Monday, January 28, 2008

Lichtenstein's Lettering

Many discussions about Roy Lichtenstein's use of comic book images focus on moral and legal issues (should he have given credit to the original artists? - could he have been sued for copyright violation?). Defenders of the artist claim that appropriation is a fact of art and that part of his achievement was to reimagine and recontextualize the kind of commerical images that had been ignored by the fine art world. Yet what stands out most to me when I look at his work is the lettering in the balloons and caption boxes --

In this detail from Whaam! (1963), the text is out of balance with the rest of the painting. Letterers in the source comics typical letter narration/dialogue in a thickness that reflects the density of the picture's lines, giving a compatible force to both the words and image: But above, the image overwhelms the narration, which seems feeble compared with the strength of the jet (this is even true for me at the large dimensions of the actual painting). The problem of balance rarely surfaces, though, in the text of sound effects, which almost always look right:



In the balloons, especially, spacing and placement can also be off. In this detail from the drawing I Know . . . Brad (1963), the "I" starts too close to the edge of the balloon, the spacing between words is awkward and inconsistent, and by the end of the second line there's no space left for the ! -- so it's just crammed in. The space betweeen the M and the left side of the balloon and that betweeen the ! and the right side of the balloon are dramatically different. And the thought-bubble almost crowds out the letters in "BRAD." Lichtenstein's paintings and drawings generally seem very well composed, so it's strange to me that the lettering often isn't; here, especially, it almost seems an afterthought:

Much of the energy of the source comics is embodied in their excessive use of exclamation points (could there be a more important mark in the history of American comics?). Yet, as above, they are often the weakest part of his composition.

Here's a section of Lichtenstein's As I Opened Fire (1964) followed by the source panel. This comparison really shows the fundamental problem with balance as I see it. While many of the devations from the source make sense (i.e., the stylization achieved by eliminating details, shading, fine lines), the changes in the lettering don't:


He makes the lines of the planes fatter, yet does the opposite to the letters of the narration.

The following is a panel by Joe Kubert, found almost at random via a google image search - Even if you don't read the words (for our purpose here it's almost better if you don't), you can see the relationship between the calligraphy of the lettering and the "calligraphy" of the drawing, the consistent spacing between/above/below/before/after the words, etc . . .:

17 comments:

Jacob Covey said...

This is a great post, Ken. Part of what always nagged at me about the Lichtenstein paintings is exactly this problem. The lettering in his "recontextualized" paintings is so weak so often. I can appreciate the impact his paintings have had but this lettering issue seems to reveal a lack of understanding of the original material (not just his possible lack of sensitivity to the original artists) and undermines my ability to see him as the visionary people qualify him as.

(Oh, the other problem: He rode that pony for waaayyyy too long.)

Frank Santoro said...

I totally agree. Lichenstein's ability to integrate the text was weak. He focused on "spatial relations" and didn't use much text later on in his career. Great post.

Bill Randall said...

Thanks for explaining how & why this has always bugged me, Ken. Now I can see how he even makes the SFX lettering blander: he makes the letters in "BRAT" line up more smoothly. More gallery-worthy, I guess.

I recall that L. had adopted Abstract Expressionism before he hit the motherlode with Pop just as it was taking off. I never get the sense he painted from his convictions-- unlike Guston, he got locked in by the market, I guess.

(And the Jeff Koons cases make me think he could have been sued successfully-- I believe Warhol was sued a couple of times but always settled out-of-court.)

K. Parille said...

Jacob, Frank, and Bill,

Thanks for reading and for the positive comments. I agree with Frank that L.'s later work is better in part because it often doesn't have any lettering. And like Jacob and Bill, I have always felt there was something lacking in the comics-inspired work -- a kind of 'force' that is often present in the source.

Joe Willy said...

One could almost imagine that was the point. Probably Lichentstein in some way could have been trying to point out how the power of the art and SFX overwhelmed the narrative boxes and word balloons.

I'd always noticed the crappy lettering and off balance compositions and wondered if this didn't sort of prove those that saw Roy "making fun" of comics.

K. Parille said...

Joe,

I see what you are saying about emphasizing the visual over the text -- perhaps that's why he made these choices . . .

Leigh Walton said...

You're exactly right, Ken. The paintings have always struck me as anemic somehow -- as though Lichtenstein were in some way imitating the form of his source but not its heart -- and I think you've identified one of the most blatant manifestations of that. It's obvious, in retrospect.

It's also baffling that he would be so careless about composition and balance.

Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein said...

ROY LICHTENSTEIN'S COMIC BOOK SWIPES.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/deconstructing-roy-lichtenstein/

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