Books

Rebellious, But Still Sexist: Revisiting a Giant of Underground Comix

A new book on Spain Rodriguez revisits his innovative repertoire, but ignores the extent to which some of his comix revel in the sexism regularly broadcast in the era’s male-authored strips.

From Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 (all images courtesy Fantagraphics)

When Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez ditched art school in 1959, the decision came easily. The Silvermine Guild School of Art professors didn’t appreciate his representational drawings, an alcoholic landlord threatened his life, and he’d witnessed a good friend commit suicide. So he returned to his hometown of Buffalo, New York, where he painted, took a janitor job, became invested in leftwing politics, and joined an outlaw motorcycle gang.

Rodriguez’s experiences as a member of the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club later manifested in black-and-white illustrations when he moved to Manhattan. There, he broadened the impact of underground comics, known as “comix,” a strain of independently distributed and often controversial works that upended the conventions and economics associated with the mainstream.

Rodriguez’s pugnacious late-1960s strips paid tribute to provocative publisher EC Comics, and answered its censors, while taking cues from Marvel’s superhero comics and Marlon Brando films. Rodriguez’s hyper-sexualized biker comix ran alongside cartoonist Robert Crumb’s work in Zap Comix and in The East Village Other, one of the first underground newspapers in the US. Along with artists Trina Robbins and Kim Deitch, among others, Rodriguez made counterculture press attractive to places like St. Mark’s Place newsstands.

From Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 (all images courtesy Fantagraphics)

“Editors and street vendors soon realized that many of their constituents bought all of the underground papers they could find, especially the ones with new comics,” writes Patrick Rosenkranz in his exhaustive Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963–1975. The historian’s new book Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 features reported essays on Rodriguez’s work, his reproduced art, exclusive photos, and his comix. The challenge, however, lies in coming to terms with the artist’s innovative repertoire and the extent to which some of his comix revel in the sexism regularly broadcast in the era’s male-authored strips.

Trashman: Agent of the 6th International — Rodriguez’s earliest episodic work for The East Village Other (and later, Subvert Comics) — occupies most of Street Fighting Men. The pages are darkened with silhouetted figures pinned against a clustered cityscape that mirrored what was then the Rodriguez’s Lower East Side neighborhood. The bearded urban revolutionary character “Trashman” takes on the wealthy and “the shadow tyranny that has covered the land” in a nuclear war-torn, late 20th century. Armed with a machine gun and ability to alter his molecular structure, he battles the crooked “Computer Police” and billionaires like Horace Dilldome IV, whose take-out chain’s poisonous burgers are made from chemical waste.

From Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 (all images courtesy Fantagraphics)

Trashman’s timely brew of anarchism and violent classist war on the rich offered what fellow cartoonist Jay Kinney called a “hard-left fantasy” that appealed to counterculture types. The layouts are electric, dotted with stylish onomatopoeia and action led by a wildly punching protagonist who breaks only for weed or sex. The animated characters crammed into Rodriguez’s compositions breach imperfect panel borders as often as the fourth wall (“Shhh. Don’t blow it man. Ther’s all those readers out there watching”). Compared to Trashman, the menacing tone and controlled grids of 1969’s short-lived EVO-published strip, Manning, feel like time bombs.

From Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 (all images courtesy Fantagraphics)

Named for the comix’s square-jawed, idiotic detective, Manning satirized police brutality and the TV shows that celebrate bully cops. But it looked smarter than it was. The strip’s bold aesthetic predated today’s comics experiments by decades: Rodriguez depicts gritty Manhattan in jutting, inconsistently shaped panels; pasted-in newspapers punctuate realist backdrops while a single 28-panel page is tilted at 45 degrees. But while Manning was graphically complex, it wallowed in the ills it satirized. Rodriguez’s cop shuns Miranda rights, which yields indulgent violence in the name of social commentary. Full-figured women (and caricatured minorities) are beaten or killed with abandon, each a victim of the strip’s excesses. Adolescent gags and misogyny — which occur less frequently than they do in his biker comix — dampen the impact of Manning as satire and render it as nasty as its target.

In Street Fighting Men’s Road Vultures comix, we don’t get the rape fantasies that populate Crumb’s work, for instance, but each female’s exaggerated anatomy is shoehorned into ill-fitting attire and wholly objectified. Big, bear-like men clad in dark black leather jackets brawl and pound beers in these strips, while women are relegated to peddling intercourse or handjobs. A passerby in porn comic “Vulturette” (Horny Biker Slut Comics, 1992) sleeps with a house full of bikers in succession when told it’s the gang initiation she covets (it isn’t), and a Kiss one-pager’s man punches a woman in the face when she interrupts him having sex with someone else. That Street Fighting Men’s jacket copy brands Rodriguez a “feminist” is befuddling — when, exactly, did the women’s liberation arguments espoused by counterculture newspapers grow stale for these “giants” of comix?

From Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 (all images courtesy Fantagraphics)

Dissent’s Paul Buhle remembered Rodriguez after his 2012 death for pushing “the comics agenda so far forward that no return to the limitations of superheroes and banal daily newspaper strips would ever be possible.” That’s indisputable — but these innovations came at the cost of humanely depicting women. While his plotting and draftsmanship feel rich and instructive, Rodriguez’s contributions to the underground comix’s majority-“boys club” highlight its imbalanced legacy: influential for years to come, but too often mired in the archaic politics its creators purported to reject.

Street Fighting Men: Spain Vol. 1 is out now from Fantagraphics.

comments (0)