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Friday, May 17, 2013

Comic Cuts - 17 May 2013

Science fiction art is even more difficult to define unless the obvious tropes of science fiction are included. But it is more than "the thing that illustrates science fiction." It is about turning the mind's eye on the world and letting it take you places that you think can barely be imagined. Thankfully, there are dreamers out there who can imagine the most exotic dreams of all; who see not only this world, but what this world could be, and can turn that spark of an idea in their mind's eye into reality, whether it's in the shape of a toy, or an image on paper, digital canvas, or celluloid.
    These dreamers have drawn from the well of science fiction (and it is a very deep well) to bring us – the readers, the viewers, the players – some of the most startling, imaginative, visionary art ever conceived and created...
    Science fiction art and design has played an important role in the perception of science fiction among the wider world of non-SF fans, for both good and bad. In the world of Blade Runner, nobody questions the visual futurism of the movie (the crowded, neon lit streets, outsized floating advertising, etc.) or the functionality of flying cars, leaving the viewer free to concentrate on the important questions the movie raises about what it means to be human.
    At the other end of the scale, science fiction has been dismissed as nothing more than "that crazy Buck Rogers stuff," referring to the popular comic strip that ran for over 50 years in hundreds of newspapers. While Buck Rogers is used as a term of derision by critics, at what point does it become fine art? Roy Lichtenstein's painting Emeralds – an oversized version of a 1961 Buck Rogers panel by George Tuska – sold in 1999 for $1.6 million, so the answer could be as simple as "two feet wide or more."
Extract from the Introduction to Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History (2009)

I thought I'd begin with the above extract today because it touches on a subject that is in the news at the moment. Roy Lichtenstein. The premise that making something big can turn it into fine art doesn't apply only to science fiction. When I wrote that the definition of fine art was "two feet wide or more" it wasn't an original notion, although I did check on the size of the painting with someone who knew Lichtenstein's work before I came up with that "two feet" figure.

The idea that Lichtenstein has just made things bigger isn't new. At least as early as 1963, Douglas McClellan said "Lichtenstein has seemingly rearranged nothing, he has stayed reverently close to the originals except for greatly enlarging the scale." McClellan clearly despised comics, calling them a "cripple for a target" and a "ritual art form, it is merely one of the ways we have found to turn absolutely anything into entertainment." "The world of human happenings is comfortably simplified by flaccid drawing," he continues. "The only dimension is conveyed by mechanical dots, and life is represented by triumphant balloons of platitudinous speech rising from the mouths of the characters. It is like shooting fish in a barrel to parody a thing that has so long parodied itself."

Someone who had a little more time for comics was Irv Novick as the comic industry provided him with a small but steady income for over fifty years. Working day in and day out, I'm pretty sure Novick didn't look down each morning at a blank sheet of art board and say, "Let's see what cripple my flaccid drawing can conjure up today." And, at the end of the day, with his flaccid drawing in front of him managing to look not even like a cripple, but only like the parody of a cripple, would Novick mumble, "Well, at least the mechanical dots will give my flaccid drawing a dimension."

If only he'd thought of drawing a bit bigger. Instead of a tiny little "Whaam!" in the pages of  All-American Men at War #89, he could have taken his original (flaccid) drawing, stripping it of context and redrawn it ... bigger! The drawing wouldn't have to be as good – almost as if it's a parody of a parody of a cripple – but you can measure quality by size, as fine art has proven time and time again. I refer you, sir, to the two foot rule.

Novick had encountered Lichtenstein during World War II, later recalling that he had found the young artist on his bunk weeping and complaining about the menial work he had to do. Novick got him a better job. Lichtenstein had shown him some of his artwork – "rather poor and academic," was Novick's opinion. "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."

And I think everyone would have admired him if Lichtenstein had just produced the one painting.We might be able to admire the transforming effect of turning a tiny panel into something huge. But he did it without crediting the original source. And he did it again. And again. And again. And again.

Isn't this appropriation getting a little too much?

And he did it again. And again. And again. And again.

This can't be right, surely?

And he did it again. And again. And again. And again.

No credit to the original artists or the original comics?

And he did it again. And again. And again. And again.

At what point does being inspired by an image become theft?

And he did it again. And again. And again. And again.

Seriously: at what point does redrawing other people artwork and selling it as your own become theft?

And he did it again. And again. And again. And again.

Celebrate Lichtenstein all you want ... but if you do, the least you can do is put the original panels next to his artwork. David Barsalou's wonderful Deconstructing Lichtenstein website identifies not a few, not a handful, but dozens of example for you.

Panel Borders has broadcast (and you can now download an mp3) a pair of presentations by Richard Reynolds FRSA and graphic designer Rian Hughes given at the 2013 Spring Comiket, Central St Martin's School of Art. Reynolds looks at the influences that various works of fine art have had on comic books over the last hundred years while Hughes explores the many comic book panels that Roy Lichtenstein used in creating his works of art.

And as of yesterday (May 16) you can visit Image Duplicator, an exhibition of artwork at Orbital Comics (8 Great Newport Street, London WC2H 7JA) including works by Dave Gibbons, Howard Chaykin, Garry Leach, Carl Flint, Shaky Kane, David Leach, Betty Boolean, Salgood Sam, Jason Atomic, Mark Blamire and others. You can see a preview here. More information on the background of the exhibition can be found here along with more examples of artwork.

Prints of artwork will be available from Print-Process, with profits going to Hero Initiative. The exhibition runs until Friday, 31 May.

3 comments:

Dr Andy Oliver said...

Absolutely spot on. Any other medium and this would rightfully be called plagiarism. Somehow though Roy gets away with it. True he makes no secret he has copied the work of others however he should still acknowledge the source - a smaller version next to his or a name check of the original artist. In fact I'll go further, in that given that Roy copies the work almost completely a simple nod to the original artist is not enough. This is because Roy has not added anything himself - none of it is his own work and yet he puts his own name to the piece. Whether there is an argument to whether he has improved the original or not - that is in fact another discussion, he should always more readily acknowledge the original. Rant over - thanks for the post!

Anonymous said...

Sure Lichtenstein cribbed the picture, though I do think he made some marginal improvments (no change which might make the picture his own) which made the image more pleasing to the eye, and added impact. The cribs were all quite blatant. Why did no-one sue?
IMHO Frank Hampson's sci-fi art is better than Lichtenstein's painting; more imaginative, more technically accomplished, infinitely more detailed and authentic-looking, and with less hackneyed compositions. with
If you take some of his images, blow them up (at least twice the size of the original art, more in some instances)they look superb.
And you can pore over the deatil as well as admire the impact.

rian hughes said...

Thanks for the support, Steve - very passionate and eloquent. Let's hope Image Duplicator runs and runs...