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Comic books and fine art – contemporary artists creating connections

The boundaries between fine art, cartoons, illustration and design have been debated as long as these terms have existed! From contemporary cartoons adorning a Botticelli exhibition at Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum or the graphic novel commissioned to celebrate the legendary street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s life – curators love to explore this complex interplay.

For artists and the art-loving public today, pop cultural interests are more prevalent than ever. With the increasing democratisation and accessibility of fine art, it’s a trend that’s particularly representative of our times.

To explore this exciting crossover, we’re taking a look at contemporary artists creating connections between the world of comic books, pop culture and fine art...

Comic art: a brief introduction

Comics and the fine art world have always had a complex, interlinked relationship. Whilst the history of word-picture combinations harks back to ancient Egypt at least, what we now refer to as “comics” began at the turn of the century in the USA. They were initially part of Sunday newspaper supplements but became so popular publishers released “comic books” full of original content.

By the mid-20th century, the sensational success of comic books prompted public outcry and links between these visual graphics and juvenile delinquency. This led to the Comics Code Authority’s inception in 1954 – an organisation designed to enforce rules about acceptable content.

By the 1960s, comics were firmly part of the countercultural rebellion. Creators revelled in subverting social expectations and making hard-hitting political points (with early artists including Gilbert Shelton, Jay Lynch and R. Crumb). It played a part in the development of the New York street art aesthetic, characterised by pioneering artists such as Keith Haring’s bold lines, vivid colours and dynamic figures.

Keith Haring, “Best Buddies” (1989)

As the 1980s progressed, comic artists such as Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman created ground-breaking publications such as RAW (serving as an aesthetic and intellectual contrast to earlier works such as Robert Crumb’s Weirdo). This in turn gave way to increasingly more experimental and complex formats, exemplified by the likes of Jerry Moriarty (a self-described “paintoonist”) and Gary Panter (illustrator, set-designer, writer – and close friend of Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons).

Comic book collectors

Today, comic book art continues to challenge traditional notions of ownership and even what art is. Large publishers such as Marvel separately credit artists, colourists, inkers and editors, making “traditional” artist-based collection difficult. Despite this, with the ever increasing popularity of comic books, there’s increased interest from fine art collectors.

An iconic cover of Amazing Spiderman #328 (where the eponymous hero is pitted against the Hulk), sold for over $650,000 back in 2012. Art by legendary illustrators such as Alex Ross are also incredibly sought after, with individual framed prints (for instance of Superman: Man of Tomorrow) selling for £700 or more.

More recently, a copy of the 1962 comic Amazing Fantasy (where Peter Parker and his alter ego Spiderman first appeared) was sold for over $3.6 million dollars. For anyone looking for slightly more affordable options, popular covers (such as The Incredible Hulk #110 – World War Hulk or Marvel Star Wars #23 – Flight into Fury, for sale with the Artmarket Gallery!) fetch between £1,000 and £6,000.

Marvel Star Wars #23 - Flight Into Fury (1979)

Relatedly, the striking visual excitements of the Star Wars comics and films are explored to profound effect by the king of cool, JJ Adams. In works such as Your Worshipfulness and Scoundrel, film stars are given contemporary makeovers complete with full sleeve tattoos referencing original comic artwork.

 JJ Adams, “Your Worshipfulness” (2021)

Artistic appropriation?

Since their very inception, the famous characters, striking visual style and narrative structure of comic books has fascinated artists. It most notably inspired early Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

In 1961, Roy Lichtenstein created Look Mickey (1961), prompting contemporary accusations of an “affront” to fine art. Taking a scene from the Disney children’s book Donald Duck: Lost and Found, he subtly changed the original image by rotating the point of view and simplifying the colouring. The ink dots of Donald’s eyes and Mickey’s face directly referenced the Ben-Day printing process used to create the era’s mass-produced comic books and magazines.

These Disney characters have continued to fascinate artists into the present day. To give just one example, Damien Hirst’s Minnie (Pink Glitter) and Mickey (Blue Glitter), similarly play on simplified versions of these iconic pop cultural characters.

Damien Hirst, “Minnie (Pink Glitter)” (2016)

Some commentators critiqued Pop artists for focusing too much on the look of comics, rather than issues of narrative function, sequencing and characterisation. This led to accusations of artistic appropriation and questions of how the two genres could ever collaborate and coexist in a mutually beneficial manner.

Novel approaches?

From the fine art perspective, MoMA’s assistant curator of drawings insists “if you’re going to talk about a traditional notion of what it means to draw… you have to look at comics”. In line with this, contemporary artists are employing original approaches and investigations into the characteristics of comic book art. Relatedly, comic book artists are increasingly emerging in their own right – assisted by trends for the “democratisation” of the art world with NFTs and cryptocurrencies revolutionising art collecting.

Outside of comic books themselves, interest in pop culture themed artwork has massively increased over the past few years. Artists dealing with comic book superheroes as well as pop cultural figures are incredibly sought-after. Craig Davison is perhaps the best example of this approach. From Wacky Races to Captain America, Gotham Girl, Teela, Boba Fett and Akira – this fun-loving artist has taken inspiration from just about every cartoon, film and comic book you can think of!

Craig Davison, “Twin Ceramic Rotor Drives On Each Wheel” (2021)

With a less direct approach, artists such as David Hockney have also responded to commercial posters and sequential comic books. In recent works such as Remember That You Cannot Look at the Sun or Death for Very Long, the influence of comic books (split into clearly defined frames, referencing narrative structure) can clearly be seen. Even in earlier works such as the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics Poster, vibrant primary colours in clearly defined rectangular frames are used to particularly striking effect.

The Artmarket Gallery are proud to represent some of the most exciting contemporary artists creating connections and exploring pop cultural inspirations. From Craig Davison to Keith Haring, JJ Adams and Damien Hirst – explore our complete list of artists and their amazing creations.