Even though movie theaters are closed during this pandemic there are other ways to see films, such as via Netflix and many streaming options. For those who would like to see first-run films which would be in theaters now, Albuquerque’s own independent Guild Cinema is offering a home viewing option. You can find a wide list of films at http://www.GuildCinema.com, and a portion of the screening fee goes to support the Guild. Unless otherwise noted, all films reviewed here are available at that link. This is a time to support each other and local businesses (including newspapers), if you can!
Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez HHHHH Directed by Susan Stern. Starring Spain Rodriguez. Plugs: None. Available streaming at Slamdance Film Festival (slamdance.com) and elsewhere. The new documentary Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez tells the story of the seminal underground comix artist. Spain’s life story is told through various previous interviews (he died of cancer in 2012, before filming began) with friends and family, as well as other notable underground artists of his time including Robert Crumb, Trina Robbins, Robert Williams and Art Spiegelman.
Bad Attitude tells several, roughly parallel and intertwined, stories. One is the life of Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez, born in 1940 and raised in Buffalo, New York, who spent much of his life as a rebel, provocateur and troll. Spain’s artwork often revolved around anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian themes, along with his contemporaries in Zap comics such as Crumb.
Armed with a keen eye for detail, an enviable mane, and an iconoclastic attitude, Spain hurled into the world with a vengeance. He had a colorful past (including his involvement in a biker gang and many anti-Vietnam protests) much of which ended up depicted in his art.
Another thread is the history of underground comics; he grew up in an era when comics were not considered art but instead either low-rent WWII propaganda or superheroes. When Spain and his ilk converged in San Francisco in the 1960s, they realized that they could make their own comics and tell their own stories, usually from the counterculture streets. It’s easy to forget, in an age where comics and graphic novels have artistic respectability —from Watchmen to Maus to V: For Vendetta— that not long ago they were considered childish trash.
The film is both personal and political, which makes sense because the filmmaker is Spain’s widow, Susan Stern, a documentarian who made two little-noticed films, The Self-Made Man (2005) and Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour (1998). Stern avoids wholesale hagiography in her film, but one gets the sense that she was still a bit closer to the subject than perhaps the film called for.
Whiffs of scandal emerge in Spain’s past but have little sticking power. One complaint is that his art sexualizes women —as did most underground comics at the time, Crumb perhaps most notably. Spain’s work hardly seems particularly sexist or misogynistic —either in the context of the heady 1960s and 1970s or now— but Stern seems to feel obligated (albeit somewhat half-heartedly) to address it.
The film’s chronologies get a little muddied —which is a problem not because it’s vital that viewers know exactly what happened when, but because one of the film’s themes is about influences, and without knowing when important events happened in his life it’s hard to tease out what led to what —or why. While some themes are explored well, others get short shrift. For example, I’d have liked to learn more about the comic book censorship battles, and Spain’s role in them. Brief mention is made of Frederic Wertham’s moral crusade against “immoral” comic books, presumably including Spain’s, but the topic is promptly dropped. Was Spain part of that, or did it merely serve as a background to his art? It’s not clear.
Any documentary about a cartoonist needs plenty of art from its subject, and Bad Attitude doesn’t disappoint. Art is effectively used to illustrate key scenes and vignettes from Spain’s life, much of it by Spain himself. While not in the same league as, say, Crumb, Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski, or Cutie and the Boxer (not to mention the brilliant The Painter and the Thief) Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez is an entertaining and enlightening look at one of America’s underground comic pioneers.