Watchmen artist and co-creator Dave Gibbons was interviewed on a recent BBC TV documentary about the Pop Art painting ‘WHAAM!’ by Roy Lichtenstein, which is currently on show in a major retrospective at Tate Modern, London.
Gibbons was probably the only dissenting voice in the documentary, critical of Lichtenstein’s appropriation of comic art In some of his 1960s work – and has now created a piece of art honouring the original comic panel by American artist Irv Norvick that inspired ‘WHAAM’.
Dave hopes the eventual sale of his canvas will raise funds for the Hero Initiative, a US-based charity that dedicated strictly to helping comic book creators in need.
Hero creates a financial safety net for yesterdays’ creators who may need emergency medical aid, financial support for essentials of life, and an avenue back into paying work.
While Gibbons refuted accusations that Lichtenstein was a plagiarist – as suggested in an article headline from the period the painting was released, ‘Pop Artists All Copycats’ – he said he would describe him as a “copycat”.
“In music for instance, you can’t just whistle somebody else’s tune or perform somebody else’s tune, no matter how badly, without somehow crediting and giving payment to the original artist,” Dave argued. “That’s to say, this is ‘WHAAM! by Roy Lichtenstein, after Irv Novick’.”
“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,” Gibbons said later in the interview. “It seems to be doing a disservice to comic art because of that.”
Comics expert and advocate Paul Gravett reports on Dave’s interview in a detailed piece on his blog here, which also throws a thought provoking spotlight on how modern artists are still appropriating comic imagery, some to the point of outright plagiarism.
“Another disappointing legacy is the continuing widespread public assumption that Lichtenstein’s paintings still sum up and represent what comics art looks like today,” Paul notes, “when the range of media, techniques and approaches is actually more diverse than ever.
“Astonishingly, I heard about someone who owns a print of ‘WHAAM!’ and had absolutely no idea that it came from comic books at all! When they were told, not only were they horrified, but they also treasured the piece less as a result. The stigma of ‘despicable’ comics lingers on.”
Gibbons has now responded further by going back to Lichtenstein’s original source, a DC war comics panel drawn by Irv Novick, to create a brilliant satirical ‘re-purposing’ of this iconic image, now titled ‘WHAAT?’
“I intend to do a huge stretched canvas version,” he reveals. “The idea would be to present it in as much the same way as the Lichtenstein version as we could. I would then sell it and donate the profits to the Hero Initiative.”
Meanwhile, Paul wonders if the art world will continue to turn a blind eye to image appropriation. “Perhaps it can, as long as these works sell and nobody makes an issue of it. But is it now time for this practice to stop or at least be debated, for the sake of comics and for the sake of contemporary art? One idea might be to regulate this process, perhaps requiring artists to pay for their samples in the same way that musicians already do.”
Designer and comics creator Rian Hughes, who has previously commented on the issue of plagiarism of pop culture imagery, is now responding by co-ordinating an exhibition called Image Duplicator from 16th – 31st May at the Orbital Gallery in London. He’s inviting comics artists to follow Dave Gibbons’ lead and consider such questions as: ‘Is this an act of brilliant recontexturalisation? The elevation of commercial “low” art to “high” art? Art world snobbery? Artistic licence? Cultural annexation? Gallery shortsightedness? Or something else?’. And then to share their views by making new works.
“Every interested comic artist should ‘re-reappropriate’ one of the comic images Lichtenstein used, and rework it,” Rian proposes, “using some of their ‘commercial art’ drawing skills, to warp and twist it into something interesting and original, and in the process to comment on this type of appropriation.
“The important thing to stress is that you’d be going back to the source material and re-reappropriating Coletta, Novick, Kirby et al – not copying Lichtenstein, as we don’t want copyright issues from the Lichtenstein estate. Take Back the Art!”
• You can choose your images here, at this handy “compare and contrast” site: Deconstructing Lichtenstein. Please give credit to the original artist: “Artist Name after Irv Novick”, for example. The new work could be shown next to the original, so viewers could compare and contrast. See this as a celebratory, positive show which aims to get the point across that the original artists deserve credit and respect.
• Read more of Dave Gibbons interview comments and find out about Lichtenstein’s sources and legacy, including current fine artists who continue to copy from comics artists such as Brian Bolland, here: http://paulgravett.com/index.php/articles/article/the_principality_of_lichtenstein