Comic Books And Contemporary Art

Comic Books And Contemporary Art

Graphic images and bold stories made comic books a cornerstone of pop culture. But they also changed the course of contemporary art.

Their storylines dominate the box office and streaming services, but movies aren’t the only thing to feel the impact of comic books. Since they became mainstream favorites at the beginning of the 20th century, comic books have also had a surprising (and enduring) influence on contemporary fine art.

Comic books widened their reach considerably in the post-World War II boom years of the 1950s. Their low prices coupled with easy portability and patriotic themes (this period gave birth to Captain America!) made them popular with soldiers who continued reading them upon returning home. With characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman firmly cemented as cultural icons, a new generation of contemporary artists was inspired to use the flatness and characteristic style of the mass medium in their art.

The most influential among them was artist Roy Lichtenstein. Much to the chagrin of dedicated comic book artists who felt he appropriated their work, Lichtenstein adopted a highly two-dimensional look and mimicked the dotted printing technique used to render comic book panels.

Comic books also proved to be a rich resource for artists who were interested in their iconography as much as their style. Andy Warhol, who always liked to play with mass-produced imagery, featured superheroes in several screen printings. So did Jean-Michel Basquiat, who included everyone from Batman to The Flash in various paintings. The approaches and execution of Lichtenstein, Warhol and Basquiat were entirely different, but they relied on the same potent visual language of strong lines and graphic colors, which originated in comic books.

The blending of what was considered by many to be “high” and “low” culture was controversial at the time, but that was the point. Comic books offered a popularly understood framework for visual storytelling that artists could leverage to explore complex issues. Their legacy remains alive and well today in some of the most influential contemporary artists, such as Kerry James Marshall. In his Rythm Mastr series, Marshall explicitly uses comic book style and structure to explore pressing political issues, such as those surrounding Black identity in the US.