The news is late in coming due to the quieter life he chose to live in recent years. Spain Rodriquez — renowned American artist, 1960s underground cartoonist, and a contemporary of famous artist Robert Crumb — passed away last Wednesday from cancer at his home in San Francisco. He was 72 years old, and he leaves behind his wife Susan Stern and legions of devoted admirers.
Spain, the one word name used by friends and fans, is legendary among those of us who grew up on a steady supply of hippies, psychedelic rock and roll, anti war protests, and free love. Spain spent his youth in Buffalo, New York on a diet of comics and a strong dislike of overbearing authority. He fought his way through high school and stole a few cars, but he spent many productive hours drawing comics on trash bags to the lasting joy of the sanitation men who picked up his family’s garbage.
After high school, Spain attended Silvermine Guild School of Art in New Canaan, Connecticut. His teachers were not fond of his ultra realistic style, and Spain didn’t bother to graduate. He went home to Buffalo and spent five years working in a Western Electric plant that manufactured telephone wire. He said he learned his craft there while drawing the machines and co-workers.
Rodriquez also cultivated his rebellious streak by joining an outlaw motorcycle gang, the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club. He divided his time between carousing with his buddies and drawing them on their motorcycles and in their souped up cars.
In the mid 1960s, Spain made his way to New York City where he found a place on the then infamous Lower East Side and took a job drawing comics strips for the East Village Other, remembered fondly by the initials EVO. At the urging of Walter Bowart, a founder and the original publisher of the East Village Other, Spain also created one of the first Underground Comix, Zodiac Mindwarp.
It was during his tenure at the East Village Other that Spain created his iconic comix character, Trashman, a counterculture superhero who hated authority and enjoyed putting rich capitalist exploiters in their place. Other comic strips featured Manning, a corrupt police officer with his slogan, “Some call it police brutality; he calls it Justice” and The Big Bitch, a violent, sexed up troublemaker the New York Times called ” a pornographic cross between a Charlie’s Angel and Rambo.”
Art Spiegelman, creator of Maus, the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize, spoke fondly of his departed friend and colleague.
“Spain was one of the seminal, in probably all meanings of that word, figures of the underground comics planet. I don’t know that there’d be such a things as these nice gentrified graphic novels that I’m associated with as well if it weren’t for the energy unleashed with such vehemence by Spain, Crumb and others.”
Robert Crumb — internationally renowned for his comics and artwork, creator along with Spain of the seminal Zap Comix — also spoke fondly of Spain and paid tribute to his importance as an artist.
“He struck me as an archetypal character. Crazy artist, crossed with left-wing radical, crossed with working class Latino hood. He had a big influence on me through his artwork. He was top of the line in that generation of underground breakaway cartoonists.”
Eventually Spain made his way to San Francisco where he settled down to collaborate with Crumb; Rick Griffin; Bill Griffith; creator of Zippy the Pinhead, fellow biker, and cartoonist S.Clay Wilson; and a host of the leading young artists of his generation. As the passions of the 1960s cooled and the counter culture was overrun by the upwardly mobile, Spain turned to a quieter existence. He spent his later years teaching art at the Mission Cultural Center and helping to inspire and produce many of the fabulous murals that are an important part of the city’s vibrant creative universe.
As a publisher of Underground comix, including the work of the late pioneering artist Vaughn Bode as well as Larry Todd creator of Dr. Atomic Comix and David Geiser, comix artist and abstract painter married to Academy Award winning actress, Mercedes Ruehl, it was my pleasure to know Spain and to admire his ground breaking contributions to the American art scene. Go with grace, mi compadre. We will all miss you.