The original shock of Lichtenstein's paintings of enlarged details from comic strips has by now faded, and we may perhaps profit by examining more closely their formal characteristics. (1) The controversy initially provoked by these themes - especially in connection with such aesthetic criteria as "transformation" and "legitimacy" - consistently neglected the comic strip from the standpoint of its own expressive features. (2) If, as many critics believe, Lichtenstein's paintings have quality and significance beyond the shock of innovation, we might inquire what the artist discovered in comic strips and how he successfully exploited them for easel painting, especially the manner in which Lichtenstein related pictorial structure to subject matter.
The comic strip shares many features in common with its early forerunners like medieval blockbooks and manuscripts; they are all basically self-contained pictorial units combining both text and illustration on a single leaf or page. However, what distinguishes the type of pictorial narrative known as a "comic strip" from the woodcut and manuscript page (sometimes also employing a sequence of panels) is the particular presentation of written narrative in connection with the illustration. Specifically, it is the "balloon" used as a vehicle for dialogue that distinguishes the comic strip from its forerunners. In earlier illustrations, text and dialogue were generally enclosed in plaques, banners or scrolls bearing little relation to individual characters, or they appeared below the illustrations in the form of legends. (3) As in the Biblia Pauperum or Brandt's Ship of Fools, each picture was accompanied by a legend expressing a moral or didactic theme. This practice was later adopted by humorous illustrators in the form of "he-she" cartoons, and presently survives in the "gag" cartoons of popular periodicals. Although the balloon device bad been used in political cartoons as early as the eighteenth century, it was not considered fashionable for sophisticated illustration. George Cruikshank, in the 1820s, was perhaps the first to employ systematically the balloon in book illustration. (4) But he stands as an isolated example in this respect, and apparently had few successors until the end of the century.
Before the balloon could be adopted by cartoonists the comic strip itself had to be developed for mass newspaper use. A major innovation in this development occurred in the 1840s, when the Swiss artist, Rudolphe Toepffer, employed a sequential narrative based on a series of panels. (5) Later, in this country, F. M. Haworth furthered this development by using the panels in a cumulative sequence, leading up to a dramatic climax. (6) By the last decade of the nineteenth century the distinctive components of the modern comic strip were present except for the balloon - still rejected in favor of the legend device. James Swinnerton, an American pioneer of the comic strip, once stated that at that time the balloon was considered archaic, belonging to a style buried with Cruikshank. (7) But in 1896 the written word moved back into the drawing with the advent of Richard Outcault's Yellow Kid. This strip was indirectly responsible for the revival of the balloon device; for the Yellow Kid's nightshirt, the focal point of the strip, carried written messages. Then in 1897, Rudolph Dirks, the creator of the Katzenjammer Kids for the New York Journal, began to experiment with balloon lines and found that his visual humor was enhanced by this device. (8) Subsequently, with the demand for greater variety the balloon became a permanent addition to all comics.
The use of the balloon in comic strips is crucial to their effectiveness as a communicating medium. This can be seen by comparing present-day comics with the forerunners which made use of the legend below the illustration. In the latter, where a number of characters are present the identity of the speakers is confused and the action circumscribed. The advantage of the balloon lies in its ability to permit action to unfold clearly while directly pointing to each speaking character. It thus distinguishes individuals in any situation, conveys dialogue from figures off-stage and even gives utterance to inanimate objects. And through the clever use of what is known as a "thought" balloon the reader is permitted access to an otherwise hidden level of a character's consciousness. As a result of these advantages, the balloon, once a disquieting device for the cartoonist, is now an intricate part of our visual vocabulary. It is employed to such an extent in comics, advertising and other mass media that it is no longer read merely as a conventional symbol for speech but is identified as speech itself. The present success of the comic strip was in large measure dependent on the balloon device.
