The Art of Spain Rodriguez examines the uncompromising work of an underground legend
It’s easy to spot two of the talking heads in Susan Stern’s documentary about her husband Spain Rodriguez titled Bad attitude: the art of Spain Rodriguez. Robert Crumb, the artist behind Fritz the cat, has his own documentary (by Terry Zwigoff) in the Criterion and Art Spiegelman Collection, the artist behind Maus, has the only Pulitzer ever attributed to a graphic novel. For someone like me who’s never really dived into the world of underground comics, it takes those touchstones of mainstream notoriety to break through. And to meet Spain through Stern’s film, you have to wonder if it would be happy to stay on the sidelines with its far-left politics and its hypersexualized (often misogynistic) representations of women. Fame wouldn’t make its impact more crucial.
Listening to Crumb, Spiegelman and a handful of contemporaries on the stage proves it, as they can’t help but talk about what he did, who he was and the legacy he leaves to future generations. You hear Spain refer to comics as an extension of Michelangelo in regards to the medium’s interest in depicting the human body and find yourself nodding your head against what many purists might think. Because despite the subject matter, the violence and the nudity of his Entertaining Comics (EC Comics) inspired work, the craftsmanship and artistry are unmistakable. It has these chaotic frames bursting with body and there is an authenticity to be formed regardless of its satirical and / or political atmosphere. He knew how to draw and pushed the limits of this know-how.
No one who knew him in Buffalo, NY should be surprised by this fact considering where he came from. The young Manuel gave himself the nickname of Spain after the children of his difficult neighborhood bragged about being Irish. He talks about having to learn to behave with a tough crowd and how his anti-establishment ideology would lead him to join the Road Vultures MC only to find himself educating the group members on politics and the common plight of the working man. . against government / police. Spain would sketch the brawls as his brothers destroyed the bar they were in that night and might even throw a few punches. And he would take that mentality to New York and later to San Francisco.
It was both good and bad depending on who you ask, so Stern deserves a lot of credit for not just making this documentary a hero. She is the first to admit that her husband was far from being a feminist as some mistakenly categorize him due to his principal ladies. He was a chauvinistic macho like the rest of the artists of the time and the film shows how his evolution to antihero women could have been his commentary. versus feminism. That’s not to say he didn’t respect women, though. Or that her designs could not have inspired women to become empowered. So having someone like Bitch Media’s co-founder Andi Ziesler provide context is huge as it helps to understand the intricacies of her art and her place in history.
Everyone interviews Stern, by René Yañez speaking about Spain’s work in the Mission community in San Francisco (and his son Rio remembering how the kids there viewed him as their teacher with no knowledge of the salaciousness of his previous work) to Crumb wondering aloud if perhaps Spain has spent too much of its artistic energy on political undertakings that perhaps would not have appreciated it as much as they should have. We go from autobiographical motorcycle stories (warts and all accounts of really heinous acts) to introducing “Trashman” to her daughter Nora remembering how she never met the savage bad boy people talk about. She only knew him as her loving and teaching father. Spain is evolving and refining its style and identity.
This process is shown in high definition onscreen with scanned sketches, finals, diaries, doodles (Stern and the Spanish ex-girlfriends hold up a picture of themselves he drew), and more brought to light in their static glory or sometimes animated for an extra time to bloom. Older interviews accompany older photos with the work of his friends via the East Village Other and Zap Comics punctuating each change of scenery. Stern provides a level playing field for art, ideology and man himself to ensure that no stone is overlooked in terms of who he was, where he came from and what it represented. His uncompromising attitude made him special while his uncompromising work made him an underground legend deserving that posthumous deep dive into an unforgettable life.
Bad attitude: the art of Spain Rodriguez performs as part of the Buffalo International Film Festival.