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Spain Rodriguez's comic book art at the Burchfield Penney Art Center

A self-portrait by Spain Rodriguez.

Bad Attitude

Two major threats to the national welfare were identified and suppressed by elected officials at the highest levels when Spain Rodriguez was growing up in Buffalo in the early 1950s: Communism and comic books.

Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy got onto the Communism case, and Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver—best remembered when he ran for vice president on the ticket with Adlai Stevenson for his emblem coonskin cap—took on comic books.

Kefauver appears in the overview video on the life and work and opinions of Rodriguez that introduces the retrospective exhibit of his comic book art at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Kefauver is shown—without the coonskin cap, unfortunately—pronouncing on the comic book menace, which he asserts to be “directly responsible for a substantial amount of juvenile delinquency and childhood crime.” Twin other perceived national concerns at the time.

To be fair, comic books in the early 1950s were pretty seriously vile and gory. There was Mickey and Donald and Archie and Jughead, of course, but otherwise lots of blood, torture, terror, horror, crime, sadism, and racism. And if not explicit sex, certainly lurid sexual content. Even weird sexual content. Most of the victims of the torture, terror, etc., were women, often of remarkable feminine attributes.

And how did the comic book industry respond to the senatorial fulminations and prospects of anti-industry legislation? It totally and abjectly collapsed. It adopted the comic books code. No more horror. No more blood and spilled guts. From now on, just Mickey and Donald and Archie and the like. But in accord with the code provision that “females shall be drawn realistically, without exaggeration of…physical qualities,” Betty and Veronica started wearing less tight-fitting blouses. Well, Betty anyway. And from now on, squeaky-clean superheroes, and above all patriotic, engaged in a universal war, against evil. George W. Bush didn’t invent that conception, just adopted it from the comic book superheroes that surely were the most psychologically complex literary figures populating his imagination.

The up-yours response to the code by comics artists the likes of R. Crumb and Rodriguez was the underground press and underground comics—or comix—such as the East Village Other and Zap Comix, written and illustrated “for adult intellectuals only.” Rodriguez was working for the East Village Other in the late 1960s when Crumb enlisted him for his Zap Comix operation. This was of course the time period of numerous other underground or protest and in general anti-establishment movements, such as the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests. All of which fit well with the general spirit of rebellion promulgated in and by the alternative media.

Rodriguez was a kind of incorrigible rebellious type. With just a “bad attitude” is how he candidly assesses his case in the video. The video touches on his spoiled youth spent reading pre-code comics, the traumatic experience for him of art school, when abstract expressionism with its two-dimensionality principle was dogma—he was into three-dimensionality, in spades—and his blue-collar employment in Buffalo area manufactories, where the curriculum was the much more interesting subject to him of simmering socioeconomic class warfare. Meanwhile, he contributed artwork to a number of underground newspapers in Buffalo, some of which are on display. Pith, published by the Subterranean Press at Gallery Arcanum, 180 Allen Street, editorial office at 56 Elmwood.

And for recreation, he rode motorcycles with the infamous Road Vultures Motorcycle Club, for which he served as self-nominated minister of propaganda. Vivid depictions of club activities including gang fights featuring a wide variety of brutalities such as adversary stompings and beatings with bike chains and the like impromptu weaponry are spread through many of his graphic works, and particularly his illustrated biography, My True Story. But see the chapter entitled “Hard-Ass Friday Night” for some possibly mitigative testimony regarding the Road Vulture ethos and culture, as well as the revelation of an unsuspected tender side of the hero as he struggles to understand his place in this band of rather less cerebral essentially post-juvenile delinquents, whose high standards of commitment to violence and mayhem he wonders if he can attain to.

The possibly mitigative claim is not actually demonstrated in the narrative, but simply a textual aside affirming that “contrary to general belief, the ‘mauling of wimps’ was not condoned [by the club], however there was no shortage of obliging brawlers to satisfy the violent appetites of the RVMC.” The narrative does seem to confirm the second part of the aside.

The self-doubt sequence is touched off by the Spain character’s failure in the midst of a rumble to properly stomp into unconsciousness an adversary who is already down and clearly not about to get up under his own power. Later, nursing his beer, he ponders whether he really has what it takes to be a Road Vulture. When suddenly he notices a guy at the other end of the bar—a non-RVMC that he knew and always disliked anyway—getting in the face of an RVMC buddy, and on behalf of the buddy, proceeds to demolish him. No more glum personal misgivings. No more self-doubt. “Now he had shown true ‘club spirit,’” the commentary happily announces.

The spirit of rebellion behind Rodriguez’s attraction to motorcycle gangs is not the same as the spirit of rebellion and protest accompanying most of the other underground forces operating in the sixties and seventies. Biker gangs did not have a high profile in the civil rights and anti-war protest movements. But one definition of genius would be the capability to reconcile opposites. Or maybe just not bother trying.

The exhibit includes copious original drawings and published comics on open display for inspection. In both cases featuring his own superhero, Trashman, not as squeaky clean as the traditional examples, but packing a veritable machine gun, gets the job done. And his female superhero, Big Bitch.

And copious references in the both story lines and drawings to Buffalo and environs. A large-format depiction of the gang fight outside the former Decco restaurant at Main and Fillmore that took place April 12, 1954, entitled Gunners Meet the Fillmore Gang, or the origins of the beat generation. A series on life and work at the Tonawanda Western Electric plant, the class struggle case study locale. And recollections of legendary 1950s Buffalo rhythm and blues scene impresario George “Hound Dog” Lorenz.

The Spain Rodriguez exhibit is entitled Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels, and Revolution. It continues through January 20, 2013. The excellent introductory video is by Susan Stern.

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