Little Dot: A Comic Book Pioneer of Today’s Avant-Garde Art Scene
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Boss Baby, Captain Underpants, and Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters have the most immediate name recognition among six original animated series that DreamWorks and Netflix are producing this year. But also lined up is a show that’ll star three girls from 1950s-era Harvey Comics: Little Audrey, Little Lotta, and Little Dot. And of those three, the one to watch with the most potential for spectacular, eye-popping visual effects is—of course—Dot.
If you’ve never heard of this one-time comic book celebrity, it’s because Little Dot hasn’t been getting around much anymore. She started out in 1949 as a back-up feature in kids’ comics like Richie Rich but soon earned her own title. As originally conceived by cartoonist Vic Herman, she was designed with a distinctive flair and personality. But in 1953 her appearance melded into Harvey’s house style. She was softened and rounded out, which rendered her barely distinguishable from Little Audrey and Wendy the Good Little Witch. But from a marketing angle, it was a huge success.
Like the gluttonous Little Lotta, Dot fits neatly into Harvey’s formula of one-dimensional, obsessive-compulsive personalities. The less said about the actual stories, the better, because what’s truly fascinating is that this kid is completely dot-crazy, hooked on circles. She’s constantly compelled to reconstitute her surroundings to conform to her own private fetish. And why not? She may simply be an instinctual Design Modernist, sensing the dot as infinite, supremely iconic, the purest, most perfect single form in the universe. Not to mention that her very existence is totally dependent on the CMYK/benday process. Insert a shout-out to Pop Art’s Roy Lichtenstein here.
“Little Dot, artist” is a theme that recurs frequently throughout her adventures, and is an ongoing source of graphic creativity for her illustrators. And as a one-dimensional girl in a two-dimensional world, the edges of her form will often vanish, blending into the background like one of those dapper figures in Ludwig Hohlwein and J.C. Leyendecker illustrations, or a Coles Phillips fadeaway girl.
Dot was widely famous, and occasionally Harvey’s top-seller, from the mid-1950s through the late-1960s. But her popularity began to fade in the 1970s, during a downtrend in which comics were no longer for kids that much. After then, her appearance became spotty, with her total disappearance in 1994. Since then, aside from being name-checked for a split-second in a 2002 Simpsons episode (start at 2:08 here), she’a faded from pop culture’s short collective memory. However, the concept of dots in endless, relentless repetition is alive and prospering in the form of avant-garde art’s latest superstar, Yayoi Kusama.
Richie Rich may be the world’s wealthiest poor little boy, but Yayoi Kusama is its wealthiest adult girl artist. For real. And, hardly coincidentally, her work is currently most expensive for that of a female artist. She’s been working the gallery scene since the late 1950s, and, at age 88, her productivity is currently booming. And her popularity is bigger than ever, In addition to gallery shows in New York, 2017 kicked off a five-city museum tour in Washington D.C., Seattle, and Los Angeles, and will arrive this year in Toronto and Cleveland. And these venues are reporting a tripling of traffic. The 90,000 advance tickets for her latest show at L.A.’s Broad Museum were gone within just a few hours.
Even if you don’t know Kusama by name, you’ve no doubt seen your friends’ selfies, shot in her exceptionally Instagram-friendly “Infinity Room” installations. These small, mirrored booths endlessly duplicate your image as you become surrounded by flickering bright, shiny lights and immersed in her environments of pumpkins, phalluses … and her signature polka-dot patterns.
With a strictly enforced half-minute time limit inside these small spaces, fitting one or two at a time, Kusama’s art foreshadowed social media narcissism. She makes each of her viewers reflectively world-famous for 30 seconds … but with hardly any time for actual reflection. With her own take on Andy Warhol, she’s become a master of self-promotion via branding. And, Lichtenstein-like, she does it with dots. Gazillions of dots can be spotted throughout her artworks. They’re in her paintings, sculptures, performances, everywhere. Kusama is relentless in her desire to transform the globe with dots. Sound familiar? Sure, fine artists from Bridget Riley to John Baldessari have prominently incorporated dots into their work. But wait: there’s more.
Kosama doppelganger Miriam Nakamura and a fan pose for photos next to a video of the artist at L.A.’s Broad Museum. Photo by M Dooley.
Cosplayer Miriam Nakamura gets all Odalisque in Kosama’s Obliteration Room at the Broad Museum. Photo by Joan Gallant Dooley.
By far the most popular – and enjoyable – part of Kusama’s show is at the very end. Visitors, freed from 30-second deadlines, can spend an eternity—well, at least until closing time—in the “Obliteration Room.” Here’s where you enter a domestic living/dining room space, which begins with its walls and the objects within it completely white. Then throughout the day, everyone has the pleasure and joy of sticking 1960s Pop Art-colored dots anywhere and everywhere. Gradually, the environment resembles nothing so much as an explosion in a Wonder Bread packaging factory. And as we experience the joys of transforming our surroundings like this, Kusama’s basically transforming each one of us into … Little Dot! Is it a coincidence that so many of Dot’s plots revolve around parents and other authority figures trying to stage dot interventions for her, only to find that they’ve become totally addicted to circles themselves? Hmmm…
Here’s a smattering of comic book samples for your contemplation. They were all published long before Kusama’s breakthrough 1967 Fluxus-style theater performance/happening where she completely covered mannequins and walls with polka dots. As for possible inspiration and influence between Kusama and her 4-color counterpart, feel free to connect your own dots.
Little Dot’s first issue.
The original Dot.
Dot before and after her makeover. Compare and contrast.
Little Dot’s origin story, first page.
Little Dot’s origin story, last page.
The END, dad!
An Infinity Room at the Broad Museum. Photo by Joan Gallant Dooley.
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