocent moron,” there would have been my photo. Mistakenly categorized. Exterior appearances did not quite line up with interior realities.
So, in the art books, I found a history of the comix; Les Daniels’ history, in fact. Grabbed it up and flipped through to discover an entirely new world… no color plates, but who cared? The history ranged from Golden Age to the “new” Underground Movement that was underway, complete with full issues and healthy excerpts to go with the very helpful prose. And I had a community card — the students who ran the desk would let me check out anything I had guts to walk to the counter. And I walked some pretty hefty stuff up there, some titillating and erotic stuff, violent US Ranger and Special Forces manuals, books on art forms I’d never seen or heard of, classics — and this history of comix.
Looking through more thoroughly, I was introduced to male and female undergrounders. Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Warthog was hilarious, as were The Freak Brothers. There was Robert Crumb — I recall his story Meatball in there, Victor Moscosco, Kim Deitch, Trina Robbins.
Ah, but Spain.
That cover of Subvert: black and white (in the version I found); violent; to the point (literally); the thought of the return of the Nazi SS in a near future… and Trashman. That was the material in the history — and too damn little of it! — that I inhaled, contemplated, kept returning to after looking at the cartoon nipples and pubes, women, sexy stuff, psychedelia, and absurdity of the other artists. Nope, back around to Trashman, The 6th International, the notion capitalism breeds fascism — Marxism (of a sort) as antidote to oppression.
Shit, I was poor. I bought what I wanted by picking up Coke bottles out of ditches: comics, magazines, paperbacks, and candy, in that order. What the hell was this “International” bit? Why would Nazis come back? I mean, we fought against those sons of bitches just 20 years before I was born – now “communist” was the dirty word, “Marxist,” “socialist.” But not so much in the world of Trashman.
Spain showed a revolutionary sort of average guy, a car mechanic (my old man ran an auto parts store and all I saw and heard about were mechanics, some of whom were pretty cool – so that was easy to see) who became a revolutionary against the fascist/capitalist takeover and exploitation of people who were just trying to live in peace… people who fought back… violently, in the face of ruthlessness.
(No, I’m not recommending actual violence — these violent acts in the comix were symbols of overt resistance to injustice, refusal to knuckle under, to give in, to crawl. I needed that message, being encouraged by everything around me to crawl, conform, give in. It took a long while to work out the deeper meanings. I’m still doing so. But I got THAT much from the images and fictional dystopian stories.)
Comic books with a message… not to beat one over the head with, but as part of the strange tales that unfolded. I went from wanting to be Orion or Captain America to Trashman in about one day. Later, I decided they weren’t all that damn different, in their way. Kirby was doing Captain A and the Falcon back then; it all seemed fairly seamless — one set of stories for kids, the other for adults. Both commentaries on freedom and justice.
Later, I started reading Marx the summer of 1979 along with Hunter S. Thompson… just to understand. Couldn’t find any more Spain Rodriguez for a few years. Did start turning up Gilbert Shelton books in Atlanta at comic book conventions once a year.
So I kept checking out that history of comix at the college, mainly to glimpse Spain’s work. I don’t think anyone else touched that book between ’76 and 1980-’81.
Yep. I didn’t become a Marxist — but I did come to appreciate the truth and insight in some of Marx’s analysis of capital (e.g. the surplus labor theory of value). The more I went into the world to do less than appreciated work, the more I saw how the economic system actually functioned in practice.
A visit from Trashman would have been appreciated more than once, but Trashman is a symbol, not an actual human.
Years passed. I got degrees, I studied and study more. I teach philosophy when I can find a job. I write and draw satirical comix, most political, all liberal to (non-Marxist) “left-ish” leaning, all with a creeping element of horror… as that’s how best for me to represent the world symbolically.
If it hadn’t been for Spain, I might have just aimed at making silly-assed comix or even attempted to go utterly commercial, industrial, never allowing a serious thought to pass my mind in the meantime.
Nope. Not how it happened. For better or worse, or, as is the usual case, both, that cover by Spain awoke my imagination, my curiosity, changed my approach to comic books entirely.
Go read some Spain. You could do much worse here as night genuinely falls and the monstrosities of the Amerikkkan Reich stir in the mansions of the powerful and in the greedy, hate-filled streets and forests and dry, half-alive deserts.
28 July 2017
Richard Van Ingram