Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Artwork Reveals Powerful Superhero Influences
His appreciation of comic book superheroes was threaded continuously throughout his remarkable body of artistic works
The late painter and graffiti writer Jean-Michel Basquiat didn’t have an uncanny talent to sketch out dynamic anatomy like Jack Kirby, Burne Hogarth or the other comic art masters whose work would have made an impact on him as a young fan of comic books. In fact, according to the artist himself, art making had always been a challenge.
In a 1983 interview for BFF Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, when art critic Henry Geldzahler asked Basquiat to name the kinds of things he drew as a kid, New York’s then darling of the international art world made a glum and endearing confession:
“I was a really lousy artist as a kid. Too abstract expressionist…really messy. I’d never win painting contests. I remember losing to a guy who did a perfect Spider-Man.”
Asked if he was ever satisfied with his work as a child, Basquiat replied, “No, not at all. I really wanted to be the best artist in the class, but my work had a really ugly edge to it.”
Ironically, it was that ugly edge––and an unbridled passion to not let what he lacked in raw artistic talent to prevent him from creating — that would make Basquiat’s work some of the most both recognizable and desired works made by any artist of the postmodern era.
In May 2017, a Basquiat painting sold at auction for a record-breaking $110.5 million, the most that had ever been paid up to that point for a work of art produced by an American.
And despite Basquiat’s lamented inability to paint the perfect Spider-Man (like his childhood art class arch-rival), Marvel’s colorful wall crawler still appeared in his work. Along with Spidey, Basquiat also made use of several heroes and villains from the pages of comics, including Batman, the Joker, Superman, Thor, Captain America and others.
Jean-Michel Basquiat began writing his trademark brand of graffiti on walls across Manhattan under the “tag” or pseudonym SAMO© in 1976. Two years later, pop culture borrowings seen in his works and his keen knowledge of art history would begin setting Basquiat apart from his peers in the graffiti writing subculture of New York.
Basquiat’s abstract expressionist postcards, a countless number of which the artist made during his tragically short life, revealed an astuteness of not only the contemporary pop art approaches of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, but also the early 20th century collage techniques of Kurt Schwitters and Basquiat’s artistic hero Pablo Picasso.
In 1978, the year his handmade postcards began making the rounds as he sold them on the street, Basquiat also roughed out eight pages of an unfinished sci-fi comic book he’d hoped to someday publish. Entitled What?, the work displayed the non-superhero themed inspiration of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb and his adult natured Zap Comix.
But as clear as the impact of comics were on Basquiat, they made up only a small part of the many influences that fueled his surreal, free-associative works. Just as quickly as he’d sample Superman or Batman in his drawings and paintings, he’d also invoke the names of the jazz gods Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the sports hero Cassius Clay (aka Muhammad Ali), and other pop culture figures he admired.
Basquiat’s art also frequently made use of Caribbean and African motifs juxtaposed against cryptic stream of consciousness poems, images of cartoon characters, brand logos, or the names of the planetary bodies. Also employed were visual devices extracted from New York’s graffiti writing subculture, like the crossing out of names to signify a challenge.
The artist also made use of copious amounts of medical terminology gleaned from the pages of Gray’s Anatomy, a book his mother had given to him as a 7-year-old.
“I want to make paintings that look as if they were made by a child,” he’s said to have told fellow graffiti artist and hip-hop emcee, Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Bratwaith). And it was that desire to wield as his artistic weapon of choice a childlike sense of wonder that most speaks to the soul and the heart Basquiat’s work.
Perhaps nothing captures that spirit more than his artistic borrowings of colorful characters and themes from the pages of Marvel and DC comics. Curated here are six pulse-pounding pieces that throw a much-deserved spotlight on Jean-Michel Basquiat’s powerful superhero influences.
The Flash is a name assumed by several superheroes appearing in DC Comics publications. Created in 1939 by writer Gardner Fox and artist Harry Lampert, the original Flash made his appearance in the pages Flash Comics #1, about six months after the first appearance of fellow costumed crime fighter and super friend, Batman.
The second superhero to bear the mantle of the Flash was created in the mid-1950s by writer Robert Kanigher and artist Carmine Infantino. This fleet-footed superhero made his first appearance in the pages of Showcase #4 (October 1956), and served as an updated reinvention of the 1940s or “golden age” Flash character, Jay Garrick.
