When Jack Kirby is better than Roy Lichtenstein

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  • “Also, Bagels” is a webcomic I just discovered and am already quite a fan of. I’m told the creator’s a teenager, proving they can do more than hang around the mall and scare my aunt. But it’s good no matter what. I’m dropping you not at the start, but at the one that got the best laugh out of me. For good measure, here’s another.

Or Russ HeathHouse by Roy Lichtenstein and surprisingly, not Jack Kirby

I was in Washington last week where I passed a Lichtenstein sculpture I like.

Lichtenstein was obviously talented. His more original work appeals to me, and I like the pop style, all bright and plastic, representing the idea, through simplified signifiers, of a thing. He plays around, making spectacle of things with implicit drama. Which, of course, is what soap opera and the larger pop family are wont to do. The difference is things are never going to change on “Days of Our Lives” or in “Spider-Man” or the WWE, whereas Lichtenstein took irony (which I like) and painted it over repurposed melodramatics. He was a pioneer of the prevalent “Enjoy it because it’s bad” thrill. You’re not reveling in the artifice, you’re able to look at the thing from both sides.

Jack Kirby, though, he can help out.I assume “Brad” is not the comics industry, who helped Lichtenstein get rich

It is certainly distressing to be in the pickle of heartbroken and simultaneously drowning, your only hope the man who jilted you. But those romance comics breezed into a happy ending, usually with a resolution that was never worthy of the actual predicament. A mere apology or the revelation that the entire affair was a result of misconstrued circumstances to which someone flew off the handle, those were all it took to blast away the pain of getting dumped, as well as dumped off a boat.

What Lichtenstein did was tinker with the distance between the viewer and the subject matter. After all, what threat can be real in a world made of giant Benday dots? It’s impossible to separate the work from the subject. In comics, conceits run rampant. It is accepted that Spider-Man doesn’t have wavy lines radiating from his skull, that light bulbs do not, in fact, appear when we have an idea, that sound effects do not hang in the air. But in Lichtenstein, we’re very aware of the work, and out of the scene, an effect customarily faulty in artwork. And so, we’re given to question the value of what we originally might have felt. The scene is not imminent, and so the danger is not real. As Drowning Girl floats there forever, the threat is as absent as Brad. Why doesn’t she just grab onto the word balloon as a flotation device?

Then again, maybe it’s just an early hipster take on “so bad it’s good” ironic scoffing. Which has its worth and its place, especially when it’s less prevalent. After photography displaced centuries of realistic mastery, cubism, impressonism and expressionism arose to do what the camera could not. A “good” painting captured what a thing was in less-distilled spirit than before, when perfectly portraying a thing as it looked would express its nature. Along came pop art, and it seemed a “good” painting was not to express what a thing was, but what it wasn’t.

There are lots of ways at looking at this painting is what I’m getting at, and usually it’s better, as Keats said, to ask the right questions than give the right answers.

The actual description of Drowning Girl at the Museum of Modern Art makes a thin case for the ironic repurposing of the original comic — the name changed to a somehow more vapid “Brad,” and the basic dismissal of comics as a medium, or at least the broadly produced ones.

But why is Lichtenstein worth more to art? What’s the basis? I generally hold that art is a physical expression of an opinion, but that’s not true, wholly. It’s just a contrast to scientific fact. The truth is art is a subjective idea of any type. We might make it as neutral as can be for the audience, but ultimately, it is the encounter with the piece that makes art “art”.

From that perspective, we could say that the emotional or intellectual response a piece triggers gives it its artistic value. After all, what good is art that doesn’t engage its audience? Esoteric stuff. But surely the flood of tearful romance comics spoke directly to the girls buying them? Young ladies, who knew not love from experience, but were exploding with pubescent hormones, screamed at by their own brains and bodies that the soaring swoop of first true love awaited on the horizon like a ship at sunrise — surely they were touched by what they read. After all, these romance books sold in numbers that Marvel or DC would kill to pull these days. Most imagined experiences are idealistic, and anything in teen or pre-teen life takes on extreme consequence. Emotions run rampant. The target for DC’s romance books was not the same audience as Lichtenstein’s. But what’s worth more — a sincere, severe reaction to work of fluffy, thin merit by the millions, or dry appreciation from an elite veneer?

I don’t know about you, but I like my art with blood on its teeth and steam rising from the back of its neck. I want art that makes me feel something.

Now let’s counter that argument, because I’m inadvertently making a damn fine case for the validity of Twilight, which is going to happen before this piece is done, but no reason to pursue it yet. “Those comics,” you say, “were written and drawn by cigar-chomping, middle-aged men, the very opposite of girls eager to know what love is and/or kill a car ride with a mildly entertaining story.” And then you’d add, after a moment’s pause. “Plus those guys were from Brooklyn and the Bronx back when newsboy gangs actually roamed the streets, and every apartment had at least one pet goat.” But if we’re going to argue insincerity deducts from the lasting merit of a piece, how are we going to award it to Roy Boy for adding an additional layer of insincerity? Wild mood swings might not appeal to those publishers, but at least they’re furnishing it to its rightful pre-teen audience. The painter takes it away from them, laughs at its silliness, and puts it high on the shelf. What’s less sincere than enjoying something because it’s bad? (Here it’s posssible to say that enjoyment because it’s bad is the sincere notion within the piece. Like the origins of French cooking, it’s a whole lot of complex seasoning to invigorate and cover up what was originally a bad piece of meat.)

