Swipe Right: How Artists Borrow and Steal

Swipe Right: How Artists Borrow and Steal

The act of creation doesn’t occur in a vacuum and is, in fact, nearly always predicated on what came before. It’s a badly kept secret that artists use the work of others as raw material in the creation of new works. The story of comics in the 20th is also a story of swiping, known as “appropriation” in contemporary art, and “sampling” in music.

While the practice of using the works of others as a starting point has legal and ethical dimensions that should be acknowledged, these boundaries are also tied to capitalism , therefore inviting additional review. However, since this essay is a guide for using digital tools to make cool crap – and NOT a graduate class on Cultural Marxism – you should explore the eye-opening issues surrounding Capitalism and draconian American copyright law on your own. You can start that particular journey down a rabbit hole by looking up what is known as the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act of 1976.” It’s also worth looking at Creative Commons, an alternate copyright scheme.

Creative Commons logo

Collage in Art Making

While now pervasive, the technique of collage in art making is remarkably only a little over one hundred years old. Accelerated by the digital revolution, the concept of collage has entered the mainstream. Case in point, the verb “photoshopped” has slid into common parlance. The idea of collage in art making was just a twinkle in Pablo Picasso’s eye in 1912. Having said that, it was probably Georges Braque who introduced the idea to Picasso, but Braque is not a household name – probably because Picasso swiped the idea of gluing things to canvas from him. Regardless of who’s on first, the practice really accelerated when it was adopted in the early 1920s by Surrealists such as Max Ernst.

Max Ernst, Une Semaine de bonté ou les sept éléments capitaux (A Week of Kindness or the Seven Deadly Elements)1933–1934, published 1934

Swipe Files

Separate, but related, was the practice of 20th century cartoonists and commercial artists of developing “swipe files” or “morgues.” These are collections of newspaper clippings of images of all sorts and typically organized by subject. Artists would use these images as reference material in making their drawings.

In terms of propriety and brazenness, think of collage as grand theft auto – big and obvious, where swiping is more like tax fraud – much less flashy. On the other hand, artists tend to applaud collage as an arts practice, while swiping is often met with a stiff, parochial attitude. Some consider swiping as homage, others see it as theft and an affront.

Art Modification for Good and Evil

Speaking of crime, this might be a good moment to pause and reflect on the political dimensions of image manipulation and authorship. A prime example is how Stalin had enemies airbrushed out of photographs. Art and comics have nothing on Stalin’s use of image manipulation and collage. At his instruction, thousands of people were wiped from the public record and history. What’s a swiped composition compared to the Great Purge of 1937? Here is Stalin both with and without Nikolai Yezhov.

Stalin before and after airbrushing enemy out of photo

This isn’t the only political instance of perverting or redirecting images. In the 1960s, the Situationists International employed swiping and collage techniques to modify comics to critique the French Government. Called “détournement,” (translated as hi-jacking) this practice grew to prominence in the 70s and 80s as “Culture Jamming,” and it persists to this day.

You might be familiar with the modification of commercial billboards in the dark of night to reverse or modify their messages. In late 2020, in Houston, a 40’ x 60’ Donald Trump billboard was modified to read “Take Trump to Prison.” The Situationists and Culture Jamming fill books – big books. Do a little independent research and you’ll find lots of awesome thiefy goodness.

Billboard modification of Donald Trump billboard

Famous appropriators such as Lichtenstein and Warhol became wealthy by redeploying the work of others. Paintings by the crème de la crème among Pop Artists hold record auction numbers. Of course, with the high seat that history affords us, it turns out that these appropriators weren’t even first to have the idea to manipulate comics for art’s sake.

California artist, Jess Collins was cutting apart Dick Tracy newspaper strips for his automatic collage works well before the idea occurred to the Pop Artists that they should, well, steal their compositions from the comics.

Detail from “Tricky Cad” by Jess Collins, collage from Dick Tracy comics, 1959

Detail from “Tricky Cad” by Jess Collins, collage from Dick Tracy comics, 1959

Bypassing, for a moment, the 1970s, we should stop to admire the pre-photoshop work of Stefano Tamburini. His 1980s comic, SNAKE AGENT, appearing in Frigidaire Magazine, was made from art swiped from Secret Agent X-9, a newspaper comic strip. Tamburini took his cues from the Situationists before him and manipulated the panels from the old comic.

