Conducted by Derek Royal
An Interview with R. Sikoryak about his Masterpiece Mini-Comics
In his 2009 collection of parodic adaptations, Masterpiece Comics (Drawn & Quarterly), R. Sikoryak uses the very history of comics itself as a springboard into the classics. He pairs the works of literature with specific comics characters, styles, or conventions that best represent the adapted text, letting the historical comic itself carry much of the message. In this way, Sikoryak is like a chameleon in his art, employing the styles of canonical comics artists to best suit the story being told. For example, in Masterpiece Comics, Sikoryak uses the bumbling exploits of Chic Young’s Blondie and Dagwood to retell the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (“Blond Eve”); Charles Schulz’s perennially alienated Charlie Brown to adapt Kafka’s Metamorphosis (“Good ol’ Gregor Brown”); the horror styles of such EC Comics illustrators as Al Feldstein, Jack Davis, and Johnny Craig to retell Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (“The Crypt of Brontë”); John Stanley’s Little Lulu to bring out the comedy hidden in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (“Little Pearl”); the carefree and detached Ziggy to retell Voltaire’s Candide (“Candiggy…”); and the dark, double life of Bob Kane’s Batman to represent the tortured dilemmas in Crime and Punishment (“Dostoyevsky Comics”).
Earlier this year Sikoryak published a follow-up to his oversized 2009 collection, but this time the project saw light in a completely different format. Masterpiece Mini-Comics is a self-published mini-comic comprising five black-and-white adaptations taking on Homer, Euripides, Melville, Dickens, and the Bard himself. As he does in Masterpiece Comics, Sikoryak again pairs content with form, choosing the kind of comic that best brings out the underlying message, and absurdity, of the classic he’s adapting. Here, Odysseus’s story is translated through E. C. Segar’s Popeye (“I yam who I yam,” Popysseus responds to Penelope in disbelief), the vengeful Medea takes the form of Mell Lazarus’s Momma, the story of Hamlet is told through the kind of single-panel installments typical of Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace, Scott Adams’s Dilbert turns Bartleby’s “I’d prefer not to” into an ongoing punch line, and (one of my favorites in the mini-comic) Great Expectations is morphed into Charles Atlas’s legendary ad: “The Expectations That Made a Gentleman Out of ‘Pip.’”
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Bob (as he asked me to call him), albeit virtually via email. We were both contributing work to a special “Humor in Hawthorne” issue of the scholarly journal, The Nathaniel Hawthorne Review. Bob was letting the journal reprint his “Little Pearl” strip from Masterpiece Comics, and I was contributing an essay on comics adaptations of Hawthorne’s narratives (including a brief discussion of “Little Pearl”). I contacted Bob to ask him about his Hawthorne parody, and our correspondence eventually evolved into a brief conversation about adaptation and his recent Masterpiece Mini-Comics. What follows is the interview resulting from that correspondence:
Derek Royal: How soon after publishing Masterpiece Comics did you begin conceiving of what became Masterpiece Mini-Comics?
R. Sikoryak: I was planning future comics adaptations even while putting together the Masterpiece Comics hardcover, and I was drawing “The Menace of Denmark” (reprinted in the mini) for Glenn Head’s Hotwire 3 anthology at the same time, in 2009.
DR: Why the choice to do the follow-up to the first book as a self-publilshed mini-comic?
RS: Mainly because I wanted to collect all the stories I’d drawn for various anthologies since Masterpiece Comics. It can be hard to track down my work — it appears in so many different newspapers, books, and magazines. I didn’t have enough pages for a bigger book yet, and I was amused by the idea of a miniature, unassuming sequel.
DR: Have you considered publishing the comics that appear in the mini-comic, and perhaps others, in another colored hardbound edition as you did with the original Drawn and Quarterly book? Do you have plans to do so in the future?
RS: My plan was always to do another colored hardbound edition, and when I have enough stories I definitely will.
DR: What kind of benefits, or even limitations, do you find in self-publishing in the mini-comic format?
RS: I’m a fan of the mini-comic format, but I’ve only created a few in my time. In this case, it was a lot of fun to conceive of the project and bring it to completion so quickly — especially since I’d already drawn all of pages. It’s also nice to be able to print copies as needed, but I don’t particularly enjoy all the stapling. I guess it can be a meditative act, if you approach it properly.
DR: How do you choose the classics works of literature you parody in your work? Are these some of your favorite works of literature, texts you may feel closest to or the most invested in?