It’s that second iteration of Flash that’s featured in Basquiat’s painting Flash in Naples. During the artist’s short lifetime, this version of the character was a fixture in comics (including both his own eponymous title and Justice League of America), and also in the cartoon equivalent of the Justice League, ABC-TV’s Super Friends show.
In November 2017, Basquiat’s kinetic Flash in Naples, which was valued at an estimated $7M — $10M, was speedily sold at auction by Sotheby’s of New York for $8,131,000. And wouldn’t we all like to have that kind of (wait for it)…fast cash.
Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Look, down on the page! It’s a bird! It’s a taxi! It’s a dog! And it’s Superman! Yes, it’s Superman, the superhero created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, and who made his first appearance in Action Comics #1 (June, 1938).
In this untitled Basquiat work on paper, DC’s barrel-chested superhero, who also happens to have some gold bling in his grill, stands in the classic hands-on-hips pose that shows the caped crusader from the city of Metropolis is ready for action…or simply ready for his artistic close up.
Superman’s brightly colored image is accompanied by images of a drooling brown canine, a little red fire hydrant, a Yellow Cab, and a skyscraper. Also featured are images of birds, one of which being a pigeon — a typical citizen of the urban landscape — and a goose, which would most certainly be found in the pond in Central Park.
At the bottom of this work, right underneath the drooling brown canine, is a clever Basquiat play on words changing Superman’s sobriquet into the “MAN OF STEAL,” as opposed to the man of an appropriate metal alloy that traditionally inhabits his well known title.
As is normal, other disparate elements that seem to have no discernible relation to the other are featured. Among them are words one would find on a weekly grocery list like EGGS, BACON, and ICE CREAM. But we also find references to Superman’s X-RAY VISION, the fictional GOTHAM city, and his oppositional relation to CRIME and HOODS (as in hoodlums).
Metropolis is the squeaky clean burg in which Clark Kent and his costumed alter ego reside, but it’s Batman’s Gotham city instead that Basquiat name drops. It’s conceivable this was done as a remark on the similarities the artist found between Batman’s grimy hometown and New York in the 1980s, as the name is used in other Basquiat works.
Also seen here is the now iconic crown motif for which Basquiat is known, but this too was extracted from graffiti writing culture, where bombers and taggers vied to be recognized by peers as “kings” of the train lines and subway tunnels where their illegal art was applied. Basquiat, though, might have topped them all by becoming a king of the international art world.
Batman & Robin
Created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, the caped crusader known as Batman made his first comic book appearance in Detective Comics #27 (November 1939). A year after the Dark Knight’s debut, Kane and Finger introduced Batman’s sidekick, Robin the Boy Wonder, in Detective Comics #38 (April 1940).
DC’s dynamic duo and, to a lesser extent, Gotham City appear together in this untitled Basquiat piece created on butcher paper. Unlike the Superman drawing, it boasts a level of cohesion that seems almost rare for Basquiat, inasmuch as it’s almost devoid of elements not keeping with the comics-related subject matter.
The lone notable exception is the orange cartoon head with an open mouth and the partially crossed out exclamation of Phil Rizzuto, the late sportscaster and former shortstop of the New York Yankee’s known for his trademark expression, “HOLY COW.”
Over Batman’s head, the word “POW!” explodes in an angular word balloon like those seen more frequently on the Batman TV show than on comic book pages. In comics, the onomatopoeia or action words usually appear without framing devices.
At the bottom left of this piece, CRUSADER (short for caped crusader) appears over Batman’s chest where the iconic bat symbol normally appears. A few steps behind Batman stands his sidekick Robin, with the classic BOY WONDER epithet written above his right shoulder, reminding us of his origin in comics as a circus acrobat.
The name GOTHAM CITY that appears over Robin’s left shoulder is reinforced by an image of a skyscraper with an antenna rising high above it. Atop the antenna, a light blinks in alternating flashes of red and blue.
In the opposite corner, the word CRIME appears along with trademark (™) indicator so often used by Basquiat. And the hint of a red footprint serves either as an allusion to a clue found by Batman and Robin during a crime scene investigation, or as further proof of Basquiat’s admittedly “messy” abstract expressionist methods.
