Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez Explores the Legacy of a Cartoonist Who Reserved the Right to Objectify
Toward the end of her documentary Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez, director Susan Stern asks in voice-over, “Did I make this film to defend Spain? Or to defend myself?”
It’s a telling question, one important enough to justify Stern briefly putting the focus on herself and taking it away from her husband and subject, the late underground comix pioneer Spain Rodriguez. The question underscores a tension that sets Bad Attitude apart from the standard biographical documentary. Even as Stern fills her film with people who loved and respected Rodriguez, she never obscures the machismo and sexism that existed alongside the artist’s brutal and beautiful leftist comics.
The movie follows Rodriguez from his working-class childhood in 1940s Buffalo, New York, to his involvement in the underground comix scene of the 1960s, and through his death by cancer in 2012. Drawn to the medium’s ability to offend, first manifested by the crime stories published by EC Comics, Rodriguez quickly became a key member of the indie comix movement, publishing in The East Village Other and ZAP Comix. Whether he was recollecting his violent misadventures in the Road Vultures biker gang, imagining the post-apocalyptic world of the anti-fascist superhero Trashman, or capturing his sexual fantasies on paper, Rodriguez made comics into a vital art form, setting his work apart from the corporate superhero intellectual property farm that they’ve become. Rodriguez’s twisted hulking figures, enhanced by bold linework and thundering black and white compositions, communicated the contempt he felt toward dehumanizing capitalists and warmongers.
In the film’s most visually striking moments, Stern gives Rodriguez’s art the attention it deserves. Breaking from the standard interview/archival footage approach found in most documentaries, Stern fills the screen with Rodriguez’s panels. Sometimes, she unfolds a section at a time, giving the viewer time to appreciate the pictures before adding speech balloons and subsequent panels. Other times, Stern takes a more chaotic approach, panning around a piece in whip-zooms to recreate the anger and dynamism of his work.
While the film captures Rodriguez’s subversive streak, it does sometimes portray him as the stereotypical rebel without a cause, a man more interested in provocation than in advancing a well-developed politic. As his sister Cynthia Rodriguez puts it, “Restraint by authority was something Spain could not accommodate.” In fact, were it not for Crumb’s smirking observation that Rodriguez spent much of his artistic energy on “dour political causes,” viewers would not know how devoted the artist was to various left-wing movements. This problem may stem from Stern’s refusal to canonize Rodriguez, often juxtaposing examples of his activism against unflattering commentary, that patter at times offered by Rodriguez himself.
When the movie turns to San Francisco’s Mission District to feature a mural celebrating Latino laborers and artists painted by Rodriguez, the artist gushes with appreciation for Christopher Columbus. Likewise, the only discussion about a piece Rodriguez drew commemorating the collective action of anarchists and pagans revolves around complaints about the sexualized nature of a female figure, an element Rodriguez defends. “To a person who knows how to draw,” he says while staring down the camera, “all women are naked.”
Moments such as these never let us forget that Rodriguez was a “ladies’ man,” who, according to former girlfriend Maxine Weaver, “reserved the right to objectify women from the neck down.” From the movie’s opening montage, female creators describe Rodriguez’s deep mistrust of feminism. Within his comics, women were either sexually available to his male heroes or threats to their masculinity. These women also tell anecdotes about Rodruigez hitting on women at anti-war protests, suggesting that he worked to preserve male control over women, even as he spoke out against those who would subjugate him.
While Rodruigez limited women’s voices within his work, Stern provides plenty of space for women to critique him, precisely on these grounds. “He didn’t get women’s liberation at all,” observes fellow cartoonist Trina Robbins. “He thought that all feminists were all lesbians and all hated men.” Bitch Media founder Andi Zeisler describes both her fascination with Rodriguez’s comics and her disgust at the rape and misogyny they portrayed. Stern herself acknowledges that Rodriguez was in no way a feminist.
The film also makes space for women to describe their appreciation of Rodriguez’s work on their own terms. Although Robbins acknowledges that Rodriguez didn’t get feminism, she describes him as a friend. Rodriguez’s character Boss Bitch, a tall assertive secret agent who completes missions using her sexuality, appeals to feminist author Susie Bright precisely because of her self-determination. “She has no self-doubt,” Bright says with a laugh. Cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb recalls the respect Rodriguez gave her as a peer and speaks highly about the “heroic, strong, tough, incredibly sexually active” women that he drew.
Rodriguez’s daughter, animator Nora Rodriguez (who created many of the titles and sequences in the film) describes her father as a caring person and homemaker, one who co-created art with her. Stern herself expresses her attraction to Rodriguez as someone whose “feminism was always very sexual and about sexual liberation and my liberation and my ability to be both sexual and powerful and not be denigrated or dismissed for being a sexual being.” Stern makes this declaration over nude images that Rodriguez drew of her, one of many times in the movie that women pose while holding nude portraits by the artist.As the various women interviewed by Stern demonstrate, her central question cannot be so easily answered. It is up to the viewer to decide if Stern has justified Rodriguez and/or herself. Despite Rodriguez’s fear of feminism and support for patriarchy, the film functions as an exercise in femine reinterpretation. Creators such as Kominksy-Crumb, Robbins, and even Stern, find value in his art and even in his portrayal of women, even if they sometimes reject his oeuvre’s central premises. Even if Rodriguez’s imagination could not find roles for women in a liberated future beyond that of sex objects, women have created spaces for themselves by building upon and reacting to his work. In this way, Bad Attitude operates as both a retrospective on an artist who put his ferocious talent against systems of oppression and the women who carry on that fight, even if they must at times direct criticism toward that same art.