What do Dostoyevsky, David Heatley, Demi Moore, and the guy who drew Bazooka Joe have in common? Why the second part of our interview with Masterpiece Comics Author R. Sikoryak, of course.
There’s a point in terms of adaptation that you move so far away from the source material that it almost doesn’t seem worth keeping that original name on the work.
Yeah. It’s amazing what Hollywood does with classic literature, let alone anything they touch. Remember the 1990’s Scarlet Letter movie? “Hester Prynne, she’s an interesting character. Let’s make her Demi Moore and rewrite the entire plot.”
On that note, why would you choose Little Lulu for that story?
Well, I think the real spark of excitement came when it occurred to me that there are parallels in the relationships of the characters in Little Lulu to the relationships of the characters in The Scarlett Letter. Whenever I start thinking about a new comic, I return to those comic strips I–potentially–want to parody. And I think about those novels that are very well known and very respected. I try to use sources at the top of the canon, and it’s not a huge list— though it’s more books than I’ll be able to read in my lifetime—
And draw, certainly.
Oh, yeah, well there’s that [laughs]. No question. But it’s a matter of thinking about those books, books that I love, books that people will grab you by the collar and say, “you must read this!” whether they’re English professors or friends. I recently got a letter from someone who said, ‘I love your stuff, and here are five novels I think you should do.’ There were some pretty good ones on the list [laughs]. And a couple of them I have some ideas for. That’s what’s interesting to me. Certainly the novels have to speak to me and the comic strips have to speak to me, or be so enormous in their cultural impact as to be unavoidable.
In a sense you want to pick the material that will most upset those sorts of people who would be upset that you’re adapting it into a comic strip.
Yeah, that’s a fair way of putting it. The first strip I did was “Inferno Joe,” in ’89, and yeah, I was being a smart alec. It was just, “ha, ha, ha, high culture meets low culture.” But as I’ve done more of these stories, I’ve gotten in deeper. I still want them to be absurd and funny, but I feel like there’s something more here that I want to keep playing with.
It seems like the dichotomy isn’t as pronounced now that both mediums can be accepted as high culture.
Oh yeah, it’s totally leveling out. That’s what’s so weird about the book coming out now. The book is a hardcover and thus appropriate for libraries. When I started doing these, it didn’t occur to me that they would end up there. And also, newspaper comic strips, in particular, were a mass medium in a way that they aren’t any more. I feel kind of sad about that [laughs]. And a lot of the artists that I’m parodying are no longer with us, and that also adds another level.
They’re canonical in their own way now.
I don’t know if there are dates on all of the strips in the book, but I didn’t realize that the Bazooka Joe one was the first one. But reading the book, it stood out to me as one of the few comics in the book that you wouldn’t cite as a “great” comic.
Right. I chose it more for its ubiquity than anything else. Also, at the time I was working at RAW Magazine with Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, and Art worked at Topps then. I did some freelance writing for Topps, so I was thinking of bubblegum a lot. It was also a natural choice: ‘what’s the smallest, most insignificant strip in which to retell Dante’s Inferno?’ The book prints the strips even larger than they originally appeared, so that’s a little jarring.
Now that you mention it, it does bring to mind a lot of the stuff that Spiegelman was doing at Topps, like the Wacky Packages.
Oh sure. And he and I would go back to Kurtzman. I think that most of the artists that I’ve been influenced by have been influenced by the first 28 issues of Mad—or really, all of Mad, but certainly Kurtzman laid the groundwork.
You said that you didn’t really take the first strip all that seriously. At what point did it grow into something more?
I think as soon as I did it, it occurred to me that there was more to be explored here. I shouldn’t say that I didn’t take it seriously, but I think that the pairing of the two sources wasn’t as agonized over as some of the later ones were [laughs]. Partially that’s because, with the “Inferno Joe” strip, I only had a couple of months to do it, whereas, with some of the other strips like “Little Pearl,” which is The Scarlet Letter story, I probably worked on it for a year. It was done between paying jobs, because I was doing it for an independent comics anthology. I wasn’t getting the big bucks for it, but I had the time to do it right. That’s just how it goes— I’m grateful that I’ve had places to print these stories.
I’d actually gotten some funding for my “Masterpiece” series from the New York Foundation for the Arts in the mid-90s. They’d started recognizing comics as an art form to support —I think David Heatley also got a fellowship from them, recently. In any case, I’d gotten one from them, and that rejuvenated me, encouraged me to do more. That was around ’94. At that point, I’d started working on “Dostoyevsky Comics,” my retelling of Crime and Punishment.
I worked on that on and off for a couple of years. I was doing a lot of freelance work for magazines, when magazines were more plentiful. So, I was slowly working on that, and it became a longer process, because it was based on the Dick Sprang [Batman] style, which is a lot harder to master than the Wesley Morse style [the original artist who drew Bazooka Joe]. Getting that style down and figuring out the story was really time consuming—and oh boy, I had a lot of sub-plots I wanted to put in, involving Two-face and Batgirl. It went on and on and on. But at a certain point, I decided, “enough.” It was published in 2000 by Drawn & Quarterly, in their Volume 3 anthology.
[Concluded in Part Three]