The cartoonist Manuel Rodriguez, known to friends and fans alike as “Spain,” died last week at 72, after a long bout with cancer. Born in Buffalo, the young Rodriguez was an “intense” comics fan who would later tell interviewers that he stopped reading funny books after the Comics Code Authority was instituted and ruined everything. (As an adult, he got his revenge by drawing a zombie throttling Seduction Of The Innocent author Fredric Wertham.) In 1967, while still in New York, he created Zodiac Mindwarp, a psychedelic comics tabloid for underground weekly The East Village Other.
Still, Spain didn’t really find his style until he split for the West Coast a couple of years later, where he became part of the core group of artists—along with Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, and Robert Williams—responsible for the seminal underground comics anthology, Zap. Around the same time his work began appearing in Zap, Spain created his best-known character, Trashman, an agent of violent revolution in America (and, with his large frame and dark beard, a ringer for the artist). He later came up with a female counterpart, the towering Big Bitch. With his blocky style, pulpy story material, working-class Marxist politics, and background as a self-described juvenile delinquent and member of the Road Vultures motorcycle club, Spain introduced some flamboyant street cred to a scene that might otherwise have been dominated by middle-class white guys trying to trace their acid trips onto paper.
In the ‘70s , ‘80s, and ‘90s, as new issues of Zap became more infrequent (Zap #15, which was probably the final issue, came out in 1995), Spain remained prolific, turning out autobiographical tales and historical comics that reflected his interest in the history of leftist and anarchist politics, publishing them in such venues as Arcade, Young Lust, Anarchy, Blab!, Gothic Blimp Works, Insect Fear, Tales Of The Leather Nun, and Zero Zero. In the late ‘90s, he also broke into cyberspace, illustrating the comic strip The Dark Hotel for then-new website Salon. (The strip later moved to the L.A. Weekly.)
In more recent years, Spain executed a book-length comics adaptation of the cult-classic William Gresham novel Nightmare Alley and a “graphic biography” of Che Guevara, as well as provided illustrations for David Talbot’s Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story Of The Man Who Saved America. His autobiographical comics have been collected in My True Story and Cruisin’ With The Hound: The Life And Times Of Fred Toote. He also recently starred in the documentary Trashman: The Art Of Spain Rodriguez, directed by his wife of 23 years, Susan Stern.
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