• Washington Post

Did Roy Lichtenstein Create Art or Copy It? A New Film Stokes the Controversy

Hussey-Cotton Films
A side-by-side comparison of Russ Heath’s original comic-panel art, from DC Comics’ “All American Men of War #89” (1962), and Roy Lichtenstein’s 1962 painting “Blam!” that appropriated the panel.

Hy Eisman sits at his professional drawing board, much the way he has for seven decades. He is reminiscing about penciling a comic-book image from a page that yielded him $10 back in the ’60s. He says his rendering, though, would soon inspire the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein, who became rich and famous by appropriating such comics without credit – and with a projector – for his large, highly prized canvases.

“If you’re taking somebody’s work and enlarging it, anybody can do that,” says Eisman, noting that he “worked like a dog on this stupid page.” Eisman then casts his eyes downward, his voice trailing a bit: “It would be nice to be recognized. It would be.”

That scene is from a documentary that reexamines a controversy that has simmered since at least 1963. Early on in the film, titled “WHAAM! BLAM! Roy Lichtenstein and the Art of Appropriation,” the question is put forth in cartoon lettering: “Was Roy Lichtenstein a great artist? … A thief? Or both???”

Many art experts say Lichtenstein’s use of source comics was fair appropriation. Yet Eisman, 96, who lives in New Jersey, tells The Washington Post by email: “I’d say it’s theft.” He hopes people will watch the documentary and see it as evenhanded, intended to represent both sides with the aim to let “the viewers make up their own minds and not just leave it to the so-called experts.”

In 2015, filmmaker and pop art fan James Hussey began seeking out Lichtenstein experts and fine-art curators, as well as comic creators whose work had been appropriated by Lichtenstein. A sense of mission over “filling in a gap” in Lichtenstein’s biography drives Hussey’s resulting documentary, which began streaming on multiple platforms last month. On the festival circuit, Hussey says, viewers have responded to the human-interest aspect of the film: Who are these uncredited-by-Lichtenstein comic artists, some of whom have lived on relatively meager means while Lichtenstein paintings have sold at eight-figure auction prices?

“WHAAM! BLAM!” takes time to tell the story of Lichtenstein, the languishing, relatively little-known painter in the 1950s who, beginning in the early ’60s, launched into the pop pantheon by painting large canvases with the bold lines, saturated colors and splashy graphic elements of adventure and romance comics, including dialogue balloons, action sound-effects words and Ben-Day shading dots. As the pop art movement re-contextualized “found” objects like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, it also turned to comic characters like Dick Tracy for source material.

Lichtenstein, as the lore goes, first found inspiration in a Walt Disney children’s picture book, in which Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck stand on a pier. His resultant painting, titled, “Look Mickey,” represents “the first time Roy Lichtenstein directly transposed a scene and a style from a source of popular culture, the 1960 children’s book ‘Donald Duck: Lost and Found,'” according to the National Gallery of Art, where the artwork hangs.

Lichtenstein would create hundreds of comic book-appropriating canvases, according to those quoted in the film, as part of his larger body of varied work numbering in the thousands, including sculptures and drawings.

He was drawn to emotionally charged comic panels of love and war for such art as “Kiss III,” which was painted in 1962, the same year as the artist’s first solo exhibition at New York’s famed Leo Castelli Gallery. For such works, he is said to have culled comic-book pages and carefully enlarged the sampled imagery.

In the film, author-scholar Charles Riley II recounts that Castelli discovered Lichtenstein’s pop art and said: “There’s the artistic side of this. It’s not just either an aggrandizement of a comic book image or a political statement. It’s art.” Castelli saw that what Lichtenstein “was bringing in was going to be of permanent value to the history of art,” Riley notes.

Process is an essential question because it’s at the heart of the debate: Was Lichtenstein’s pop art transformative? The fine-art world’s general verdict has long been affirmative. “Lichtenstein would begin by making a sketch from sources that included comics, advertisements, and other found print material featuring consumer goods and domestic objects,” according to the National Gallery of Art’s website, which says he would alter the composition “for narrative and formal purposes” and “trace the drawing onto a canvas where he would make further adjustments.”

Lichtenstein himself claimed a distinction in his process, as quoted by the Tate’s art magazine: “I am nominally copying, but I am really restating the copied thing in other terms. In doing that, the original acquires a totally different texture.”

Now, long after Lichtenstein’s death in 1997, the U.S. Postal Service is issuing a stamp set to commemorate his birth centennial; its release will be celebrated April 24 in a ceremony at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Meanwhile, his comics-style canvases fetch record-setting prices – including a reported $165 million private sale in 2017 for 1962’s “Masterpiece.” In the film, auction-industry veteran David Norman says all the works of Lichtenstein, if gathered together, would collectively be worth billions of dollars.

On the flip side of the coin is Russ Heath, who died in 2018 at age 91. He was still drawing in his 80s while living on so little means that he couldn’t “afford to catch a taxi,” Hussey says by phone. In “WHAAM!,” we see Heath, an Eisner Hall of Fame cartoonist, spending his final years in Van Nuys, Calif., and being helped by the Hero Initiative, an organization that aids comic-book writers and artists in financial and medical need.

In the film, when Heath is shown the similarities between his work and Lichtenstein’s paintings, he says: “What’s so terrific about copying someone else’s work? … I just think it’s something you don’t do – steal other people’s work – no matter what kind of business it is. Invent your own thing and run with that ball. Don’t run with mine.”

