Drowning Girl (1963) is one of the most famous paintings of American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. It was based on the cover of the 1962 comic book Run for Love by DC Comics. Lichtenstein significantly altered the original illustration, which shows the girl drowning in the foreground with her boyfriend in the background clinging to an overturned boat. The narrative text in the illustration presents a melodramatic love story: the girl is drowning because of a leg cramp, but she is so grief-stricken that she decides to drown instead of calling out to her boyfriend for help.
Lichtenstein cropped the image to show only the drowning girl surrounded by a threatening wave. By focusing on the girl’s anguished expression, he heightened the dramatic quality of the image. The artist also altered the text in the thought bubble in two ways: changing the line ‘I don’t care if I have a cramp!” to “I don’t care!” and changing the boyfriend's name from Mal to Brad. Lichtenstein found the name Brad more ‘heroic’, reassuring the viewer that the girl will ultimately be saved. Despite these changes, Lichtenstein still preserves the essential narrative of the love comics: a handsome boy and beautiful girl fall in love and a complication arises that threatens their relationship. The heroine is briefly heart-broken and distraught but ultimately gets her happy ending. Lichtenstein captures this sentiment of anguish by focusing on the girl and her emotional reaction. By playing up the melodramatic qualities of the story and the exaggerated behavior of the heroine, Lichtenstein injected irony and humor into the painting.
In terms of style, Lichtenstein mimicked the mass-produced image, by accentuating the thick black outlines and the contrasting colors. He painted the ink dots of the Ben-Day printing process used in the production of inexpensive comic books and magazines. Like in the mechanically produced illustration, the dots in the painting give the illusion of shading, which is visible in the red spots on the girl’s skin and lips, and the grayish tones of the water. In this way, the painting conflates between the mechanical printing process and the traditional technique of oil painting, and between the mass-produced image in the comic book and the unique artwork.
Like Drowning girl, many of Lichtenstein’s early paintings were based on imagery found in cartoons and comic books. He found the style of comic books and cartoons appealing because it allowed him to depict emotionally charged, dramatic subject matters, like love and war, in a detached and calculated manner. Lichtenstein’s art created a dialogue between fine art and popular imagery. In the case of Drowning girl, he stated that the woodblock print, The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831) by the Japanese artist Hokusai was one of the inspirations for the stylized waves. Hokusai’s prints were a form of the popular art of its era in Japan. Their status in the West was elevated in part because of the influence of Japanese prints on Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters. Through this reference, Lichtenstein reveals how easy it is to bridge between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Paintings like Drowning girl continue this fusion by merging mainstream popular culture (cartoons and comic books) with high art.