Spain Rodriguez came to my Xmas party, last month, before all hell broke loose. He said he had a special treat to show me. I started pawing at the rolled-up poster paper in his hands, but he held back a bit.
January 12, 2005
“You can’t keep this though, I have to send it to a collector tomorrow, it’s the original—”
“What do you mean, I can’t— hey, is it a new jam?”
That’s exactly what it was. Every so often, the surviving Zap! underground comix artists (Moscoso, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, and S. Clay Wilson ) all gather round a giant piece of paper with pen and ink and start drawing together. The resulting panel cartoon is a Zap Jam, which then gets made into a few posters or published in a upcoming comix book.
I opened up the giant pages Spain had in his arms. At the top of the the first page was the title of the story, “Circle O’Jerks” accompanied by little hallucinatory self portraits of all the artists. One of GIlbert Shelton's little freak gnomes has the bug-eyed question bubble, “Who the hell is Susy Bright?”
A panel later, Wilson has one of his deranged slut bulldaggers lying spread-eagled in the center of the action, with a note below that says “Not Susie Bright.”
You have to imagine how hallucinatory the whole picture is. There’s a running gag about me, but also a stream of psychedelica about the Patriot Act and the new American regime. Everyone draws on top of everyone else. The mystery of "Susie Bright" grows even more intense. WHY Susie Bright? gets asked on the second page.
I gasped as I read along, sugarplums of immortality dancing in my head. I looked at Spain like he should admit something.
“I had NOTHING to do with it!”
The reason I know this so well, is because of a story that is about ten years old now.
Spain and I are old neighborhood friends, connected through ex-lovers and political/cultural enthusiasms. His wife, Susan Stern and I, became buddies during the 1986 Meese Report shenanigans, and we both had daughters within a year of each other.
I knew Spain's work because when I was in high school, my dad turned me onto underground comix, and I became a huge fan of Spain’s Trashman character, a commie superhero with vast historical contexts, who wears a mean trenchcoat.
It’s ironic, in my case, that underground comix were associated with sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Even though those aspects weren’t lost on me, I was more interested, at 15, in the political aspects. I loved the silly stuff like Fat Freddy’s Cat, who was the hip predecessor to pabulum like Garfield.
Wilson’s biker brawls and orgies just plain scared me. I liked Crumb the best when he made fun of “White Man,” the ultimate WASP with a stick up his butt. I didn’t stare for hours at Moscoso or Rick Griffin's work until I dropped acid, and perhaps that’s as it should have been.
Spain is the reason I moved to France one year, when my daughter was just a few months old. I was coming out of a laundromat on Valencia Street one day, rather blue because I’d broken up with my partners at On Our Backs. I was essentially out of work. Spain passed me by on the street, and said, “Hey, do you know anyone who wants to go live in the south of France for a couple months?”
I went from sarcasm to a one-way ticket within 24 hours. I swapped houses with one of Spain’s old friends who was part of a group of American expatriates in rural France. They were virtually all connected through underground comix artists, or the origins of the prostitutes’ rights movement: C.O.Y.O.T.E. My only American “neighbors” within miles were Margo St. James, Gail Phetersen, a couple other COYOTE folks, and Robert and Aline Kominsky Crumb .
Life is different there. Margo was working construction, and could have passed for a male laborer if you passed her in the street. “Construction” in this part of France means remodeling medieval wrecks into homes for rich expatriates from other countries, mostly England and Germany.
Margo had a boyfriend who looked like Rasputin and apparently was the living inspiration for the whole concept of Grand Theft Auto. The only elements of California Margo were her big pot of lentil stew on the stove, and a beautiful library that was entirely dedicated to the history of COYOTE.
The Crumbs lived in a beautiful maison on a riverbank that was infamously purchased for two of Robert's sketchbooks. Aline was keyed expertly into their small community; everything French was explained and finessed by her flawless interpretation. She was like the role model of how to transform your life in one giant WHOOSH.
Robert, at the time could barely say “Bonjour!" He had a beautiful studio to work in and listen to his old 78s. A lot of people know from his biography that he collects things. It was like being pals with the curator of an esoteric museum where you can touch things and have your own personal docent explain it all.
At the time, I moved to France, I was publishing the Herotica books, the first books of women-authored erotica— god,that’s hard to believe now! Robert had read Herotica 2, and was incensed... over this one sentence, in one of the corniest stories in the edition.
"What is all this OBSESSION with muscular thighs?” he demanded. We were dawdling along the riverbank one day while Aline ran by us like a triathlon pro.
He pointed out a particular story where a woman described her lovers thighs as "muscular." He pointed out that he could never hope, nor would he want to hope, to have muscular thighs. He went on and on, until I wish I’d never heard of muscular thighs!
“Robert, she’s not rejecting you personally!”
“But of course she is, that’s exactly what's she’s doing!”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this when all the girls in your comix have muscular thighs of the first caliber— are you worried you're hurting some skinny girls' feelings?”
“That’s not the point...”
Aline ran by us for the second time in her shiny lycra tights which seemed exactly the point.
Okay, so what about his porn collection? As you can imagine, he has a cache of the most odd magazines from the magazine heyday of American porn. A real Times Square blast from the past. I was dazzled. 70s era American porn is so funky and off the wall and utterly individualistic... the opposite of corporate branding.
I remember this one magazine he had— I wish I could remember the title— that was something like, “Worship My Black Cock.” It was entirely in b+w newsprint. The title was in the form of a command. Every word in the magazine was in big letters with lots of exclamation points, all repeating the same message, like a Dr. Bronner soap bottle. All Truth! All One! All Worship My Black Cock! Helvetica Uber Alles!
