A Different Kind Of Currency Manipulator

Who would have thought Andrew Jackson could make such a fine Wonder Woman? Certainly not I – at least not until I saw Aslan Malik's “Justice League,” a series of illustrations that received online virality after Malik posted them on his website. The artist takes U.S. banknotes and turns the founding fathers into DC superheroes: Alexander Hamilton becomes Batman; Abe Lincoln the Flash.

In good we trust: Andrew Jackson as Wonder Woman. Image courtesy of the artist.

But “Justice League” is more playful than subversive. Yet things get more complicated with the companion piece, which takes the same approach but uses North Korean currency and DC supervillains. The news from North Korea brings talk of nuclear tests one minute, while the next we hear about state visits from Dennis Rodman and Vice. “Injustice League” seems the perfect analog for a country so isolated that we can only conceive of it in cartoon terms.

Malik was born in Germany but recently relocated to New York, where he was gracious enough to welcome us into his home for a talk.

Politics & Comic Books

NYC-APs: Where did the idea for “Justice League” come from?

Aslan Malik: I was doodling on a dollar bill – it was Batman. It was without any rhyme or reason, I just had a pen and a dollar bill and time to kill. I thought, maybe it's nice to do that with superheroes, right? And since there's this connection—you have this team, the Justice League—I think this idea was born simply as that: you think, Ok, you can take the presidents from the dollar bills and make superheroes out of them.

Alexander Hamilton as Batman. Image courtesy of the artist.

After I put it online people were asking questions on blogs, like, which would be a better fit for superman? Why did I pick which president? Frankly, there are several presidents which are familiar to me, but since I wasn't born here, we weren't taught that in school. Some of them I didn't even know so I couldn't make a connection. So not much thought went into which president to pick [for each superhero]; I just did it for visual fit. Superman worked well. Batman because of the physique, so that's what I did. And while I was illustrating them, I thought It might be a nice idea to have the counterpart—their enemies. But I finished that first because this is just for my own pleasure, I don't make my money with it, and I put it online. 

At times, I check how many people are visiting my blog, and at some time it exploded – it was like a thousand times more than it used to be – and it confused me because I didn't know what had happened. And so I typed my name into Google and saw those dollar bills pop up: people had been sharing them on the internet, on their own blogs, and I was receiving emails from people who wanted to purchase them and from galleries who'd like to show them and so I thought it might be a nice idea to actually now work on the enemies. In order to be consistent, I picked them from the DC universe—although it would have been nice, some of my favorite enemies come from the Marvel universe—but I thought, OK, be consistent. And it was maybe kind of a political statement to pick North Korea, right?

In conversation with artist Aslan Malik. Photo: Christopher Baliwas

Because of everything that was going on at the moment and still is going on. Because they're like the classic enemies; the stereotypical supervillains, if you will. And it was quite hard to get a hold of North Korean bills. I went to the exchange shop and they looked at me like, why would you want to have that? And they didn't have them. So with those, I actually found scans on the internet and used those.

NYC-APs: One thing I thought was interesting, because the U.S. banknotes are so well known—

AM: —Oh, they're super iconic all over the world—

NYC-APs: —Right, so with the U.S. banknotes, you start with one iconic image, then superimpose another iconic image. Like you said, though, the North Korean bills are hard to find; they are much less iconic. In the case of “Injustice League,” did working with less iconic source material allow for more freedom?

AM: Was I more free? I mean, it was much less political when I did it with the U.S. dollar bills, that was really just for my own pleasure and I didn't try to make a statement there. 

Kim Il-sung as Harvey Dent aka Two-Face. Image courtesy of the artist.

I didn't try and do is to send a subliminal message. It shouldn't be that complicated, or better yet, there are certain topics I actually don't wanna go into. Because they are very difficult to approach if you just make an illustration and if you don't have an explanatory text with it. So, that was actually the problem with the supervillains. People put a lot of thought into it. I knew if I continued using dollar bills, they would wonder why those are the villains and why are those heroes? And to tell them  because they look good that way is not explanation enough.

So this question would be asked in any case, no matter which currency I'm taking. If I put supervillains on them, I mean, that would be the reaction, right? Why is it on European money, why is it on Japanese money? So the only country which would really kind of fit would be North Korea, simple as that. And at that point it gets political. In terms of being free, it was the same approach. I don't try to send a message with that besides having fun with it.

NYC-APs: Could you talk about your process for making “Justice League” and “Injustice League”?

AM: I scanned the bills – the first illustration I did, because the faces are actually super small if you think of it, I had more freedom scanning them in. What I did then was, all those parts on it, I illustrated and painted them on the bigger scale, then I scanned those in, dropped them in and put them back on the money bill. So basically the first step was transforming the bills into a bigger scale, so I know where the stuff has to be, then I illustrated on it, cropped it out, and photoshopped it back onto the original money bill. For that, I painted and some stuff I did in photoshop.

Kim Il-sung as The Joker. Image courtesy of the artist.

And for those, I mean, people ask if they can buy prints and that's something I could do. I think it also looks nice if you have it a little bit bigger than that size. But yeah, it's a multi-media work. It's not just painting; it's a combination of different techniques.

NYC-APs: In the aftermath of their going viral, have you exhibited either of the pieces?

AM: There have been some galleries that would like to exhibit it, but I'm always busy with other stuff. Although I really would like to have the time to do so, as it is, my main concern is working as a motion designer – most of the time booked, so I don't really have the time.

Because I think you have to be devoted to what you're doing, right? You can't half-ass it. They have a lot of questions and you have to invest a lot of time in it. I always have a day here and there but I think in order to follow that kind of project, I would need more time on my hands. And I think this is what I want to do going forward, so I'm trying to ease out of the one and go into the next one.

Article by Marshall Yarbrough