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February 12, 2021

Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodrigquez

spain rodriguez.jpg

Susan Stern - 2021
Bernal Beach Films

There is a famous scene in the film The Wild One (1953) where a young woman asks the leader of the outlaw motorcycle gang, "What are you rebelling against, Johnny?" Johnny, played by Marlon Brando, responds, "Whaddaya got?". Even though that film is never mentioned, the scene encapsulates the life of Spain Rodriguez, who was also part of a motorcycle gang prior to his establishing himself as an underground comic artist.

Another film that appears influential, is High School Confidential (1958). Rodriguez is first seen in Susan Stern's documentary singing the title song by Jerry Lee Lewis. The film simultaneous condemns and celebrates juvenile delinquency, beatniks, anarchy and general bad behavior. Lewis was famous for his wild performances, preserved with his performance of the title song in the film's opening credit sequence.

While most of Ms. Stern's film is about Spain Rodriguez (1940 - 2012), it is also covers some of the history of underground comics and the cultural changes that took place in the late 1960s through 1970s. Rodriguez's first act of rebellion was to change his first name as a teen from Manuel to Spain, a response to the ethnic divisions in his working class Buffalo, New York neighborhood, honoring his Spanish heritage. Rodriquez's life and art has been marked by questioning of politics, art and culture. The artist himself is acknowledged to be self-contradictory in his art and life, the macho creator of transgressive images who also was the supportive domestic partner doing his share of the housework.

Part of this documentary puts in context how the underground comics were created as a response to the censoring of comic books in the mid 1950s. My own familiarity with these comics was when a friend introduced me to his collection of Zap Comix in 1969, as college freshmen. A couple years later, in a course on mass media, a teacher directed to reading Fredric Wertham's book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), a study blaming comic books on juvenile delinquency that was extremely influential at the time. That book as since been academically repudiated due to questions regarding Wertham's actual research.

Of the various talking heads discussing Rodriguez and his work, the most interesting are his comic artist peers. That would include R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Trina Robbins. The film ends with Rodriguez's work on exhibit at a Buffalo art gallery, coinciding with his las month prior to death from cancer. That there was this formal display of the comics, posters and illustrations marked a kind of circular journey from the city Spain Rodriguez loved, but also had to leave to fully realize himself.

Bad Attitude can currently be seen at the virtual Slamdance Film Festival.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at February 12, 2021 04:11 AM