Spain: Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels & Revolution

Version 1.0.0

By Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez (Burchfield Penney Art Center/Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-782-2 (TPB)

Manuel Rodriguez was one of the most bombastic and well-known pioneering lights of America’s transformative Underground Commix movement: a mainstay of the counterculture which subversively reshaped the nation’s psyche in the 1960s and 1970s. However, although always a left-leaning radical, infamous for his raucously hyper-violent, audaciously sexual urban vigilante Trashman, Spain was also a quietly dedicated craftsman, historian, educationalist and graphic biographer.

Born in Buffalo, New York state in 1940, the Hispanic kid spent a lot of time with notorious biker gang The Road Vultures and these experiences, as much as his political upbringing and formal education at the Silvermine Guild Art School in New Canaan, Connecticut (1957-1960), moulded and informed his entire creative career.

In the 1960s he became a regular contributor to landmark alternative magazine the East Village Other, which not only utilised his burgeoning talents as illustrator and designer but also commissioned, in 1968, his groundbreaking tabloid comic book Zodiac Mindwarp. That insert proved so successful that EVO subsequently sponsored a regular anthology publication. Gothic Blimp Works was a turning point and clarion call in the evolution of underground publishing.

However, the excessive exploits of Trashman – “Agent of the 6th International” – against a repressive dystopian American super-state were only the tip of the creative iceberg. Ardent left-winger Spain founded the trade organisation the United Cartoon Workers of America whilst contributing to many of the independent comics and magazines which exploded out of the burgeoning counterculture movement across the world. Manuel Rodriguez was also an erudite and questioning writer/artist with a lifelong interest in history – especially political struggle and major battlefield clashes, and much of his other work revealed a stunning ability to bring these subjects to vibrant life.

The breadth, depth and sheer variety of Spain’s work – from gritty urban autobiography (American Splendor, Cruisin’ with the Hound: the Life and Times of Fred Toote) to psycho-sexual sci fi (Zap Comix, Skull, Mean Bitch Thrills) is a testament to his incredible talent but the restless artist also found time to produce a wealth of other cartooning classics.

Amongst his dauntingly broad canon of comics are literary adaptations (Edgar Allen Poe, Sherlock Holmes’ Strangest Cases), historical treatises (War: The Human Cost) and biographies (Ché [Guevara]:a Graphic Biography, Devil Dog: the Amazing True Story of the Man who Saved America [Marine Major General Smedley Darlington Butler]) as well as educational and design works such as You Are a Spiritual Being Having a Human Experience and Nothing in This Book Is True, But It’s Exactly How Things Are (both with Bob Frissell).

He also produced the ongoing comics serial The Dark Hotel for American current affairs, politics and media news aggregation website Salon.

In 2012 Spain finally lost a six-year battle against cancer and this superb book – actually the Exhibition catalogue for a career retrospective at the prestigious Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College – celebrates his tumultuous life and spectacular contribution to the art form of graphic narrative with a compelling series of essays as well as a superb selection of the great man’s best pieces including some little known lost treasures.

The appreciation begins with ‘Stand Up’ by Anthony Bannon (Executive Director, BPAC), before the biographical ‘Grease, Grit and Graphic Truth’ by Edmund Cardoni (Executive Director, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center) explores Spain’s past, whilst ‘Keep the Flames of Buffalo Burning’ by Don Metz examines his lasting effect on comics and society.

However, the true value of this chronicle is in the 60+ covers, designs, story-pages, roughs, panel excerpts and strips both vintage and recent, monochrome and full-colour which demonstrate the sheer talent and drive to communicate that fuelled Spain for his entire life.

The Partial Spain Bibliography 1969-2012 and Selected Spain Exhibitions only hint at the incredible depth and lasting legacy of his career and I’m praying that some enlightened publisher like Fantagraphics or Last Gasp is already toiling on a comprehensive series of “Complete Works of…” volumes…

Stark, shocking and always relevant, the communicative power of Spain is something no true lover of comics can afford to miss….
© 2012 Burchfield Penney Art Center. All rights reserved.