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How Comic Book Artists Handled Roy Lichtenstein Using Their Work

Interestingly, Steve Roper comic strip artist William Overgard actually wrote into Time Magazine back when Lichtenstein was at the height of the world's fascination with him and Overgard had this to say about the following Lichtenstein work...

Sir: As a cartoonist I was interested in Roy Lichtenstein's comments on comic strips in your article on Pop Art. Though he may not, as he says, copy them exactly. Lichtenstein in his painting currently being shown at the Guggenheim comes pretty close to the last panel of my Steve Roper Sunday page of August 6,1961. Very flattering...I think ?

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In recent years, comic book legend Dave Gibbons has been very vocal in his criticism of how Lichtenstein's work exploited the work of the original comic book artists. He organized an exhibition of works by comic book artists parodying Lichtenstein's work as a sort of protest of the Tate Modern doing a whole big Lichtenstein exhibition. Gibbons and the aforementioned Alastair Sooke had a fascinating debate about Lichtenstein at the exhibit. Sooke purchased a copy of the original Novick comic book for a little under six pounds.

He and Gibbons then discussed the comic vis a vis Lichstentein (as transcribed by Paul Gravett in a great article on the Lichtenstein debate)...

Alastair Sooke: “Lichtenstein has not only transformed it, he’s seriously improved it.”

Dave Gibbons: “I would disagree. This to me looks flat and abstracted, to the point of view that to my eyes it’s confusing. Whereas the original has got a three-dimensional quality to it, it’s got a spontaneity to it, it’s got an excitement to it, and a way of involving the viewer that this one lacks. For instance, the explosion here just looks to me like a collection of flat shapes, whereas the explosion in the original, because there are no lines in there, because it’s all left to the colour, seems to me to have to me much more of the quality of an explosion.”

Sooke disagrees, considering the original comic book explosion a bit “weak and measley”, whereas Lichtenstein’s version, “considered as a painting and not as a piece of comic book art, but as a piece of art, is far more successful than if this had been reproduced and placed on a wall. For a number of reasons: he’s got rid of extraneous details like the planes on either side. He’s removed the mountain, which I think is an unfortunate compositional device. He’s made the balance of the explosion on the right and the plane much clearer. It is much more balanced, they are more equal. I think those are several compelling reasons why formally this is a much more successful image than the source.”

Gibbons: “Well, I think there is a fundamental error in what you’re saying, which is that in fact a comic book is not anything to do with a single image, it’s to do with a series of images and it’s the images in juxtaposition to one another which give them their power. This is like a quotation, it’s like three notes out of the middle of a symphony.”

Sooke concedes and agrees with this and goes on: “But this [Lichtenstein’s WHAAAM!] we have to think of as a painting. Does it work as a piece of art in its own right? If it simply imitated this panel here, I’m suggesting, I think that it wouldn’t work as such an effective painting as in fact it does.”

Gibbons: “I bet you that if that Irv Novick panel was shown that size, it would have a huge graphic power of its own and it would have a cohesiveness, whereas this, to me, isn’t cohesive. Everything interesting about that [comic book] image, which is a representation of three-dimensional space, of a real event happening, to me is just flattened…

Sooke: “It’s an abstract painting. He said he wanted to hide the record of his hand, he’s bouncing off a previous generation of artists, abstract painters, people like Jackson Pollock, who were all about gesture, expression. He’s saying ‘I want it to appear flat and impersonal and mechanical, because that is the world I live in. And in fact that’s what I want to get across.’ So everything you’re saying, I think, you could argue, plays into his hands. Have I convinced you at all?”

Gibbons: “I’m afraid you haven’t convinced me at all. From the point of view that I come from, I find there’s something slightly dishonest about it, there’s something that is trying to be ironic that I think doesn’t actually work. It seems to be doing a disservice to comic art because of that.”

Sooke: “Although Lichtenstein’s work is so phenomenally popular, you could argue that he’s on the side of comics.”

Gibbons: “Yes, I’d have to agree, to try and find a point of harmony, that in the Sixties, for a short while, the mighty Marvel Comics group rechristened itself ‘Marvel Pop Art Productions’, because stuff like this in the eyes of ‘culture’ had said, ‘Hey, these aren’t just comics for kids, these could be the next big artistic wave.’ It lasted about three or four months, I think.”

Sooke: “Be honest. Is there any part of you that is narked by the fact that I could buy this comic book for £5.95 and clearly, if this [painting] ever came up on the market, it would be worth tens and tens of millions of pounds.”

Gibbons: “It doesn’t nark me at all. I mean, this is worth, to me, far more than that.”

Sooke: “What, for real? If you were offered this, you wouldn’t have this? You’d take the Irv Novick original?”

Gibbons: “Absolutely.”

What an interesting debate.

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