Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez, courtesy of Susan Stern/Bernal Beach Films LLC

Underground cartoonist Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez was a provocateur by nature. Deeply shaped by his working-class upstate New York upbringing and socialist politics, Rodriguez’s artwork reflects an omnipresent class consciousness that revolutionized the underground comics scene of the 1950s and ’60s.

Now, an exhibition of Rodriguez’s artwork depicting the Mission District is on display at Cushion Works, an art gallery on 18th Street between Capp Street and South Van Ness Avenue. “Spain Rodriguez: Mission Nites” runs through Oct. 29. A special screening of “Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez” (2021), including a Q&A with his widow, director Susan Stern, will take place at the Mission Cultural Center on Oct. 13.

Rodriguez, who died in 2012 in San Francisco at 72, blended science fiction, radical politics and countercultural aesthetics into his work and helped bring alternative comics into the mainstream. Originally from Buffalo, Rodriguez spent over four decades living and working in San Francisco, producing a prodigious body of work.

It includes an illustrated biography of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, “Farmworker Comix: A History of Farm and Labor Struggle in California,” and contributions to dozens of major underground comic series. Credited by the late Galería de la Raza co-founder René Yañez as the artist of the first commissioned Mission District mural in 1971, Rodriguez was heavily involved in the Mission District arts scene of the 1980s and taught art at the Mission Cultural Center.

Featuring archival footage of Jerry Rubin and Fred Hampton, “Bad Attitude” situates Rodriguez’s art in the nationwide countercultural scene of the 1960s, and reveals a portrait of the artist beyond his recalcitrant image, as a man deeply committed to neighborhood organizing, Mission District community art and his family.

“I really do think he really got into Mission District Latino culture,” Stern told Mission Local.  This culture “is such a rare and beautiful flower, in many ways curated by Yolanda López and René Yañez and all those people that were around that art scene that I got to know.” 

Speaking on the artistic celebration of Latinx culture in the Mission District, Stern highlights “a real openness about what it means to be Latino. They were also open and affiliated with the underground comics culture, and with a lot of other things. There were people that were part of the movement that weren’t Latino. It was a movement; very open and sweet, and yet colorful.”

The son of a Spanish immigrant auto body mechanic, Rodriguez chose the nickname “Spain” in a prideful response to the braggery of Irish kids in his New York neighborhood. In 1960, Rodriguez joined the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club in Buffalo before dropping out of art school in Connecticut and moving to New York City. There, Rodriguez contributed to the countercultural newspaper the East Village Other, and began publishing his own comic strips.

Cover of Farmworker Comix, written by Bill Morgan, illustrated by Rodriguez.

Rodriguez moved to San Francisco in 1969 at 30, where seminal underground comic artist Robert Crumb invited him to contribute to Zap Comix, a genre-defining series now heralded as the cultural cornerstone of alternative comics. Rodriguez is perhaps best known for creating the renowned character Trashman, a Marxist-anarchist working-class hero who uses his superpowers to combat the police officers, fascists, and capitalist class of a near-future dystopian America.

Not without controversy, Rodriguez’s rebellious spirit and highly eroticized depictions of women earned him a reputation as both the “socialist soul” of the underground comix movement and a misogynistic illustrator divorced from the fledgling feminist strides of the 1960s. This controversial aspect of his work features prominently in “Bad Attitude.”

“It was very hard to make the film,” Stern says. “I consciously invited in some people on the team that were much more critical of his work than I was, and that was very hard.”

1974 Zap Comix cover, illustrated by Rodriguez.

At one point in the film, Stern asks whether she made the film to defend Spain or to defend herself.

“I’ve had interviewers ask me, ‘Oh God, how did you live with Spain?’ He was such a contrarian and protestor, and into all this sexual, violent work. But the thing is, I’m like that, too! That’s me! For me, that impulse to revolt, and be different, and push back, especially to push back against a culture that says sexuality and our bodies are dirty and they have to be covered up. I really oppose that. And I made the film to oppose that and I’m going to keep opposing that.”

The film features artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, an underground comics artist known for her work with the Wimmen’s Comix collective and all-female comics anthology “Twisted Sisters” (and R. Crumb’s wife).

“It was a hostile environment in some ways, especially for women at that time,” Kominsky-Crumb says in the film. “But I really felt Spain saw me as an artist and he treated me that way, even though he was a very macho guy … Spain laughed at my work; he got it. In art school, none of my male teachers got my work or cared about it, particularly.”

The film also offers an intimate portrayal of Rodriguez’s role as a father, including him working in the studio with his daughter, animation artist Nora Rodriguez.

“Bad Attitude” is a humorous and tender portrait of a man of conviction and integrity, centering Rodriguez’s politics and work as a driving force of the inclusion of comics in the popular art world of the 1960s.

This focus on popular, representational art connects Rodriguez’s work in comics to his involvement with murals in the Mission. As Stern says, it’s “the people’s art. Accessible art. It’s about politics.”

Cover of San Francisco Comic Book Vol 1, No. 7, illustrated by Rodriguez, 1983.

In addition to his first mural, Rodriguez’s contributions to the Horizons Unlimited murals have cemented his legacy as an influential Mission District artist. When she reflects on how both the Mission and the art world have changed since Rodriguez’s radical comix work, Stern is optimistic about how young people today are organizing and producing art.

“Have things become more conservative from both the right and the left? I think maybe so. But I think it’s really important to push these boundaries.”

“I think Spain would say there’s no hope — it’s not necessarily worse than it’s ever been. There’s struggle. There’s no hope; there’s struggle.”

Spain Rodriguez: Mission Nites, a retrospective, will run until Oct. 29 at Cushion Works, 3320 18th St., free admission.

“Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez,” a documentary by Susan Stern, including filmmaker Q&A, screens Oct. 13 at 7 p.m. at Mission Cultural Center, free admission. Sign up here.

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