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Photo courtesy Calgary Underground Film Festival

CUFF 2021 Reviews: Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez

By Rachneet Randhawa, May 5, 2021—

The film Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez (2021), presents the story of American underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, known for creating the Zap Comix book series and the character “Trashman.” 

Rodriguez’s inspiration came from his colourful experiences growing up in Buffalo’s East Side where he did everything from joining the outlaw motorcycle club to being an advocate for left-wing politics exposing the realities of growing up in the Civil Rights era. And of course, he took inspiration from his own obsession with comic books as a boy and his experience later on as a middle-class working person of Latin American descent. An official selection of the Slamdance Film Festival, the narrative is told from the perspective of his wife, Susan Stern, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker. 

As a biography, the film gives a play-by-play of Rodriguez’s life from his birth in the 1950s through the 60s, ‘70s and ‘80s until his passing in 2012. Throughout, his fellow underground cartoonists, mentors, his daughter and former ex-girlfriends chime in as they reminisce on his coming-of-age story. 

Although comic books have been around for decades, they mostly focused on superheroes and targeted children and juvenile audiences, so weren’t taken seriously as a form of serious or legitimate art.

Rodriguez’s life was controversial, from being a racialized ethnic minority from a working-class family, to the contentious times he lived in — including the propaganda comics that emerged during the Second World War spilling over in the 1950s and 1960s as a breakthrough medium of art and expression. In the early days, EC Comics dominated the market and were the raw voice expressing what was going on in the United States for its political uprisings and other contentious public issues. But this changed when Rodriguez stepped in with his provocative portrayal of everyday real problems in a comedic way. That’s when Rodriguez came in with his bold, dramatic and raunchy persona by not only streamlining comics for a mainstream audience but unapologetically offending those who opposed his antics and provocative ways. It is because of Rodriguez that we have graphic novels on our shelves today.

Photo courtesy Calgary Underground Film Festival

Rodriguez’s approach to his artwork was a matter of personal expression. In a nutshell, he was a classic and satirical artist. He was also rebellious and went after the ruling class. His approach to comic books made them a medium that was not seen as a nuisance for juvenile delinquency, but as an acceptable medium of art for all to enjoy. 

Rodriguez was a staunch advocate of social justice as displayed by his political activism. The film depicts his life after his move to New York City in the 1960s when he became heavily involved in the anti-authoritarian movement and immersed in the a cultre that was very open to sex, experimenting with drugs and political activism against the the Vietnam War. The film highlights, as one of his former colleagues mentioned, the “nobility of struggle” that Rodrriguez lived by.  He later tells his daughter  that he acted rebellious because they were suppressed — the underground comics become the counter-culture they adhered to because it was their only outlet to voice change. 

Rodriguez also spent much of his time helping political resistance groups which became the later inspiration for the “Trashman” hero, a fighter for justice against the evil bourgeois capitalists. Trashman was essentially the people’s man and a symbol for revolution for underrepresented voices. Among others, Rodriguez participated in street art — he was well-known for painting a mural representing the voice of the struggling work-class neighborhood in the Mission district of San Francisco. 

Rodriguez ended up getting married to his wife Susan in his later years and settled down with his family in the early 1990s.  Similar to the characters he drew, he changed his persona from demeaning rebel to protective and playful father for his daughter Nora. In his last years, Rodriguez contracted cancer but never took it too seriously or talked about dying. Spain Rodriguez peacefully passed away at the age of 72 with his wife Susan and daughter Nora by his side.

What is Rodriguez’s legacy? The straightforward answer was that he made underground comics — and comic books for that matter — mainstream, beloved and enjoyed by all audiences. But on a deeper level, his comics were a game-changer and became an official art form in which one could be courageous and have a platform to express oneself as a vehicle to tell a story or express an opinion. 

Overall, this solid documentary reads like a coming-of-age story for someone who used both art and personal expression to challenge the status quo. If you enjoy biographies about art and political activism with a side of light humour, this colourful flick will influence you in wanting to learn more about comic books as a form of personal expression. Often overlooked is that comic book artists and writers are not just masterminds of scribble, they are actively weaving profound stories within the visual panes with only a handful of words peppering their bombastic images. The irony is that the majority of people don’t know how comic books emerged and became staples in our media and literature, save for the fact that it has to do with superheroes somehow. But there is a whole vast expanse of unexplored territory that Rodriguez’s life’s work has brought to light. It’s only a matter of pivoting our perspective to appreciate it. 

This film was one of the CUFF’s recommendations for 2021 and is an eye-opener. If you get the chance to take a movie night break be sure to check it out as it’s available for on-demand live stream at the Calgary Underground Film Festival from April 23 to May 2. I guarantee you will get the urge to snag a comic book after listening to this retelling of Spain Rodriguez’s life story.

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