Whaam!: The Aeronautical Perspective

Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

Roy Lichtenstein. The art world may love him but to comics fans he is a copyist, modifying others’ work and then passing it off as his own.

All American Men Of War #89: "The Star Jockey!". Art by Irv Novick

From that perspective, his most infamous work is 1963’s ‘Whaam!’ based in the main on two panels of war comic artwork from DC Comics’ All American Men Of War. The general layout of ‘Whaam!’ is taken from Irv Novick’s artwork in the story ‘The Star Jockey!’ in Issue 89 from February 1962 while the main aircraft image is taken from Jerry Grandenetti’s artwork in the story ‘Wingmate of Doom’ in Issue 90 from April 1962.

All American Men Of War #90: "Wingmate of Doom"

While comics fans can look at the Lichtenstein version and get annoyed at the perceived injustice of the piece, I can look at it from another perspective, an aeronautical perspective, that I have not seen the piece viewed from before. Unfortunately for the pro-Lichtenstein lobby, from this perspective, ‘Whaam!’ simply makes no sense.

Take Irv Novick’s original jet fighter panel; set during the Korean War, it shows a North American F-86 Sabre on the left destroying a Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG 15 on the right. Such incidents did occur during the Korean War as it was the first conflict with jet-on-jet combat, despite what many fictional WWII stories may suggest. The Sabre shown is a ‘non-D’ model, meaning that it is a ‘standard’ Sabre without the black radar nose of the F-86D variant (which was nicknamed the Sabre Dog, to try to prevent confusion), and is destroying the MiG-15 with rockets, indicated by their engine exhaust plumes, fired from under the fuselage or near the wing root.

Novick Sabre Panel - All American Men Of War #89

It should be noted at this point that, in aircraft armament terms, there is a difference between a rocket and a missile. A rocket is a ‘dumb’ weapon that goes in the direction it was fired in; while a missile is capable of making course corrections whilst in flight using either on-board technology such as an infra-red seeker head or by being passed course corrections via datalink from an aircraft’s fire control radar system. What is indicated in the comic panel are multiple small Folding Fin Aerial Rockets.

Sabre No Rockets - All American Men Of War #89

It is also worth pointing out that Novick does not show his Sabre carrying rockets or rocket pods under its fuselage or wings in any other panels in the strip. This indicates to me that he has confused the non-rocket-carrying standard Sabre, which he has illustrated, with its Sabre Dog variant which carried 2.75in Folding Fin Aerial Rockets, nicknamed Mighty Mouse, in a retractable pack under its front fuselage.

Indeed, this image from the United States Air National Guard photo gallery shows an ANG Sabre Dog firing a Mighty Mouse rocket salvo – and when flipped looks similar to Novick’s image.

A panel from All American Men Of War #89 and a 'flipped' photo of an Air National Guard F-86D/L interceptor fires its 2.75-inch “Mighty Mouse” rockets. Via http://www.ang.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/thumbnails160/2012/09/120914-Z-JV725-015.jpg

Now look at Lichtenstein’s version. He has morphed Novick’s jet powered F-86 Sabre into a propeller powered P-51 Mustang, a World War Two era fighter also designed by North American, which did fight in the Korean War, by which time it had been redesignated from P-51 to F-51. In addition to the Sabre becoming a Mustang, he has morphed the exploding MiG-15 into a Sabre, indicated by the shape of the air intake and the positioning of the horizontal tail planes on the vertical tail.

Lichtenstein thus presents an image that, whether he realised it or not, depicts one American built plane shooting down another American built plane – as opposed to the original panel which shows an American built plane shooting down a Soviet built plane.

Whaam! Sabre Panel and All American Men Of War #89
The bubble canopy of the Mustang in the image identifies it as a late model variant, a P-51D or later, which like the Sabre in the original is shown with rocket exhaust plumes coming from its wing root. No variant of the Mustang carried rockets in this position and there are three reasons why.

P-51 Mustang. Photo: Jeremy Briggs
Firstly, the Mustang was a typical World War Two ‘tail-dragger’, meaning that it has two retractable main wheels under the wings and a small wheel under the tail so that on the ground it sits in a nose high position. Those two main wheels of its undercarriage are hinged on the underside of the wings and the tyres retract into the underside of the fuselage. There is simply no space at the wing root or under the central fuselage to position individual rockets or a rocket pack and still allow the undercarriage to function correctly.

P-51 Mustang. Photo: Jeremy Briggs

Secondly, the Mustang’s radiator air scoop was in the under fuselage centre line, shown in the original comic panel as a large black bulge under the fuselage but not shown in Lichtenstein’s version. Mounting rockets in front of or beside it would mean that their hot engine plume and smoke would enter an air scoop designed to cool the aircraft, which makes no technical sense.

All American Men Of War #90
Finally, the Mustang is powered by a piston engine attached to a propeller on its nose. Since in real life an aircraft propeller blade turning at flying speed is virtually invisible to the naked eye, different comic strip artists draw spinning props in different ways and Grandenetti chose in this instance not to draw it in as the reader, like the Mustang pilot, is effectively looking through the propeller arc at the target aircraft.

Firing any rockets or missiles through the turning propeller on the front of an aircraft would result in a collision between the weapons and propeller blades. While it is possible to safely shoot bullets through a turning propeller using basic World War One technology, it has never been possible to safely fire rockets or missiles through the arc of a turning propeller – and there is no need to, as they can be and were mounted on the outer wings, away from any propeller blades.

Whaam! Trio

Besides anything else that is wrong about ‘Whaam!’, the Mustang launching rockets from a location they could not and should not be fixed, in a direction that would result in the aircraft crashing, makes the image a nonsense from an aeronautical perspective. That indicates to me that Lichtenstein simply didn’t understand the reality behind what he was copying from the original panels in those two issues of All American Men Of War.

• ‘Whaam!’ is on display at the Tate Modern Gallery in London and there are more details of it here

• Paul Gravett provides more details of the comics background to ‘Whaam!’ on his website

• Wikipedia has a history of the creation of Whaam! here

• Broken Frontier features Dave Gibbons riposte to Lichtenstein’s work here in an article that includes a cartoon by Russ Heath, another victim of the pop artist’s “copying” of comics work in his work, ‘BLAM!’

All American Men Of War © DC Comics, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company
Whaam! © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein | P-51D Mustang photos © Jeremy Briggs

Categories: Art and Illustration, British Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News

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2 replies

  1. I think the point is not that Lichtenstein didn’t understand what he was adapting, but that he didn’t care. I’m sure he was fully aware that the original sources would be identified. None of it matters. He raised the comic book artwork into a work of art.


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