In the work of Lichtenstein based on comic strips, the most significant element in his compositional structure is the balloon. The appearance of this feature in every case almost indicates its importance in the mind of the artist as an integral part of the original panel. It is noteworthy also, that the titles of the pictures are invariably derived from the balloon dialogue. For Lichtenstein the effectiveness of the painting requires the presence of the balloon. For example, the adaptation of the Steve Roper panel I Can See the Whole Room and There's Nobody In It! employs the balloon as a unifying element in the composition. It extends the breadth of the painting, providing a balance wholly lacking in the original panel. Moreover, the contents of Lichtenstein's balloon form a series of diverging curves which recur throughout the work, and give it a rhythmical unity. This feature is repeated in the overlapping peephole cover, in the speaker's month and in the joints of his finger. (9) Perhaps it is most obvious in the parallel arcs found in the extreme right of the balloon and the outer edges of the peephole and its cover. There can be no doubt that these swooping curves, lacking in the original panel, are fundamental to the artist's compositional intent.
In another work, Engagement Ring, based on a panel from the Winnie Winkle series, the difference from the original is apparent and the balloon is entirely transformed. Lichtenstein has eliminated the right hand section of the panel and extended the width of the window to connect the two figures. The balloon is now larger in proportion to the compositional structure and overlaps both heads, linking them in an indissoluble bond. Significantly, the stem of the balloon is interwoven into the general design; it mirrors the concavity of the wavy hair and is taken up by the undulating S-curves that frame the woman's face. This is not fortuitous. The artist has grasped an understanding of the balloon's flexibility for his art while at the same time sustaining the comic allusion. In a later work, Hopeless, the most obvious change from the original panel is to be found in the location and shape of the balloon. As in the preceding work, Lichtenstein has eliminated all dead space from the panel and adjusted a floating balloon to overlap the close-up head. The density of the composition in the painting is due to this adjustment, and the restilt is a compactness lacking in the original panel. It may be noted that the increased volume of the balloon provides a counterbalance to the large mass represented by the girl's head.
In the Brattata the balloon is modified from the original to correspond more closely to the shape of the pilot's visor. As in the Engagement Ring the balloon stem is carefully brought into compositional play with regularly recurring features in the picture. Departing from the straight stem of the original panel Lichtenstein repeats his own crescent shape in the speed lines of the falling plane, in the highlights of the visor and around the knob on the control panel. Its arc parallels the curve of the helmet and recurs in the contours of the pilot's profile. An even more significant change is Lichtenstein's formal emphasis of the cartoonist's visual "sound effect" of machine-gun fire (Brattata) not only in size and color but in the increased tilt which counterbalances the mass of the falling plane. A comparison with the original also reveals how Lichtenstein used the balloon in his correction from two to four as the number of downed planes required "to make Ace." The balloon quite effectively becomes the proper vehicle for authenticated fact.
Torpedo-Los! displays again the artist's awareness of the balloon as an essential factor in the comic allusion. Eliminating the ponderous balloons in the original panel, he adopted his own from a subsequent panel in the same sequence. With respect to the general masses of the composition the balloon's exclusion may not have been detrimental. But in this case the dialogue itself is ingeniously interwoven into the general design. The three alphabetic characters comprising the word "LOS" are clues to the composition's organic design. The "L" is mirrored in the angle formed by the captain's hand and the vertical contour of his head and in that of the periscope. The "O" is repeated in the tubing of the periscope. The "0" is repeated in the tubing of the periscope handle and in smaller details throughout the work. The oblique "S" recurs in the highlight of the captain's bat just left of the balloon, in the contours of the hat itself, in the shadow that falls along the left side of the captain's face, in the lines around his nose and in the curvilinear tubing of the periscope. Thus the dialogue enclosed within the balloon is visually exploited in the interests of compositional structure.
Perhaps the outstanding example of Lichtenstein's use of the balloon as a positive pictorial device is found in his presumed "self-portrait" - the Image Duplicator. In the original panel the balloon was only partially visible and overlapped the frame lines of the left side. In the painting Lichtenstein carefully centered it and closely correlated its shape with that of the face. The cloud-like configuration of the balloon is picked up by the contours of the face and repeated in the areas of indentation around the bridge of the nose. At the same time, the stem of the balloon is linked to the face through its undulating line which parallels the curve of the right eyebrow. As in the previous work the balloon provides the key to the entire compositional organization, and indeed, is the critical feature uniting all parts of the picture.