Now I could say that Lichtenstein’s was a unique work, innovative, something new. A new idea to people. And that’s certainly of value to art. But I’d counter it with the fact that he didn’t just take a host of influences and spawn something in the primordial muck of his right brain. (Everybody steals. T.S. Eliot went out of his way to point that out when asked about “borrowing” from influences.) He pretty much lightboxed the thing, something comics have no problem doing to each other, mind you.

Seriously. This thing's practically public domain by now.

Seriously. This thing's practically public domain by now.

But let’s not pretend cropping and renaming a fellow is artistic genius. Everybody drops a few lines worthy of Shakespeare in their time. The trick is doing it often and intentionally enough that you bring forth greatness. Externally speaking, everybody’s clever, but how often is anyone deep? Sure we’re all complex within, but giving mouth to that takes a lot of work. Going back to that influences thing, of course, you don’t want to swipe. That would be horrifying. What Eliot meant, I think, was that, yeah, he’s using someone else’s complex chemical compounds. But put together, they react, they form something new. Juxtaposition, montage effect, storytelling in the gutters. Context is everything. A baby in a crib is adorable. Photoshop that same baby into a tiger’s den and the picture becomes frightening.

So how much did Lichtenstein really change? I can’t say. I started writing this post to say “Pffft. Whatever. Kirby was cool,” and spent the first half of the thing actually arguing against myself. I think I appreciate Lichtenstein more now than I did when I started writing.

Summarily, though, I think there’s value in what many would call crap. Twilight works because it appeals to people, and what’s more, it doesn’t appeal to the worst in them. It’s about a couple of kids who are so in love they’d do anything to be together, no matter the risk. Sure, it’s weird and awkward in huge chunks, but so is being a high school kid. I’m not a 15-year-old girl, and I’m not going to tell one not to read a novel just because it’s not intellectually engaging to me at 29.

Folk art is often celebrated, yet an elderly woman who knits dolls full of beans for her grand-daughter never attains the fame and fortune of many posturing artists whose pieces are staged with no other aim than to shock. Shock is great, if we’re actually forced to confront some alien concept and grow to process it. But what’s more staggering than using up one of your last thousand days to create a work of love for someone you’ve only known a short while?

I know the answer is a few paragraphs above: art is a relative experience. Your grandmother is not my grandmother, but we all share in the statue of Britney Spears giving birth. Particularly your creepy stepdad, who will have to find a new naif to fixate on. But hey, we all have grandmas, and part of the reason people cry “Sell out!” is art created for money seldom resonates with the emotional investment of art created looking for nothing in return.

Yep, this exists.

Yep, this exists.

Not that you shouldn’t be able to make money off your hard work. If you were going to say that Lichtenstein would have made his piece whether or not he got paid, whereas the panels he stole were mass-produced, crass commercialism, remember that Leonardo da Vinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa because he was bored. He was a hired illustrator, the same as Norman Rockwell, who documented all kinds of scenes from actual American life over several decades but never once dared call himself an “artist” because he was told his work was just commercial pap.

Sorry, but there’s room in reality for all experiences, including the joys documented by Rockwell. And, perhaps, da Vinci. Maybe she’s just smiling because she’s having her portrait painted. Yes, yes, people didn’t do that, then. But maybe she’s just a cheerful person, and it amused the painter so much that he knew it would be dishonest and incomplete to depict her any other way. So anyway. Thank God we had Rockwell. The ’60s were more than soup cans and psychedelica. The good things in life still existed. But I’m glad he got enough buck in him to show the social strife at the time, too.

Or she's secretly Mary Magdalene!Maybe she’s thinking of something amusing in the Saturday Evening Post.

To be honest, I think a lot of art scenes are dishonest. It seems to me that books hailed by the literati tend to be about writers or professors, or at least introverted New Yorkers in the grip of an unbearably beautiful moroseness — you know, exactly the kind of people in the literati. I’m not stupid, and there’s not a lot of stupid entertainment I like (excluding music. I admit to having no musical IQ), but cripes, man, engage both sides of my mind. You don’t need guns and nudity to tell a gaspingly good tale. Catcher in the Rye and Watership Down are both fantastic: smart, heartfelt, unique, and mundane to describe. One’s about a kid bopping around the city, the other’s about a bunch of rabbits traveling a country mile.

But that’s just the action. The latter is actually a kid having a nervous breakdown, and he’s so distraught he can’t go home. Cripes, can you imagine that? Can you stop and think about how much is clashing inside you that you’re avoiding your own family, avoiding going home even though you have nowhere else to go?

And the rabbits? Good lord, when was the last time my heart ever raced reading a novel? These rabbits are heroes even though they’re terrified. One’s a chief, one’s a shaman, one’s a bruiser, and they go on this epic journey through predators and humans and train tracks.

Both books deal with the same thing, though in different ways: the importance of going home.

I guess if the feel is real, the art has value. But I’m going to leave this one unsolved, because I can’t figure out how to disqualify “The Hills” from this definition yet, and I still haven’t defined the essential element that makes “Drowning Girl” superior to its source, even though I’ve convinced myself now that it is.

Where’s the happy ground between the idiotic tyranny of vox populi and and the self-indulgent navel-gazing of the elite?