NOTE: This essay was originally posted, in slightly different form, on my LiveJournal at this link on July 20, 2005. It was copied (initially without my knowledge) to the Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein Flickr account. That's somehow appropriate, given the subject matter.
It all started innocently enough, as odd as that may seem. You see, Kabuki Katze had recently finished a fab pop art picture of Red Sonja and we were discussing it and the influence of Roy Lichtenstein on that style.
CE: Y'know, somewhere there is a link comparing Lichtenstein's paintings to the comic book panels that inspired them.
CE: They actually took them and set them side by side...I wonder if I can find it again.
CE: Prolly not tonight, that's for sure.
Kabuki: Really? That's interesting.
CE: Oh my God, it was easier than I thought.
CE: It's got a lot of images, needless to say.
Kabuki: Whoa. He copied them flat out.
CE: Oh yeah.
CE: I know at least one of the artists in question was very unhappy about that aspect of it.
Kabuki: How did he escape being reamed for copying these images?
CE: Because it was comic books and they got no respect, especially when he became well-known.
CE: Comic books were disposable and disreputable, and he was doing fine art.
CE: No one checked on it.
Kabuki: He developed at just the right time, heh.
CE: I have mixed feelings about his artwork because of that. I really love what he did with color and emulating Zip-A-Tone and things like that.
CE: By the same token, I wish he hadn't swiped every single pose.
Kabuki: I was under the impression that the images were his, it was just the style he swiped. This makes me lose a good deal of respect for him.
And who can blame her? It's not every day you find out someone whose work you admire is essentially a plagiarist.
Oooh, that's a harsh word. All I can say is look at the comparison of comic book panels and his paintings and tell me what you would call it. Plus, these are only the things we can document at this late date. He also drew "inspiration" from advertising and any records on that are probably scattered to the four winds. The only reason we know about the comic books is because his decision to lift wholesale from them neatly coincided with the rise of comic book fandom and the drive by many to save their comics.
Understand that "swiping" is, and probably always will be, prevalent in mass-produced comic books. Beyond using references, many comic artists keep handy files of their work and the work of others so that they can "borrow" a pose or a layout. I mean, one of the most iconic cover images in the history of comics can be demonstrated to be a swipe of a FLASH GORDON panel. I'm not condoning the practice - not at all - but it's an understandable thing when you have to crank out x amount of pages on a deadline for chump change and no recognition (at least in the old days).
But what Lichtenstein did was different, to my mind. This wasn't something done to expedite a job - it was a conscious decision to copy the work of others and take the credit for it. You can say he took the originals and filtered them through his vision. This is true, but it doesn't change the fact that he copied some of the pictures line for line. He even went so far as to lift dialogue directly from the comics, effectively ripping off writers like Gardner Fox and Robert Kanigher as well as the artists. And while it can be said that Lichtenstein did not know the identity of the artists, he did know the books he used as reference. He could have made this information public. He did not. So the general public was left with the impression that the iconic images in Roy Lichtenstein's paintings were the product of his own imagination rather than reinterpretations of the work of others.
Some writers have attempted to excuse what Lichtenstein did by calling the comics "lowbrow" and saying that he gave comic art a higher profile. I will grant them the fact that Lichtenstein's work probably did worlds to elevate the public consciousness to the power of comic art. But to say the work he copied was basically unworthy? Tell you what, art critic snob, let's try this - suppose a famous novelist took one of your reviews, changed it around a little but left it largely intact, then dropped it into his next book and left you with no credit. When confronted, he protested that he was elevating your work by exposing it to a larger audience. Would that argument hold water for you?
In the end, the real "victims" are the artists who toiled in obscurity to create the images that made Roy Lichtenstein famous. Men like Irv Novick, Russ Heath, John Romita, and Mike Sekowsky (to name but a few) at least have a degree of fame today that they didn't have in their heyday. But I doubt any of them ever received a single penny from Roy Lichtenstein or anyone connected to him. Certainly, not one of them ever reaped a financial windfall like having a painting sell for millions of dollars.
The irony of the "Lichtenstein Deconstructed" page is that its creator is a Lichtenstein fan. In fact, he can emulate his idol quite well. The page was originally created as part of his devotion to Lichtenstein. I really wonder if he realized how many people would find that it cast Lichtenstein in a negative light.
There is a lot to admire in Roy Lichtenstein's work and his legacy. He did raise the public's awareness of comic book art and probably did set the wheels in motion for comic art to gain some degree of respectability. As an artist, his use of color and his ability to mimic the "dot pattern" coloring of old comics in his paintings is remarkable. I think Roy Lichtenstein is quite an artist, to be honest.
At the same time, I can never forget that Roy Lichtenstein swiped the imagery for his most famous works from men and women who would never see the kind of profits he gained from his art. He could have created paintings with the same kind of power from his own imagination - after all, the comic book artists had to work from scratch. But he chose to take the easy way out and copy things that he (probably) thought no one would ever notice. It leaves me with decidedly mixed feelings about him and his body of work.
Love Roy Lichtenstein or hate him, it doesn't matter to me. But never, ever forget the artists who created his imagery. They are the ones who deserve a little praise.