A couple of weeks ago, some good friends of mine in Toronto, also Americans, invited me to join them in a trip over the border to New York to check out the exhibit of Buffalo native, Spain Rodriguez: “Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels, Revolution”.
Both my friends Nick and Tanya are themselves bikers, rebels, and surviving witnesses to that mythological time, the 60’s and 70’s (not to mention their occasional run-ins with Spain and folks he knew back in the days he rode with the Road Vultures and drew for now-legendary underground comic publications like Zap!). Going to the exhibit with them was as close as I would get to having Spain there to explain some of the nuances and timely political/cultural references.
Sadly, only a few days before we visited the exhibit, Spain passed away. He was 72, and had been battling prostate cancer for about six years. It became especially poignant to understand the legacy of this artist, who was a pioneer of indie comics, a pioneer of comics journalism before the term was even coined, and a pioneer for political comics and historical comics. What’s more, his career wasn’t 3 or 4 ‘golden years’ nestled in a lifetime of mediocrity. His cutting edge work ranges from the early days in underground comics, unbridled by still-McCarthy-Era censorship rules, to just before he died.
Comic book eccentric, Art school nerd, Tough-ass biker, leftist shit-disturber | Spain was an in-betweener, and these are always the folks who make incredible art. Their creativity isn’t confined to one genre, one subculture, one ideological viewpoint of the world. As a biker, Spain scared his comics compatriots and offended some of his lefty comrades: after all, these were three typically segregated subcultures within a man’s world of the 1960’s (none would even begin to include women as anything more than decoration for a few more years…a sidenote). For this overlap, we have some incredibly enlightening artwork depicting the era’s biker culture, general drug and counter-culture, and, more crucial for me and this blog, political happenings of the day.
Before drawing for Zap! with Crumb in San Francisco, Spain covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago for the East Village Other (a publication described by the New York Times as being so left-wing it made the Village Voice look like a church circular). This was the home of his other early work, Zodiac Mindwarp.
Above, we see some of the spirit of what went down.
There’s no argument that Spain was an expert brawl-drawer. From his days with the Road Vultures to his activist scuffles, the man had a talent for laying out scenes that generally pass most of us by in blurs if and when we experience them.
These illustrations, when compared to photographs or even video of the protests and police repression, give you more of the feel of the surroundings, and vividly so. I’ve postulated that he had a tendency to compile several visual records in one large frame. Taking these many single instances he saw–he not only depicts what was in front of him, but he describes the scene and tells a story with it.
Spain went on with his occasional comics journalism, and much to my liking, even delved into historical comics. The book “Devil Dog” illustrates the life of one of my favourite American military figures, Smedley Butler. My friend Nick also told me of a piece he did on the Chaco War fought by mercenary pilots in Bolivia in the 1930s that I’ve yet to see, but I can’t wait to inspect. Untold American history is the bloodstream of my own comic series, so, needless to say, this interests me. His most notable political work is probably Che: A Graphic Biography, published in 2009, which he wrote with the editorial assistance of Paul Buhle, a radical history and comic book expert (best combination–ever).
Young comic lovers should appreciate the fact that, in addition to all his other work that had given him a legendary status in indie comics, Spain never stopped paying attention to political causes around him. The exhibit even included some work depicting the Occupy Movement, that he drew mere months ago.
On November 29, comix artist Def Backderf tweeted, “On the day he died, Spain Rodriguez was inking a poster. Died with a pen in his hand. Hell yeah, amigo! You’re a legend.”
Everything else that he so wonderfully was–all aside, this fact alone commands my respect.
Good night, Spain. Your work will forever have a place in my heart.
Review of Penney Art exhibit:
Good informative video about Spain and his political work:
Great article from his good friends over at Salon.com:
Pulp History trailer (Devil Dog part of this series)