With the passing of Russ Heath recently at the age of 91, there are very few comic book artists alive today that saw their work adapted by Roy Lichtenstein into one of his pop-art paintings. It appears as though John Romita and Ted Galindo are two of the only artists still with us that received the Lichtenstein treatment in the past. We thought it would be interesting to see what we know about how the comic book artists themselves felt about Lichtenstein.
In case you are unfamiliar with Lichtenstein's pop art paintings that involved comic book panels, Lichtenstein would take images from comic books and then transform them into large paintings spotlighting small panels from the comics.
Here's one of his most famous paintings, "Whaam!," which currently is on display at the British modern art museum, Tate Modern ...
Here is how the Tate describes the painting at their museum...
Whaam! is based on an image published in 1962 in the DC comic, All American Men of War. Lichtenstein often drew on commercial art sources such as comics and advertisements. He was interested how they depict highly emotional subject matter relating to love or war in a cool, impersonal way.
As we're sure you have noticed, while the comic book itself is credited, they did not credit the artist who drew the original panel. That would be Irv Novick.
Alastair Sooke, one of the biggest proponents of Licthestein's work, discussed the changes Lichtenstein made to the work in a piece for the BBC:
Comparing the source for Whaam! with the finished painting banishes the hoary idea that Lichtenstein profited on the back of the creativity of others. Lichtenstein transformed Novick’s artwork in a number of subtle but crucial ways. In general, he wanted to simplify and unify the image, to give it more clarity as a coherent work of art. For this reason, he removed two extra fighter jets to the right of the original panel. He also got rid of the lump of dark shadow representing a mountainside that was an ugly compositional mistake to the left of Novick’s picture. The result is that the two panels of Whaam! feel much more evenly balanced, producing a satisfying and well-structured visual effect.
While Novick’s explosion is a measly, scratchy little thing slipping out of frame, Lichtenstein’s self-possessed fireball unfurls like a blooming flower. Lichtenstein changed the colour of the letters spelling out “WHAAM!” from red to yellow, so that yellow would become another means of yoking everything together. As a result, the eye is cleverly led from the yellow of the speech bubble above the jet through the onomatopoeic sound effect to the explosion itself and back round to the horizontal vapour trail left behind by the missile.
Then, of course, there is the question of scale. Lichtenstein took something tiny and ephemeral – a throwaway comic-strip panel that most people would overlook – and blew it up so that it was a substantial oil (and acrylic) painting more than 2m (6.5 ft) wide and 1.7m (5.5 ft) high. Here, he was saying, was a contemporary equivalent of a grand ‘history painting’, once considered the highest and most challenging branch of art. In the years after it was executed, people began to understand Whaam! as a prophetic critique of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Interestingly, Novick and Lichtenstein actually knew each other. Here's Novick on Lichtenstein from Mike Richardson and Steve Duin's Comics: Between the Panels...
He had one curious encounter at camp. He dropped by the chief of staff's quarters one night and found a young soldier sitting on a bunk, crying like a baby. "He said he was an artist," Novick remembered, "and he had to do menial work, like cleaning up the officers' quarters.
"It turned out to be Roy Lichtenstein. The work he showed me was rather poor and academic." Feeling sorry for the kid, Novick got on the horn and got him a better job. "Later on, one of the first things he started copying was my work. He didn't come into his own, doing things that were worthwhile, until he started doing things that were less academic than that. He was just making large copies of the cartoons I had drawn and painting them."
As you can see from Novick's description of the scenario, he was not a fan.