Lichtenstein’s “borrowing” remains a source of discomfort

“Whaam!” by Roy Lichtenstein hits me hard, like the fighter plane and missile it depicts, but not in the way the artist intended.

A lithograph of the two-panel work is on display in the POP! from the Canton Museum of Art! exhibition until March 6. The first panel shows an airplane launching a missile; the second is the explosion of an enemy plane. Most people who are interested in 1950s and 1960s pop art are familiar with it and know that it was inspired by a comic strip.

But “inspired by a comic book” is an understatement. Specifically, “Whaam!” depends entirely on All-American Men of War No. 89, published in 1962 by DC Comics. The original artist is Irv Novick, an industry workaholic. Lichtenstein appropriated the comic book designs of Novick and others as models, earning far more money – some might obscenely say more – than the work-for-hire talent who first did the work.

To claim that Lichtenstein merely copied these artists is an oversimplification. He reworked the originals as he painted. For “Whaam!”, he split a single image in two and simplified the finished product. Yet no one who watches the inspirations for “Whaam!” or one of Lichtenstein’s other works may not see the resemblance.

Lichtenstein’s genius, if you will, was to reframe — no pun intended — comic book illustrations and elevate them to art. He followed Andy Warhol, who did the same with images of soup cans and celebrities. (Warhol also experimented with comic book iconography before Lichtenstein but abandoned it when he saw the latter artist’s work.)

Without Lichtenstein, most proper panels today would be forgotten except by comic book aficionados. He is partly responsible for making comics a subject of academic debate and a format worthy of more ambitious literary endeavours. Additionally, appropriations by Lichtenstein and other pop artists anticipated creative applications of existing works in other fields, such as music, where sampling has further enriched us culturally. He had an impact.

So why does Lichtenstein’s work hit me so hard and leave me so divided?

It’s the lack of credit. You could argue that Lichtenstein didn’t identify Novick because he wasn’t named in the original comic that Lichtenstein slipped in. Still, he invited the comic’s publisher to a gallery show and asked that publisher to invite artists who worked for DC, so that Lichtenstein could afford to learn Novick’s name. Lichtenstein and Novick also served together in World War II. I have not been able to verify whether Lichtenstein was aware, at least initially, that it was the work of his acquaintance that he was appropriating.

The merit would have been heartwarming for Novick, Tony Abruzzo (whose art inspired Lichtenstein’s ‘Drowning Girl’) and Ted Galindo (whose work is sampled in ‘Masterpiece’). But the money would have been better.

Even though Lichtenstein had no legal obligation (if any, he should have the copyright holders), he had an ethical one. Long before publishers paid royalties to comic book artists, these craftsmen worked for low page rates, with no insurance benefits, no ownership or profits from their work. Many died in poverty. Even the smallest percentage of the money Lichtenstein made from their efforts would have changed his life.

Today, after all the directors are dead, at least they get credit. Novick is mentioned on a sign at the Canton Exposition. And David Barsalou’s Flickr and Facebook pages, both called Deconstructing Lichtenstein, offer exhaustive examples of Lichtenstein’s sources.

Tellingly, the POP! The exhibit runs concurrently with another exhibit at the museum, “Marvelocity,” which spotlights Alex Ross. A highly regarded artist who applies photorealism to superhero renditions, Ross has painted many original comics. He also appropriated iconic poses, panels, and cover art from Captain America, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four, among others, by artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.

When he does, Ross signs his name at the bottom, along with “after XXXX”, providing the name of the original artist.

In other words, credit your sources. Something Lichtenstein should have done too.

Contact Chris at [email protected] On Twitter: @cschillig.

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