Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reflections of Spain

Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez (1940 - 2012)

“But he was alive just yesterday,” protested the youth.

  That Spain’s passing was felt in a visceral way by so many is
testimony to the greatness of his heart and spirit. I won’t add “soul”
because that might touch off an argument with him. Like others who
knew him well, we’ll be hearing his voice for the rest of our days and
even as I tap out these words I can feel him peering over my shoulder.
What a wonderfully explosive laugh he had!

  On the evening of his death day, the full moon loomed low over the
horizon in downtown Cincinnati. I was driving through the old city and
the crumbling facades were evoking Spain’s architectural studies of
Buffalo--those stark buildings which provided such compelling
backdrops for the ink-noir Road Vultures scenarios. It is the rarest
of artists who can enter our eyeballs, so that we apprehend visual
reality through their aesthetic sensibilities. Now those sensational
saucy sagas are finite in number. Had he lived until 2040, there would
be countless more because his youth was a constant fount of
inspiration. He had a phenomenal memory, going back to infancy.
Now that body of work can be parsed and footnoted, as it well
deserves to be.

  Who was the character that realized he had strong feelings for the
dame who had been the plaything of the entire Road Vultures motorcycle
gang? At a weekly meeting he testified of his devotional love to all
fellow members, threatening that he would no longer tolerate
disrespectful remarks directed at her. Does he show up in other
episodes?  Or what about those pizza proprietors in the African
American neighborhood who wore holstered pistols while they served
their dripping pies? You can’t make this kind of stuff up. Spain may
have majored in art and minored in writing, but I believe the
authentic social commentary and character development so pervasive in
his work qualify it as true literature. More Beat than Hippie, he
often coined phrases as he spoke with a casual vernacular
delivery that was uniquely his own (for example, Stalin “marshaled his
ass-kicking forces.”)

  Incredible as it might now seem, until the ‘80s you couldn’t write
for publication without a typographer getting in your business; nor
could you render oversize artwork for print unless it got processed by
a photostat worker. In ‘75 Spain and I were the stragglers for a
non-negotiable Arcade deadline. We had to bring our finished pages to
a South-of-Market photostat shop and then hand deliver them to the
printer. He arrived at my Noe Valley digs at dawn in his ‘53 black
Buick. Though exhausted from the all-nighter, I was honored to ride
shotgun in a mentor’s classy car that was vintage even then. He
suggested that we take a detour through the financial district. As we
wheeled slowly through the priciest real estate in town he spoke like
a jaded tour guide, “This is the best time of day to check out chicks.
They are totally buffed out in their finest clothes, fresh out of the
shower. You can almost smell the shampoo.” I surveyed the local fauna
with newly appreciative, yet bloodshot, eyes.  Then, onward to the
photostat place.

  While we were waiting to have our work reduced to print size, I
heard one of the clerks critique my “Gates Of Purgatory” panorama:
“This guy is a faker.” I would normally have let the remark go and
brooded about it for ten days, but in the presence of the great Spain,
I was emboldened to defend my work like I was a Road Vulture, too.
“Oh yeah?” I heard myself bellowing, “I’m a faker, huh? That’s
why I’m out here and you’re in there!”

  When I had to turn to sign painting for the survival of my new
family Spain never abandoned me as a peer. In fact, he appreciated the
art form. After the divorce, at the nadir of my life, he took me in as
his roomie. I was lucky enough to have had a Japanese girlfriend for a
couple seasons. We had major language difficulties, but she was
capable of zingers. My favorite was “Room mate is happy man.”
That was absolutely spot on.

  Fully engaged in his work, his community of friends and fellow
travelers, he was the polar opposite of me, a tormented religious nut
with OCD and major relationship problems. Our dynamic was replicated
in our drawing styles. He would be ensconsed in an easy chair in front
of a day/night TV, dashing off authoritative and bold ink lines from
minimum penciling. If I wasn’t painting a sign, I’d be hunched over a
standard drawing table. My preliminary pencil drawings would be the
pretext for halting tentative ink lines that would require additional
cross-hatching and a fair amount of white-out. In the years of working
near him, I made a quantum leap in skill because I gained some of his
pen command through osmosis. He was a cartoon Zen master. You’d have
to have some skin in the game to understand the courage it takes to
slash bare white space with a bold inking technique. And it also takes
a lot of guts to draw the title/splash panel first, then come up with
the story later, but once in awhile, he did just that.

  Back then, the only mouse in our house was a real one. Everything
was hand-made, even Lost Dog notices. We didn’t think of ourselves as
“content providers,” though in the new computer age we would all
gather under that umbrella. It still surprises me that he was one of
few original Underground artists able to transition to the computer,
while still maintaining the integrity of his traditional craftsmanship.
But long before he became a master of Photoshop we had parted ways.

  I never knew him as a family man, either. By the time I moved, his
roving eye became locked on a certain beautiful and talented woman who
would later bear his child. I started a new family, too. Large chunks
of time passed between our visits or calls. But when we connected, it
was effortless. His lively intelligence and political awareness revealed
that his zest for life had only increased. His output continued to be prodigious.
His taking on the Che project when well into his ‘60s is the crowning
achievement of a career that never faltered. Spain was productive to the
very harsh end of his life. More importantly, he remained kind and conscious,
forever to be beloved by friends and family.

Justin Green