Robot 6

Butcher Billy grapples with war, and taste, in new mash-up series

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We’ve featured pop artist “Butcher Billy” Bily Mariano da Luz several times. His comic book-related mash-ups are sometimes designed just to entertain, but sometimes to raise debate. His latest series definitely belongs to the latter group: the “War Photography X Vintage Comics Project” skirts good taste in order to make the viewer ponder all kinds of questions.

Superhero comics, a genre born at a period of global chaos, have seldom shied away from apocalyptic levels of horror and violence. Consider 1941’s Human Torch #5A, wherein Namor drops a tidal wave upon New York City. My personal benchmark remains Alan Moore and John Totleben’s Miracleman #15 (as described by Tim Callahan as “a vile disgusting condemnation/celebration of superhero violence (take your pick)“), which managed to be genuinely hellish and affecting, with none of its punch lessened by being frequently ripped off and swiped from by multiple lesser talents over the years. However, things get more sensitive whenever fictional characters get superimposed into real events, such as the howls of protest over J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man #36, with its crying Doctor Doom.

Billy inserts classic superhero imagery into some of the most shocking and iconic photography ever taken. Sometimes the results resonate, sometimes they offend, sometimes they amuse, and at least one falls so flat as to be utterly banal. He describes his project as:

“The contrast between the colorful vintage superheroes and the grey shaded real world.

The visual experiment ended up bringing different results to each piece – from giving a whole new meaning to the picture by modifying the original concept, to reinforcing the same idea by making clear just how the elements were influenced by the history depicted in the photos, or even saying a lot about the psychology behind fiction and reality.

While we see the contrast between the black and white photos and the colorful vintage comic books elements, it’s interesting to notice how the superheroes and supervillains world was actually “black and white” in a metaphoric way, while the strong war scenes are established in the real world, where the grey shaded line between good and evil isn’t always clear.”

Craig Collins tweeted to Billy, “normally find your work quite interesting and entertaining Billy, but this is frankly pretty distasteful.” His response was “lately I’ve started to get this feeling of been too appreciated, it was quite uncomfortable.”  I liked that answer: It isn’t necessarily art (or the artist)’s place in the world to be in good taste. That said, it seems to me that Billy is taking some of humanity’s lowest moments, and using them just to comment upon the nature of superhero comics. See the full gallery, which includes images some readers may find offensive, on Billy Butcher’s blog.

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9 Comments

RegularSyzed Wayne

October 8, 2013 at 2:57 pm

I found his pieces showcasing war and particular super heroes who were essentially propaganda mascots during those times to be especially telling. Some of them seemed to just be randomly placed as though this juxtaposition he wrote about was only an afterthought, though.

Over all the difference between the weakness of those situations and the strength sought after in our superheroes is quite interesting and I’m glad he had the gumption to play with it, good taste be damned!

Love them except for Magneto in the Hitler shot – for all the obvious reasons for anyone who knows Magneto’s history.

RegularSyzed Wayne

October 8, 2013 at 4:25 pm

@Cliff: I thought it was interesting precisely BECAUSE of Magneto’s history.

Mark: Thanks for the usual awesome and fair words.

Cliff: Thanks for the feedback. That piece is meant to be highly ironic because I happen to find Magneto a quite paradoxical character. We all know the Malcolm X inspiration behind him, but despite all the Holocaust background Erik Lehnsher has, I can’t help in finding quite interesting how he ended up dedicating his life to be a ruler and eliminate everyone who isn’t the same race as him. As a villain he crossed the line a long time ago and turned into what he hated the most – kind of like Hannibal Lecter, who saw soldiers cannibalizing his sister when he was a boy and turns into a canibal as a grown man.

Hey Mark, Hey Billy,

I suppose just to briefly expand on what I tweeted to Billy (hardly a medium for extensive debate!)…. For my part, I recognise Billy’s right as an artist to make these images, and the place of art to challenge. I think I’ve also got the right to personally find it distasteful, and no one is challenging that, so all good.

For the work itself, I can see the many different threads and juxtapositions going on here and the Billy’s images are notable and remarkable – humanity, heroism, morality, the iconic heroes against iconic images, placing the bright, gaudy, simplistic images of an era against and amongst the dark, complex and harrowing images of the same era, and more besides. It’s certainly interesting and I think, artistically, well executed.

Personally I did find it distasteful though. Ultimately these are images of heroism or suffering, and of real people. To place these gaudy and frankly daft figures among these people, these sacrifices made or horrors endured, seems a little exploitative and disrespectful to that person, and of what the image represents, and to do well as an artist (for want of a better way of phrasing that) is to my mind, not really that cool. But that’s just my take on it.

Nonetheless, Billy is a talented guy, and I do look forward to what you produce next . Cheers all.

@Butcher Billy, what you identified, the seeming cognitive dissonance of Magneto, is precisely the logic of Israel–according to some. A historically oppressed people form their own nation and persecute the Other. The narcissism of minimal difference.

RegularSyzed Wayne

October 9, 2013 at 9:08 am

@Craig: I see where you’re coming from and don’t disagree. I wouldn’t put these up in my living room but I appreciate what they’re getting at.

To me, the offensive part of these images is that they happened in real life to be photographed; Vietnam in particular. That we used colorful comic books as propaganda to promote our involvement in such atrocities (mainly WWII) is what I think is on trial in these pieces. America is great at turning horrible realities into simplistic, colorful cartoons that evoke strength and bravery to whitewash the truth behind what’s happening. The reflex to find something offensive because it uncovers this truth is also a great American reflex.

RegularSyzed Wayne

October 9, 2013 at 9:12 am

…not that I’m saying you’re afraid of the truth or anything, Craig, just that I find the response to these pieces to be part of the experience of the overall project for that reason. I’m sure you’re very reasonable!

Of course, it’s important to remember that fanboys objected to the Doom crying over 9/11 scene, not because it cheapened 9/11, but because it made Doom look like a wimp. Priorities.

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