When illustrator Dyna Moe created a Christmas card for her friend, actor Rich Sommer, to give to the cast and crew of AMC’s Mad Men in 2007, she had no idea that the simple illustration would propel her to graphic superstardom.
Over the next three years, Moe’s Mad Men-inspired illustrations took on a life of their own. Show creator Matthew Weiner commissioned Moe to create two calendars using his show’s characters and settings, while AMC launched the hit interactive feature Mad Men Yourself, which used Moe’s illustrations to allow viewers to create period avatars.
"The era the show is set in is the ultimate inspiration," said Moe, "to contrast the grim, desperation-ridden storylines against the very cheerful, innocent art style that was being used to sell soap flakes, shelled walnuts, and cigarettes."
Last week, Moe’s book, Mad Men: The Illustrated World, a cheeky collection of writings and illustrations set within the 1960s advertising world of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, sold out on Amazon.com the day it was released.
"I am flattered people have taken to what was basically a fuck-around project when I didn’t have any paid work," Moe said. "I wish our economy evolved so that Internet [page]views could be cashed in like Marlboro Miles. I’d be lousy with kayaks."
The success of Moe and her contemporaries points towards a major shift in pop culture-influenced works.
Previously, fan art was relegated to amateur sketches of characters more appropriate for decorating office cubicles, but now talented graphic designers and illustrators are using such shows as Mad Men, Lost, Arrested Development, and Law & Order for inspiration in a more sophisticated medium. Specific characters and underlying themes of shows have reached a turning point, becoming original pieces of art in their own rights.
Brandon Bird has twice organized group shows based on NBC’s Law & Order franchise, while designer El Lohse offers works of art celebrating Arrested Development, 30 Rock, The Golden Girls, and Anne of Green Gables for sale on etsy.com.
Graphic designer Ty Mattson, who has worked on projects for Apple, Coke, and Hasbro, came to prominence with his series of eye-catching limited edition prints inspired by Lost. The producers were so taken with his work that ABC made the prints available for sale on their website.
"I wanted to create something minimal and more abstract than a lot of the fan art that was being created," said Mattson. "The show had a complex mythology and narrative structure. I wanted to respond to that with simple graphics, but still keep it smart."
Mattson last week unveiled a series of prints tied to Showtime’s Dexter, with the prints capturing storylines from each of the four seasons.
Gallery: Art Based on TV Shows
"What I really like about Dexter is the colorful counter-balance to the fact that he is a serial killer— the semi-surreal environment of Miami, or that he bounces around in purple shirts and white pants, the bowling league, and Rita," said Mattson. "A lot of the merchandise and the branding for Dexter focuses on the gruesome nature of the show, but I wanted to create something that felt more like a vintage Miami vacation brochure."
All of which points to the way in which artists are infusing their own original pieces with television shows'themes, atmospheres, and tonal balances. Moe’s work embodies the dichotomy of 1960s—the swinging times with the aura of sadness—while Mattson’s Lost prints capture the mythology and dread of the series, as well as episode-specific imagery.
Television appears to be provoking a new variation on pop art, substituting Betty Draper and smoke monsters for Campbell’s Soup cans and comic strips, while artists leverage social media to sate the public’s hunger to own an offbeat piece of these shows.
"What I think is interesting right now is this kind of inspiration feedback loop that you have with the internet and social media," Mattson said. "A viewer can watch a show by him or herself, but maybe they are inspired to talk about it or learn more about it or create art in response to it. The technology is there to easily find other people and to immediately share those experiences… The show serves as a touchstone for all of these vibrant expressions."
Moe had a different take on the phenomenon.
"Television is a medium of intimacy," she said. "The people on it are small and in your living room and you see them every week (or 5-6 times a day if you're talking about Law & Order). If more people are making art out of TV characters, I suppose it speaks to alienation, isolation and substituting fake TV friends for real people to draw pictures of. Real people are overrated."
Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.