Friday, October 30, 2009

Monster Mash-ups

In my last post I started a little exploration of "appropriation" (to use the art world term) in art comics on the theory that work made in such a spirit falls closer to a conceptualist tradition than, say, a lot of the sturm and drang we see in currently fashionable art comics circles. To start with, I focused on "stylistic appropriation" such as Robert Sikoryak's work in Masterpiece Comics. This time, I'm going to grasp a thornier nettle - flat out swipes, or what we might call "collage narratives".

I say thornier because, whereas stylistic appropriation has a long and honorable history in comics in the form of parody (see Mad magazine and many others), full fledged image (or text) appropriation is much less common. Unlike the contemporary art scene, where it's a longstanding and uncontroversial mainstream practice, appropriation in comics is mostly seen in moralistic terms, as something sneaky and dishonest - check out this long-running thread on the Comics Journal website dedicated to discussing (and exposing) the practice.

We're all familiar with the use of appropriated comics images to make fine art (Warhol, Lichtenstein, Richard Hamilton's seminal collage Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, so Appealing? with its Kirby romance comic swipe - see above) but I'd like to turn that around and look instead at the use of appropriated images to make comics, as narratives. I'll muddy the water, though, by starting with a couple of examples that straddle the line between art and comics but are generally considered in the context of art.

First, there's surrealist Max Ernst's collage novel Une Semaine de Bonté from 1934. Ernst cut up Victorian illustrations to create this (quasi) narrative which has had a tremendous, albeit underground influence in contemporary art.

Next, there's the use of comics in Situationist art, mostly from the 1960's and 70's, in a practice termed "détournement" where comics panels and other imagery were recontextualized (often with new texts superimposed on the old word balloons) to make fractured "comics" stories. This example is from Le Retour de la Colonne Durutti by Andre Bertrand from 1966.

Next, here's the only example I can think of where a comics artist regulary employed appropriation, at least in his early work: Chester Brown, who used to redraw found comics panels and use them as (typically absurdist) points of departure in his own stories. If you know of others, please add a comment...

(Above, an example of Chester Brown's narrative collage and his description of the process involved)

And finally, here's an example of an entire comic book (inspired by Brown's example) which was created by collaging found comics panels together to make a new story. Although it was created in a fine art context (it was funded by an experimental art gallery) it was distributed through the "direct market" network of comics shops back in 1993. I won't mention the artist except to say that he's Canadian and sort of old.

(above: a page from Captain Adam and the collaged panels it was based on)


Paul Dwyer was kind enough to comment with some terrific additional examples (see his comment below for links), including Jess's highly influential Tricky Cad:

Dan Walsh's brilliantly minimal Garfield Minus Garfield:

David Malki !'s (that's how he spells it) Wondermark (which I was completely unfamiliar with, betraying my lamentable ignorance of most webcomics):

And of course Paul's own terrific collage narratives, such as The Beginning (which we published recently at


  1. Two examples of "swipe" appropriation from webcomics are Garfield Minus Garfield by Dan Walsh and Wondermark by David Malki. Wondermark makes use of Victorian illustrations (like Une Semaine de Bonté) for pop culture-aware and situational humor. Garfield Minus Garfield uses altered Garfield strips that remove the title character, creating an absurd comedy about the lonely and surreal life of Jon Arbuckle. Both are consistently funny and well executed.

    Probably the best example of art world appropriation of comics as comics (as opposed to the Lichtensteinian non-narrative use of comics) is Jess Collins' Tricky Cad. Collins cut up the images and text of Dick Tracy strips to create surreal collage comics. Collins effectively pays homage to the aesthetic beauty of Chester Gould's art, while subverting the underlying politics of the strip.

    I make frequent use of appropriated material in my own comics, as Kevin knows (he ran a comic I did using stills from movies at the Blurred Books site a little while back and will be running some comics I did using old superhero comics in the near future). I enjoy appropriation in all the arts (Duchamp, Joseph Cornell, sample based music, et al.) and would love to see the technique more readily applied in comics.

  2. Thanks for those excellent examples, Paul - I just added them to the post, above.

    I'm curious as to how you feel about your own work - do you see it in an "art world" context or an "art comics" context, or both (or neither)?

  3. I don't know if I would make a great distinction between the two when it comes to my own work. It could be either or neither. I will say my approach to making comics is informed by ideas and influences from art and artists outside of comics to a greater degree than I think most of the artists making what are generally called art comics. There is a lot of potentially fertile, untrodden ground that can be explored in comics by applying ideas and methodologies that are more often used in other art forms, whether it's appropriation, abstraction (whether image, text or narrative), the use of non-cartooning elements (digital art, photography, et al.), or any number of other approaches. I'm thankful that blogs like this one, and publications like Abstract Comics, are opening up minds and avenues in the direction of developing the form.

  4. I think that "non-cartooning elements" as you say are in particular need of more discussion, both because they represent a real sore spot in the comics community and because digital imaging is making them easier and easier to use. The subject for another post I think!

  5. I think these would fit as well:

    Art Spiegelman's "Malpractice Suite"

    Shane Simmons' "Money Talks"

    Joshua Hale Fialkov and Kody Chamberlain's "Punks: The Comic"

  6. Thanks, Aaron - excellent examples, I'm going to made a quick post for them.

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  8. Hey

    Nice summary, Kev -- I'd throw Oyvind Fahlstrom in the mix for his MAD, Batman and Krazy Kat appropriations

    Weirdly, I can't find an image of his KK pieces online -- they were interactive deconstructions with movable image fragments printed on magnets or something.

    This is a subject very close to my heart. Or brain. Or something. I've been doing these collage comix since I was 11, and if you think Capt Eelbegone's a rough haul, try Flash Fudd on for size:

    I'd be interested in being in contact with other artists working in a related vein, with the thought of compiling an anthology.