Spain Rodriguez, a Buffalo-born artist who exerted a tremendous influence over the development of underground comics in the United States, died Wednesday in San Francisco after a long bout with cancer. He was 72.
Mr. Rodriguez's work is the subject of an ongoing retrospective exhibit in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, which runs through Jan. 20. The exhibit captures his formative years on the streets of Buffalo, his work for underground publications such as the East Village Other in the late 1960s, his eventual creation of the cult hero known as "Trashman" and finally his influence on an entire generation of comics artists, including his friends and fellow underground comics creators R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman.
"We mourn the passing of this great American artist, author, activist, and son of Buffalo," Edmund Cardoni, executive director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, wrote in a Facebook post, "but are glad we got his career retrospective at the Burchfield Penney Art Center here in Buffalo done just in time, and that he and his family were able to be here for opening weekend back in mid-September, where he was able to connect with old friends, introduce his work to new audiences, and see his work treated with the respect it so richly deserves."
Despite the respect his work received in the world of underground comics, Mr. Rodriguez never quite attained recognition of the form's household names such as Crumb or Harvey Pekar. But that seemed to suit him just fine. "I've always been kind of content to labor in obscurity," he told The Buffalo News in September.
Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez was born in Buffalo and grew up on Humboldt Parkway. After a stint at art school in Ohio, he spent time as a member of the legendary Road Vultures motorcycle club in Buffalo and worked at various factory jobs. At 27, he moved to New York City, where he drew covers and comics for the East Village Other. Later, he moved to San Francisco – the home of the legendary publication Zap Comix, to which he was a frequent and prominent contributor – where he remained until his death.
Mr. Rodriguez also wrote and illustrated a biography of Che Guevera that has been widely translated and praised, as well as various projects exploring the history of military and class struggles.
Spiegelman, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel "Maus," called Mr. Rodriguez a seminal figure in the underground comics movement and a member of "the great tradition of proletarian artists."
"He brought a lot that became signature to that moment in comics that affected a lot of what's come since. I don't know that there would be such a thing as these nice gentrified graphic novels that I'm associated with, as well, if it weren't for the energy unleashed with such vehemence by Spain, Crumb and others at Zap Comix," Spiegelman said, adding that his gritty, hard-edged style defined his work to the end.
"Spain," he said, "vehemently and courageously and continually refused to be cleaned up."
Funeral arrangements were incomplete Wednesday.
– Colin Dabkowski