In an amusing final twist, the wrist of Robin’s “boney” left arm is fitted with a TWO WAY WRIST RADIO. This gadgetry, however, comes not from the pages of Batman comics but from newspaper comic strips featuring the ace detective Dick Tracy. Its inclusion here insinuates the borderless imagining of children, who’d likely find no reason why Batman’s sidekick Robin couldn’t also wear the iconic two-way wrist radio. And so he does.
Riddler and Joker
Created by artists Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, and writer Bill Finger, the green-haired gangster known as Joker made his first appearance in the pages of Batman #1 (April 25, 1940). This clown prince of crime, who terrorizes Gotham with a hell-raising sense of humor, is the archenemy of Batman.
The masked man in green known as the Riddler is another longtime adversary of Batman. This comic book bad guy, known for his question mark covered onesie and an unhealthy penchant for word puzzles, was created by writer Bill Finger and artist Dick Sprang. He made his first appearance in the pages of Detective Comics #140 (October, 1948).
The title of the Jean-Michel Basquiat painting Riddle Me This, Batman comes from a trademark phrase used by the latter in both comics and, perhaps more famously, during episodes of the 1966 Batman TV show, where Riddler was played by character actor and comedian Frank Gorshin.
As in the comics, where the rhetorical device “Riddle me this,” precedes a demand that the star of Detective Comics apply his wits to solve a deadly brain teaser, Basquiat demands that we apply our wits also. At the same time, though, the young joker baits us not to look too closely, twice taunting with the sentiment that there’s NOTHING TO BE GAINED HERE.
As an aside, considering how often elements from Batman comics appeared in Basquiat’s work (see also: Television and Cruelty to Animals and Piano Lesson for Chiara), it’s a bittersweet realization that the Tim Burton directed Batman would hit American theaters in June of 1989, just nine months after Basquiat’s death.
In the film, Joker (Jack Nicholson) makes a grand nighttime entrance into Gotham’s Flugelheim Museum (à la Guggenheim Museum) with a cadre of goons — one of whom totes a boombox blasting Prince — and goes on a tear defacing famous works of art. Among them, Two Dancers on a Stage by Edgar Degas (1874), Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Beret (1659), and Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished 1796 portrait of George Washington.
The one work of art spared from the carnage of the madman, who describes himself as “the world’s first homicidal artist,” is Francis Bacon’s Figure with Meat (1954). The work features a ghastly image of the 17th century pontiff, Pope Innocent X, framed between two bloody, bisected halves of a cow.
Worth noting too is the funny bit where the stylishly dressed villain brandishes a paintbrush and writes “Joker was here” in cursive purple graffiti on the train tunnel wall of Edward Hopper’s Approaching a City (1946). Considering Basquiat’s beginnings, his appreciation of Batman and the way he himself crashed the art world, one wonders what he would’ve thought of it all.
Marvel’s shield-wielding superhero Captain America was created by cartoonists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and made his first appearance in the pages of Captain America Comics #1 (March 1941).
Known as much for his patriotic costume as for his heroism, Cap wears a red, white and blue uniform with a white star on its chest and the vertically placed red and white stripes of the American flag wrapped around its midsection. On the forehead of his mask is a large white ‘A’ signifying America, and silver eagle wings sprout up from either side.
More than any other character featured in comics, Captain America is a patriotic symbol. Author Sharon Packer writes in Superheroes and Superegos (2009) that, as a character, Captain America was different from Superman. While the latter was said to represent “Truth, Justice, and the American way,” the super soldier known as Captain America was literally the comic book embodiment of the American way.
Understanding this, it’s not in any way ironic that Cap, who first appeared in American popular culture on the cusp of World War II, should figure prominently in another untitled work on paper by Basquiat. It’s a piece that offers a stinging critique on white supremacy in this country, which — some might say — has reflected the very ugly underbelly of “the American way.”
To the right of Captain America is a self-portrait of Basquiat in block-headed caricature. The figure’s almond-shaped eye — devoid of any pupil — calls to mind the words of John Marshall Harlan, who wrote in 1896 that America’s Constitution “is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.”
While the inanimate object that is our Constitution is indeed color-blind, the authors of the document and its signers were not. And here Basquiat includes six busts and the written names of six American presidents, including the slaveholding James POLK, Thomas JEFFERSON, and GEORGE Washington.
