Post #34: Basquiat's Batman
Jean-Michel Basquiat painted Riddle Me This, Batman (see figure 1) in 1987, just months before the young artist died of a heroin overdose. That painting features iconic images from the Batman mythos, including villains the Riddler and the Joker and several Bat insignias. Riddle features a dark version of Batman, with the hero nearly absent and two of his greatest foes triumphant. This contrasts with the image of the Caped Crusader foremost in the popular imagination at that time, which had been influenced by the colorful, cheerful, and campy Adam West version in the ABC television series Batman (1966-8) (see figure 2). The work of Basquiat’s contemporary, artist Andy Warhol, had done much to cement this version of Batman in American popular culture. In this post, I explore the stark dichotomy between these two versions of Batman, concluding that the tragic circumstances near the end of Basquiat’s life caused him to present a darker, grittier Caped Crusader.
Immediately apparent in Riddle is Basquiat’s typical combination of graffiti-style graphic images with words. On the huge composition--the painting is about 9.5 feet long and 9.7 feet tall--he includes cartoon-y images of Batman villains the Joker and the Riddler. The Joker, dressed in a black suit with a purple shirt, leers at the viewer, leaning awkwardly. An unshaven Riddler holds a half-empty bottle labeled “XXX.” The Joker’s signature laughter peppers the entire canvas. The only sign of the heroic vigilante being the two bat symbols (one of which is almost completely obscured by scratches).
Riddle is a total contrast to the playful treatment of Batman in the work of Basquiat’s mentor and collaborator Andy Warhol (see figure 3). Take, for instance, an image used to promote Warhol’s 1964 Batman Dracula, an unlicensed and now mostly-lost film (see figure 4). This image is a homage and a parody of the logo that appeared on Batmancomic-books from the 1940s through the 1960s. Both logos have the same shape of a bat with Batman’s cowled head and the title written across the wings. What strikes us most immediately as different, though, is the color scheme: whereas the comic-book logo is black with blue accent lines, Warhol’s version is bright red with white accents. The comic-book version’s title is written in red letters; Warhol’s is white, and where the letters are written outside the logo, they bleed into the white background. Scribbles appear throughout the composition, giving the impression that this is a child’s rendering of the logo, perhaps from a stencil. In these ways, Warhol gives his Batman a light, playful vibe, in contrast with the darker version of the comic books.
Warhol’s Batman logo shares elements with his other Pop Art works, such as the bright, bold colors of his Gold Marilyn Monroe and Campbell’s Soup Cans series, which were created around the same time, in 1962. Warhol’s style had become well-known in popular culture, including to the producers of the Batmantelevision series starring Adam West that debuted on ABC in 1966. The producers of that series self-consciously emulated Warhol’s Pop Art style, as writer Lorenzo Semple, Jr. indicated in the May 1966 Saturday Evening Post. This was reflected in the riotous colors of the series, the generally comic tone, and words like “Kapow!” appearing on the screen during fistfights (see figure 5).
The campy tone of the Batman TV series was to dominate popular culture’s image of the Caped Crusader for decades. Basquiat’s own 1983 painting Piano Lesson (for Chiara)demonstrates this. That work features a much more playful version of Batman than Riddle Me This, Batman (see figure 6) Piano Lesson (for Chiara) has vibrant colors and playful touches, like the label “Two-Way Wrist Radio”, such as one might see an advertisement for in a comic book.
Although ABC’s Batman was cancelled after three seasons in 1968, the mammoth success of the series meant that its campy version of the superhero continued to exert a strong influence on the general public’s conception of Batman. By the late 1960s the staff at Detective Comics had decided to give the Caped Crusader a grittier tone, although general audiences remained largely unaware of this change, as Batman comic-book sales were quite low after the cancellation of the ABC series. This changed in the late 1980s with titles like The Dark Knight Returns. Frank Miller’s four-part miniseries featured a Batman who beats the crap out of Superman and breaks the Joker’s neck (see figure 6). This gritty vision was brought on by Miller’s observations of the then-crime-ridden New York City (Matt Rea). The mass media were quick to run stories on The Dark Knight Returns (articles about it appeared in popular publications like Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, and The Los Angeles Times), and the popular image of Batman moved from campy to gritty.
Painted in 1987 (which month is not clear), Basquiat’s Riddle Me This, Batman occupies an interesting intersection of the campy and gritty versions of Batman. On the one hand, Batman’s image had already been darkened by 1987, both in the comics and in Miller’s miniseries, and quite possibly Basquiat had encountered media coverage of the latter by the time he painted his composition. Basquiat was, to my knowledge, not a comic-book reader, and indeed his own conception of Batman was likely formed by the work of Warhol, whom he worked with closely and admired.
Warhol was apparently a positive force in Basquiat’s life, and with Andy’s passing on February 22nd 1987, Basquiat could no longer keep his own demons at bay. He passed away of a heroin overdose in August of 1988, but not before painting Riddle Me This, Batman. Given these circumstances, we might think of Riddle as Basquiat’s personal response to Warhol’s passing. Riddle is a visual representation of Basquiat’s slide into darkness: the campy Batman that Warhol helped popularize is obscured by the prominence of a the Joker, whose laugh reverberates throughout the canvas, and an unshaven Riddler leers, enjoying a bottle of “XXX” alcohol, a symbol which is repeated in the bottom right-hand corner. Basquiat’s response to the campy Batman of the previous generation, embraced by his mentor, is to reflect the darkness in his own life.
Basquiat’s version of Batman shows us that the character does not have an essence, an unchanging aspect. Batman is not “at core” gritty or campy. The character is whatever artists and their audiences need him to be at that moment. The gritty version of the Caped Crusader a better fit for Basquiat’s difficult life circumstance in 1987. By contrast, Warhol’s campy Batman expressed that artist’s life in the ebullient and playful culture of the early 1960s.