Whaam! Becoming a Flaming Star

What implications can be unveiled from a culture that values Lichtenstein’s appropriations as paradigmatic examples of pop culture, and still denies any serious artistic recognition to specific comic book artists? Ernesto Priego interrogates the differences between pop art and comics by looking back at page 21 from All American Men of War (1962).


Bob Haney and Jerry Grandenetti, All American Men of War 89, 1953, page 21, panels 1-5
"The Star Jockey", script by Robert Kanigher; pencil and inks by Irv Novick, All American Men of War 89, 1962, page 21
Roy Lichtesntein, "Whaam!", 1963
Roy Lichtenstein, "Whaam!", 1963, Acrylic and oil on canvas support: painting: 1727 x 4064 mm frame: 1747 x 4084 x 60 mm. Tate Modern London, purchased 1966 © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

In the words of Art Spiegelman, “Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup” (Sanderson 2007). Several comics readers will agree, but  is this the perception of the average museum goer?  What implications can be unveiled from a culture that values Lichtenstein’s appropriations as paradigmatic examples of pop culture, and still denies most serious artistic recognition to specific comic book artists?

The Tate Modern gallery’s display caption for Lichtenstein’s world-famous ‘Whaam!’ indicates that the painting “is based on an image from ‘All American Men of War’ published by DC comics in 1962.”

The caption does not mention the name of the artist and writer of the original image, nor discusses how similar or dissimilar the original source is to Lichtenstein’s interpretation.  To be fair, the original publication, with a cover date of January-February 1962, did not display the corresponding credits, neither in their legal page or in the first page of the story to which the panel belongs (that issue contained three different stories).

The subtext of Tate’s caption is that whilst Lichtenstein was an artist (a fine artist), the penciller and inker of the original comic book image,  Irv Novick (1916-2004) was not. The caption concludes:

Although he was careful to retain the character of his source, Lichtenstein also explored the formal qualities of commercial imagery and techniques. In these works as in ‘Whaam!’, he adapted and developed the original composition to produce an intensely stylised painting.

The caption itself does not show (or refer or link to, online) to Lichtenstein’s “source”, so those who do not know it cannot really evaluate what is it that Lichtenstein exactly did.  It is only by direct comparison, side to side, that the reader/museum-goer can judge if, in fact, Lichtenstein’s painting is “intensely stylised” whilst the original (the last panel in a page with five) is not.

Lichtenstein’s “adaptation” and “development” of the original panel is dated only a year after the comic book was published: unlike retro fetishisation, which normally functions by appropriating iconography which has fallen in disuse, Lichtenstein’s work was contemporary to the original.

Besides embodying the cultural prejudice against comic books as vehicles of art, examples like Lichtenstein’s appropriation of the vocabulary of comics highlight the importance of taking publication format in consideration when defining comics, as well as the political economy implied by specific types of historical publications, in this case the American mainstream comic book.  To what extent was National Periodical Publications (later DC) responsible for the rejection of the roles of Kanigher and Novick as artists in their own right by not granting them full authorial credit on the publication itself?

Stripped from its narrative context, Lichtenstein’s image embodies the tautology of the signifier (Baudrillard 1981) in a similar way than a film still is isolated from a cinematographic work. The dynamism of the original page (21 in the comic book), representing the fluid, fast circular motion of the plane throughout four quadrangular panels of equal size, and bursting into a larger final rectangular panel when the enemy jet is hit, is lost.

The climactic strength of the last panel is indebted to the rhythmic structure of the whole grid, and this is absent from the Lichtenstein.  Generally speaking, the cultural recognition that Lichtenstein enjoys is unavoidably contrasting with the lack of appreciation of comic book art, but more importantly it underscores a cultural preference for the directness of the unique image over the multiplicity of the graphic narrative layout.

Only in the most superficial sense Lichtenstein’s painting does transmit almost the exact same information as Novick’s panel, but it is significant it leaves out the speech balloon. In it, the jet pilot, amazed at his power of destruction, utters “the enemy has become a flaming star!”, an elegiac line that in itself is not unpoetical (“O powerful western fallen star!” Whitman wrote).

