Written and directed by Susan Stern, Spain Rodriguez’s wife of 33 years, “Bad Attitude” is interesting for what it doesn’t do as well as for what it does. Despite the title, the man who dominates this documentary is an avuncular presence, an older Spain lacking the sharp edges of his youth—a nice guy, a father, married for decades to a nice woman. Despite the subtitle, there’s little analysis here of the look and style of his art—just what it was that he contributed as a craftsman to the world of underground comics in which he was such an important player. What is clear is that he was much taken with the details of cityscapes, with the portrayal of violence (“I grew up in a violent neighborhood” [in Buffalo, New York]), and with the grace and power of the human body, male as well as female.
Although Stern’s narrative can be imprecise, you should be able to figure out that Manuel Rodriguez was born in Buffalo (in 1940), and that he lived on (Frederick Law Olmsted’s) Humboldt Parkway, in a house torn down to make way for an inner-city thruway (that devastated a black middle-class neighborhood), known as “The 33.” You won’t hear the story of how, at age 12, he chose the name Spain, and you won’t get the sense that he had serious art training at a school in Connecticut, beginning at age 19. What you will get is a personal journey through the comics landscape, from the days when his father destroyed his cache, to the courts deeming underground comics pornography (and ruining the market), to comics as a respected art form. As in the award-winning 1994 documentary on R. Crumb (“Crumb”), Stern lets Spain’s life reveal a world that he helped thrust into the mainstream.
Interviews with major figures in the underground comics movement—Art Spiegelman (“Maus”), Ed Piskor (“X-Men”), and Crumb (“Fritz the Kat”) among them—help fill in the most important turns in Spain’s career: a stint with the “East Village Other” in the mid-1960s; the creation of kill-the-rich figure “The Trashman” in 1968; the migration to San Francisco, where he was involved from early days of ZAP Comix and worked at the Mission Cultural Center. While following the alternative comics movement to its coastal enclaves, it’s also made apparent that the Buffalo years were central to Spain’s development, and that he hoped, someday, to return.
Stern’s goal is to get a broad measure of the man, an effort complicated by aspects of Spain’s life and work that might easily be classified as controversial. Not only did he ride with the violent and anti-social Buffalo motorcycle gang, the Road Vultures, Spain was also anti-capitalist (a Marx-reading Marxist, even), anti-police, anti-authority, anti-feminist and anti-gay (the documentary reveals that as a youth he participated in the beating of a gay man in Buffalo’s Delaware Park)—a litany of attitudes not so different from those of the January 6 Capitol insurrectionists, and yet decidedly leftist (one of his comic books—we’d now call it a graphic biography—is of Che Guevara).
Stern softens the image with significant interview footage of her husband as an affable older man, still a socialist and still bristling at authority, but never mean and not proud of the unsavory Delaware Park incident, which he put into comic form 40 years after the event. While aware that Spain the cartoonist fetishized, eroticized, and made a spectacle of the female body, the film suggests that he also recognized the artistic talents and intellectual abilities of real-world women. The narrative includes interviews with several women, including former girlfriends and underground comics artists, but more importantly with feminists such as Andi Zeisler, the co-founder of Bitch Media, and Susie Bright, editor of the first woman-produced lesbian sex magazine, who appreciated Spain’s art despite the rampant sexism.
Though Spain was undeniably attracted to the violence and aggression of the Road Vultures, he is presented here primarily as an artist/illustrator/chronicler—he was the Vultures’ (self-titled) Minister of Propaganda—rather than as a participant in fights and brawls. In a 1972 drawing, he captured the vicious mayhem of the April 1954 confrontation between the Gunners and the Fillmore Gang, outside the Decco coffee shop at the intersection of Fillmore and Box in Buffalo—a rumble in which he likely did not participate (see full lead image).
A producer of award-winning poetry, investigative journalism and film, Stern is a skilled filmmaker who must temper her “love letter” to her dead husband with some perspective, and she is up to the task. The film is well-paced, revealing this under-appreciated artist through his distinctive drawings and his interviews. She has assembled a chorus of commentators who frame her life-long companion in the context of the cultural milieu and the underground comics movement. Most of the talking heads are fellow travelers—participants in the movement, girlfriends, buddies—as opposed to the art historians and other academics who might offer a more objective (if less personal) account.
Stern’s task—to balance Spain’s “bad boy” image with a “good guy” perspective—has a certain usefulness, perhaps bringing us closer to the “truth” of Spain Rodriguez. It does so at the risk of making the film’s title—“Bad Attitude”—ring false, and of shifting the emotional focus to the older Spain instead of the revolutionary one that produced his path-breaking work, of reshaping Spain’s remembered persona into something that was no longer him.
The film closes with a young graffiti artist who, after Spain’s death in 2012, painted wall-size tributes to him in Buffalo’s long-closed Central Terminal (though you’d be trespassing, you can still see some of them), not far from the intersection where that rumble occurred. For his murals, Ian de Beer served time in prison and is on probation; as a result, he can’t continue his painting. A true son of Spain.
Stars: 3.5 (out of 4)
Director: Susan Stern
Starring: Spain Rodriguez, Susan Stern, R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Ed Piskor, Andi Zeisler, Susie Bright, Ian de Beer (as themselves)
Runtime: 71 minutes
Availability: Through midnight November 28 at DOC NYC, the New York City documentary film festival, here; and for later availability, the film’s website here (and this review will be updated when screening is more widely available).
The film was recently screened at the 2021 Buffalo International Film Festival