I'D RATHER SINK -- THAN CALL ROY FOR HELP

BY CHRIS LASSIG

Roy Fox Lichtenstein (1923–1997) made pop art popular by making the biggest fakes anyone had ever seen. As a result, comic book artists and their fans seem to be the only people who still don’t like him. On behalf of comics, I’m striking back by making fakes of his fakes.

Is ‘fake’ going too far, do you think? No, because Lichtenstein used the word himself to describe his art: ‘It's supposed to look like a fake, and it achieves that, I think.’ [1]

His signature bit of fakery is all those dots, emulating cheaply printed comics. Named Ben-Day dots after their inventor Benjamin Day Jr (1838–1916), they were a quick and easily reproduced shading technique.

Back in the (Ben) day, artists would buy sheets of transfers with dots in different sizes and densities, from manufacturers with staccato names like Zip-A-Tone, Chart-Pak and Letraset. The artist would cut out a piece in the shape of the area to be shaded, then place it sticky side down and rub the back. When the sheet was removed, the inked dots stayed behind on the page.

In our new century of course it’s much easier to achieve the effect digitally, and it’s more difficult to get hold of the transfer sheets. Except, it seems, in Japan, where they’re part of the look of manga.[2]

Lichtenstein, though, made his own, giant-sized dots, using stencils with hundreds of round holes, which he’d paint over with a toothbrush. In doing so, he transformed the low art of mass media into the high art of the gallery. Good for him.

Naturally, it took a while for the arts establishment (aka ‘the man’) to get used to this. In 1964, LIFE magazine asked, ‘Is he the worst artist in the U.S.?’ [3]

But Lichtenstein’s stuff looked good and eventually people got over that tedious, mid-century agonising over ‘what is art’. Now you can find his work at the finest galleries, as public art in New York and Barcelona, and on many a uni student wall. And he helped make the comic book style a beloved emblem of popular culture.

You’d think comics people would be grateful for that, but no. As Art Spiegelman—that’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novelist Art Spiegelman—said, ‘Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup.’ [4]

For one, we already knew comics were ‘art’, thank you very much. And making fun of something isn’t really the best way of giving it more respect. (And yes I appreciate the irony of makers of ‘funnybooks’ having a problem with parody).

But the real objection is much more personal: Lichtenstein built a career in fine art on top of the work of other artists who were underpaid and uncredited. 

Take, for instance, his iconic 1963 painting Drowning Girl, which I’ve chosen to launch my fake-back take-back. [5]

This is based on the splash page of the story ‘Run for Love’ from issue 83 of the romance comic Secret Hearts. [6] The story was drawn by Tony Abruzzo, lettered by Ira Schnapp, and published in November 1962—barely a year before Lichtenstein’s painting.

Very little is known about the original artist, Tony Abruzzo, but Jaque Nodell who runs the romance comics blog Sequential Crush has managed to track down some details. [7]

Anthony Abruzzo was born in the United States in 1916 and worked initially as a fashion illustrator, until joining the army in World War II to draw tanks and jeeps for instruction manuals. (Although he kept his interest in fashion, as outlined in a great article from the 1942 Long Island Daily Press, which Nodell has included on his blog).

Abruzzo’s passion for fashion was a great asset in romance comics, and he became one of the most distinctive and prolific artists. But increased censorship and a revival of superhero comics led to the decline of the romance genre, with Secret Hearts cancelled in July 1971. [8]

Tony Abruzzo died childless and unmarried in 1990… and that’s about all we know.

If you think that’s bad, consider that I haven’t been able to find any record of who actually wrote the script for ‘Run for Love’. That’s how derelict the publisher was in crediting the people who built its business.

And that’s perhaps the real issue here: the poor way that writers and artists were treated by the comics industry itself—the most famous example being the never-ending battle for the rights to Superman, between the families of his creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and the publisher, DC Comics. [9]

So it’s perhaps unfair to blame Lichtenstein for all that. Nevertheless, it does feel a bit unjust that his paintings sell for millions while artists he copied live on social security. [10]

Which is why I, a sometime comics artist myself, [11] am claiming back some ground by making my own copy of Lichtenstein’s copy.

His duplicate was actually quite faithful, although he did take the close-up of the main character, Vickie, out of context. He removed the caption, in which she refers to herself as the ugly duckling compared to her four beautiful sisters, and he cropped out her love interest—actually Mal, not the legendary Brad—who’s clinging to an upturned boat and can’t be more than three metres away from the defeated and cramp-afflicted Vickie.

(Incidentally, Lichtenstein also used another panel from this same story as the basis for his painting Hopeless, but in that one he turned Vickie into a blonde). [12]

However, he did adjust the composition somewhat for it to work as a standalone image, and I can testify that getting that right is not as easy as you (I) would think.

Also not that easy were the Ben-Day dots: I had to hand-draw mine, on account of how my computer has lately decided to pack it in. However I feel it’s consistent with the bespoke el cheapo look that I’m definitely going for on purpose. Plus it’s a pleasantly large pattern that emphasises the dots and makes a commentary on mumblemumblesomething.

You can decide yourself, by comparing my work to both the original and Lichtenstein version on the website Deconstructing Lichtenstein, put together by David Barsalou in an effort to finally give credit to the uncredited. [13]

Or maybe you’ll decide that my double-fake is merely compounding the injustice.

Woman Drowning in a Sea of Her Own Tears Presumably, by Chris Lassig, 2015. Felt-tip pen.

Woman Drowning in a Sea of Her Own Tears Presumably, by Chris Lassig, 2015. Felt-tip pen.

Chris Lassig is a theoretical physicist turned science writer, presenter and comic artist. Find out more at the Astrocave or follow him on Twitter.

  1. Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, ‘Warhol, Judd and others weigh in on Matisse’, Art in America, July/August 1975 [also available on the Art in America website].
  2. See, for example, deleter.jp/deleter_screen.shtml.
  3. LIFE, 31 January 1964, lichtensteinfoundation.org/lifemagroy.htm.
  4. Peter Sanderson, ‘Spiegelman goes to college’, Publishers Weekly, 24 April 2007.
  5. Roy Lichtenstein, Drowning Girl, 1963, Museum of Modern Art, New York.
  6. ‘Run for Love’, Secret Hearts #83, November 1962, DC Comics (officially National Comics).
  7. Jaque Nodell, ‘Artist Spotlight - Tony Abruzzo', Sequential Crush, 19 August 2014.
  8. Michelle Nolan, Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics, McFarland, 2008.
  9. Laura Hudson, ‘Warner Bros. wins Superman copyright battle using Facebook case as a precedent’, Wired, 11 January 2013.
  10. Russ Heath, ‘Bottle of Wine’, Hero Comics, 2012 (in which artist Russ Heath claims he drew the original of Lichtenstein’s 1963 diptych Whaam! when everyone else says it was Irv Novick).
  11. See some examples at astrocave.com/comics.
  12. Roy Lichtenstein, Hopeless, 1963, Kunstmuseum Basel.
  13. David Barsalou, Deconstructing Lichtenstein.

Next: Warhols, copies & fakes, by Cathy Mulhall

Would you like to download this as a cute little A5 booklet? It's FREE! Go to our shop to download. Materiality: FAKE, Part I.