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Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Street scenes."
4 stars

On a lot of levels, Les Daniels’ 1971 book "Comix: A History of Comic Books in America" tweaked my ideas of what comics could be. Spain Rodriguez’ anti-bourgeois underground comix hero Trashman was a particularly sharp tweak.

Here, relatively early in my experience of superheroes, was an artist with the heart of a biker and the soul of a revolutionary who created an anti-hero, nonwhite to boot, that didn’t care whether larger society approved of him. Down these mean streets a man must go, who is himself quite mean and tarnished but not afraid. Spain may not have been mean — one of his comics stories shows him hesitant to kick a biker adversary when he was down — but he was often the first to admit he was tarnished.

Directed by Spain’s widow Susan Stern, Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez is a portrait of a man who didn’t take well to being told what to do from the right or the left. Neither did most of Spain’s contemporaries in the pages of the seminal Zap comic, such as R. Crumb, Robert Williams, or the recently departed S. Clay Wilson. Many of the male underground artists weathered pointed criticism by feminist comix creators and/or historians (Trina Robbins, who is both, is interviewed here); of them all, Wilson, with his fixation on filthy outcasts and pirates hacking off limbs and genitals, was perhaps the most glaringly “problematic.” So why did Rodriguez, whose depictions of women were relatively benign, take such heat? An unhappy reason begins to fade in: Rodriguez was the nonwhite guy in a collective of pale guys, and his work had a political consciousness that afflicted the comfortable without much bothering to comfort the afflicted.

Stern’s film is about as neutral as it can be, spiced up with archival footage and copious examples of its subject’s art. It doesn’t come near Terry Zwigoff’s masterpiece Crumb, though maybe only because Spain’s life doesn’t offer as much baroque family stuff to work with. In Crumb, you can see for yourself what skewed young Crumb’s perception and drove him to get out. Bad Attitude gives us an artist who seems to have arrived fully formed. Like many of his generation, Spain grew up on the grotesque EC line of horror and crime comics in the ‘50s, and those fed his warts-and-all aesthetic as much as anything. Spain’s comix are highly entertaining, especially his autobiographical biker stories, though I’m partial to his street scenes, masses of humanity moving through boxes of lights and buildings. It’s hard to envision a Spain comic that doesn’t have streets in it, usually littered with junk and billboarded with actual ad art snipped out of magazines. The underground artists were all about drawing stuff you’d never seen in comics before, and that could mean perverse sex and it could also mean just the usual detritus you kick out of your way walking through the city, stuff you wouldn’t see in Superman or Fantastic Four.

Either way, the underground artist was after a more authentic way of representing the world as he or she lived it, and that was certainly Spain’s M.O. (Cancer finally took him in 2012 at age 72.) Spain may not have “gotten” feminism (but struggled to understand it and its evolution all his life), but the ladies all seemed to dig him. (A few, including Stern, pose holding a Spain drawing of their younger, more zaftig selves.) The movie assures us that Spain may not have been 100% enlightened on every progressive topic, but he wasn’t unwilling to learn. His man-eating heroines like Big Bitch are essentially Wonder Woman filtered through Spain’s wish-fulfillment of women as powerful, sexy icons.

Seeing your subject as more than human is, sadly, a kinder way of dehumanizing than seeing your subject as less than human. In both cases the subject isn’t quite human. It’s a common thread in art, but not, I would guess, out of any conscious hatred or need to deny humanity; the artist just naturally has a different take on what humanity is. The highlight of Bad Attitude focuses on one of Spain’s slice-of-life anecdotes about the time he and some buddies encounter a gay guy in the park (who pleasures at least one of them) and then beat him up and “roll” him for his dough. Spain just presents the story without comment — “This is what happened.” In the story, titled “Dessert” and collected in the Fantagraphics Spain volume My True Story, Spain mostly stands apart from the abuse and witnesses it. Should he have intervened? Sure, but he didn’t. He recounts it for us but doesn’t tell us how to feel about it or about him. The last panel of the comic, though, shows the bloodied but unbowed gay guy saying “I can’t wait to come back again next week.” So the joke is on his abusers, who only got what was in his wallet but didn’t take anything important, didn’t stop him from further pursuit of illicit fun.

That Spain not only gave the gay guy the last word but imagined a sympathetic way for him to flip the script makes Spain, I think, a great artist who was honest about the foibles of humans but not nihilistic. Neither a good nor bad attitude, then — just realistic.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34093&reviewer=416
originally posted: 02/12/21 11:30:52
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  12-Feb-2021 (NR)

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