The Daily Heller: A New Film Plumbs the Depths of Spain’s Underground Comix
Spain (aka Manuel) Rodriguez (1940–2012), was among the main artists in The East Village Other’s ensemble of pioneer underground comix makers. He brilliantly parodied the superhero conceits and created his own mark on the genre, employing the action pulp drawing style. His main character, "Trashman," was always clad in leather motorcycle gear and wielded an automatic assault weapon. Spain’s work ultimately left an indisputable impression on today’s comic strip post-’60s rebels.
In the decades since, with mass media having ravaged ’60s alt-culture, Spain’s work has accrued more relevance than ever, as evidenced in a new documentary film, Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez, directed by Susan Stern, founder of Bernal Beach Films. Her documentaries, including Barbie Nation and The Self-Made Man, have played worldwide at festivals and on television. She has received two Emmy nominations, and among her other accolades are the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies Filmmaker Award; a CINE Gold Eagle; and a Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Her exposé of Bay Area military base closings was credited by The Wall Street Journal with “saving thousands of local jobs.” Her 1980 Inquiry Magazine cover story, “Killer Cops,” shed light on the political underpinnings of police brutality.
Bad Attitude premieres during the Slamdance Film Festival, from Feb. 12–25. (Tickets here.) I asked Stern to explain how Spain entered her world, and what inspired her to invest in exploring his life and legend.
I met Spain and followed "Trashman," his signature comic, at The East Village Other. He was a groundbreaker. What inspired you to make this film?
I made Bad Attitude because I wanted more people to see Spain’s bold, original pen-and-ink art. Just as the 1960s have a soundtrack, I’ve always thought Spain’s art helped design the “look” of the ’60s. When I began the film in 2012, it was a time of relative political complacency. I also wanted to rouse people with Spain’s fiery—yet self-satirizing—left-wing radicalism. As it turned out, Bad Attitude is perfect for the political ferment of 2021. Spain’s “anti-racist” work with the white working-class bikers of Buffalo in the early 1960s is a revealing part of the film.
There have been films about underground comix, but what does your focus on Spain add to the canon, so to speak, that has not yet been brought to light?
Films have been made about underground cartoonists Robert Crumb and Robert Williams, but like the artists in any art movement, the artists in the underground comix movement produced work and lived lives that were very different from each other. From a literary standpoint, Spain was probably the most dramatic storyteller of the movement, and his own life was probably the most dramatic story. Spain began as an outlaw biker. He ended up as a “family man” with a feminist wife and daughter. Along the way, he was not only a cartoonist, but a member of the Latino arts movement, credited with painting the first mural in San Francisco’s Latinx Mission District. More than the other films about underground cartoonists, Bad Attitude also does sketch not only the history of underground comix, but of American comics since WWII.
When I was working at underground papers in New York, there was a certain amount of misogyny. Crumb led the pack, but Spain was not shy about exposing a preference for extreme eroticism. How have you addressed this in your film?
I made the film, in part, to wrestle with Spain’s depiction of women—not for the audience, but for myself. We made a huge digital database of Spain’s work as part of making the film, and I believe I’ve looked at just about every one of the tens of thousands of images Spain made—on any scrap of paper he could get his hands on. I show Spain’s erotic depictions of myself in the film—and share the conclusions I reached about his art. But I also asked other female analysts to comment on Spain’s work—including Bitch Media co-founder Andi Zeisler, feminist sex writer Susie Bright and underground cartoonists Trina Robbins and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. I should also note that though Spain’s depictions of women are controversial, he was a big backer of women’s power, mentored women artists and was never accused, to my knowledge, of sexual harassment.
The late ’60s was a liberation from the puritanical strictures of the Comics Code. How did Spain contribute to the revolution?
Bad Attitude actually makes a point about the Comics Code that I think is often overlooked. The Code didn’t just crack down on sex and violence in 1950s comics, it also censored comics that were making some of the strongest commentary in any period medium about the KKK, McCarthyism, the Korean War, the nuclear threat and domestic violence. Spain used comics, once again, to attack social evils. He brought the fluid pen-and-ink style of the censored ’50s cartoonists back and used it to examine life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Yes, his comics also had sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. But by including real life in comics, Spain also paved the way for the graphic novels and alternative comics of today.
What are you trying to get the audience to take away, other than the awareness of a great and unsung master?
I love work that shows the full arc of a life. I find it really healing to see a life in full—the ups and down, the breakthroughs and the blind spots. Bad Attitude does this with a man and with an artist. Also, I just want people to have a good time. The original score by B. Quincy Griffin really rocks—and we also were fortunate to get music from Santana, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jesse Hill, Ben King, The Fugs and Charles Mingus.
When I became Op-Ed art director of The New York Times, I ran a spot by Spain in the Letters to the Editor column. That, for me, was one of my small triumphs, and minor historical footnote. How do you think Spain will be remembered?
I remember that piece of art you chose! It was a man in a prison cell. I think Spain will be remembered as an artist of liberation. Our sense of what is possible and permissible expands and contracts; Spain expands our senses.
Is there anything you want to add?
I just want to add a shoutout to the New York motion designer Nol Honig, who created the animated title sequence for Bad Attitude and designed the overall motion effects for the film. Nol had two big challenges: the density of Spain’s images, and the problem of how to convert the verticality of the comics page to the horizontal 16:9 film frame. Nol also had to contend with the numerous cliches in film graphics. I think he succeeded brilliantly. I hope you’ll watch Bad Attitude and judge for yourself.