Written by Taylor Baker
Susan Stern’s reflective documentary on her husband, renowned cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, his life, and body of work offers a sincere engagement into his history, beliefs, and legacy. In the wide wake of the world renowned documentary Crumb by Terry Zwigoff the topic of underground cartoon’s can scarcely be skirted around in a conversation without a reference to the work. Going in to the film I was admittedly reducing it in thought to something adjacent to Zwigoff’s Crumb myself.
I was smitten by Stern’s presenting of her own personal interaction with her husband’s work, questioning herself just as pointedly as she questions him. Never alighting on a judgement, but rather sharing observation and what occurred, without recoloring it to make anyone appear in the right. Structured to keep the viewer from knowing exactly when the documentary is being shot until the end is perhaps the most pivotal choice Stern made, and an undeniably effective one. I would drone on about why this is such a masterful touch if it wouldn’t impact your viewing negatively, but it undoubtedly would. I’ll pivot instead to the strongest undercurrent of reflection in the film postulated by Stern, and that is Spain’s depiction of women. Undeniably lustful, and often pornographic. Spain depicted the female form in a way that his contemporary cartoonists in the burgeoning feminist genre of cartooning at best, disliked. It’s interesting to hear them describe their derision at some of the forms and stylings of his art while simultaneously praising him as a human to interact with. Someone who was sincere and truly grappled with good intentions and in good faith while in conversation.
Eventually we progress through his backstory from Buffalo and New York City, to his arrival in Los Angeles. In which a friend drove cross country to get him and bring him to LA for no real discernible reason. At least not in the narration and interview portions within the film share with us. Naturally, Zap Comix finally enters the picture at this point, Robert Crumb’s noted underground comix book. We hear from our talking heads how impactful those books were to the cartooning scene in New York City. What a genius move it was to do that with the ideas, and so on. Pieces of information anyone familiar with the underground comic scene has already heard multiple times elsewhere, but something that is required to make the piece stand on it’s own.
What constantly tempers and grounds the film is it’s focus on Spain. Once a young brash and burly biker teaching politics to a biker club with a Nazi Flag, Spain is now evolving his art across the country to new protagonists, new ideas, and new audiences. The new format almost seems an after thought to the natural progression of Spain the artist. He has a daughter we come to find, and she shares how protective a father he was always tucking his drawings away when she’d walk by. A far cry from the man we meet at the exposition of the film. Stern’s reflective Documentary is so filled with love and authenticity that it’s hard not to fall in love with it just as she did with Spain. I didn’t know who Spain was before, and now I’ll never forget him.
Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez Trailer