Unreal Nature

November 9, 2015

Popcorn Tears

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:55 am

Pop art saved the comics.

Continuing through High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990):

… the romance and war comics were made not by inert institutions but by young staff artists, and these artists had of course ambitions of their own — if not for their “art form” or the genre, then at least for their own careers. Basically their ambition was to demonstrate enough talent to get a job doing something else.

… The ambitious, upwardly mobile illustrators who drew romance comics at D.C. particularly admired and imitated an artist and illustrator named Tony Abruzzo, both the Chuck Yeager and the Utamaro of the lovelorn. Abruzzo had invented — or at any rate was given credit among other illustrators at D.C. for having invented — the Heartbreak Face: the girl with parted lips, head tilted at a slight angle, possessed of a surprisingly strong and even masculine jaw, and having enormous, unnatural, liquid eyes.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Abruzzo also discovered that while slightly parted lips are pleasing, teeth are not, and he helped codify the solution — the aesthetic cuirass of the love comic — by which teeth are represented by a streak of unvariegated white. Above all, Abruzzo taught that expression didn’t have to be coherent to be moving; you could add beautifully shaped tears — illustrators called them “popcorn tears” — to a face that showed no other signs of emotion, and still get an effect.

Abruzzo_Hopeless
Panel from “Run for Love” in Secret Hearts, 83 (November 1962), Tony Abruzzo, artist

… Almost without exception, Lichtenstein’s comics paintings from the early 1960s (as Lichtenstein, of course, could not have known; all of the romance and war comics were unsigned) were adapted from the work of a small handful of ambitious comic-book artists. … High art on the way down to the bottom met, without quite knowing it, low art struggling to find its way back up.

Lichtenstein recast his found images in complicated ways. Ironically, he had to aggressively alter and recompose them to bring them closer to a platonic ideal of simple comic-book style — he had to work hard to make them look more like comics. The effects that make Lichtenstein into Lichtenstein involved not the aestheticizing of a consistent style through mechanical displacements, but the careful, artificial construction of what appears to be a generic, whole, “true-folk” cultural style from a real world of comics that was by then far more “fallen” and fragmented. His early pictures work by making the comic images more like the comics than the comics were themselves.

Lichtenstein_hopeless
Roy Lichtenstein, Hopeless, 1963

Lichtenstein discovered in the comics a whole set of representational clichés and compositional schemata that he was already inclined to recognize as art. If he had to recompose the art of the “good” comic book artists to make them look more like comics, he still recognized in their work the debased style of fin-de siècle narrative painting. The platonic ideal of the comics that Lichtenstein struggled to realize from his low sources was, in its origins, inseparable from memories of the museum, Gauguin’s imagination gone to earth in the manner of Irv Novick.

… The effect of Pop in general and Lichtenstein in particular on the comic books was intense and immediate. Pop art saved the comics. The most successful comic books in the stunning and unlooked-for comic-book boom of the sixties, those produced under the editorship of Stan Lee at Marvel, enthusiastically took up the elements of Lichtenstein’s style — its rejection of “realistic” detail, the emphasis on undulating black curves, the whistling, plunging spaces, the irony — and began to apply them to the mass-culture objects as they were being made.

[line break added] Lee, for instance, soon would instruct his artists (who before long included many of the more talented members of the D.C. stable, among them John Romita) to draw pages of action without any plot — the Fantastic Four tearing apart a space station, say, with no plot in mind or purpose in sight — to which Lee would only later add dialogue that was deliberately, ironically at odds with the action. (“Hey Strecho, didja remember to turn the stove off?,” the Thing might cry as he pitched a villain in Plastic Man’s direction.) The ironic disassociations of tone that Lichtenstein had achieved through his arsenal of transformations were quickly incorporated into the style of the comics themselves. Marvel even produced a line of “Pop” comics.

The conventional story insists on Lichtenstein’s as the archetypal Pop surrender to the forces of anonymous mass-cult style, with the individual imagination capable only of a few mechanical ironies of scale, and a few helpless aestheticizing gestures, in the face of the big, irresistible media machine. The truth is almost the direct reverse: “mass-culture” in this instance turns out to be a handful of young artists hanging on for life; it was high art that had the live ammo, and it recreated popular culture in its own image.

My most recent previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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