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).
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!