[…] one thing Lichtenstein accomplished by putting a single panel on a gallery wall was to force us to look at that panel in a whole new way. We know the panel has come from a larger narrative, but we are left to imagine what went before and what will transpire after. On top of that we are asked to see the frozen moment; it’s emotional content, it’s graphic power, it’s strange mix of words and picture; for itself.
– Rick Veitch, Panels Out Of Context
Old Lichtenstein has been on my mind as well for a while, and Veitch’s thoughts make me wonder some more: Yes, Lichtenstein appropriated comics panels for his paintings in a way that’s ethically dodgy, but the formally interesting thing in this context is what he had to do with the images to make them work as individual paintings.
My (not fully developed) argument is that the basic rules of composition do not apply to comics panels entirely as they do to other visual art – the non-sequential sort, some might say, although personally I’m not too hung up on sequence.
In comics, every panel codepends on its neighbours in the page, and artists will (more or less consciously) compose it to guide the reader’s gaze across the page as well as within the panel (In fact, visual linguist Neil Cohn recently published a paper analysing the way readers will read a basic comics page.) If, however, a single panel is culled from its context, it will likely have image vectors pointing every which way on to a next panel now unavailable to the spectator. It’s in this perspective that Lichtenstein becomes really interesting to me, because comparison of his work to the original shows clearly that he didn’t simply copy the panels 1:1 – he often reconfigured their elements to work as single image units, although they would still imply a larger narrative unseen to the viewer.
The above examples (source: the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation’s Image Duplicator site) show how Lichtenstein combined two panels from different issues of All-American men of war into the diptych Whaam! The scanned comics pages are actually from Lichtenstein’s resource file (or “Notes”, as they are called on Image Duplicator), and you’ll notice that the explosion panel has been cut more or less exactly where the canvases of the paintings join.
I hope to be able to examine the source material (or prototypes) to Lichtenstein’s “comics paintings” in their intended context to identify just where and how he felt a need to adjust compositional elements for his specific purpose. Hopefully that will give some new insights into the compositional principles and how they differ, compared to just analysing comics as an isolated phenomenon.
For an exhaustive comparison of Lichtenstein’s “comics paintings” and his sources, visit David Barsalou’s Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein flickr stream. Barsalou has done a massive amount of research to reconstruct Lichtenstein’s swipe file.
Side note: You should also check out Simon Russell’s comic Roy, which is a wittily acerbic comment-as-a-comic on the pop artist’s best known works and their (re)production.