It will be obvious for most, but it might be worth to say again that Lichtenstein’s rendition is not a comic;  it is not even a comics panel. Its meaning is solely referential and post hoc.  In any case, ‘Whaam!”s aesthetic or semiotic ‘value’ is fully dependent on its ability to refer the viewer to a particular type of story and discourse, conveyed by a particular type of publication, meaning as well a particular type of paper and printing technique (“cheap paper, cheap printing and four-color separations“). By choosing the onomatopoeia (‘whaam!’) over the articulated, metaphoric utterance (“the enemy has become a flaming star!”), Lichtenstein’s painting reduces the discourse of comics to little more than a guttural growl.

It’s not a nostalgia for the value of the unrecognised original what should guide a critical reappraisal of the cultural value of the hypotext of Lichtenstein’s work (Genette 1997: 52).  Nevertheless, by stripping the comics panel  from its narrative context, ‘Whaam!’ is  representative in the realm of fine art of the preference of the image-icon over image-narrative.  Paradoxically, Lichtenstein’s semi-literal translation (Benjamin 1969) has canonised a single panel from a comic book that perhaps no one would have remembered otherwise in the context of great art.


Baudrillard, J. (1981) For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, translated by Charles Levin. (St. Louis: Telos Press).

Barsalou, D. (2002) “Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein”, <http://www.flickr.com/photos/deconstructing-roy-lichtenstein>. Accessed 04 April 2011.

Benjamin, W. (1969) ‘The Task of the Translator: an Introduction to the Translation of Baudelaire’s Tableaux Parisiens‘, translated by Harry Zorn in Illuminations (London: Jonathan Cape, 70-82).

Genette, G. (1997) Palimpsests. Literature in the Second Degree, translated by Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press).

Kanigher,  R,, and Novick, I. (1962)  “The Star Jockey”, All-American Men of War (New York: DC Comics, 21).

Sanderson, P. (2007) “Spiegelman Goes to College”, Publishers Weekly, 24 April. <http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/1-legacy/24-comic-book-reviews/article/14675-spiegelman-goes-to-college-.html>. Accessed 04 April 2011.

Tate Collection Online. (2004) “Whaam! 1963″, gallery caption. <http://www.tate.org.uk/servlet/ViewWork?workid=8782>. Accessed 04 April 2011.

Whitman, W. (1855) ” When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d”, Leaves of Grass. Ed. Michael Moon (2nd ed.) (New York: Norton Critical Edition, 2002)

Normal 0 < ![endif] >Top: Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’ (1963; magna on canvas; 1.7 x 4.0 m); Tate Modern, London; Bottom: panel from “The Fighting Angel”, script Bob Haney; pencils and inks by Jerry Grandenetti, All American Men of War No. 89, National Periodical Publications (1953).

About the author

Ernesto Priego has contributed 47 articles.

Ernesto Priego lives in London and is the editor-in-chief of The Comics Grid, Journal of Comics Scholarship. He lectures on library science and related fields including scholarly publishing, digital humanities and comics scholarship.

Author: Ernesto Priego

Ernesto Priego lives in London and is the editor-in-chief of The Comics Grid, Journal of Comics Scholarship. He lectures on library science and related fields including scholarly publishing, digital humanities and comics scholarship.

11 thoughts on “Whaam! Becoming a Flaming Star”

  1. Dear Ernesto,
    Loved your post (as usual).
    Thanks for including the two images in contrast. And the caption saying “he adapted and developed the original composition to produce an intensely stylised painting” leaves one speechless…LOL!
    Pop art asserts that mass-produced commodities may become fine art by contemplation. But isn’t that fethisization? In fact, in a way, it is confusing the meaning and the sign. Also, Don’t you think that the prestige of Liechtenstein’s works (in contrast with their source, comics) may be due to the fact that, in a way, and at least in western culture, iconic image is considered art while narrative images are not?
    Your article made me think of the exhibitions that some comics artists have had at museums like the MOMA. On the one hand, I couldn’t help thinking that they are good news for any comics lover, yet I always wonder “how’s people gonna appreciate the works if they don’t read them?” Again, why is it good news (or one can’t help feeling it so?) because by contemplation (and institutionalization and fetishization…) they are upgrading their status, going from “comics” to “art” just because they are in a museum. But in the end, it is the same story: narrative images becoming icons and in so doing being translated to the “language” that a museum goer or anybody understands. So, instead of “learning a new language”, the “language of comics”, they are badly translated into another one which deprives them of meaning.
    Also, the use of comics by Liechtenstein intends to blurr the boundaries between popular and fine arts. But, as you argue, the fact that comics are used to question this limit denotes that the médium is framed both for the artista and for his audience, whithin the limits of what is NOT considered art. As Eisner said once, few comics artists “had the temerity to admit that they loved the médium” because, after all, it was like admitting that they enjoyed working at a production line.
    In any case, for me it’s clear that comics’ narrative art, their artistic devices, their nature, their language and their beauty remains unknown for most people. Iconic images? Yeah. Contemplation? Easy. Pop art? Oh yeah! But…comics? UFOs (Unknown Freakish Objects…)

