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)