I can still vividly recall the very first time that I saw the work of Spain Rodriguez. It was in the mid-1970s and I was 15 years old, sitting in some mind-numbing class while sneaking a read or two from under my binder of the underground comics anthology Arcade: The Comics Revue #2.
Rodriguez’s piece was the center spread of this particular issue, an incredibly detailed rendering of a section of San Francisco’s Mission Street that blew me away. Having lived in that neighborhood as a child, I immediately recognized the intersection. It was so graphically pleasing, it practically popped off the page. I loved Rodriguez’s attention to detail, his thick lines interspersed with intricate cross-hatching. This wasn’t your everyday “kid comics.” This was something different. Something real.
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.
That Mission Street drawing is one of the first images in Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez, a brilliant new documentary directed by journalist and filmmaker Susan Stern, who also happens to be Rodriguez’s widow. (Rodriguez died in 2012.) Seeing it again on-screen in 2021, I found that Rodriguez’s Mission Street drawing still packs a visual punch—but as Stern makes clear in the film, that punch lands very differently now than it did during Rodriguez’s lifetime.
Rodriguez, along with stalwarts such as Rick Griffin, Trina Robbins, Robert Crumb, and Gilbert Shelton, upended the comics form, unwittingly creating the Underground Comix scene in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. (To differentiate their trippy, transgressive work from mainstream stuff like Archie and Spider-Man, these artists spelled comics with an x.) Beginning at the East Village Other, a biweekly rag published in New York City, the Underground Comix scene quickly shifted to the epicenter of the counterculture: San Francisco, specifically Haight-Ashbury. Rodriguez and his contemporaries flourished amid the free love and freer drugs of the Bay Area, creating some of the most iconic art to emerge from the hippie era.
A working-class kid and onetime outlaw biker from Buffalo, New York, Rodriguez was no one’s idea of a flower child. One of his best-known creations, Trashman, was a street-fighting (non)superhero who fought capitalism itself. (With his beard and heavy brow, Trashman was a dead ringer for the young Rodriguez. An earlier short version of Stern’s documentary was also called Trashman.) Like many of Rodriguez’s best-known works, Trashman centered on the struggles of the proletariat and all forms of revolution. In his later years, Rodriguez illustrated a visual biography of Ernesto “Che” Guevara and donated his work to progressive causes. For Rodriguez, art was a powerful form of activism.
More than merely celebrating Rodriguez’s art, Bad Attitude reexamines it through contemporary eyes. Stern creates space for feminist writer Andi Zeisler to criticize Rodriguez’s more chauvinistic and hypermasculine work, while also putting those works in the context of a time when transgressive artists pushed the envelope of the culture so hard it sometimes ripped entirely.
Stern also interrogates herself, asking at one point: “Did I make this film to defend Spain or to defend myself?”
In an interview, Stern told me her husband was inspired by the female form, much as artists like Goya, Botticelli, Rubens, and Rembrandt were before him. While those artists’ works hang in museums and are celebrated to this day, the work of Rodriguez and his contemporaries (most notably R. Crumb) has come in for critical reevaluation. But the very thing that some viewers may find degrading, others may find empowering. As feminist cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb says in the film, “I loved the way Spain drew women. I loved the heroic, strong, tough, incredibly sexually active woman that controls a man. That was a liberating thing for me to see a man drawing that.”
Bad Attitude also shows that far from being a macho caricature, Rodriguez championed female artists, including his daughter, animator Nora Rodriguez.
Clearly, Rodriguez and his work are open to as many interpretations as there were sides to Rodriguez himself.
Bad Attitude is a wonderful portrait—detailed but with some complex shading—of one of the greatest contributors to not just Underground Comix but the art of cartooning in general. Rodriguez’s influence can be seen in the work of the Hernandez brothers (Love & Rockets), Daniel Clowes (Eightball), and Julie Doucet (Dirty Plotte) and in my own work. Rodriguez’s work has inspired me in countless ways. For that, my debt of gratitude goes far beyond anything that I can possibly recount here.•
Bad Attitude screens Thursday, October 14, at 7:30 p.m. Pacific time at the CinéArts Sequoia and Saturday, October 16, at 7 p.m. Pacific time at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival. It’s also available for streaming through the MVFF website.