“Even in his best years, Russ Heath wasn’t getting enough money for the quality of work he was doing. I wasn’t, either,” says Eisman, a veteran of many noted comic books and strips who until last year was still drawing the syndicated “Popeye.”

Contrast that with the value of a Lichtenstein. “The fact that these paintings bring such enormous sums is bizarre,” Eisman says. “It shows how out of balance things are in the art world.”

Some art institutions do credit Lichtenstein’s source material. The title of Hussey’s documentary nods to “Whaam!,” a 1963 Magna-acrylic-and-oil diptych popularly displayed at the Tate Modern, which says on its website that the painting is a deceptively simple compositional template “taken from a comic-book panel in DC Comics’ ‘All-American Men of War #89’ (February 1962), created by Russ Heath and Irv Novick.”

But in 2021, author Neil Gaiman scolded the Museum of Modern Art on Twitter for not crediting Tony Abruzzo, whose work was appropriated for the 1963 Lichtenstein painting “Drowning Girl.” The MoMA site now credits Abruzzo.

It is commonly contended that Lichtenstein helped increase the appreciation of comics as an art form. Yet his pop paintings have rankled the comics industry since their rise, when comic artist William Overgard wrote a letter to Time magazine wondering whether he should be flattered by how closely Lichtenstein had copied an Overgard panel.

“Lichtenstein did no more or less for comics than Andy Warhol did for soup,” “Maus” creator Art Spiegelman said in a 2007 interview.

Eisman tells The Post: “It’s not original art – it’s manipulating images.”

Some of Lichtenstein’s more famous paintings are based on close-up images of crying young women. The film spotlights that, for the original creators, these dramatic shots were a handy timesaver, born out of tight deadlines and humble wages. Romance-comic artists often drew close-ups because they could be rendered more quickly, compared with wide landscapes and multicharacter interiors.

Another cartoonist who speaks in the film, Jim Keefe (“Sally Forth,” “Flash Gordon”), tells The Post that the American comic-book industry has exploited work-for-hire writers and artists nearly since its birth, including talents in the ’30s who created Superman and co-created Batman. Hussey’s film notes that comic-book publishers, who held the rights to the original images, did not deem it worthwhile to pursue legal action against Lichtenstein when he began appropriating their art.

Also commenting on Lichtenstein in the film is “Watchmen” co-creator Dave Gibbons, who tells The Post: “I find that his painting rather resembles something that’s been slavishly traced without understanding, rather than taking an underdrawing and enhancing or changing it or giving different emphasis. It seems to me the linework is coarse and devalued by the somewhat limpid way in which he applies it.

“I certainly would rather look at large reproductions of the originals, because they’ve got an honesty and they have got a function in the artmaking.”

But “Zippy the Pinhead” creator Bill Griffith, who also appears in the film, thinks Lichtenstein altered the source panels enough for his pop paintings to be considered “clearly transformative.”

When Griffith first saw these paintings in 1963, while an art student in New York, he laughed and thought, “This guy is doing something to ‘fine art’ that’s pretty subversive,” he tells The Post, noting that he also liked the pop art of Warhol, Claes Oldenburg and James Rosenquist. “They represented a clear break from abstraction, and from the idea that ‘real’ art has to have European roots.”

What does bother Griffith, though, is Lichtenstein’s lack of acknowledging the source: “In some public way, he implies that comic book art is ‘found’ art, which it is not. He knew someone had originally created the comic panel he appropriated but chose to ignore that.”

“What Lichtenstein did was to ‘elevate’ popular art – the comic book – from its cheap, 10-cent origins to the world of gallery art, which is transformative, but more than a little snotty and snobby,” Griffith says, “especially if one denies or avoids referring to the source.”

(The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation has not responded to a Post request to comment on the documentary.)

Hussey likes to say it was a Heath war-story comic book he bought as a boy, while growing up in ’70s Mississippi, that helped fuel his enthusiasm for comics, reading and history. He worked in direct marketing to fundraise for Democratic presidential candidates and groups like the Sierra Club before he became an executive producer on the 2017 documentary about Oscar-winning “Rocky” director John G. Avildsen. And it was a 2014 Gizmodo i09 article – in which Heath accused Lichtenstein of copying him – that spurred Hussey to buy a used Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and, aided by his film-school son Christopher, set off on an eight-year journey to make “WHAAM! BLAM!”

Yet Hussey is also indebted to a retired art teacher named David Barsalou, who has spent more than four decades tracking down the source panels for “more than 400” Lichtenstein paintings. Barsalou maintains a Flickr account, titled “Deconstructing Roy Lichtenstein,” that surfaces the names of who he thinks are the source artists. He bought from in-person dealers and on eBay – even purchasing a second home across the street from his Massachusetts residence to store all his comic books.

“The real story is, a lot of these comic-book artists had college degrees and just happened to fall into doing something else instead of painting in a studio – they had a different passion in their lives,” Barsalou tells The Post. “It’s just a shame they didn’t get the recognition, like the case of Russ Heath. That’s really sad to me.”

Eisman says he only discovered that Lichtenstein’s 1963 “Girl in Window (Study for World’s Fair Mural)” had appropriated his panel when Barsalou contacted him about it. “I didn’t recognize it as my work because I never saw the published issue.”

Another criticism some comics creators have of Lichtenstein is that by isolating the comic panels, he stripped the source art of its original storytelling context.

“Give Lichtenstein’s source material – the comic books that inspired his paintings – the respect they deserve by reading them,” Griffith urges.

“They were originally part of a longer narrative – an art form as valid and as important as anything you’ll find in a museum.”