And who was the king who sat on this ebony throne? The edict was being issued by what appeared to be the dumpiest, most uncharismatic middle-aged man you ever saw in your life, with the figure of Pillsbury Doughboy. His skin was ashy. He was surrounded by a couple of white women who were his equal in frumpdom. They did not appear to be in shock or awe, although they dutifully presented themselves to him in all the appropriate porno positions.
The text said their lives had been SAVED FOREVER by Mr. Wonderful's sexual prowess, and there was a residential address and phone number in New Jersey where you were exhorted to call him and join their merry band. I wanted to make a long distance call on the spot, and ask the King if he had Prince Albert in a can, but Robert reminded me that the magazine was years out of print.
At the time I was living in France, I was freelancing for a lot of New York magazines, and although Robert had not yet been canonized in Terry Zwiegoff’s movie, his work was revered by the editors I worked for. They would beg me to convey messages to him about how they would deliver sacks of gold to his door if he would deliver one illustrated panel to them, about anything, any subject.
As someone who was, at the time, trying to wrest my way up to $1-a-word writing rate, I was stunned by what looked like to be that much in demand. He, on the other hand, was annoyed. He said, as firmly as his opinion on women’s erotic labors, “I have to finish my Kafka book,” he said, and that was that.
I noticed, this past month, December 2004, that Robert finally did a cover for the New Yorker. It only took them ten years of asking.
Okay, fast forward back to San Francisco, a few years later. It was 1994. Spain and I both lived in the Mission, as before, and once again, our meeting was random. I called him about something, and he said, “No, I can’t make it, we’re doing the Zap Jam at Wilson’s house all day.”
“You’re all at Wilson’s, right now, everybody? Robert’s in town?
“Sure, why not?”
So I walked over to Wilson’s flat, and even though I was kidding on the phone, once I got there, it just seemed like the thing to do. Wilson gave me a great hug at the door and ushered me in like it was Buckingham Palace. Moscoso let me have one of his wife’s special sandwiches— the best sandwich I ever had. We all got along swimmingly.
I took off everything but my cowboy boots and sat on Wilson’s sofa, reading copy of the Chronicle. I had no idea whether any of them were drawing me or not; it was as if they were simply indulging my fantasy of being a muse, in a most good-natured way. I think we all thought it was pretty funny that we should be doing this so “late in our careers.” After the sandwichs and jokes, it got pretty quiet and all you could hear were their pens scratching away and me turning the pages of the Chron. I remember feeling as relaxed as I’ve ever been.
And then, out of fucking NOWHERE, Wilson exploded. He was in another room, or maybe the foyer, yelling. “She’s got to go!” Spain and Vincent went to investigate. I could tell it was about me, and all of a sudden, I felt like the Pope had come home and found me buck naked. I started pulling on my shirt and by the time I was buttoning up my jeans, Spain was in front of me, sheepishly, saying he was SO SORRY, but Wilson was going to go on strike or lose his nut if I didn’t leave the premises immediately.
“What did I do?”
“Nothing, he’s just like this...”
“Well, it was fun while it lasted!” I said, and everyone (except Wilson, still shouting in the back), nodded vigorously.
A few months later, Spain gave me a signed poster print of the whole affair. There I am, cross legged in one panel, with various hallucinations around me. I was so honored! Wilson’s tantrum just seemed to add luster.
Time went by, Crumb, the movie got made, and it was a sensation. When Robert was next in San Francisco I didn’t hear from him, but Spain told me that he stood up the rest of them when they made a date to do a new Jam. Everyone was pissed. He had been impossible to pin down, and then welched at the crucial moment. Robert said that he never had agreed to meeting in the first place. Bitter accusations were made.
“Is that it, does that mean it’s all over?”
Susan Stern rolled her eyeballs. “It’s never over with this bunch.”
What got produced instead of a Zap Jam was even more intriguing, like a Zap version of Rashoman. In an issue of Weirdo comix, Crumb illustrated a story on his own, about how he came to San Francisco to revel in the loving arms of bodacious groupies and good times, but instead was plagued by his loser, whiner so-called friends of yore, who could not get it together to do anything but carp and pull on his tail feathers.
What followed Robert's account of his fateful vacation were two contrasting accounts by the other Zapitistas, plus Paul Mavrides. I’ll never forget Paul’s illustration of a trembling Crumb, pretending to be with a hot babe, but in fact masturbating to a Telly Tubbies rerun in a SRO hotel in the Tenderloin.
The others drew a story in which Crumb is recalled from the '94 Jam, salivating with an erection, gob-smacked by the divaesque Susie Bright posing like Marilyn Monroe in her prime‚— ”Oh yeah, he really hated that,” they sneer.
I guess this purging made everyone kiss and make up, or move on to other arguments, because it’s all water under the bridge. Honey Lee, who introduced me to Melinda Gebbe of Wimmin's Comix fame, framed my immortal 1994 Jam for my bathroom wall.
But now, with Spain's Xmas revelation... I have a new destiny! I’ve been conjured up again, like a genie, more distinctive in memory than in real life! Seeing my various incarnations in this new Jam was, for me, like ascending to the Mt. Olympus of Bandes Desinees.
In case you're wondering, this is my past oeuvre in underground comix:
Twisted Sisters, edited by Diane Noomin, intro by Susie Bright
SHE: Anthology of Big Bitch, by Spain Rodriguez, intro by Susie Bright
Young Lust 7, 20th anniversary issue, edited by Jay Kinney and Susie Bright
P.S. All the graphics I reprinted here are from either http://www.LastGasp.com or http://www.lambiek.net, both of which I recommend as sumptuous places to lose your mind.