“I pressed the fire control… and ahead of me rockets blazed through the sky…” intones the unseen fighter pilot of Roy Lichtenstein’s Whaam! (above, from 1963), one of the iconic images of American Pop Art. Born October 27, 1923, Lichtenstein took the genre of American comic books and created a signature look and style that helped rocket him to success in the 1960s after decades of frustration as an artist. After years of shuttling from teaching job to teaching job, briefly working as a window decorator, and even flirting with Cubism and Abstract Expressionism to little or no success, Lichtenstein hit the gold mine when he chose to make the benday dots of comic books and newspaper comic strips his path to fortune and fame. Although Lichtenstein enjoyed a relatively brief heyday in the mid-1960s, his works continue to enjoy a public following today.
Lichtenstein took the two dominant strains of American culture, namely sex and violence, as reflected in comic books of the time and turned that mirror back upon the world. Kiss V (above, from 1964) presents the romantic ideal of the romance comics at the time, which they took whole from the sappy movies that still persist today. The glossiness of the romantic kiss in Kiss V matches the antiseptic nature of Whaam!, which takes the reality of war and reduces it to a video game full of special effects. Pop Art suffers under the misperception of being a meaningless duplication of the culture at large, albeit in a fine arts forum, but the work of Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, upon closer inspection, contains a social critique that many do not see or, perhaps, refuse to see.
“What? Why do you ask that? What do you know about my image duplicator?” asks the Magneto–looking character in Lichtenstein’s Image Duplicator (above, from 1963). Much of the dismissal of Lichtenstein as a serious artist comes from the fact that he did indeed copy almost directly from comic books. The site Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein does a great job in tracking down many of the original images, placing the original and Lichtenstein’s interpretation side by side for comparison. The original comic artists, such as Jack Kirby, Irv Novick, and Russ Heath, looked at Lichtenstein’s interpretations as nothing more than pale imitations, attempts to ride on the back of their artistry in a context free of the lowbrow associations surrounding the comic book. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed Lichtenstein, seeing him as more an elevator of the comic book image than a robber of the genre. The depth that I see in Lichtenstein’s work is already there in much of the comic art he borrows from, something that the rise of the graphic novel is only beginning to tap into today.