Spain Rodriguez, RIP: “What’s Left?” February 2013, MRR #357

The funny pages. That’s what we called the comics section of the newspaper in our family when I was growing up. Especially the full color Sunday comics.

My dad would spread out the Sunday comics on the living room floor and read them to my sister and me. Peanuts, Blondie, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Gasoline Alley. My parents claimed that I learned to read well before attending school by listening to my dad read the comics and following along in the paper. I gained an abiding love of all forms of graphic material from this early childhood experience. And my parents were happy to let me read anything and everything, so long as I read. I might have a copy of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago next to a stack of Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp Tarzan paperbacks and a pile of Magnus, Robot Fighter, 4000 AD comics, drawn by Russ Manning, on my cluttered desk. That’s when I was in sixth grade.

By high school, and in addition to my homework, my dad was giving me Romain Gary novels and Lawrence Ferlinghetti poetry to read. I was devouring everything science fiction, from Robert Heinlein to Andre Norton. I was also delving into pacifist literature, lots of Thoreau, Gandhi, MLK, plus the political classics of left anarchism. Then there were the underground newspapers of the day. The LA Free Press, The Oracle, and The Berkeley Barb. Last, but by no means least, there were the underground comics. Initiated by R. Crumb’s Zap Comix #1, the stable of underground artists I followed included S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and Spain Rodriguez.

Which brings me to this column’s jumping off point. Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez died this November 28, 2012, at 72. The year 2012 has been a rough one for me. I turned 60, and being conscious of my age made me aware of mortality in general. I noted how many musicians died halfway through 2012 in a previous column. Well, it seems to me that an inordinate number of people I grew up reading, listening to, watching, and otherwise paying attention to have died in the past year, Spain Rodriguez among them. I was an original fan of Spain’s proletarian Trashman (Agent of the Sixth International) comic superhero, and I placed an advanced order for his graphic biography Che once I learned Spain was working on it.

I won’t attempt to summarize his rich, varied life, from working in foundries and riding as a biker with the Vultures motorcycle gang, through all of his 1960s adventures, to being a devoted family man, a husband and father in San Francisco’s Bernal Heights neighborhood producing comic books, graphic novels, and posters for various projects and causes. You can get those details by googling him and checking out wikipedia. David Talbot’s obituary on Salon is particularly enlightening. Instead, I’d like to focus on Spain’s leftist politics. A son of anarchist and socialist immigrants, Spain said that “[w]hen I was a kid I kinda didn’t like rich people … I just kinda had a bad attitude.” So, when he commented that “[m]y hopes are that mankind will build a more just society,” or when he announced on his website “Fight the Oppressor!” his sentiments were more visceral than cerebral.

“I had been interested in politics and history when I was in high school but, you know, it was more instinctual and more aesthetic and it slowly evolved. There’s a party, and they’re probably still around, the Socialist Labor Party, and they would have these get-togethers, and I would get involved in that. So, you know, I developed a Socialist outlook. As a matter of fact, me and Walter Bowart [editor of East Village Other] would get into these intense discussions on those issues. So once I did Trashman, I already had that kind of Marxist outlook.” Clearly, Spain understood ideology, but he was no ideologue. He drew a two page comic detailing the history of the Ukrainian anarchist Nestor Makhno (Toward Revolutionary Art, 1976), published Che: A Graphic Biography about Marxist-Leninist Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 2009, and was working on a graphic history of the 2004 San Francisco hotel workers strike by the conventional Unite Here labor union when he died. All were essentially laudatory works, even as each was historically accurate and critically honest.

It would be incorrect to characterize Spain as a naïve artist type, a “useful idiot.” Mistakenly attributed to Lenin, the term “useful idiot” signified individuals who advocated for a cause whose goals they did not understand. Spain’s Nestor Makhno mentioned the democratic structure of Makhno’s guerrilla army “in theory,” but noted that Makhno and his inner command ran the army with a tight-fisted discipline. Spain also described how Trotsky ordered the arrest of anarchists, and how the Bolsheviks first allied with Makhno’s army, then ambushed, imprisoned and killed its leadership. Spain’s graphic biography of Che praised Guevara’s contributions to Cuba’s liberation as well as the strategy and tactics of guerrilla warfare, while extolling Che’s personal charisma and courage under fire. Spain made no bones about Guevara’s “over-centralized decision-making” (read Stalinist idiocy) in running Cuba’s economy however, or the man’s problematic dealings with African guerrilla soldiers under his command in the Congo. And, if anything, Spain’s comics glorified the violence that he knew was inevitable in any revolutionary situation. Spain Rodriguez was a genuinely non-sectarian class war radical—exultant yet unromantic about socialism’s victories, unswervingly honest yet unapologetic toward its crimes—who had “faith in the revolution.”

Long time readers of this column know that I have been divisive, tendentious and sectarian in defense of my particular political “truth.” I spent last column describing the sectarian squabbling of various Occupy Oakland factions in excruciating detail. The main spokesman for an “insignificant groupuscule” I mentioned in passing has smugly and arrogantly contended that: “OO began its decomposition right around the end of the first week of the encampment. […] The ability of cliques to abuse the GA process began within that first week, culminating in the ultimately unsuccessful – but still demoralizing guilt-mongering of the Decolonize proposal several weeks later. The first betrayal by the union hierarchs occurred during that first week as well; a continued courting of those same creeps throughout the life of OO assured its death. Some of the Move-In Day organizers definitely finished off the edge of contestation that had been present throughout, resulting in a pathetic May Day and an even more absurd Oct 25 commemoration.” Imagine being so angry and bitter in the midst of what was such an inspiring quasi-revolutionary upheaval. Contrast this with Spain Rodriguez, driving around San Francisco in his 70s, no doubt dealing with the prostate cancer that would eventually kill him, saying: “I’ve seen changes in my lifetime. I’ve seen many cool scenes. I have hope cool scenes will keep on coming. I have faith in the revolution.”

The insistence on absolute purity, the unwillingness to accept anything less than 100% and consequent willingness to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, the determination to always “lose with style” as Boots Riley has decried, what I’ve called the beautiful loser syndrome made manifest by political purists on the left, is ridiculous. In turn, I’d like to apologize for my cantankerous, ultra-partisan politics of the past, although I can’t say I won’t indulge in such stupidity in the future. Rest In Peace, Spain. Thanks for all the great comics.

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