[Guest post by Brian Cremins]
On page 3 of “Date Night,” which is “Another Black Cat Storybook Adventure!” by Jen Van Meter and Stephanie Buscema in issue #700 of The Amazing Spider-Man (February 2013), our web-slinging hero is very small. In fact, he is little more than a speck of red, white, and blue paint, a spot on the face of a skyscraper. How might the theories of underground photographer, filmmaker, and performance artist Jack Smith help us to read this miniature figure? Do Smith’s theories further illuminate, for example, Hillary Chute’s intriguing arguments about the relationship between the verbal and the visual in comic book art?
And why do I take so much delight in Buscema’s tiny painting of this iconic superhero?
Fig. 1: The Black Cat (Felicia Hardy) distracts the police as a giant robot menaces Spider-Man on the thirdpage of “Date Night.” Can you find the wall-crawler in panel 3?
In his essay “Belated Appreciation of V.S.” (1963/64), Smith discusses the complex relationship between words and pictures in Josef von Sternberg’s films. Von Sternberg, perhaps best known for his work with actress Marlene Dietrich in lavish spectacles like Blonde Venus (1932) and The Scarlet Empress (1934), directed movies which “had to have plots even tho [sic] they already had them inherent in the images. What he did was make movies naturally—he lived in a visual world” (Smith 41). Next, in a passage which might describe Flaming Creatures (1963), Smith’s best-known film, a piece of cinema which has inspired artists and writers from Andy Warhol and Susan Sontag to Richard Foreman and Reza Abdoh, the director addresses the relationship between a movie’s plot and its visuals:
In this country the movie is known by its story. A movie is a story, is as good as its story. Good story—good movie. Unusual story—unusual movie, etc. Nobody questions this. It is accepted on all levels, even “the film is a visual medium” levels by its being held that the visuals are written first and then breathed to life by a great cameraman, director. (Smith 41)
What do we see as we watch a film? Are we watching closely and critically or are we invested only in a film’s story?
I do think it strange that nobody uses their eyes. Occasionally a director will put in a “touch”—that can’t be explained with words, needn’t be, and this is always telling. (Smith 41)
Is this “touch,” perhaps, related to Roland Barthes’ description of a photograph’s punctum? If so, can we apply Smith’s theories to comics in the same way, for example, that Marianne Hirsch draws on Barthes’ arguments in Family Frames, especially in her persuasive and influential reading of Maus in Chapter 1, “Mourning and Postmemory” (Hirsch 17)?
As Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, the punctum is the “element” or aspect of a photograph which has the potential to “sting”; it is a “speck, cut, little hole—and also a cast of the dice. A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (Barthes 26—27). Buscema’s painting of Spider-Man, however, does not “sting” me, nor does it bruise or harm me in any way. Smith’s description of the “touch” is more intimate, sensual, and therefore more fitting for this analysis of “Date Night.” If Barthes’ punctum is a strike or a slap, even an accidental one, it still hurts. Smith’s “touch” is a caress, a gesture of familiarity, of longing, of desire. Both the punctum and the touch, however, are poignant. After all, as critics J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum remind us in their book Midnight Movies, Smith once described Flaming Creatures—a series of beautiful, terrifying, profane, and transcendent images—“as a comedy set in a haunted Hollywood studio” (48).
Fig. 2: Black Cat bids Spider-Man farewell as a shy tuxedo cat peers out from behind a cardboard box in the fourth and final panel of the first page of “Date Night.”
“Date Night” is a beautifully written and rendered story which is filled with wordless and telling “touches”: the face of the tuxedo cat in the fourth panel of the story’s first page (see Fig. 2); the appearance of Ant Man in a tailored suit in the final panel of page 5; J. Jonah Jameson and his bag of money in the third panel of page 6; the paintings by Van Gogh, Miró and Dalí hanging in the gallery on page 7 (see Fig. 3). Buscema’s vibrant style, to borrow Smith’s phrase, has “breathed to life” Van Meter’s whimsical story, in which petty thief Felicia Hardy distracts the police as Spider-Man fights a giant robot. The robot’s motivation for attacking New York is never explained, and it need not be. Buscema’s seductive images tempt us to ignore the plot, to lose ourselves in this world of light, color, and motion.
Fig. 3: In the third panel of page 7 of “Date Night,” two policemen pursue Felicia Hardy as she dashes to the “east gallery,” which “boasts a fine collection of Victorian portraits as well.”
The miniature portrait of our hero on page 3, this “touch,” is perhaps the most “telling” image of Van Meter and Buscema’s story (see Fig. 1). What at first appears to be a random speck of color is actually one of the most expressive drawings in a panel filled with masterful strokes, including the white, dry-brush motion lines outlining Felicia Hardy and the orange watercolor halo which frames the menacing robot. Buscema conveys Spider-Man’s fear, his confusion, his anxiety, and his quixotic bravery with a few simple dots of color.
What is the nature of this visual “touch” which defies words? This little image of Spider-Man, to borrow a word from Susan Sontag’s famous analysis of Flaming Creatures, is an expression of joy—both for the artist, who displays her craft and her skill, and for the reader, who takes pleasure in discovering and exploring this world of fantasy.
According to Sontag, “Flaming Creatures is that rare modern work of art: it is about joy and innocence. To be sure, this joyousness, this innocence is composed out of themes which are—by ordinary standards—perverse, decadent, at the least highly theatrical and artificial. But this, I think, is precisely how the film comes by its beauty and modernity” (Smith 229). Michael Moon has taken issue with Sontag’s assessment of Flaming Creatures, arguing that any “political meanings and consequences get thoroughly edited from Sontag’s influential account of Smith’s film” (see Moon 35—36), but Moon ignores the possibility that Smith’s depiction of genderqueer ecstasy is an expression of joy at its most politically and socially radical. The “touch” which Smith describes, then, unlike Barthes’s punctum with its potential to cause “marks” and “wounds,” possesses the power not only to delight but also to heal.
While it might seem strange to discuss “Date Night” in the same context as a groundbreaking but controversial film like Flaming Creatures, Smith was no stranger to superheroes. After all, he played a starring role in Andy Warhol’s rarely seen Batman/Dracula (1964). Mary Jordan’s excellent 2006 documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis includes a short clip from the film in which Smith, wearing a long black cape, strides toward the camera. Behind him is New York, a claustrophobic landscape of red brick and glass. He wears a pirate earring in his left ear. He might be Dracula (according to IMDB, his role in the film), the Batman, The Shadow. Two actresses walk beside him, one in black-rimmed glasses, the other cloaked like Smith in a black cape. Smith flaps his arms, the cape clinging to him like a ghost, but this is no sinister figure, no Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee. This is a child at play, the boy who pins a bedspread to his shoulders, speaks his magic word, and jumps from a rooftop. In his performance, Smith reminds us that, if the character were to exist, Batman would be nothing more or less than a man in a silly costume. Or as David Mazzucchelli points out in his “Afterword(s)” to the 2005 collected edition of his and Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, “The more ‘realistic’ superheroes become, the less believable they are” (Miller and Mazzucchelli 103):
Fig. 4: Mazzucchelli reflects on his work with Frank Miller on Batman: Year One (1987) in the seventh panel of “Afterword(s)” with a drawing of the actors from the 1943 serial starring Lewis Wilson as Batman and Douglas Croft as Robin.
The “touch” in this clip from Warhol’s film is Smith’s cape—or, more specifically, the way Smith manipulates this element of his costume for dramatic effect (see Fig. 5). He understands the essence of Batman, which is not embodied by the symbol on the character’s chest or those long ears: we know Batman as Batman because of the metonymic relationship between the character and his cape. Like Buscema’s image of Spider-Man, Smith’s performance of Batman/Dracula is small and refined—an expression of the joy of dress-up and masquerade.
Fig. 5: Jack Smith (center) masquerading as Batman? As Dracula? As both? A screen shot from Andy Warhol’s 1964 film.
Hoberman and Rosenbaum, it should be pointed out, describe Flaming Creatures as “a cross between Josef von Sternberg at his most studiedly artistic and a delirious home movie of a transvestite masquerade” (Hoberman and Rosenbaum 48).
Why do we take such pleasure in dressing up as our heroes? Because we get to wear the cape, which tells a story which need not be told in words. By dressing up, we take up residence in that “visual world,” the space where, according to Smith, artists like von Sternberg choose to live. It is a world filled with those gentle, allusive touches which manifest themselves only to the sensitive viewer.
Fig. 6: An early 1980s photo of the author as Batman on Halloween. Costume by Nancy Cremins.
A gendered reading of “Date Night” is also possible in light of Hillary Chute’s illuminating discussion of W.J.T. Mitchell in Graphic Women. If an image, according to Mitchell, is associated “with space, the body, the external, the eye, the feminine” while “words” are connected to “time, mind, the internal, the ear” and, therefore, to “the masculine,” then, as Chute argues, the “hybridity” of comics as a form poses “a challenge to the structure of binary classification that opposes a set of terms, privileging one” (Chute 10). In Van Meter and Buscema’s story, Spider-Man is the loquacious hero who lives in a world of words. The Black Cat, the art thief, lives in a world of objects and images. As a result, “Date Night” queers the conventions of a typical Spider-Man story. Our hero is a secondary character; nothing is at stake in the battle between the hero and the villain. Felicia Hardy, the thief, appears to have a lot more fun than her web-slinging friend. Perhaps it is better, then, to live in a world of images, to steal them, to luxuriate in them, to leave the world of words to this tiny hero and his mechanical adversary. The verbal and visual conventions of the typical superhero comic book are mere set decorations here—like Flaming Creatures, “Date Night” is a comedy set in an abandoned space filled with the relics of old heroes, old villains, old plot devices. Only the imagination of the creators and the joy and the desire of the reader can bring these conventions back to life.
If, as Chute suggests, comics offer a “challenge to the structure of binary classification,” how might we employ Smith’s aesthetic theories to queer our readings of other comic book stories like “Date Night”?
Brian Cremins is an Assistant Professor of English at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois. He earned his BA at Dartmouth College in 1995 and his Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut in 2004. His essays on comic books and sequential art have appeared in the International Journal of Comic Art, The Jack Kirby Collector, and in the anthology Comics and the U.S. South (UP of Mississippi, 2012). His essay on Edie Fake’s Gaylord Phoenix will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Medical Humanities.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. Print.
Chute, Hillary L. Graphic Women: Life Narrative & Contemporary Comics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. Print.
Hirsch, Marianne. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative, and Postmemory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997. Print.
Hoberman, J. and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Midnight Movies. New York: Da Capo Press, 1983. Print.
Mazzucchelli, David. “Afterword(s)” in Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli (a), Batman: Year One. New York: DC Comics, 2005. 98—103. Print.
Moon, Michael. “Flaming Closets.” October 51 (Winter 1989): 19—54. Print.
Smith, Jack. Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith. Eds. J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell. New York: High Risk Books, 1997. Print.
Sontag, Susan. “Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Picador, 1966. Print.
Van Meter, Jen and Stephanie Buscema (a). “Date Night” in The Amazing Spider-Man No. 700 (February 2013). New York: Marvel Comics. Print.