    1. Gracias Esther, you’re very kind. You’re right to point out there is indeed fetishisation in pop art’s de- and re-contextualisation of the motifs, strategies and vocabulary of comic books. In this sense I guess I just see a difference between what Lichtenstein did and, say, what designers like Jacob Covey (e.g. the Fantagraphics Popeye compilations) or, more famously Chip Kidd (the Plastic Man book with Spiegelman) do when amplifying visual traces referring to particular creation/reproduction processes. Of course there is a lot more to say about this (what’s in the gesture of recreating a mechanical process by hand, as Lichtenstein did, which is different from digital manipulation for example?).

      And I totally agree on the dilemma/double-bind of comics in museographical spaces. I faced this problem myself as a curator; in my own museographical experience with comic art I attempted to respect processes of reading, but at the same time the recontextualisation of the page from an element of a “handheld” print publication to the gallery wall demanded the artwork be read as a different object.

      I have argued elsewhere that comic books should be understood as physical objects whose particular materiality defines largely their reception/interpretation. The same core idea can be used to argue that as recently common sense has it art is what is presented as such by a certain type of authoritative agency.

      Once again thanks for your insight and for your taking the time to comment!

    2. Esther, in terms of the framing of comics, one might argue that Lichtenstein has ‘framed’ comics in a conspiratorial sense through appropriating the work of Kanigher and Novick in particular, and the stylistic conventions of the comics panel and panel content in general.

  2. Highly enjoyable and thought-proviking post, Ernesto. I think the distinction you both make between narrative art and iconic image is key to understand why paintings like Liechtenstein are accepted in the artistic market. Made me remember what Chris Ware said to Benoît Peeters in an interview (it’s printed in Peeters and Samson’s Chris Ware. La Bande Dessinée Reinventé). He said that when he showed his comics to his teachers in art school, they would usually look at them without actually reading them and told him they were fine but he should try a more vanguardist approach. Disregard of narration in art is usual; I would dare to say that narration has always been regarded as something almost vulgar in the art world, at least nowadays. It would be interesting to discuss the reason of this phenomenon. I think it has to do with the fact that it is more easy to remember a single image than a sequence, so it’s more easy to “iconize” a single image than a sequence. An image that has become an icon (through abstraction, repetition…) it’s more easily marketable.

    Besides, narration always imposes an interpretative context, which determines the aesthetical choices. The spectation can judge if the aesthetical choices of the painter work in terms of narration or not. If Liechtenstein had drawn a complete comic, we could have judged if the “intense abstraction” of Whaaam has any meaning in the context of the story that’s been told or not. But, since we only have one picture, we can’t make that judgement. Decontextualization is good for art: if you don’t have an explicit context of interpretation, you don’t feel that you “must” understand the work of “art” in order to buy it. I would not dare to say that modern art is phoney, that would be absurd. But I think that concepts like abstraction or decontextualization can never be considered purely stylistic concepts: the conditions of the market influence and determine these notions as well.

  3. This is a really interesting post that raises several issues. I really enjoyed reading the page from “The Star Jockey” comic. It made me think not of Lichtenstein initially but of “The Sky Crawlers” the anime produced by Production I.G and directed by Mamoru Oshii in 2008. There is an aerial combat scene in the film that is something like the one in the comic you display. Here is a short clip of what I am referring to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfAnv4t6–U&feature=related
    Film and comics are two very different media but they have in common the narrative sequence. Film seems to have been accepted as an art form whilst comics are still waiting for inclusion. I think the “Whaam!” painting, that is also accepted as art, whilst appropriating comics imagery, is located somewhere further from comics than film.

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