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These Strobing GIFs Are the Pop Art Answer to Psychedelic Comics

Dave Bell unwraps the "broken magic" of his psychedelic, underground comic-style GIFs.
Image: Dave Bell

GIF artist Dave Bell says that when he studied Mixed Media Fine Art at the University of Westminster in England, he was “force-fed so much 'pop [art]'" that it gave him the hiccups. This education inadvertently scrambled his brain, re-programmeing his art in the process.

Now, Bell is subverting his years of pop art brainwashing with a series of GIFs that resemble R. Crumb and other underground comic artists. Where their art sits in stillness upon the page, Bell uses the GIF's rhythmic looping, tuning it until his digital illustrations' dayglo colors attack the mind with a strobe-like effect. It's either mesmerizing or vomit-inducing, depending on your visual disposition.


Like many digital natives, Bell got into GIFs because they happened to be around more than anything. The format existed, and he played around with it. But his fascination with GIFs really began because he didn't want to settle on certain colors for his pieces. Bell wanted his GIF artwork to "be all colors at once."

Le Triomphe de Galatee. Image: Dave Bell 

“In early attempts, the colors would either merge into a putrid yellowy grey or they would change so fast that they made you feel sick,” he said. “So I slowed them down a little bit, and now they only make you feel slightly sick.”

Bell's style apparently lay dormant in him. He said the problem was that Warhol didn't turn “The Machine” [of pop art] off when he died. So, art instructors, in his opinion, didn't have to actually teach much.

“They just had to show pictures of soup cans and drink coffee,” he said, as though the Warholian imagery influenced his mind with subliminal messaging. “So, I guess my style is pop covered in sick.”

Apart from pop art, Bell said that he loves R. Crumb, who helped create the 60s underground comics movement with Zap Comix. He also reads a lot of other old underground comics when obtaining them isn't too pricey.

The Ultimate Mickeyes Brain-Pain Collection. Image: Dave Bell

One GIF, "Plop," Bell describes as his masterpiece. Here he tunes the GIF's rhythm until it resembles the iridescent qualities of a hologram. What could be used to create something incredibly beautiful, Bell instead puts at the disposal of pure toilet humor. In it, an imaginary animal is being shit on by an ass suspended in the air.

Another GIF, "The Ultimate Mickeyes Brain-Pain Collection" has a magic mushroom feel. Bell reimagines Mickey Mouse as a depraved, drugged-out or demonic creature with three eyes and a snake tongue. Elsewhere, Bell transforms The Simpsons into a series of dark, acid casualty GIFs in The Grimmsons. And he lets Captain Hook have vengeance on Peter Pan in "Hook's Revenge," where Peter stares in tripped-out fashion at a wrist spouting a fountain of hallucinatory blood.


Bell said that when he started making GIF art, there weren't really any artworks from which to draw inspiration. Now, with Tumblr's vibrant GIF community, he's found a real "hot bed" for the format, and creativity in general.

"GIFs are becoming this whole new Digital/New Media Art form," Bell said. "I love its accessibility, where everyone can see them with modern tech that everyone either has at home or in their pocket. I could just text a GIF to my friends right now, so it doesn't get more accessible than that."

Plop. GIF: Dave Bell

In discussing his GIF-making process, Bell said that his creations come into existence in one of two ways. He either uses pen and ink for illustrations, then scans his work onto a computer and edits from there, or he draws straight onto his Wacom tablet in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.  When not making GIFs, Bell creates pattern designs via drawing, photography, and digital manipulation. He constantly reworks pieces with the goal of making each work glitchy to the point that its constituent parts merge in interesting ways. Pieces are rarely deleted, and constantly archived. Some of these pattern designs eventually make their way into Bell's GIF art.

"As for the glitchy, psychedelic, near seizure-inducing flickers … it could be magic, or maybe its because my computer is broken," he added. "Let's just say it's 'Broken Magic.'"

Whatever original recipe lies behind Bell's GIFs is secondary to the effect. You get the feeling that Bell is only just scratching the surface of what could turn out to be a new type of storytelling: the GIF wielded as self-contained micro-comics that also happen to replicate parts of the psychedelic experience.

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