Someone used the word “camp” in a novel I just read. The novel is The President’s Daughter, by Mariah Stewart. It’s an irresistible thriller, full of intrigue relating to Washington, DC in the 1970s. But the word “camp” became fashionable in the 1960s, and then quickly faded away. It’s strange to see it used in this novel without any definition, because “camp” is not understandable by context. No one uses that word anymore in public discourse, whereas it was all over the place back then. Susan Sontag, the famous French intellectual, invented it as an ironic term to describe things that are fashionable because they are absurd. The Urban Dictionary provides some interesting slices of meaning that might argue with my definition, and suggests that the term now has been co-opted as referring to gayness. But I was there, and I remember everyone flinging that term around. Comic books were high camp in the 1960s—so bad they were good. For the very first time, popular culture—that which was supposedly bland and meaningless—assumed serious artistic significance.
That’s why Andy Warhol did his famous soup can, although there was a good deal of artistic blather that accompanied it. And that’s why his fellow traveler, Roy Lichtenstein, got rich and famous by taking outright swipes of DC Comics romance comics panels and turning them into paintings, even including the dot pattern that was the printing method of achieving color in a comic book. To the casual viewer, comic art is bland and featureless, one crude drawing style indistinguishable from another. But to anybody who pays real attention, it is clear that every artist leaves his or her signature indelibly on the work. Even today, I found an Internet site that blatantly swipes the art style of Johnny Romita and is selling a poster by someone who probably scanned a panel and then just recolored it. The girl even has Mary Jane Watson’s hairdo.(That’s Mrs. Spider-Man to you.) Compare a comic book cover Johnny drew years before, for Girls’ Romances #95, and you can see how the eyes are drawn exactly the same, even to the tears dripping out of them. Johnny is the true artist of both pieces. But someone casually looking at comics might not realize how distinctive the creator’s styles are. Someone who thinks they are merely camp, amusing and basically worthless, who imagines that no effort went into their creation.
It has always bothered me tremendously that Roy Lichtenstein made a career out of swiping romance comic panels. Camp translated into dollars and sense, and much fame, and yet the true creators of the images are not credited. Deliciously, David Barsalou has gone to the effort of tracking down every single comic page that Lichtenstein swiped from, and presents them side by side on his site. Thanks, David. We needed this truth to be displayed to the world.
So perhaps we ought to add another definition for camp to the Urban Dictionary: blatant theft of images for commercial purposes. This brings up the sticky question of the images I cull from various sources and present to you. Many of them are under copyright and their creators retain the rights to them. This blog, being a mere commentary on the world, is not a commercial enterprise. Even though it appears inside one, the MyRomanceStory.com site. This blog is a fan site. It sells nothing. I hope to keep it amusing and informative. But I’ll leave the swiping in the name of high art and in the spirit of low commerce to others.