- Roy Lichtenstein's Tears:Art vs. Pop in American Culture
He had one curious encounter at camp. He dropped by the chief of staff's quarters one night and found a young soldier sitting on a bunk, crying like a baby. "He said he was an artist," Novick remembered, "and he had to do menial work, like cleaning up the officers' quarters.
"It turned out to be Roy Lichtenstein. The work he showed me was rather poor and academic." Feeling sorry for the kid, Novick got on the horn and got him a better job. "Later on, one of the first things he started copying was my work. He didn't come into his own, doing things that were worthwhile, until he started doing things that were less academic than that. He was just making large copies of the cartoons I had drawn and painting them."—Irv Novick reminisces (Duin and Richardson 332)
Irv Novick's recollections of a wartime meeting with Roy Lichtenstein intersect with common assumptions about the cultural value of pop art in a number of fascinating ways. Lichtenstein, of course, is an artist who is best known for his ironic reworkings of panels taken from American comic books. Two particular comic book genres were emphasized by Lichtenstein—the war comic, with the scenes of battle that he presumably missed while doing menial work, and the romance comic, with the crying heroines who are subtly recalled above. Novick evokes both of these genres in his anecdote. A journeyman artist for DC Comics, who himself specialized in war comics, Novick suggests that Lichtenstein's wartime experiences served as an important psychological test for the artist. Furthermore, the test is one that the artist seems to have failed according to the dominant criteria of masculinity. One further intersection bears mention, however, and helps to elucidate further the importance of Novick's [End Page 249] intentions with regard to this unusual anecdote. When he began painting in a pop art style, Lichtenstein did, indeed, appropriate some of the images that Novick had created for DC in his paintings, including "Whaam!" (1963) and "Okay, Hot-Shot" (1963). Novick's story seems to be an attempt to personally diminish an artist whose own career had eclipsed, just as it drew upon, his own. While Lichtenstein the painter trumps Novick the cartoonist, on the battlefield it was Novick who was the real man. Novick's attempt to feminize Lichtenstein as crying like a baby can be read further as a feminization of the realm of pop art in relation to the world of comics. In characterizing Lichtenstein as someone who just couldn't cut it in war—and by extension in art—Novick acknowledges the fraught relationship between comic books and pop art, while attempting to gender the distinction in order to reverse the traditional valuation of the two realms.
As early as 1966, critics suggested that comic books were a legitimate "pop phenomenon" deserving respect (Benchley 169), but this view remained a minority opinion. As a source material for high art painting practices, comic books were suspect to most critics, and as a form in their own right, they were frequently dismissed outright. Harold Rosenberg summed up the distinction succinctly when he suggested that the difference between a comic strip of Mickey Mouse and a Lichtenstein painting of the same was art history, or the fact that Lichtenstein paints with the idea of the museum in mind (13–4). In a similar vein, Michael Lobel suggested that Lichtenstein's work could be understood through the functioning of two codes: the semiotic and the aesthetic. The former is a conventionalized set of rules, while the latter is the product of a unique, creating subject (Lobel 156–7). This type of distinction denied outright the possibility that the codified work of Irv Novick might also be the work of a creating subject and seemingly banished comic books forever from the realm of art. Novick's attempts to ridicule Lichtenstein and his output, therefore, should be regarded as a form of displaced hostility or outrage against the art establishment of America that relegated comics to the level of lowbrow culture, never to...