Spain, Volume 1: Street Fighting Men

Spain, Volume 1: Street Fighting Men

Spain Rodriguez was a living legend in multiple ways that may very well grow more difficult to understand with the passing years since his death in 2012. For one thing, now little recalled outside of his adopted zone of activity, for decades Bay Area residents and those nearby looked at Spain’s posters for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. These small-scale art works in themselves proved so iconic, Spain became iconic with them. For another, held close by comics fans of a certain type and generation, he was a driving force in underground comics and the social-political world around them.

In this essential volume, the first of a series documenting his life and work, editor Patrick Rosenkranz reminds us that Spain the hyperactive artist was also a comics mentor who offered his skills and advice to dozens of left-leaning public art projects in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and so on. He began drawing material for political events and defense funds earlier, in the Lower East Side of the 1960s, and he never stopped. He also mentored younger comic artists, men and women alike, from the early 1970s almost up until his passing. Thereby, Spain touched thousands beyond those thousands who knew him only from his comic art, which itself was surely enough for a lifetime.

Street Fighting Men constitutes, in a way, a return to an almost forgotten 1994 volume also published by Fantagraphics, My True Story, a wonderful anthology that gave readers a feel for what Spain was about. An action artist of the most extraordinary quality, he recalled in this work the grand EC war comics of the early 1950s—perhaps Wally Wood more than others--interlaced with subject matter—sexuality, radical politics, environmentalism, etc.—that could only have been suggested in the era before the undergrounds. (Was the sexualization also a form of sexism? Here, the contrasting views of those who worked with him, and those who knew him only as readers, seem the most vivid. He depicted a man’s world, but the women were plenty tough, with plenty of rippling flesh on all sides.)

There, too, hangs a tale, very much one of Spain’s persona. The suppression of comics, including Congressional hearings in the same New York courtroom where Communists had been grilled for purported disloyalty only a few years earlier, offered young Spain a lesson. He learned that lesson in his own unique ways, but it remained pretty much the same: the capitalist state was the enemy, the capitalist state of his own nation specifically.

The origins of Spain’s artist-political saga find their proper scholar in this volume, as they will not be found elsewhere. Rosenkranz wants us to learn, at close range, about the artist’s background (his father was of Spanish descent) and his upbringing in Buffalo, a good tough town with a long history of an avant-garde underground (the most famed of lesbian oral histories, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold, long since become a textbook for college classes, traces that side of Buffalo social history) and a unique motorcycle culture as well. The Road Vultures, with a couple dozen young members in the later 1950s and early 1960s, encompassed a sympathy for radical rebelliousness in ways that no organized Left was prepared (then or now, I think) to appreciate. Perhaps it was the long history of local, industrial class conflict taking a new shape amidst factory shutdowns. Perhaps it was the James Dean image of the youthful rebel, a narrative actually cultivated in Hollywood by Communist screenwriters on the run from the FBI. Or perhaps the Road Vultures, motorcycle fanatics who liked to swing their fists when challenged, found their way toward political sympathies thanks to Spain himself, the charismatic youngster and art school dropout encouraged by his mother to draw.

Spain happened to be working at Western Electric, a normal factory job. There, he began reading The Weekly People, the heavily didactic publication of the very old-fashioned Socialist Labor Party--your reviewer was actually a member about the same time, and I have since learned that numerous future student activists took the heavily didactic “socialist study classes” in the pages of the paper. Spain plainly enjoyed arguing with friends and fellow workers about taking production back from the capitalists, and in the process of reading and arguing, educated himself far beyond what he had learned in public schools. What we know for sure is that Spain shaped the Vultures’ political understanding for as long as he was around them. As improbable as it may sound, he made them conscious of not only contemporary issues such as the Civil Rights movement, but also the reality of wealth appropriation and its mate, labor exploitation, in the past and present of Buffalo.

His life changed as he fell in love with a college girl and, at the end of a spring semester, mounted a Harley-Davidson and headed for Manhattan, principally to keep close to the sweetheart returning home for the summer. There he found a leftwing underground culture booming with artists and intellectuals. Going back and forth to Buffalo for the next several years, he was soon doing spot drawings for The East Village Other, a new and decidedly funky tabloid with a following. Eventually, he returned to Manhattan with high hopes for a sort of art career, new style. Thanks in part to encouragement from Ed Sanders (of the band the Fugs, and also the proprietor of the Peace Eye Bookstore on the Lower East Side), EVO’s editor Walter Bowart published Spain’s own Zodiac Mindwarp, a sort of proto-underground comix beginning that... came too early for genre recognition. He worked on his drawing, landed more illustrations at EVO, did poster illustrations for the Fugs and Sanders, including a large logo for the Peace Eye store, and met a few other pioneers of what would shortly become “comix,” including Trina Robbins and Kim Deitch. As EVO changed editors, he was invited to draw anything that he liked. “Trashman, Agent of the Sixth International” thus emerged.

