Comics and High Art in the 1960s:
A Stylistic Comparison
How Artists in the 1960s Changed Changed the Way We View The Comic Book
Featuring an analysis of the work of Roy Lichtenstein and Joe Brainard
The Champion of Pop Art
Roy Lichtenstein is a Pop Art painter who first rose to prominence in the 1960s for his large-scale paintings of comic panels, especially superhero or wartime comics. His initial rise to fame was filled with controversy from both the high art world and the comic book community. Comics at that time were considered one of the lowest forms of art by high art critics because of their ephemeral nature and strong ties to commercialism and - by extension – advertisement (gasp!). Criticism of his art included a "failure to rise to a level of aesthetic seriousness...through its choice of subject matter" and that "most of [his works] have nothing to say at all (Beaty, 2004)." In addition, Lichtenstein’s heavy reliance on already existing comic panels - even replicating exact colors and composition - has proved to be a sticking point for the comic community, who have been waiting a long time for their artists to be recognized and comic books accepted as a form of high art. However, the critics' opinions began to change as they realized the differences between what Lichtenstein work and that of a comics artist.
With the increasing success of the Pop Art movement, Lichenstein’s reputation and clout as a high artist has been more than redeemed in the years following. Almost sixty years after his very first one-man art show at Leo Castelli’s gallery in 1962, his pieces are some of the most sought-after works of contemporary art. One painting, Masterpiece, was sold for $165 million in 2017 and is currently one of the ten most expensive paintings ever sold, according to Robert Frank of CNBC. Interestingly enough, Lichtenstein’s relations with the comic community have done the opposite; the more the art world praises him, the more that the comic book fans and artists despise him.
Scroll down to Innovations to find out more about this interesting dynamic between the artist and his source material, and learn about what innovations Lichtenstein brought to the genre.
The Uncensored Visual Poet
Joe Brainard is a successful poet-turned-comics-artist and the primary illustrator for a two-issue comics magazine called C Comics. He is a highly acclaimed member of the second generation of New York School artists – a tight-knit collection of poets, painters, and musicians centered around 1960s New York City who brought elements of abstraction, modernism, and a general sense of affability and attention to the mundane into their work. His most famous piece is an autobiographical and truly unique poetry novel titled I Remember. Brainard is not well-known for his work with comics; in fact, very little online material exists about C Comics, which is his most extensive venture into the world of comic art besides The Nancy Book. Despite its rather niche market, C Comics and Joe Brainard’s artwork is significant in the way it innovates and subverts our expectations of what a comic is supposed to be. A collaboration between other prominent members of the New York School, it was this eclectic combination of personalities and styles that led to an unorthodox collection of incredibly unique takes on the form. Even the name, C Comics, is a reflection of the magazine’s mischievously defiant intent; the “C” stands for “Censored.” To read more about how Joe Brainard turned the idea of a comic on head, scroll down to Innovations below.
To see some of Joe Brainard's work in action, click either of the buttons below to jump to the C Comics archive of that issue.
Innovations to the Genre
Roy Lichtenstein's Take On the Comic Form
At first, critics weren’t thrilled at Lichtenstein’s work: “Lichtenstein’s paintings failed to rise to the level of aesthetic seriousness…through its choice of subject matter.” When the Pop Art movement was still developing in 1963, people were polarized in their acceptance of its commercialized aesthetic presence. Comic books were viewed as temporary and disposable, and certainly not something worthy of an art gallery. This is where we see the very first of Lichtenstein’s innovation to the genre: the concept of artistic intent. In the eyes of critics, the purpose for the creation of the art can make a huge difference in how it’s perceived. Lichtenstein painted with the museum in mind; though it took inspiration from a mass-marketed and produced idea, the intent to create “high art” was the first step in gaining the acceptance from the mainstream art community.
Like Brainard, a major innovation that Roy Lichtenstein brought to comic art is the concept of making the familiar unfamiliar. One reason why the opinions of art critics on Lichtenstein’s work has changed so drastically is because of the way he parodies his source material: in a sense, his work is “more comic than a comic book.” He takes the most stereotypical comic book tropes and blows it up with a painting for the whole world to see, which was percieved by many to be less in line with "celebrating" the unique comic book style and more "making fun of" it. This one of the reasons why it is the comics community that despised and continues to despise Roy Lichtenstein the most. They saw him as an outsider getting the credit that comic books had been denied, and for work that seemed like just a copy of top comic artists. Even now, leaders in the modern comics landscape like Art Spiegelman see the regard held for Lichtenstein’s work as opposite the level of aesthetic legitimacy that comics experience. As his paintings become more and more valued and respected by the high art community, comics books become less and less so; this fascinating trend is one of the major sources of resentment that the comics community holds against Lichtenstein and his work.
Joe Brainard's Take On the Comic Form
In C Comics, the primary innovation lies in the rebranding of the comic genre for the adult reader. In general, comic books in that time area were seen by the general public as childish: at worst, meaningless entertainment for children, and at best a short and oftentimes scathing form political commentary in the weekly newspaper. But take a good hard look at many of the illustrations and topics that grace the pages of C Comics, and you’ll quickly reach the conclusion that it’s not something you want your kids to be reading (see above).
One reason why this adult appeal is so important is because it seeks to connect the comic with the high art world. The general outlook on comic books in the U.S. in the 1960s ranged from “a legitimate ‘pop phenomenon’ deserving of respect” to “comic books are a contributing factor to juvenile delinquency (Barty, 2004),” with views on the former end of the spectrum unfortunately being the minority opinion. Brainard goes against the popular perception of what a comic is supposed to be by introducing adult themes and using the art as a vehicle for poetry. The works incorporate text written by New York School poets, and as such works to gain high art’s sense of legitimacy. Though its niche market has prevented it from rising to the same level as Lichtenstein, its unique sense of humor and artist-to-poet collaboration make it stand out when compared to much of the comics library.
In addition to appealing to an adult audience, Brainard upsets our expectations of how a comic is supposed to look. In many cases, the average comic book page is structured using box-like frames, and the reader follows the action from left-to-right-top-to-bottom like a book. In other words, the typical comic book is quite linear, with clear story elements and logical flow. Brainard’s illustrations, however, are not bound by square frames or by linear flow, allowing his work to break free of the confines of the traditional comic style. Brainard is revolutionizing the very form of the comic itself, stripping away the limitations of the media and leaving his readers with a sense of unfamiliarity. Whereas the typical comic works to make the ordinary seem extraordinary (i.e. superheroes), Brainard takes something unfamiliar, weird, or crazy and makes it ordinary through distillation, specificity, and a little bit of imagination.