Spiderman vs. Doc Ock, 2004 Oil on Linen 50 × 36 inches
Spiderman vs. Doc Ock, 2004
Oil on Linen 50 × 36 inches

Spiderman is an awesome character, and I teach comics as the Cartooning Coordinator at one of the best programs in the world for comics at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Part of the power of the icon, according to Scott McCloud in his terrific book Understanding Comics is that if a character is essentialized and reduced to its most simple elements, i.e. a "smiley face" with two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, its relatable to most people, for three reasons. We see faces in everything—as a survival skill for human being animals we need to recognize faces—a cop once told me if you are feeling thwarted walking down a deserted alley with a stranger look at them in the face and they won’t mug you! Try this on a subway sometime—you might get a date, or you might be clubbed! Some people don’t see faces in things, as their brains aren’t wired that way—Chuck Close supposedly doesn’t remember faces, so he’s made a career out of obsessively painting huge pictures of them…. The second phenomena is that you know what other people look like, but we have a very fuzzy notion of what we ourselves look like—I remember what I looked like when I brushed my teeth this morning, but as I’m writing this, I might as well be a brain in a jar. The third phenomena—perhaps the most intriguing one—is that we tend to anthropomorphized unliving things—the wine bottle opener becomes a fun dancing man when we play with them as kids! McCloud has the example of when someone hits your car, you don’t say "someone hit my car" you say "someone hit ME!"—you become part of the car—road rage! When you play an RPG game, you don’t say "someone killed my avatar" you say "someone killed ME." So when you see the "have a nice day dude" you first recognize it’s a face, secondly since you know what other people look like but not what yourself looks like it could be YOU, and because we anthropomorphize inanimate objects, it could be you and you BECOME the smiley face and have a nice day! Or buy Kool Aid! Or buy anything commercials that use cartoons to appeal to the relatability of a consumer as you "become" that character consuming that product. A lot of pharmaceutical commercials use cartoons and the power of the icon to sell their very expensive and complex products, and McCloud is taught in advertising, graphic design, fine art classes in addition to the few comics classes there are because he simply teaches the power of aesthetics to sway people (and also to make them think with the power of "Closure" that I write about elsewhere). In any event, I always teach that Peter Parker, before he dons his mask as Spiderman, could be any geeky kid in your chemistry class but he isn’t YOU, but once he puts on his mask—the simple red thing with giant white alien eyes he could be YOU. If you are a kid reading your Spiderman comic and your parents are fighting in the other room, you might not be able to control what’s going on with them, but when you read Spiderman, you "mask" into that character, becoming them, and as he is able to fight for good over evil, you do to and have power.

Teaching comics is very relevant to what I do in fine art and painting for this and many reasons. After 9-11 I felt traumatized not being able to have power over that situation (in addition to other things that were happening in my life), but painting Spiderman, in this film still from the second Sam Raimi/Tobey Maguire movie with Alfred Molina playing Doctor Octopus, I was able to suture into that character and feel the struggle as he tries to wrangle away from the evil Doc Ock’s tentacled arms. When Chinese monks painted, they would become the simplified pilgrims and iconic figures in their screens and scrolls to transcend into those characters to "feel" the nature rendered around them, and for their viewers to become the icons to have a similar meditation of transcendence into nature. It is the very purpose of Thangka paintings to meditate upon them, "becoming" the icons in their spiritual cosmological world, to "become" a Buddha by suturing in feeling and understanding that world. I feel with my work, and in this one in particular, that I "became" not only the character in the painting, but also painted myself into the picture. Da Vinci said we always paint ourselves, and I feel we don’t just do this by painting portraits that resemble us, but also our inner minds. Something the painter can bring to the table in our contemporary age is our memories, emotions, and inner life—as we render things consciously with our brush, our unconscious is also driving our hand, and in the slippery moments of the negative space, our subconscious thoughts and feelings are simultaneously being projected into the work as we think about what it means to us—the subject matter becomes a map for our feelings and thoughts—the inner mind of the artist. I love how this painting hopefully breaks up into unconscious worlds, where I see figures and dreams in micromanaged moments that subliminally gives the works their unconscious life, and where you can hopefully also see subconsciously derived imagery emerge that may be a clue to what dreams could look like.