Tuesday, March 24, 2009

One of Our Favorite Heroes: Trashman


Trashman is a fictional character, a superhero created and drawn by Spain (a.k.a. Manuel Rodriguez) who appeared regularly in underground comix and magazines from 1968 through 1985. Trashman's first appearance was as a full page serial comic strip in the New York City underground newspaper the East Village Other. After moving from New York City to San Francisco in 1970, Spain teamed up with fellow underground comix artists R. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton and others as contributers to Zap Comix, published by Last Gasp Publishing. Three full length Trashman: Agent of the Sixth International stories were published under the Subvert Comics title by "Saving Grace, a Division of Keith Green Industrial Reality", a Rip Off Press spin-off, from 1970 to 1976.

Since 1976, Trashman has appeared in such publications as High Times, Heavy Metal, Weirdo, San Francisco and the Fantagraphics anthology Zero Zero #2.

Trashman is a hero of the working classes and champion of the radical left causes. The Trashman stories are set in a dystopian near-future America, which has become a fascist police state.

Mild mannered Harry Barnes was chosen by the mysterious and elusive "Sixth International", an underground anarcho-marxist organization, and was trained as a master of the "para-sciences". He is typically cast as the defender of the working-class masses against the tyranny of fascist police/military forces, agents of governmental oppression, and the plots of the rich and powerful to oppress the common people.

He is depicted as a strong, rugged, black-clad militant figure, with dark hair and beard and eyes always in shadow, who wields conventional military weapons such as machine guns, pistols, daggers and explosives in addition to his super powers.

"Harry Barnes, known to the world as Trashman, trained by the elusive Sixth International as a master of the para-sciences, is able to change his molecular structure or decipher a crack in the sidewalk." (quote from Trashman's first comic strip in the East Village Other.)

Trashman's powers include superhuman strength, stamina, speed, agility, reflexes, equilibrium and durability. He is not invulnerable to harm, but his powers usually enable him to avoid being wounded or killed by conventional weapons. He also has the ability to "shape-shift", or alter his shape and molecular structure to any desired form, including non-organic ones. (For example, he once shifted himself into the shape of a copy of the East Village Other.) He retains his mental abilities even while shifted, and can change back to human form at will. Trashman also has a power called "Random Alert Factor", a kind of synchronicity-based precognition, which allows him to intuitively derive information about the world around him by making seemingly unrelated observations of reality. For example, on the inside back cover artwork of Subvert Comics #1, Trashman "hears" a crack in the sidewalk "speak" to him, warning him of an attack from behind.

The Trashman series is one of the very few super hero stories depicted in the underground comix of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly as a recurring character. Trashman's post-apocalyptic setting and Marxist-anarchist overtones expressed Spain's own social and political beliefs, as well as the sensibilities of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the underground counter-culture of the era. Like many underground comix, the Trashman stories are replete with graphic depictions of violence, sex and profanity, which were all but unknown in super hero comics of the past.

There are also many times that the characters break the "fourth wall" boundary between the fiction and the reader, typical of post-modern art. In one exchange with another character, Trashman "admits" he is a comic book character: "You heard Dr. Kranker. It was all figured out thru numantics. It's just odds and fixed points and all that stuff." "Fuck you! Do you expect me to believe that shit?" "Shhh! Don't blow it man. There's all those readers out there watching."

The style and setting of the Trashman comics are similar to many of the post-apocalyptic graphic novels and films that followed it years later, such as the Blade Runner and Road Warrior films, the Dark Night series of Batman graphic novels, and the V For Vendetta graphic novel and film. In an interview with John Ascher, Spain claims no direct influence on these later works, but concedes, "These ideas are out there. The artist pursues a cultural thread, and there are other people pursuing that cultural thread as well, so you exchange these ideas, they’re thrown back and forth, amplified, then the cultural thread goes underground, then it pops up again, often."


Jon said...

There are also echoes of Trashman in Grant Morrison's The Invisibles.

M.Christian said...

The Invisibles gang is also some of our favorite heroes ... gloriously eccentric!