Andy Warhol’s name is forever linked to a thoroughly modern style of artistic expression, emerging at a very significant time in the history of western culture. Mechanical replication, repetition and bold, vivid colours were hallmarks of his style (and the style of other artists of the era), but Warhol was truly, emphatically post modern, and this helped to make his work among some of the most important artistic achievements of the 20th century.
The essence of post-modernism is the ability to look at “high” and “low” forms of culture with levelling eye. While American art before Warhol was deeply embedded in the intellectual European-influenced style of abstract expressionism, with its focus on revealing the tortured inner soul of the artist through a vernacular that pipe-smoking intellectuals could nod thoughtfully before, Warhol embraced Hollywood, popular magazines, grocery items and, yes, the comic books of the era and pronounced them all worthy of exploration. Even to this day, we run up against people who refuse to take some of that material (like comics art) seriously, wrapping it up in bogus terms like “graphic novels” and only giving it credence when the stories it tells are dark, personal, usually concerned with an oppressed minority and of course, black and white. Warhol would have none of that — Superman was every bit as important to his mythic and cultural landscape as Jackson Pollock, perhaps even more so. One of Warhol’s great gifts is that he gave us permission to take the thing we love seriously, and treat them as authentic signposts of our shared cultural journey.
Warhol’s experience with comics came, naturally enough, out of the pre-code and just post-code comics of the Golden Age, but his interest in stardom (as defined in thoroughly American terms) and glamour led him strongly towards superhero stories and the bright, four-colour look of the printed page. One doesn’t sense, in Warhol’s art of the 1950s and early 1960s, any particular fondness for dark EC comics, for example, but rather a celebration of comics characters like Popeye. His colour palette was well suited for the bright blues, reds and yellows of Superman, and his whole artistic style was born out of an interest in printing and replication, especially his trademark “blotted line” technique and use of projection with tracing. Dick Tracy (1960) was one of his early tracings, for example, and he would project these images onto a canvas and paint, or draw, over them. It was a telling prelude of what was to come, with his well-known masterpieces of the 1960s, an artistic era he would come to define.
In terms of comics, we realize that the things that differentiates our favourite medium from others involving visual art is that our form is sequential, and Warhol’s work isn’t sequential, exactly. Of course, his Byzantine Catholic faith (to which he remained faithful his entire life) is heavily visual, incorporating stained glass and drawn frescoes, telling the lives of saints and stories from the bible. Warhol spent many hours staring at those images as a child, and their influence on the way he made his art later in life is rather clear. But it isn’t sequential, not in the sense that he’s telling a story from start to finish, even when one reads his panels (think of his soup cans, or is Marilyn, or even his late period Chairman Mao) left-to-right, right-to-left, up-and-down or zig-zag. There isn’t an obvious story there, so in the strictest sense, as defined by Mr. Eisner, they aren’t comics. But they are certainly repeated images, arranged in a grid-like series that are meant to convey an artistic idea.
Warhol had little talent for narrative storytelling in any case. His films were almost resolutely anti-narrative, and even anti-cinematic in the early efforts, emphasizing stillness in a medium defined by its capacity to convey a moving image. Still, we refer to the art that he made using using film as “film”, therefore we can make the argument that his non-narrative series art (as opposed to sequential art) can fit under the wider umbrella of “comics”. Abstract comics, for example, are recognized by comics scholars as a part of the comics universe, even though they de-emphasize narrative and sequence.
Another aspect of Warhol’s work that seems to set it apart from comics is his lack of words. As I often quote Harvey Pekar: “comics are words and pictures”, but the question is, are they still comics without the words? Devoid of words and of sequence, it seems on the surface that Warhol’s art simply does not conform to the definition of the medium. We can have comics without words (there are many examples of this), but they still have sequence. And we can have comics without sequence, but they still need words (single-panel cartoons, for example). Taking away both the words and the sequence seem to remove Warhol from contention as a comics artist.
Yet, there’s little doubt that the world of comics, both in terms of creators and scholarship, would love to embrace Warhol and claim him as one of our own. Warhol was, and remains, such an important cultural force in the modern world that just about every medium tries to claim him, even music (for which he had no talent at all), based on his association with the Velvet Underground. (He’s credited as “producer” on the first VU album, although he probably had very little direct artistic input beyond prodding Lou Reed to work harder and write more songs.)
In fact, there is a connection between Warhol and comics, but that connection comes through culture, not form. Warhol’s 1981 painting of Superman, for example, has all of his characteristic touches, and his artistic style, patterns and themes are consistent throughout his life. Simple comic book images appealed to Warhol partially because of their form but also their ubiquity. Warhol’s eyes were on every medium, all at once, and he ruled nothing out as an inspirational topic, even once going so far as painting the one dollar bill. Before many others, he pointed to comics in the same way he pointed to Campbell’s soup cans and declared them “art”. That resolutely post-modern artistic philosophy sowed the seeds of what we at Sequart, and all of our colleagues in cultural studies, do today. It’s simply a matter of declaring that our culture, in all its aspects, is worth examining. In the early 21st century, of course, many people treat comics seriously, but many still don’t, especially those who are only familiar with superhero stories. Even if Andy Warhol wasn’t a true comics creator, he remains the godfather of our modern practice of cultural criticism, and a true inspiration to those of us who remain fascinated by how the modern world expresses itself.