In conclusion we may say that the assimilation of comic imagery into Pop Art depended on the cultural saturation of that imagery; and the vitalizing effect of its devices and conventions became the conceptual and structural components of the artist working in the Pop Art mode.
1. This study investigates the Problem of transformation in Lichtenstein's art within the framework of formal analysis exclusive of technical inventions. The effect of enlargement, the "tightening" of the original comic drawing and the simulated Ben Day Process are features that have already been treated effectively in other contexts. The fundamental studies are Robert Rosenblum, "Roy Lichtenstein and the Realist Revolt," Metro 8, March 1963, PP. 38 ff.; Lawrence Alloway, "Roy Lichtenstein," Studio International, vol. 175, January 1968, PP. 25 ff. Other articles of note are John Coplans, "An Interview with Roy Lichtenstein," Artforum, vol.
11, no. 4, October 1963, P. 31. Gene R. Swenson, "What is Pop Art?," Art News, vol. 62, November 1963, pp. 25, 62-63; Bruno Alfieri, "The Arts Condition: 'Pop' means 'Not Popular'," Metro 9, April 1965, PP. 5 ff.; Ellen H. Johnson, "The Image Duplicators - Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg and Warhol," Canadian Art, vol. 23, January 1966, Pp. 12 ff.; Bruce Glaser, "Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, Warhol: A Discussion," Artforum, vol. IV, no. 6, February 1966, pp. 20 ff.; Richard Hamilton, "Roy Lichtenstein," Studio International, op. Cit., Pp. 20 ff.
2. See Erle Loran, "Pop artists or copy cats?," Art News, vol. 62, September 1963, pp. 48 ff.
3. However, there are exceptions in medieval art where text is made to emanate from individual
figures. See E. Male, Religious Art from the Twelfth to the Eighteenth Century, New York, 1959,
Pl. 32; A. Grabar and C. Nordenfalk, Early Medieval Painting, Lausanne, 1957, P. 167. 1 am grateful to my colleague, Prof. Jacques Guilmain, for these examples.
4. Both Gillray and Rowlandson occasionally used balloons in their political and social satires, but generally their dialogue vehicles retained the vestigial character of banners and scrolls. The balloon contours themselves were often no more than a wispy thread - as if the artists wished to make them as unobtrusive as possible.
5. E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, N. Y., 1960, PP. 336 ff.
6. In a sense, the work of Haworth was foreshadowed by Wilhelm Busch, who employed the sequential form in tiny vignettes. But Haworth separated the individual panels and elaborated his themes in the modern format. See W. Hofmann, Caricature from Leonardo to Picasso, New York, 1957, P. 121.
7. Cited in W. C. Gaines, "Narrative Illustration," Print, Summer 1942, P. 39,.
8. C. Waugh, The Comics, New York, 1947, p. II.
9. Curiously, Hogarth's treatise illustrates a comparison between two "kinds" of fingers bearing a remarkable affinity with the fingers in the Roper panel and Lichtenstein picture. Hogarth described the first as "a straight coarse finger," and the other as possessing the qualities of "the taper dimpled one of a fine lady." See William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty, London, 1753, p. 65 and Pl. 11, figs. 82-83. To my mind there is a striking analogy between Lichtenstein's transformation and the Hogarthian concern for "grace" - as if Lichtenstein applied "the line of beauty" to the comic panel. Significant, too, is the fact that Hogarth and Lichtenstein are related to each other and to the tradition they bracket tending to elevate comic imagery to the status of "high" art. See E. H. Gombrich, "Imagery and Art in the Romantic Period," Burlington Magazine, vol. 91, June 1949, PP. 152 ff.
Art Journal, Winter 1968-69: 155-59; reprinted by permission of the College Art Association, Inc.