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Chris Schillig: Lichtenstein’s ‘borrowing’ still a source of discomfort

The Alliance Review:

Roy Lichtenstein’s “Whaam!” 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 hangs in the Canton Museum of Art’s POP! exhibit through March 6. The first panel shows a plane launching a missile; the second is the explosion of an enemy aircraft. Most people with an interest in pop art of the 1950s and ’60s are familiar with it and know it is modeled after a comic book.

But “modeled after a comic book” is a euphemism. More accurately, “Whaam!” depends entirely on All-American Men of War No. 89, published in 1962 by DC Comics. The original artist is Irv Novick, a workhorse of the industry. Lichtenstein appropriated comic book drawings by Novick and others as his templates, making significantly more money – some might say obscenely more – than the work-for-hire talent who first did the work.

Claiming that Lichtenstein merely copied these artists is an oversimplification. He reworked the originals as he painted. For “Whaam!,” he broke a single image into two and streamlined the finished product. Still, nobody who looks at the inspirations for “Whaam!” or any of Lichtenstein’s other works can fail to see the resemblance.

Lichtenstein’s genius, if you will, was reframing – no pun intended – comic book illustrations and elevating them to high 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.)

If not for Lichtenstein, most of the appropriated panels would be forgotten today, except by comic aficionados. He is partially responsible for making comic books the subject of academic debate and a format worthy of more ambitious literary efforts. Additionally, the appropriations by Lichtenstein and other pop artists anticipated creative applications of existing work in other fields, such as music, where sampling has further enriched us culturally. He’s had an impact.

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

It’s the lack of credit. One could argue that Lichtenstein didn’t identify Novick because he wasn’t named in the original comic book that Lichtenstein swiped. Yet he invited the comic book’s editor to a gallery show and asked that editor to invite artists who worked for DC, so Lichtenstein had the means to learn Novick’s name. Lichtenstein and Novick also served together during World War II. Whether Lichtenstein was aware, at least initially, that it was his acquaintance’s work he was appropriating is something I haven’t been able to verify.

Credit would have been some comfort to Novick, Tony Abruzzo (whose art inspired Lichtenstein’s “Drowning Girl”) and Ted Galindo (whose work is sampled in “Masterpiece”). But money would have been better.

Even if Lichtenstein had no legal obligation (if anything, he would have owed the copyright holders), he had an ethical one. Long before publishers paid royalties to comic book artists, these craftsmen worked for low page rates, without insurance benefits, ownership of or profits from their work. Many died in poverty. Even the smallest percentage of the money Lichtenstein realized from their efforts would have been life-changing.

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

Tellingly, the POP! display runs concurrently with another show at the museum, “Marvelocity,” which spotlights Alex Ross. A highly regarded artist who applies photo-realism to renditions of superheroes, Ross has painted many original comic books. He has also appropriated iconic poses, panels and cover designs of 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,” supplying the name of the original artist.

In other words, crediting his sources. Something Lichtenstein should have done, as well.