Spain Rodriguez (1940–2012)

Spain Rodriguez, “The Education of an Underground Cartoonist” (detail), 2004. From Cruisin’ with the Hound (2012, Fantagraphic Books). Originally published in Blab #15, 2004.

2012 WAS AN OUTSIZED YEAR of losses in graphic narrative—Joe Kubert, Maurice Sendak, Moebius—none more so than the death last November of Spain Rodriguez. Spain was a pioneer of the underground comics movement, first in “Zodiac Mindwarp” in The East Village Other, then the groundbreaking Zap alongside Robert Crumb, and most recently in an autobiographical vein, carving a rough-hewn, iconic, ribald, unapologetically political, and wholly unmistakable aesthetic onto the page. Drawing comics—like wearing leather, or spraying paint on subway cars, or rhyming over a beat—is hardly an intuitive way to speak truth to power, and the force of Spain’s work is that it allows us to forget this otherwise jarring fact.

Perhaps the most remarkable quality of Spain’s comics is the complete absence of a late-life lapse into conservatism. There is no measurable move away from the leftist ideals that led him to draw Trashman, Agent of the Sixth International—located iconically somewhere between Captain Marvel (an early influence of Spain’s) and Tom of Finland—or help found the United Cartoon Workers of America. The early outrage he felt as a comic book fan in the wake of Comics Code Authority censorship translated into an explicitly violent, explicitly sexual, and explicitly political visual vocabulary that brought superhero comics into conversation with underground audiences, changing both in the process.

Toward the end of what would be Spain’s last published collection of comics in his lifetime, an arresting volume of autobiographical work titled Cruisin’ with the Hound (just nominated for a Los Angeles Times book award), is a thumbnail history of his encounters with music titled “I’ve Seen the Best of It.”

Spain Rodriguez, “I’ve Seen The Best of It” (detail), 2002. From Cruisin’ with the Hound (2012, Fantagraphic Books). Originally published in The Comics Journal Special Edition Volume Two: Cartoonists on Music, 2002.

Spain prepares us for a story of decline, his cherished ’50s rock and rhythm and blues giving way to Boy George, Madonna, and finally rap. But the narrative catches itself toward the end, seeing the triumph of free-market fundamentalism as a determining cause for the self-loathing he hears in contemporary music, his comics refusing an easy and muddled nostalgia. When we see his thought bubble describe “the foolish youth of today,” it descends into a self-aware muttering, and while the car he drives speeds through the cityscape of his youth, the problems he recognizes, and the abilities he grants art to address them, remain rooted in the present day.

His voice will be missed.

David M. Ball teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature and culture at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.