It took Michelangelo four years to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Beethoven composed his 9th Symphony over course of six. Jonas Salk, meanwhile, spent eight years chasing the cure for Polio. According to the copyright on the inside cover of Drawn & Quarterly’s Masterpiece Comics, the book’s 13 strips were created by R. Sikoryak over the course of 20 years—roughly the same period of time it took tens of thousands of workers to complete the Great Pyramid of Giza.
While it would, perhaps, be a bit of a stretch to suggest that the work were an accomplishment on par with, say, that big triangular structure in the middle of the Egyptian desert, the collection has certainly been eagerly awaited for all of those who’ve followed the New York-based artist’s work, which, over the past two decades, has appeared everywhere from RAW to The New Yorker to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
But while Sikoryak has certainly built an impressive portfolio by way of his freelance output, the strips that comprise Masterpiece Comics are his masterwork, filtering some of the greatest works of literature through some of 20th century sequential art’s most iconic figures. The cast of Bazooka Joe plays out Dante’s Inferno, Garfield becomes Mephistopheles to Jon Arbuckle’s Dr. Faustus, and Beavis and Butthead wait patiently for Godot.
These 13 strips are not straight comic satire, however. Sikoryak’s Masterpiece Comics are defined by two key factors. First is the artist’s devotion to his source material—never straying too far from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, even as Bruce Wayne’s alter-ego adopts the role of Raskolnikov. Second is Sikoryak’s commitment to aesthetics, switching gracefully from Winsor McCay to Charles Schulz to Joe Shuster.
In honor of the book’s release in September (with early editions available at San Diego), we sat down with Sikoryak to discuss the book’s secret origins.
The copyright in the front of the book is about 20 years long.
It’s 1989 to 2009.
So this was a two-decade long project for you.
Yeah. I kind of hate to say it, but it’s true. I’d say a quarter of the book is from the late-’80s/early-’90s and most of it is from ’99-on.
Which is still a long time to be working on a book.
Yeah, yeah. As you can imagine, I spend a lot of time on these. It’s interesting, because I do a lot of commercial work where the deadline is a week to do a page or two of comics. With these strips I’ve been very vigilant about trying to get all of the details right, in terms of being faithful to the dead author and faithful to the on-going comic strip. It’s a weird balancing act and the longer I do it, the more I wonder about the process. But I’m still fascinated by the results. People seem to be able to hook into it, in terms of approaching it as a reader. I like the idea of making comics that people who don’t necessarily read comics can wrap their heads around.
Was it initially intended as a takeoff of those old Classics Illustrated books?
Yeah, a few different things happened. Certainly I was inspired by the post-modern artists of the ’80s, and of course the cartoonists in and around RAW Magazine, who were playing with ideas of high and low art. I also remember reading an interview with P. Craig Russell in the ’80s about doing opera comics, which he’s been doing for decades. He made a remark—I can’t track down this quote and I would really love to–I think it was in The Comics Journal. He said something like, “you know, when you take the music out of an opera, it’s very different” [laughs].
Yes, that’s true, and so completely obvious–and yet people accept adaptations so naturally sometimes. They just assume they can be faithful or unfaithful. It’s amusing to me, because any adaptation is going to completely tear the guts out of the original version.
So I actually like playing with that idea — that any switch from one medium to another is going to to utterly and completely change the thing that you’re paying great homage to. I wanted to make something where you couldn’t help but be confronted by the absurdity of doing adaptations—doing a translation of the work.
Cartoon characters aside, do you think the move from prose to sequential art is as dramatic as taking the score out of an opera?
I think so. Yeah. I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t be. For instance, I love audio books, but even they’re not really the novel anymore. Once someone attaches their voice to a piece of literature, it adds another personality, and creates a different experience. I guess if you had Dickens reading Dickens it would be closer [laughs]. But that doesn’t happen too often.
The sound quality wouldn’t be great, I imagine.
No [laughs]. The wax cylinders didn’t sound great—I know they didn’t have wax cylinders yet—I hope you don’t get any e-mails about that.
From the Edison people.
Yes [laughs]. So the personality in comics is so important. I can get thrilled or nauseated just looking at certain artist’s ink lines. There’s such a personal touch involved, it can’t help but be totally different from the original author. Even a brilliant adaptation–and there are many–is going to be a whole new experience. I appreciate what Craig Russell does. I love people that have these obsessions and follow them through, which he totally does. It’s just as a quote, I remember hearing that and just thinking, ‘that’s the strangest thing I ever heard.’ Or maybe just the most obvious thing I ever heard.
But I can see why he’d have to tell people that, because a casual reader might think, “well, they’re wearing the same costumes—it’s the same thing, isn’t it?” Think of the Watchmen movie—well, let’s not go into that in too much detail—but that’s the perfect example of a film that’s playing slavish homage to its source material, while the viewer’s experience of it is entirely different in every possible way.
In your case, you’re attempting to pay homage while creating something that’s about as far from a literal adaptation as possible. Do you feel like you’re working in two entirely different directions at the same time?
Yeah, definitely. I think the more you slavishly try to do something that’s impossible, the more interesting the results are. You could say, “well, if I’m going to put a Batman character in Crime and Punishment, I can change the plot”–because once you introduce him, it changes so much already. But I really think the results are more fascinating if you say, “No, it has to be the same plot. I have to put this character in this situation and see what comes of it.” So by keeping as much of the dialogue and plot as possible, you can see how the new character changes your response to the themes and the narrative that already exist. And I think it makes for a funnier and sadder final product, if I just say, “I’m not going to do anything different.”
“I’m going to work within the parameters of this storyline, and I’m going to work within the parameters of this comics strip. I’m not going to deviate from them in any way that I can help.” And I think that constraints are really important to me, in terms of making interesting comics. Constraints are already in the boxes of every comic. So, every way I can find to keep me from making impulsive choices, I think makes the comic stronger.
[Continued in Part Two.]