Art preview: Black rebel motorcycle art
Spain Rodriguez, "Hard-Ass Friday Nite," 1961, from "My True Story," Fantagraphics Books.
Courtesy of BPAC
When approaching an artist’s work with the knowledge that he’s from your hometown, one tends to look for small details and inside jokes that only a fellow native could understand. And while you probably won’t find these types of winks and nods in illustrator/graphic novelist Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez’s most famous work—his Trashman strip, an acid trip Robin Hood superhero saga that cemented his status as a founding father of underground “comix” in the late 1960s—you will most definitely hear the voice of a man formed by the neighborhoods and factory floors of a mid-century Queen City. To say that Spain supports the working class is like saying Degas kinda liked ballerinas.
Now that he’s in the sixth decade of his career, this contemporary of R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman is finally getting his due, all hoity-toity like. Spain: Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels, & Revolution will be the artist’s first-ever major museum exhibition, meaning you can add “rightful recognition” to that awkward list of “r” words. Starting September 20 and running through January 20, 2013, at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the show will span the breadth of Rodriguez’s career, from Trashman panels that graced the hallowed pages of Zap Comix to drawings from his autobiographical period, which began with 1994’s My True Story and continued with this year’s lovingly told, gorgeously drawn Cruisin’ With the Hound. The exhibition is co-curated by Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center executive director Edmund Cardoni and BPAC associate director Don Metz; Cardoni, a longtime Rodriguez fan, brought the idea to BPAC’s attention several years ago.
Zap No. 7, front cover, 1974, offset print on paper. Courtesy of BPAC.
Just in case you’re thinking that the BPAC is using words like “rumbles” and “revolution” in a figurative sense, it should be noted that Rodriguez spent years of his youth as a member of the Road Vultures motorcycle club, where camaraderie and adventure clashed with violent behavior and intolerant attitudes. This mix of brotherhood and horror influences his work to this day.
And while Trashman was a typical superhero in many ways (his mastery of the “parasciences” meant he could shape-shift into any form and get telepathic messages from cracks in the sidewalk), the character was also a mouthpiece for the artist’s serious anti-authoritarian stance. Spain’s hero was a larger than life defender of blue-collar Americans, who were being mistreated by a government hopelessly corrupted by capitalism and imperialism. In this artist’s irreverent, fearless, technicolor world, guys like Bruce Wayne are part of the problem.
While the subject matter of Rodriguez’s work has jumped around over the years, and his writing can get self-absorbed to the point that it meanders, his illustrative style has been consistently imaginative—a mix of classic heroes and breezy perversion that feels like some heathen spawn of Jack Kirby and Crumb. Whether he’s drawing a lantern-jawed rebel on a Harley or a pantsless woman on a Schwinn, the results are always richly detailed, the backdrops setting the tone with as much authority as the masterfully rendered human beings.
Comic Journal, front cover, 1998, graphite and ink on paper; and Field Meet (page 1), 1974, graphite and ink on paper.
And, in the case of Cruisin’ With the Hound, you can add some sepia-toned nostalgia to the mix. If you are indeed looking for those warm and fuzzy jolts of recognition I was talking about earlier, this collection of graphic short stories is overflowing with them. Covering the time right after Rodriguez dropped out of a Connecticut art school and moved home to work at the Western Electric telephone wire plant in Tonawanda, Cruisin’ softens its tales of biker machismo with one fond, homesick memory after another. The author dubs his crew “The North Fillmore Intelligentsia,” waxes poetic about Watt’s Restaurant and its barbecue pork, and paints WKBW DJ George “Hound Dog” Lorenz as a folk hero for playing black rock and roll artists when everybody else was afraid to (in Spain’s universe, seeing the Hound Dog in the back of a police car just added another notch in the belt of his legend).
“The Fighting Poets,” a panel from Cruisin’ With the Hound that’s featured in the Burchfield exhibit, captures the book’s tone perfectly. Among the beautifully rendered milieu of Watts—all shimmering countertops, bar stools and milkshake machines—a waitress asks a greaser named Jocko Reese if he’d like anything else. Jocko’s response? A series of nasty come-ons that you most definitely never heard on Happy Days.
Other career highlights featured in Spain include artwork from his 2008 biography of Che Guevara. One of the panels on display provides some cutting commentary on Guevara’s status as an American pop culture icon. The number of people who know nothing about the man, yet wear t-shirts imprinted with his visage, is an irony that must really frost Rodriguez’s cookies.
When surveying forty-odd years worth of Spain Rodriguez’s contribution to comics (and art in general), you’re going to see plenty of small elements that will appeal to the local historian in you. But don’t get too caught up in that stuff, because if you step back and take in all the bravado, pain, paranoia and nostalgia, you might not be literally seeing Buffalo, but damn, will you be feeling it.
Joe Sweeney doesn’t want a pickle.