RS: The classics I use are very dependent on the characters I use, and vice versa. What combinations work best together is ultimately the deciding factor. I generally try to use classics that are very well known or at least familiar to a wide audience. Occasionally I’ll use a story that particularly speaks to me, even if it’s not the most widely read, such as “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Still, that’s Melville, and I remember discussing it in a high school English class, so I don’t feel like that’s totally obscure.
DR: What’s the process for bringing this combination together, of choosing the “right” comic strip/character/book for the classic work of literature you want to parody or adapt?
RS: I generally want to use characters who are very famous — or at least once were. Little Lulu isn’t especially well known now, but she had her decades in the sun. Also, in her case, she was brought back in animated form in the 1990s, and the Dark Horse reprints are popular with young kids.
I have a long list of books and a long list of comics characters I’d like to use. I don’t see how I’ll get to all of them. But I’ll ponder the plots or the characters of one source and consider how they might click with another source. Sometimes there’s a moment of inspiration — the adventures of Popeye do nicely correspond to the adventures of Odysseus! The plot outline of Great Expectations has parallels with the seven-panel comic in Charles Atlas ads! Then comes the hard work of exploiting every connection I can make, to justify that inspiration.
DR: Do you consider what you do in Masterpiece Comics or Masterpiece Mini-Comics as a form of adaptation? Do you see it more as an act of parody or satire? Or is it an equal combination of both?
RS: I suppose it’s a combination of both. I’m trying to be very faithful to all of my sources, but because I’m combining such incongruous materials, the result is usually absurd, and usually — hopefully — funny. You could say what I’m doing is a parody of the act of adaptation, because adaptations often have to alter, reimagine, or destroy their sources. Otherwise they can be utterly inert, boring, pointless.
DR: What kind of reactions have you gotten from readers on your masterpiece comics? Have literary types, educators as well as avid readers, given you much feedback?
RS: I’ve gotten a lot of great, positive responses from readers. When I started making these, in the late ’80s, early ’90s, I thought they might upset educators because of the irreverence. (Which I would have been okay with, because I come from the tradition of MAD magazine, although I’m definitely not that irreverent.) But today, pop culture has won the war between high and low art, so I think educators are grateful that comics are engaging with the classics in any form.
DR: Maybe this is like asking a parent what child s/he likes best, but of all the masterpiece comics that you’ve done, which one (or ones) do you like the best, feel is the most successful, or feel most confident about?
RS: That’s a hard question. From Masterpiece Comics, I’ve probably gotten the best (or most) response for “Good Ol’ Gregor Brown,” “Action Camus,” and “Dostoyevsky Comics.” “Gregor Brown” was only the second strip I made in the series (before I exactly knew it was a series), and I felt like I’d taken a glib idea but hit upon something deeper. Charlie Brown and Gregor Samsa are virtually the same character!
I’m also partial to “Little Dori in Pictureland,” which combines Winsor McCay and Oscar Wilde in a single Sunday page (also in Masterpiece Comics). Tackling a McCay parody was daunting enough, but I also enjoyed compressing Wilde’s themes into the twenty-two-frame format. I’m happy with how it all came together.
For sheer absurdity, I’m proud of “The Expectations That Made a Gentleman Out of ‘Pip.'” I agonize over all these strips, so I’m attached to them all.
DR: What other masterpieces and parodies might we expect in the future? Will this be something you will continue to do in your art?
RS: I will definitely be continuing this in one form or another. I really enjoy interacting with the great texts and the great comics. I’m generally loathe to talk about strips before I’ve completed them, but I will say that the “Popysseus” six-panel strip that appears in the mini is only a preview: I’m planning a much longer story incorporating Homer and E. C. Segar. There’s a lot more comedy and tragedy to be wrung from them both.
I’ll also have a new strip in The Graphic Canon of Children’s Literature, edited by Russ Kick, coming out from 7 Stories Press.
I’m doing parodies of George Herriman and William Moulton Marston for different anthologies as well. But they’re a ways off.
DR: What other projects, longer-form or ongoing works, might you have underway? Are there non-masterpiece comics we can expect from you in the future?
RS: I’m currently drawing a story for an upcoming issue of SpongeBob Comics. (I’ve contributed to ten issues already.) The editor, Chris Duffy, is always happy to let me parody old comics styles, and the characters aren’t always drawn “on model,” as they appear on the TV show.
There will be other non-masterpiece comics coming, but nothing I can announce yet. I do a lot of freelance work for different publishers.
You can order a copy of Masterpiece Mini-Comics by going to Bob’s website and contacting him directly. To order his other books or collections in which his work has appeared, click on the links below: