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Posted at 7:30 AM ET, 01/11/2011

IMAGE OF THE DAY: New Yorker cover artist sends Spider-Man to the hospital

By Michael Cavna


Barry Blitt had a big assignment and very little time, and that was precisely when his Spidey sense of humor kicked in: What if the webslinger, he mused, was rendered as a Last Traction Hero?

"The first thing that came to me was bits of the bright-red uniform peaking out from holes in the body casts of a ward full of Spider-Men in traction," Blitt tells Comic Riffs of the cover, titled "Spiderward."

From such inspiration, the veteran illustrator's clever ink-and-watercolor cover for the new Jan. 17 issue of The New Yorker was born. As previews of Julie Taymor's behemoth Broadway show "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" continue to be hobbled by actor injuries, safety concerns and high-scrutiny headlines, Blitt's sick-bay scene of laid-up and lame Peter Parkers strikes just the right comic note.

Conceptually, "I don't think there'd be anything here without the multiple Spideys taking up hospital space," Blitt tells us of the humorous cover, in which one foregrounded Spider-Man has his head in a traction halo; one supine Spidey slings some string to reach the TV; and a third costumed hero leans on a walker and wears paisley pajamas. (Nice touch, that.)

As a reader smiles at the image, a grin might be tinged with guilt: Given the production's serious real-life injuries, does the cover cross a line? A line, it seems, that might be about as thin as the hairline skull fracture of aerialist Christopher Tierney, who recently fell 30 feet from a platform -- his fall unbroken by a safety harness -- and was hospitalized with multiple injuries. Newly released from rehab, though, the unbowed Tierney has said he's "overjoyed" to be involved in the show, enthusing: "I'm meant to be Spider-Man."

Attaboy, that's what what we wanted to hear. Our twinge of guilt alleviated, we can revel in the cover's levity.

Blitt's art, in fact, deftly preps the reader for Michael Schulman's excellent "Talk of the Town" piece inside headlined, "Look Out! (Dept. of Rubbernecking)," in which the writer reports on whether the human superpower that is Schadenfreude is the real lure right now for the injury-plagued production (which has just unseated the powerhouse "Wicked" at the top of the Broadway box office). As aerialists fly seemingly precariously overhead, are thrill-seeking theatergoers coming to see why love interest Mary Jane might deserve the nickname "Calamity" Jane?

As one showgoing teenage girl tells Schulman: "I hope somebody falls but they're okay."

Fortunately for the visual laugh, Blitt's scene isn't near half as harrowing. This isn't Spidey in peril, like when writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko trapped our hero beneath tons of concrete and steel in the sublime "Man on a Rampage" story back in '66. This is mighty Spidey now mundanely laid up, sharing a room and subjected to the same IV bags and bedpans as the rest of us lugs.

Ain't strife grand?

Blitt's scene comes together so thoughtfully, it's a bit surprising to hear just how rapidly it came together. "My rough sketch got approved quickly, but at the last minute," Blitt tells us, "and I only had a few hours to do the art." The illustrator says he "ultimately sent in a couple versions of the final" to New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly.

"My favorite aspect of the cover is that I got it done and it ran," Blitt says. "When something has to be done in a matter of hours, I almost always start panicking: 'What if I get food poisoning and can't finish in time' or, 'What if the electric grid for the entire East Coast goes down and I am unable to draw.' "

Despite his well-rendered Spideys, Blitt himself isn't so much a follower. "I was a big fan of Marvel comics when I was a kid, but I don't even have any nostalgia for that now," he says. "I do know of a couple of middle-aged men who are Spider-Man freaks -- they wear clothing with his picture on it, their e-mail addresses reference Spidey, etc. One of them was a recent piano teacher of mine. Aside from that, he was perfectly normal."


Quite distinctively, Blitt is known for his visual wit. One of his most famous and hot-button illustrations remains his 2008 New Yorker cover "The Politics of Fear" [left], in which Barack and Michelle Obama sport telltale trappings of would-be "radicalism" as they fist-bump. The art sparked criticism as it proved to be misunderstood and misinterpreted by many.

So what about this time around, with the Spider-Man cover? Does Blitt aim to lace this illustration with some sort of deeper commentary?

"As far as editorializing, I wish I could say I was making a canny judgment about the culture," Blitt says. "but really, I was just going for the quick laugh."

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By Michael Cavna  | January 11, 2011; 7:30 AM ET
Categories:  Interviews With Cartoonists, Superheroes  | Tags:  Barry Blitt, Christopher Tierney, Francoise Mouly, Julie Taymor, Spider-Man, Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, The New Yorker magazine  
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It's too bad we didn't get to see Doc Ock in the prosthesis ward.

Posted by: seismic-2 | January 11, 2011 3:39 PM | Report abuse

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