John ADAMS, the first named, wasn’t actually a slave owner, and voiced moral opposition to slavery. But he was still politically moderate on the issue. LINCOLN, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation freeing those held in bondage in the Southern States, is the last named. Underneath the names of the presidents, SLAVE TRADERS is written.
Confined to the area next to his self-portrait appears the phrase WHITES ONLY. Until 1965, when Basquiat was five-years old, the haunting phrase was still to be found on signs throughout the Southern States, where they would designate things and places reserved exclusively for the usage, attendance and enjoyment of white Americans.
But the culture of racial segregation — even without the use of printed signs — was still quite pervasive throughout the rest of America, and particularly in the art world experienced by Basquiat in the 1980s.
Looking again at his self-portrait, its teeth and flame-like tongue extend from an open mouth that echoes the shape of 17th century diagrams that showed how enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas chained together on shelves stacked high in the bowels of slave ships. Underneath appears the partial pictogram that communicates the term ROTTEN banana.
As a whole, the work leaves no room at all for vague interpretation. What’s more, it could be argued that the seemingly meaningless image of a woman with the word TITS© beneath her naked bosom is an allusion to the breastfed prejudices that America has always passed from one generation to the next.
Lurking within this deceptively simple-looking composition featuring a Marvel comics superhero are deeply complex subjects, and it offers us hints of the genius found in Basquiat’s approach to art making.
Thor, Superman, X-Men
Basquiat’s Charles the First, viewed by many as a work celebrating the jazz icon Charlie Parker (noting the reference to the Parker song “CHEROKEE”), actually contains more elements that reflect his love of comics than jazz. And though it doesn’t feature any figural drawings of superheroes, it does name drop a few of the medium’s best-known characters.
The first of those named is the mighty THOR, whose name is written near the top of the first panel in the Charles the First triptych, and framed with a box. Hovering just above Thor’s name is one of Basquiat’s now iconic graffiti crowns, and above both the sardonic phrase HALOES FIFTY NINE CENT is written.
The name of Thor’s publisher Marvel actually makes two appearances. The first is further down the aforementioned panel, just under the number “193,” but scribbles mostly render MARVEL COMICS INC illegible. The name, however, is easy to discern at bottom of the third panel, where it appears with a line drawn through it, recalling the practice from graffiti.
Also extracted from graffiti culture is the once ubiquitous S symbol that kids across America formerly doodled on endless sheets of notebook paper and on classroom desks. Its stylized form appears in the first panel encased in a strike zone box, like those once drawn with chalk on the sides of buildings, where boys gathered to play stickball now ages ago.
Next to the stylized S in the strike zone box is the ever-recognizable chest emblem of Superman with an S nested at its center. Directly above Superman’s emblem is where X-MN is written, a somewhat abbreviated reference to Marvel’s merry mutant superheroes, the X-Men.
A variety of non-comic book related elements also make up Charles the First, which — as a whole — recalls the youth-driven scrawl that covered the doorways, walls and trains in New York in the 1980s. But none attract more notice than the insightful phrase written across the bottom of the first and second panel: MOST Y̶O̶U̶N̶G̶ KINGS GET THEIR HEAD CUT OFF.
King Charles I of England, though not exactly young at the time, was beheaded for treason at the tender age of 55. Jazz great Charles/Charlie Parker, at the age of 35, died from a bout of pneumonia exacerbated by Parker’s many years of substance abuse. And in 1988, at the young age of 27, Jean-Michel Basquiat died from a heroin overdose.
In comics, characters like Batman, Superman, the Hulk, Daredevil and others often become heroes born out of tragic circumstance. The parents of Batman were killed during a robbery on the streets of Gotham. Dr. Bruce Banner was caught up in a blast of deadly gamma radiation. And Superman’s whole world was obliterated when his home planet of Krypton exploded.
Many others, like members of the X-Men, were people born with powers and abilities far beyond those of regular folk. Jean-Michel Basquiat was like the latter, a freak born with the uncanny ability to tap into the boundless dreams of youth. He was Robin, Professor X, the Riddler and the Joker combined.
In Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art (1998), author Phoebe Hoban offers a detailed physical description of the artist and said that there were those who’d claim that he had eyes that could “see right through you, zap you like the x-ray vision of his comic-book heroes. He saw things,” writes the author, “that others didn’t see.” And maybe that, True Believer, was the manifestation of Basquiat’s very own super power.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.