Spiderman on the Roof, 2002 Oil on Linen 28 × 34 inches
Spiderman on the Roof, 2002
Oil on Linen 28 × 34 inches

I grew up in Colorado, and my access to art was really through comics, and of course I loved Spiderman. I have taught comics at the School of Visual Arts since the early ’90’s (after publishing an acclaimed graphic novel Horror Hospital Unplugged, along with the writer Dennis Cooper), and I am the "Cartooning Coordinator" at SVA. In some ways, I see myself as an "avant-garde cartoonist" as many of my exhibitions are a series of juxtaposed images in a deliberate sequence that tell (albeit, and open-ended, nonlinear) stories. "Spiderman on the Roof" was originally in the Hamlet 1999 exhibition, in 2004, and there was like a Hamlet, trying to save the world as best as he could, specifically in juxtaposition to the King Kong painting next to it here (retaining a similar relationship from the Hamlet show). We lived in Soho at the time of 9/11, and saw the World Trade Center buildings with the holes in the side and the people inside, and witnessed (with my drawing students from NYU!) the collapse of both the buildings. It was all I can do to make this series of paintings near that time… I enjoyed the 2002 Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire Spiderman film, and thought that this image of him would be perfect for "Rotoscoping" a Spiderman that was filled with real life and intrigue, fueled by my looking at the film still and thinking my thoughts about the last two years of New York, post 9/11, and wishing I could have done more to save the people in the towers, and the subsequent issues arising from the event—I was empowered, in that I had my health and acumen as an artist and a teacher, but of course the world events were hugely beyond any one person’s ability to make amends like a superhero.

The power of masked heroes, to paraphrase Scott McCloud’s famous "Understanding Comics" book, is the power of the icon. When Peter Parker is just Peter Parker he could be the kid next to you in the high school chemistry class—just another geeky kid. But when he dons his mask as Spiderman, he is red, with giant alien-eyes—he could be anyone. My theory on Spiderman is perhaps as a child you are reading a Spiderman comic in your bedroom with a flashlight, and maybe your parents are fighting in the other room—you can’t do much about your parents, but as you relate to the character in the comic, when he has his mask on he could be you—and you suture into the avatar of Spiderman, and as he thwarts evil, so do you! When I’m painting this or many of my works, I find myself transcending into the character and scene that I’m depicting, much in the same way you do when playing a video game or reading (or creating!) a comic, and I think I did so here, becoming Spiderman as I’m painting him, being in that space of that world to try to make it a better place. Specifically placed here in this installation, I see him trying to help King Kong who has already fallen, and Spiderman’s frustration that he couldn’t do more to help..

Inspiration. I still want to make a painting of the first appearance of Spiderman on the cover of Amazing Fantasy 15, from 1962. Originally a character created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, the cover was actually penciled by Marvel giant Jack Kirby, and inked by Ditko, as many mainstream superhero comics were and still are group efforts. Ditko was inspiring to Mike Kelley for his eccentric characters and drawing—he still lives, but is a libertarian recluse, self-publishing ranting comics about society, and in his earlier, slightly more sane days, he was able to propel life into his characters by channeling all of his conscious and unconscious ideas into his work, grounded by Stan Lee and his business and creative canny sensibilities. Kirby was also an amazing artist, able to create formal nuance, that if you turn his pages sideways to abstract them, and squint your eyes, they sometimes can create Pollock paintings from his amazing use of darks and lights, and his "Kirby Krackle" of positive and negative space. These are images that are fused with feeling, not about Duchamp/Warhol/Lichtenstein maneuvers of high and low, but more in the Guston/Saul tradition of identifying and "becoming" as you render the iconic avatar. One of my longtime favorite paintings at the Frick is The Polish Rider, allegedly by Rembrandt (although this has been contested). I still think it must be by the master, as the emotions and the mystery is so great in this painting, and whether or not he painted it (or if he had help by his pupil) doesn’t matter to me, as the Romantic intensity is so pervasive in this work. I think its an ideal idealized hero, the youth on horseback, on an adventure through a murky landscape, him standing out from the golden hues of the gravy-like colors of the background, on some mission for truth and justice it seems, or acknowledging with "great power comes great responsibility," something I was trying to convey in the tentative leap to heroism of our contemporary hero.