At first, Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez seems like an average artist documentary, celebrating the subject while also lightly challenging the brutal misogyny, homophobia, and general ugliness that cakes his work. Fellow provocateurs like R. Crumb, Robert Williams, and Art Spiegelman are paraded before the camera to supply context for the time and merit of the art. They do their duty, and the documentary aids their argument by doing more than merely presenting brief snippets from Rodriguez’s strips.
Director Susan Stern stops her film for Spain. She puts his comix on display and lets you give them a read. There might be some added music or a talking head lecturing from somewhere offscreen, but Stern gives the art its time and space. Whether you’ve read a Spain Rodriguez tale before the film or not, you’re allowed to do so here. This reverence for the material is not uncommon, but the manner in which Bad Attitude slows for its exhibition is.
Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez was one of several underground artists who put the X in comix (without it, you just have comics, and those were seen as cud for cows). He had a deviant mind, overwhelmed with images depicting humanity at its worst. His heroes were dubbed “Trashman” and “Big Bitch,” and they snarled, and they spit, and they kicked tremendous amounts of ass.
Rather than let them rot his head from the inside out, Rodriguez attacked the page, splashing his lust and anger on it. Sex and violence smash together, never feeling contained within the panels or page borders. His comix seeped and infected. To read them is to dunk yourself in acrid emotion. The sticky feeling doesn’t wash easily.
Rupturing from the late 1960s, these beautifully grotesque stories screamed with activism. They were a sharp-nailed finger in the eye of the establishment. Through their depiction of heinous acts and flagrant disregard for civility, they bolstered rebellion. In an era when all the medium had to offer were malt shop teens, funny animals, and square-jawed avengers, Spain Rodriguez was an atom bomb.
Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez does a brilliant job capturing the artist’s allure. Beyond the presentation of his art, the film splays Rodriguez on the screen. His antagonism toward authority only becomes more appealing with every passing American disappointment. Digging into his history and his pseudo mission to convert the Road Vultures, a Buffalo biker gang, into a revolutionary anti-capitalist force ignites a call for advocacy. Look around, what army could you amass? How would you sway them to your cause?
Rodriguez stirred outrage and riot through his images. He did more than translate or exaggerate the absurdity around him. His art made his anger your anger. His panels became the glasses through which you saw reality. Rodriguez jammed your nose into the defecation we produced daily. Don’t dismiss it. Shit is not something we can politely ignore. We are the shit. We make it. It’s us.
And yet, for as chest-thumping and rousing as his stories could be, how do you reckon with a comic like Dessert? The autobiographical account reveals how fourteen-year-old Rodriguez witnessed and, through his lack of action, participated in the brutal assault of a gay man in a Buffalo park. The comic is introduced ten minutes into Bad Attitude, given a brief bit of Stern narration and ploddingly unraveled panel by panel.
The film’s previous ten minutes, containing that barrage of praise from R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman, deteriorate quickly after wallowing in Dessert. Stern explains how Rodriguez trapped his life on the page so he could stop telling certain stories from his life, but the events of Dessert never came up in conversation. He drew the comic when he was in his forties, and author Susie Bright labels it as a confession.
Rodriguez was not a comix badass; he was just another broken human haunted by his environment. Through his work, Rodriguez attempted to compute the world for himself as much as anyone else. Bad Attitude exposes an artist in constant turmoil, a man simultaneously defending, explaining, and balking against himself.
Where the film becomes unusual is in its trickling authorial voice. From the start, it’s obvious that Stern has more than a passing interest in Rodriguez. Bad Attitude‘s first minutes are a fumbling endeavor to capture the perfect Rodriguez introduction, where he whips open his front door, and storms into his home singing Jerry Lee Lewis’ “High School Confidential.” The artist is not a one-take wonder, and Stern suggests repositioning to achieve superior lighting. They laugh, they giggle, they bicker.
We learn quickly that Stern was married to Rodriguez, and Bad Attitude appears to be an effort to trap her husband in amber. The comix madman died of cancer in 2012. Stern loves Rodriguez; it drips from every frame. She’s not purely providing context for the man or his art. She confronts his worst aspects, and even questions her motivations.
At one point, speaking directly to her audience, Stern asks whether this film mounts a defense for Spain or one for her. How could she love this brute? The answer is never said, but it is observed.
The comix artist never fades from Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez — that would be ridiculous — but the more Stern injects of herself, the stronger an understanding we have of him. Her struggle to bottle her contradictory spouse breeds empathy. We don’t forgive Rodriguez’s shabby attributes; we simply negotiate how they can exist next to his finer points.
Spain Rodriguez was a colossal personality, and his gift was to explode that entire enormity upon his comix. What he left behind is a record of the hell and heaven he lived. A realm we’re stuck with.