He was pretty shortly on his way to the Bay Area. There, in 1969, the creation of the undergrounds offered the artist a venue for his largest impact. Spain began immediately creating Subvert Comix to extend his Trashman work, and also participated n assorted anthologies. But we need to stop this chronology to consider further the artist that people around him perceived in these days.

Robert Crumb occasionally called himself “Mr. Sketchum,” a way of explaining that he realized himself in his drawing, and dealt with extremely difficult family circumstances by obsessively working at his art. Many artists blur out the scene immediately around them, sinking deeper into the mysteries of a mysterious medium, at once popular and critically despised, with the stories evolving inside their own heads. Far from withdrawing from the world in this sense, Spain was known as a tough guy ready to throw a punch at a bullying presence, including the cops. And to spend his nights in romantic revelries. In the counterculture denizens’ Lower East Side 1960s, Spain the artist seemed naturally a little larger than life. Ed Sanders would write later that behind the rugged exterior could be found an artist with a large sense of humor, a seriousness at learning from history, and a gentleness that he deigned to disguise.

Gothic Blimp Works, growing out of the comics milieu around EVO, disappeared after seven monthly issues (Spain had argued, unsuccessfully, for a format transformation into a comic book) but it had contained a generous handful of the emerging greats--Crumb, Trina Robbins, and Gilbert Shelton, just to name a few. Taken historically, GBW might itself be properly regarded as a springboard for the comic art just emerging Out West, with Spain a central figure.

We turn now to the Art, likely to be, for many readers, the most demanding part of Street Fighting Men. To use the adjective “violent” is not particularly useful here. The motorcycle gangs that become revolutionary outlaws, as Spain’s work evolved, never cease to be what they were when they first emerged. They throw a lot of punches, and as Trashman proper emerges, they shoot a lot of guns—something the real life Vultures never did--at decadent bourgeois enemies. They are often on the run, even when not on motorcycles, and they thoroughly enjoy what they do.

Among the things that they do is a lot of sex. Even today, the comic art expression—genitals out, sex ongoing—seems bold, and Spain’s expression of it particularly bold. Back in the days of Screw magazine, Trashman was both unsurprising as sex-art, and surprising as comics. Not that Spain was entirely alone in comics with his visual candor, but nothing much like it had been seen, at least in the US, outside of the “Tijuana Bibles” with their endlessly repetitive story lines. The Spain-like character of Rodriguez’s action scenes is unusual in another way: he is intermittently having sex with women who are every bit his match—or more. The “big bitch” types in particular give as good as they get, whether shooting, screwing, or one after the other.

In the “fascist Amerikkka” of Spain’s visual imagination, the velvet gloves have been thrown off the metallic claws of domination, and the final battle of the class war seems to be a hand, or perhaps not. Spain’s close friend Jay Kinney once explained this as “time and place.” The Bay Area, after all, was a political hothouse, the confrontations of the Black Panthers and the deeply racist Oakland cops the stuff of global legend. In a strange way--as with the Mime Troupe or local Mexican-American murals of the time--Spain’s comix played heavily for a local and regional audience.

I confess to find the repetitive strokes in the Trashman series wearying, when viewed all together in this way. The occasional break in the pace, with some color covers of collected Trashman or Subvert, is much appreciated, as in the rather more frequent appearance of jokes of one kind or another. So, of course, are the prose sections, documenting so much of Spain’s life. Early strips going back into the '60s, with the same scenario but limited artistic skills, offer us a sense of how deeply this trope carried in Spain’s work, and how through it, he found a sustaining audience and even an identity.

Later volumes in Rosenkranz’s series will offer the Spain of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, of further urban conspiracies, and even the Spain of Che (a volume that I edited, principally by not editing: he met a few quibbles with emailed phrases like "LOVE YA, MAN, FUCK YOU!"). Street Fighting Men is unique in part because it reprints the complete “Manning: Some Call It Brutality, He Calls It Justice”, the saga of a mean, brutal narc who enjoys slugging women as much as he enjoys shooting nonwhites, who hypocritically explains himself as protector of morality but cannot intimidate the occasional toughie (looking very much like Trashman aka Spain’s avatar), who hides under her bed. More humor.

This is not a book to be taken in with a single reading. The stories of Spain’s personal life, Road Vultures onward, can be understood best by orienting life to art, and by ruminating on how the artist understood his own characters. Unfriendly critics who called him “pro-communist” never bothered to see his strips on tough anarchists fighting in Ukraine or Spain, or the sensitive ways in which he could depict the courage, for instance, of women in the Red Army and air force of the Second World War. It was the courage to stand up to the Nazis and to the existing system before his eyes that mattered most.

Patrick Rosenkranz has done something remarkable here, something that perhaps no other friend or scholar of Spain could do, in such loving detail. The evidence of Spain’s work is presented, along with biographical material, for us to make our own conclusions. Reader, dig in.