WHEN I THINK of San Francisco, I often think of Spain.
Some of my life’s very earliest visuals are of the peninsula city’s Mission District, and it is hard to think of that neighborhood’s bright and striking murals without thinking of Spain Rodriguez
In many ways, Spain left his mark on the city as profoundly as he did on comics. .
Born in Buffalo, the Bay Area transplant would become a true cartooning original (even if he cited influences like Wally Wood). Besides co-founding the Mission District’s murals movement, he was among the band of Zap Comix artists who, beginning in the ‘60s, pioneered the underground comix scene.
Everyone’s heard of Crumb and Art Spiegelman. Some know of Kim Deitch or Gilbert Shelton, of Victor Moscoso or S. Clay Wilson — ‘60s underground comix conspirators all.
If only all comics fans could have known Spain Rodriguez.
Generations of cartoonists certainly have, even if only through his muscular influence.
Spain could make ink ripple and resonate. His style could be bold and blunt and grunting — as in-your-face as an urban hustler — but it somehow always remained seductive.
He drew road warriors and revolutionaries. At times — to strangers and eventual friends alike — he could resemble both himself.
“I first met Spain at the East Village Other in New York in 1969, just as I started my career in underground comix,” “Zippy the Pinhead” creator Bill Griffith tells Comic Riffs on Wednesday. “He was intimidating — he looked like a cross between a Hell’s Angel and a Communist revolutionary. But instead of sneering at me, Spain was welcoming and friendly.
“Over the years, as we became friends in San Francisco, we had many a lengthy discussion about art, history and drawing.”
“Spain was an important part of the underground comix movement, a member of the Zap fraternity, and an artist who held his revolutionary beliefs until the day he died,” Fantagraphics co-founder Gary Groth tells Comic Riffs. “His point of view was Marxist/blue-collar, which he imbued with a brawling, in-your-face street-level humanity.”
Rodriguez’s career often followed his passions. While young, he rode with the Road Vultures motorcycle club, which came through in his comics. While nearing 70, he created ”Che: A Graphic Biography.”
[VIDEO: Spain Rodriguez on his work]
“Although he was famous for being a member of a motorcycle gang in his youth and for his physical scrapes, I always found him to be a sweet, gentle and centered person — firm in his convictions but never bullying,” Groth tells Comic Riffs. “I had the privilege of editing and publishing his last book, ‘Cruising With the Hounds,’ his autobiographical account of growing up a wild, fist-fighting juvenile delinquent in Buffalo in the ‘50s, and working with him on the book was a joy.”
And Spain’s work streamed like a waterway through the city.
“It’s hard to imagine San Francisco without Spain Rodriguez,” says Andrew Farago, curator of the city’s Cartoon Art Museum. “Walk down any street, and he’s got at least one poster in a shop window. If you’ve read an alternative weekly paper in the past 45 years, you’ve seen his illustrations. Any bookstore that carries graphic novels, any comic shop, any independent theatrical house. ... Spain had it covered.”
His art could be seen in Mother Jones and top museums. He would draw for the New York Times, or Hustler, or Salon. He worked with such bards as Pekar and Bukowski.
He made theatrical posters. He made film sets.
And most everywhere he went, it seems, he made friends.
“Personally,” Groth says, “he was a large-spirited artist, wonderful company, a great raconteur and an easy sense of humor.”
“He was a gifted storyteller in person and in print,” Farago tells Comic Riffs, “and he always had time to talk to artists, whether he’d known them since the 1960s or had just met them.”
“Last time I visited him, he made me a mean bowl of chili,” Griffith recalls to Comic Riffs. “The [San Francisco] Chronicle had just dropped ‘Zippy’ for the second time, and Spain decided to take me around to his San Francisco haunts to show me how much the city appreciated my strip.
“Everywhere we went, praise flowed — but it was as much for Spain as it was for me. If anyone was loved by everyone in San Francisco, it wasn’t me, it was Spain.”
Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez died Wednesday at age 72, after a long battle with cancer, according to the Chronicle.
“Every time I draw folds in clothing or a big city skyline or a thousand other things he drew so beautifully, I think of Spain,” Griffith tells us.
“He was a comics master of the highest order.”