This week sees the opening of Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, a major new exhibition of this celebrated painter’s work. One of the stars of the show is of course the iconic Whaam!, a work from Tate’s collection which has been a popular favourite among visitors for decades. Tate first bought it back in 1966, only a few years after it was painted, at a time when American pop art was still a rare sight in British galleries.

Roy Lichtenstein, 'Whaam!' 1963
Roy Lichtenstein
Whaam! 1963
Acrylic and oil on canvas
© Estate of Roy Lichtenstein

The acquisition was controversial with both the art establishment and the public. In fact, director Norman Reid later said that Whaam! aroused more public interest than any acquisition since the Second World War. This interest brought huge numbers of people to see it in Tate’s first Lichtenstein exhibition of 1968 and many more have enjoyed seeing it at Tate Modern over the past decade.

From 21 February to 27 May this year, it will have pride of place in this new retrospective, surrounded by other eye-popping paintings drawn from comic book imagery. The exhibition also includes issue #89 of the action comic All American Men of War, in which you can find the original panel Lichtenstein adapted into Whaam!


With the Lichtenstein exhibition now firmly in the public eye, a lot has been written and said about Whaam! and its origins, but with perhaps one exception, the writers have not delved as deeply into the painting as they might, I feel, and thereby could have missed some aspects of what the artist might or might not have been trying to do.

It's well-known, and pretty obvious in comparison, that the script and the basic layout of the painting is based on a panel from the issue of All-American Men of War mentioned by Duncan Holden; however, there may be more to it than just that. For a start, Lichtenstein has changed the two aircraft involved, and I believe that the narrator's aeroplane is based on another panel from another story in another issue of the comic; I can't positively identify which issue, though I have reason to believe that it may be #90. We can be sure that Lichtenstein has seen the page in question, though, because another of his works -- "As I Opened Fire" (1964) -- is a Whaam!-like re-imagining of the line of panels immediately preceding the one from which I believe he took the image of the attacking aircraft.

The narrator's aircraft in Whaam!, despite being described as such in most descriptions I have read of late, is not a "jet fighter", and certainly not the F-86 Sabre from the panel generally said to be the inspiration for the painting; rather, it looks most like a P-51 Mustang propeller-driven fighter from WW2 and as depicted in the other panel to which I refer and in "As I Opened Fire".

By contrast, the aeroplane under attack (and exploding) was one of three Russian/North Korean MiG-15s seen in the original comic story; in Whaam!, however, it is by itself, which is reasonable enough from the artist's point of view -- less clutter -- and it is definitely not a MiG; rather, it most resembles an F-86, so one has to wonder if Lichtenstein is depicting a case of "friendly fire" either for ironic or satirical purposes. This possibility has never been mentioned in anything I have read about Whaam!, but I throw it out there for others' consideration.

In passing, I note that the use of air-to-air rockets is an anachronism for that era, but that is more likely to be the fault of the original comic writers and artists, as are other technical errors (i.e., of what is depicted rather than how they are shown) in Lichtenstein's work. He seems to have gone along with what the original art shows, thereby perpetuating the original mistakes -- but with his own unique style.