Unique to Tamburini was the way he used the Xerox machine as a tool in the creation of his bizarre flowing images. He made these pieces by moving the art on the copy machine as copying was in progress. A highly influential artist, he died too young.

Snake Agent comic strip panel by Stefano Tamburini

As I said before, the practice of detournement or “culture jamming” continues today. Look no further than to your favorite meme. Want to go deeper? Comics are there! Think of the more profound manipulation at work in Garfield minus Garfield, or the Dysfunctional Family Circus, just to name two.

Garfield minus Garfield example of detournement

The Rise of Zines

Moving back to the 1970s, the sudden proliferation of Xerox machines opened a new avenue of expression for artists. Instead of spending thousands of dollars to print their own comic books, the modest office copier allowed more artists than ever before to create their own publications. Coinciding with the Punk and DIY (do-it-yourself) cultures, zines (short for “magazines”) became pervasive.

As always, it’s handy to review original source material than it is to try to remember how something looked. Fortunately for us, there are numerous institutions who are creating zine archives. There are all sorts of online collections – if you have a favorite source, please leave it in the comments below. In the meantime, before you start, get some inspiration from the University of Miami online collection of zines.

Starting with vector-based artwork,  and working within Photoshop and the RetroSupply tool kit of brushes, actions, and textures, we’re recreating a collage aesthetic originating in the 70s. Compared to zines of yesteryear, images today are simply too clean. In order to capture that DIY flavor, we need to deploy grit and grime. We need to fold, spindle and mutilate!

Fortunately, RetroSupply has got our back. In collage, as with drawing in general, we’re going to pay a lot of attention to edges and angles. Here compare the vector artwork with the same artwork simply placed in the RetroSupply Hate Machine. It’s stupidly easy, and ugly terrific.

Doom Scroll 1970s collage aesthetic

How to Make Zines Digitally (If You Must)

There isn’t any secret trick to making our comic zines. We simply develop our work in several steps. The first thing is to think of our destination. If we want to print our zine, then we’ll work at 300 dpi and at our desired print size – keeping in mind that most printers have a small, inbuilt margin. That means we’ll need to plan to cut the works down – or put up with the annoying white margin around our work.

Next, make or gather images, bearing in mind issues of copyright in the construction, unless you’re made of money. We also need to keep in mind how a 1970s Xerox machine would change our art. This is where we consult the online zine archive resources.

You’ll notice that there isn’t a wide tonal range to these Xeroxes. RetroSupply has a shortcut for us – The aptly named Photocopy Hate Machine contains a smart photoshop file that will instantly transform your art, once it’s assembled.

PhotoCopy Hate Machine

How do you get authentic photocopy textures?Just bribe the photocopy guy to mess with the settings and toner! Get truly authentic photocopy texture brushes, templates, and more. Our cheap bribes are your gain!

To that end, select, copy and paste your composition elements, paying attention to the edges. You’ll want to avoid precision. It was a simpler time. You had to use scissors and glue to assemble your art before your jerk of a supervisor got back from lunch! So, yeah, make it sloppy. RetroSupply has a small set of torn paper brushes that we can use to make our work edgy, pun intended. Depending on what you’re making, you could run different parts through the Hate Machine separately and then assemble them. If you do that, try using some drop shadow on the various layers to give it a dimensional quality. Adjust as necessary to suit your tastes.

Doom Scroll 1970s collage aesthetic

Final Thoughts

Regardless of the results, you can’t have too much dirt. Copy machines were filthy, generally, with grime and scratches on the scanning bed and damage to the toner drum. Zines and artworks were often folded and folded again. RetroSupply’s Edge and Fold Distressor Brushes are a virtual mosh-pit for your art to add that final that “I bought it at a punk show” flavor.

Having lived through that era (barely), I’m an authority on finding folded and wadded zines in my pockets the next morning. Follow these simple steps and you’ll be so pleased with the results that you’ll need to resist the urge to buy Doc Martins and get a Mohawk haircut.

About the Author

Christopher Sperandio is an artist, writer and university professor. In 2015, he founded the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop at Rice University, where he teaches art and comics.

Pinko Joe, Sperandio’s first graphic novel, was published by Argle Bargle Books in 2020 and called “laugh out loud hilarious” by Broken Pencil Magazine. Volume two of this series will appear in 2021 via arglebarglebooks.com. Follow Sperandio on Instagram, Twitter, or visit his website.