As a kid growing up on Humboldt Parkway in the mid-1940s, Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez had a cherished weekly ritual.
On Sundays, his father would send him to a nearby shop on Humboldt and Delavan Avenue to pick up a newspaper and a bottle of Vernors ginger ale, Rodriguez recalled in a phone interview from his home in San Francisco. When he got home, young Manny would sit on his dad's lap and look at the funny pages while his father read Lil' Abner, Blondie and the detective serials of the day aloud.
That's all it took: Even before he could read himself, Spain Rodriguez was hooked on comics. For life.
After that, Rodriguez snatched up every comic book he could find. Like plenty of kids growing up in the '50s, he started with superheroes - Superman, Captain Marvel and later the Justice League. Soon he stumbled upon EC Comics, the popular publisher of war, science fiction and horror comics like "Tales from the Crypt" that would fall victim to the conservative Comics Code Authority in the mid-'50s.
As a young artist, Rodriguez, now 72, combined all of those influences with his self-styled, bad-boy persona. Add to that his leftist political ideas and the result is a style that put him at the center of the burgeoning underground comics movement.
A five-decade retrospective of his work, "Spain: Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels & Revolution," which opens Friday in the Burchfield Penney Art Center, showcases his contributions to underground comics and to a new style of comics that emerged from them.
Among comix aficionados, Rodriguez (who goes simply by "Spain") is best known for his work in Zap Comix, the underground comic publication launched by R. Crumb and others that was closely identified with the late-'60s counterculture.
He also created the gritty alt-superhero known as Trashman, a kind of futuristic, urban version of Che Guevara who rails against a tyrannical government and fights for the working class. Some have credited Trashman for contributing to the visual style of George Miller's "Mad Max" films, Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" and other dystopian films and graphic novels of the '80s and later.
Rodriguez left Western New York in the late '60s for New York City's East Village and later moved to San Francisco, but his time on the streets of Buffalo and within its own counterculture had a profound impact on his work. The exhibition's co-curators, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center Director Edmund Cardoni and Burchfield Penney Associate Director Don Metz, teamed up to introduce local audiences to the important work of a native Buffalonian who has not yet received his due.
"He really lived his formative years here and did his first work here," said Cardoni, who was introduced to Spain's work by the comic book writer Harvey Pekar. "He was very inspired by the physical makeup of the city, the ethnic makeup of the city, the streets, the buildings, the look of the city - all of this you see in his work... He always remembered Buffalo and he always brought that interest in the texture of streets and buildings and storefronts."
Cardoni and Metz - along with legendary comics artist R. Crumb - agree that some of Rodriguez's best work lies in his meticulously detailed cityscapes. One, the 1994 illustration "Hard-Ass Friday Night, 1961" - a kind of flagship piece for the exhibition - depicts a Buffalo biker gang (of which Rodriguez was a member) cruising along Allen Street, with the Jamestown Bar & Grill (now Nietzsche's) in the background.
The exhibition follows Rodriguez's early work for the underground newspaper the East Village Other, some of which he completed while still living in Buffalo. It traces his progression as an artist from his first forays into graphic storytelling in outlets such as Zap Comix to his more recent long-form graphic novel projects. His later work, also explored in the show, includes a well-received biography of Che Guevara and the autobiographical book "Cruisin' With the Hound," which contains plenty of Buffalo imagery from Rodriguez's youth.
Workers and takers
A sense of rebellion and defiance permeates Rodriguez's work, from his early illustrations to the Trashman character (an "anarchist superhero bad-ass," Cardoni says) and his later chronicles of revolutionary battle scenes and other leftist material. Rodriguez said his concern for the working class and fighting against the perceived power structure was with him from an early age. But, he added, it took a piece of art to turn his rumbling anti-authoritarian feelings into a cause.
"I had a kind of class sensibility, even when I was a kid," he said. "I saw this mural in some book about Mexican artists, and it was all these kind of high-society people sitting around a table and then in the background were all these Mexican guys with [guns] strapped across their shoulders, fingering their weapons. And I just got it instantly. Suddenly I realized, everything just kind of clicked into place: who I was, what my situation was, what the situation of my friends was."
He and his friends, he continued, "were expected to be a certain way and to make profits for whoever we worked for, and make other kids who would go out and do the same thing. So I tried to seek out the most rebellious and imaginative guys as my running-mates."
At first, those rebellious and imaginative guys were Rodriguez's friends in Buffalo's notorious Road Vultures biker crew - which he chronicled in the first half of his "My True Story" collection. But by the time he moved to New York City, he channeled his rebelliousness into his drawings.
However, despite being hailed by other artists as a seminal influence on modern comics, he has not achieved the popular recognition enjoyed by some of his friends and contemporaries.
"I've always been kind of content to labor in obscurity," he said.
But the Burchfield Penney is intent on bringing Spain's work back into the light. Cardoni said he hopes other museums will be interested in mounting the show after its run in Buffalo ends in January.
"Museums, as places for free speech and tough ideas, find themselves - finally - consistent with the legacy of Spain and his colleagues," Burchfield Penney Art Center Director Anthony Bannon wrote in his introduction to the exhibition catalog. "We have needed to overcome assumptions about what is appropriately art, and what is the surmounting value of culture."
For Rodriguez, the fact that his work is just now making its way into traditional institutions that once might have turned up their noses at illustrations of Buffalo biker gangs and dystopian streetscapes is a welcome, if unexpected, development.
"I'm not surprised that museums are coming around to underground comics," he said. "I am surprised that they're coming around to my underground comics."
But for the curators of "Spain," it makes all the sense in the world.
"He's a nationally significant artist, was one of the most respected and influential figures in an art form, namely underground comics, at the time when that was at its heyday. And that influenced a subsequent generation, or maybe two generations, of graphic novelists," Cardoni said.
"He is and always has been a working-class artist who - with his fists and with his pen - has stood up to government, religion, corporate thugs, bullies and anyone else who would, in Spain's words, 'spread tyranny across the land,'" Metz wrote in his own essay on the show. "Through the process, he creates brilliant images that capture the imagination and spirit of the righteousness he believes in."