There is a long standing tradition of appropriating comic characters, both within comics itself and within fine art.

Within comics, the practice of appropriating characters is an instance of what I have elsewhere called cameo metafiction – a narrative work whose plot involves interaction with characters, locales, or other elements that are not in the same continuity, or whose plot involve parodying or spoofing other artworks of the same type. The first image provides some examples – four pin-ups (including the cover) from a French anthology titled Tribute to Popeye (Editions Charrette, 2010) by Thierry Martin, Aseyn, Lucrèce, and Olivier Frasier.

Trans-medium appropriations, involving the use of comics characters or tropes within other artforms, is an instance of what I have elsewhere (and not particularly originally) called intertextual metafiction – a narrative work whose content interacts with or references the content of some other text, artwork, or artform. The second and third images reproduce two such works: The second print in the Les Femmes Fatales portfolio by Icelandic artist Erró (referencing Johne Byrne’s classic Fantastic Four #275 cover) and a work by American artist Joe Brainard.

Interestingly, appropriations of comics characters within other comics seems to be treated as fully respectable, with well known practicioners such as R. Sikoryak, Chris Ware, John Byrne, and Art Speigelman regularly engaging in the practice (it is also a semi-regular occurrence in newspaper comic strips). Appropriation of this sort can have a wide range of functions, from homage to humor to metafictional commentary on the original source. It rarely generates accusations of ‘foul play’, however, either from the creators of the original source material or the public at large.

Appropriations of comics characters within fine art, however, are a different story. From Warhol’s early work, to Lichtenstein, to Tim Rollins, Erró , Sharon Moody, and a host of others, fine art appropriations of comics material has met with mixed reactions at best, at least from the perspective of comics fans. There are a number of themes that underlie these ambivalent attitudes, with:

  • The fact that the original comic artists whose work is being referenced are rarely credited.
  • Issues involving the subtle distinction between a swipe (bad!) and a respectful reference (good!).
  • Inferior draftsmanship on the part of the ‘fine’ artists (when compared to the original art they are referencing).

topping the list. See here, here, and here for some examples of this sort of controversy.

It seems to me, however, that many of the same objections could be made, at least in some cases, to inter-comic appropriations. Thus, I am led to wonder what differences in the two cases lead the comics world to be more accepting when comic artists appropriate other creators’ comics characters, and less so when the fine art world does it?

Note: I picked up Tribute to Popeye (as well as a bunch of other cool comics) at a wonderful little shop in Paris called BD Shop, at 12 Rue de Paradis. I went to about ten different bande dessinée shops in Paris, and this one was definitely my favorite. Check it out if you are ever in France!

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

4 responses »

  1. At a pretty basic level, my first inclination is to say that you’re talking about an in-group/out-group dynamic. My best guess is to say that comics artists may feel an affinity for other comics artists over and above what they may feel with “high art” or “pop art” artists.

    Words like ‘community’ and ‘camaraderie’ come to mind when I think about this. I wonder if it isn’t the case that comics artists cohere somehow in the notion of a comics community….that they often share similar struggles: the struggle for recognition, the struggle to make a living, the struggle for legitimacy (even when the comics are meant to challenge the notion of [social, ideological] legitimacy explicitly).

    I’ve recently come to terms with the fact that I’m an avid webcomics reader. I read many webcomics, and one thing that I’ve noticed is how often these artists do guest art work in other comics. It isn’t unusual to read a webcomic that has been drawn by a guest artist. For example, Jeph Jacques, the artist for Questionable Content [ http://questionablecontent.net/view.php?comic=2148 ] drew a guest strip on Weregeek.com on 21 March 2012 [ http://www.weregeek.com/2012/03/21/ ]. The guest artist status is noted on both websites.

  2. I agree with Frank, especially when it comes to how insular communities of creators and readers police the way that comics are used. I think that those within the field are open to all sorts of parody, cameos, and other intertextual allusions to characters and comics tropes because they indicate a creativity and playfulness that is also a sign of respect and shared cultural knowledge. Fine art appropriations give the impression of being somewhat removed from those communities (even though the artists may be fans themselves) and of being motivated by an urge to “elevate” what many have considered to be a low-brow medium.

    One of my favorite artistic appropriations of comic book characters is from the Tibetan Artist Gade: (http://io9.com/5506269/tibetan-artist-turns-hulk-and-spider+man-into-himalayan-heroes) I think one of the reasons I enjoy these images so much is because I feel like he knew the characters well enough to decide how they could be displayed in ways that emphasize key Buddhist qualities!

  3. Barbara Postema says:

    I think it also has to do with the (perceived) economic value of the work. The “high art” appropriations of cartoons are often sold for astronomical amounts, so that artists like Lichtenstein or Erró make or made big bucks off works based on the art of cartoonists who were paid so much less for their (uncredited) work.

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