Film

Sunset Resident Edits Film Documenting Countercultural Comics Artist

By Noma Faingold

The opening of the documentary “Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez” is not what you would expect to see in a film about one of the most edgy and legendary underground cartoon artists. Rodriguez, in a series of takes that seem more like outtakes, is being directed by his wife, Susan Stern. He enters their home singing Jerry Lee Lewis’ “High School Confidential.”

The lighting is bad. She asks him to do it again. 

“I can only do this so many times,” he tells her, smiling.

The next take, he gets the lyrics wrong.

Another take, he starts coughing mid-verse.

Finally, he gets through it, clumsily. 

“That was great,” says Stern, off camera. “I love you.”

Rodriguez tells Stern he loves her, too, and blows her a kiss as he exits.

Victoria B. Fender, one of four editors on “Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez,” worked on that scene and it is one of her favorites in the film, which will have two in-person screenings at the Mill Valley Film Festival, Oct. 14 and 16.

Victoria B. Fender, one of the editors of “Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez,” poses in Clarion Alley in the Mission District. Photo by Noma Faingold.

“It was an authentic moment,” Fender said. “This isn’t just a story of an artist. It is a story of Susan’s husband, of her family and what it means to remember someone after their death in their wholeness – not how we tend to idealize our loved ones after their deaths. It’s honest.”

Inner Sunset resident Fender, who was born in Argentina, met Stern (who currently lives in Bernal Heights and Santa Rosa) at the 2013 memorial for Rodriguez, who died of cancer in 2012 at age 72. They struck up a friendship and Fender began to work on Rodriguez’s voluminous archives before taking on an editing role in the film. She also has an associate producer credit for the documentary.

“I played more of a supporting role. Whether it was editing or in the archive process, I am most proud that I was involved from the very beginning to the very end,” said Fender, who has worked on several films in various capacities, including as assistant prop master on 2013’s “Fruitvale Station.”

Born Manuel Rodriguez in a rough part of Buffalo, New York, Rodriguez adopted the name Spain during his turbulent youth. He went to Silvermine School of Art in New Canaan, Connecticut, but it was not the right fit for his rebellious nature. He returned to Buffalo and worked at the Western Electric plant for five years, where he developed his detailed industrial, foreboding cityscapes, inspired by the machines and workers surrounding him. He joined a biker gang before moving to New York City’s counterculture hub in the Lower East Side in the mid-1960s.

His work appeared in the East Village Other, an underground countercultural newspaper published in New York City. He created anti-establishment superheroes Trashman and Big Bitch.

“Trashman, a preacher that’s created from the New York trash, who stands up to the bureaucrats,” Fender said. “I love that.”

As influential as Rodriguez and his non-mainstream comic artist peers, R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson, were, they were also controversial in their raunchy, hyper-sexual depictions of female characters. Stern, who was in a relationship with Rodriguez since 1979 (married in 1989) willingly addressed (with narration) that side of Rodriguez’s art in “Bad Attitude,” questioning her own identity as a feminist journalist, a sexual being, as well as a being a wife and mother.

“Did I make this film to defend Spain or to defend myself?” Stern asked.

“The film captured the zeitgeist in talking about uncomfortable topics, talking about artists who are not necessarily likeable,” Fender said. “He was a great artist, a complicated human being, but a good family man.”

In 1970, Rodriguez came to San Francisco, where the center of the underground comics (comix) movement settled. He contributed to San Francisco-based Zap Comics until it stopped publishing in 2005. He and Crumb were co-founders of the United Cartoon Workers of America. Rodriguez taught art at the Mission Cultural Center and was a driving force in the creation of murals in the Mission. 

The film, without being manipulative, manages to balance how the artist came to be, where he made his mark and then conveys the unvarnished truth of how he and his loved ones experienced his terminal illness.

“For some people it’s an exposure to the world of underground comics and to an artist who led an interesting life,” Fender said. “In my world, everybody loves the film. There’s an appreciation of its honesty. Audiences can identify because it’s also a story about loss.”

“Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez” will be screened at the 44th Mill Valley Film Festival (Oct. 7-17) on Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m., CinéArts Sequoia, Mill Valley and Oct. 16, 7 p.m., BAMPFA, UC Berkeley. Online streaming is also available. For more information, go to mvff.com.

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