A Memory, not a Memoir

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

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Achtung, bambino!

Spain Rodriguez

Spain Rodriguez — Agent of Something Better That Never Happened

Once upon a time, 40 years ago now, in a world long gone, I was 10 years old.

Being unsupervised by adults, something I now thank G-d for, this ten year-old kid wandered the streets of a very small and small-minded Appalachian town.  His mind, relatively uncontaminated by the surrounding ideo-sphere, wondered as much as he wandered: where did this come from, why are things as they are and not some other way, how did I get here, how can I get out, who should I be?

It was that wondering and questioning that made the ten year-old kid a weirdo, a stranger in a strange land, even in his hometown.  And, like Steve Earle taught us, nothing will bring you down like your hometown.  And that boy’s hometown was in overdrive to bring him down and keep him there — well, not so much him specifically (he was not that special and the world is not arranged around him, positively or negatively), but people akin to him.  People who question, people who look for answers to uncomfortable questions… and all genuine questions are right uncomfortable for them that well fit in.

People who make other people uncomfortable, especially when very young and alone, tend to get the shit kicked out of them literally and metaphorically.  So they go looking for refuge and allies and that child-on-the-verge-of-having-to-grow-up-really-quickly used to hang out at the saving grace of that town: the college.

Lo, and the college had a library well-stocked with classics, which he’d get into later, art books, which he began to explore, and some pretty hip titles — one of which turned out to be Les Daniels’ Comix: A History of Comic Books in America.  Long story short, it was in those pages that our disaffected anti-hero discovered Underground Comix and their historical context… and the concept of “historical context.”

Where it would have been easy to fall for Robert Crumb’s art and humor — it isn’t as if the kid didn’t — the artist that really held his imagination and got his attention was Spain Rodriguez and his character Tashman, Agent of the Sixth International.  Well, there was Trash — the kid wished he looked half as cool as that and understood what all this talk of revolution was about — and Trashman was there putting a knife through the neck of some futuristic Neo-Nazi SS son of a bitch.

“Wait!  Didn’t we kill the Nazis?” the kid wondered.

250px-TrashmanCover

At age 50, I now know we did not kill fascism or Nazism.  We just barely managed to stomp the shit out of the vermin who espoused those beliefs the first go ’round and the beliefs still floated around even in that world the child was sent to live within — that was part of the problem with the closed-minded town he was in; he just didn’t understand at the time.

Yes, obviously I get it now.  Thanks, in part, to Spain and his comix as I managed to discover more of them as I grew older and had opportunity to lay hands on them.  I sit here now watching cops shoot black people, round up latinos, the for-profit slave prisons bulging with the incarcerated poor while Donald Trump does his best Mussolini impersonation and Ted Cruz whines his paranoid right-wing theocratic Nazi tunes for enthusiastic audiences who just don’t know any fucking better.  And the RNC is starting to demand loyalty oaths from the voters who wish to participate in “their” primaries.

Seig heil, motherfuckers.

Where’s Trashman now that the future arrived?

Well, Marxism isn’t going to cut it — but Spain’s not here to disagree because he died.  Marx had many damn fine ideas and his critique of the labor theory of value strikes me as having a great deal of truth.  But Marx-ISM, like every other form of ISM is as dead as Spain — worse, ISMs ruin nearly everyone that gets sucked into them.  But that’s a bete noir for a different day, gentle readers.

But the symbolic idea of resistance to evil that Trashman represents… there’s the crux of the biscuit.  Spain’s generation, not Spain himself, but that generation, sold out back in the ’80s.  And so, here we are. The only “revolution” that happened was the Reagan Revolution and that flushed the rest of us down the toilet, down, down into the sewers to scrape a living doing the muck work for low pay that the Boomers suck up in the form of stock investments and rent and lending.  “I got mine.  Fuck you!”

Spain remains one of my heroes artistically and intellectually because he genuinely hoped and worked for something far better and stood the test of time and the temptations of sheer ambition.  Go look him up; this isn’t Wikipedia.  Or better, just read his work and look at that powerful, expressionistic art.  He died like he lived: with his motorcycle boots on.  You can’t ask for much better than that.

And he influenced and fascinated a nobody kid in a nowhere town who grew up to be a philosopher, an artist, an essayist, and a damn troublemaker.  Thank G-d and thank Spain Rodriguez for being there when I needed to find him.

Richard Van Ingram

30 December 2015

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