Parody has been a big component of comics and cartoons ever since the medium was first invented. Since the beginning, cartoonists have been poking fun at politicians, religious figures, pop culture and even themselves. It’s safe to say, however, that there has never been a parodist quite like Robert Sikoryak.
Over the past two decades, Sikoryak (pronounced sik-or-yee-ak) has been offering some of the most sublime and inspired parodies around by combining or, rather, mashing together various iconic comic creations with famous works of literature – Batman mashed up with Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” for example, or John Stanley’s Little Lulu with “The Scarlet Letter,” or “Ziggy” with Voltaire’s “Candide.” In the process, Sikoryak manages to reveal unexpected connections and themes buried in both of the original works of art. Even more impressive, he’s seemingly capable of mimicking just about anyone’s art style flawlessly, from Winsor McCay to Jack Davis to Charles Schulz.
Now the bulk of those stories (originally serialized in anthologies like “Raw” and “Hotwire”) have been collected in “Masterpiece Comics,” an oversized coffee table book from Drawn and Quarterly.
CBR News recently talked with Sikoryak about the new book and found out, among other things, what exactly is involved in creating something like “The Crypt of Bronte.”
CBR News: You’ve been doing these mash-ups for a long time, Robert. What was your initial inspiration?
Robert Sikoryak: I was interested in parody and in taking a crack at copying the styles of other cartoonists. I started doing these around the time I finished art school, and I was really excited at the idea of being able to jump around from style to style. I was asked to do a one-page story for “Raw Magazine,” which was a huge opportunity for me. I was very excited about that. I tried to think of a story that was worth telling, but I wanted to undercut it with my usual sense of irony. So the first of these strips I did was “Inferno Joe,” where Dante meets Bazooka. From there, I got excited about the possibilities. It seemed like there was a lot more ground to be covered. As I went on, the strips became much more elaborate.
I started doing these in the ’80s, and even though the term “mash-up” didn’t exist, postmodernism was really popular. I was inspired by a lot of modern art. I read “Mad [Magazine]” and was doing some freelance work for Topps bubblegum, which of course had been doing Wacky Packages for years and years. This kind of subversion of culture happens in a lot of American cartoons. Â
I was very lucky. I had actually been working for [“Raw”] for a couple of years, just as I was finishing school. I was interning there. One of my instructors at Parsons, Steven Guarnaccia, knew I was a big fan of Art [Spiegleman] and Francoise [Mouly] and “Raw,” and he gave them a call. I was working in their office doing various small jobs and helping with the production on their books.
From there, I sat in on some of Spiegelman’s classes at SVA, and then I met other people he had worked with, like Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden, who also taught at SVA. I ended up doing a strip for Paul and Mark’s anthology “Bad News,” which had included some of the “Raw” artists and certainly had some of the flavor of “Raw.” Art had seen my story in that and asked me to do a page for “Raw.” I was thrilled. I was very young at the time, and wouldn’t have presumed to submit anything. He offered me a page, which I thought was very generous of him. I was happy to be working with them and I was learning a lot.
You talked about an interest in parody and postmodernism, but at what point did the light bulb go off where you saw Bazooka Joe and Dante together? It works incredibly well, but it’s not a juxtaposition one would normally make.
No, not with that one. I was trying to think of something epic. I had read “Dante’s Inferno” in college. I had been working, as I said, at Topps, writing gags for them – although not too much was published – so I started thinking about high culture versus low culture. I actually think, in the case of that strip, that the pairing of the source material is more arbitrary than in most of the strips that I do. Generally, I try to find more parallels in the relationships between the characters in the novel and the characters in the comic strips. For instance, my strip “Little Pearl” (which pairs “The Scarlet Letter” with Little Lulu) may seem subtle, but I think there’s a great parallel in the antagonisms between the characters of the novel and the comic. The “Inferno Joe” strip was more of a lark: “Let’s take a highly regarded piece of literature and stick it in with the most disposable comic strip of all time.”
One reason I picked Bazooka Joe was that I was reading the strip a lot, working at Topps. They were “reinventing” Bazooka Joe, as they seem to do every five to ten years now. I had gotten access to their archives and read all the brilliant Bazooka Joe comics that had been written over the past 35 years. So it was just fresh in my head at the time.
The one part of what I do that I don’t quite understand is how I come up with the idea, that eureka moment when I go “Yes, Batman is a lot like the character in ‘Crime and Punishment.'” There’s a small spark of inspiration, and then the rest of the process is hard work and consists of hammering all the pieces together to make a strip that feels organic, even though it’s really a laborious, agonizing process of getting the style and story to come together.
Once you had done the Dante strip, did you have this realization that you could keep doing this, that there were lots of different avenues to explore?
Yes. I don’t remember if it was after that strip or my second one, the “Gregor Brown” strip, that Art said to me, “You know, if you get 80 of these together you could have a book.” I thought, “Wow.” I hadn’t thought through my career that far! But by the time I did the second one, I realized I had plenty more material to work with. And I hadn’t even touched superheroes yet. After the first two it was clear, there was no reason to stop doing this.
At the time I really wanted to find something that readers could connect to. I never felt that I had a particularly interesting visual style of my own, and I don’t really think of myself as a fiction writer. Trying to find the right subject matter and the right source material that people could hook into was really important to me. Especially then, in the 80’s, when adults were less used to the idea that comics could be for readers over the age of 12. Comics like those in “Raw” were rather rare, and Fantagraphics had only been publishing for 12 years or so, at that point. It was still an all-new market.
I had grown up with more mainstream comic strips and comic books. I wanted to pull that along with me because I had a lot of affection for those strips and characters. And at that point, most of the comics I was parodying were still being produced. Even my “Peanuts” parody was drawn while Schulz was alive. There was a very different perspective on the strip then than there is now.
Do you go out researching old comics, either online or in comic book shops or libraries, looking for odd juxtapositions you can work with?
I’m certainly thinking about it a lot. I have a lot of comics. If I’m about to do a new strip, I’ll peruse my library to try and get ideas. I also have this wonderful book called the “Reader’s Encyclopedia.” It’s an encyclopedia that describes the plot lines of famous novels. And sometimes I’ll flip through that and think, “Oh, I really should do a Dickens story.” So I’ll just look up Dickens, read over the plot lines and see if anything strikes me as being potentially related to comic strips that I might want to parody.
There’s a new strip I just finished that’s coming out in “Hotwire 3,” the anthology from Fantagraphics. I’ve been a contributor to all 3 issues. It’s called the “Menace of Denmark.” It’s Hamlet meets Hank Ketcham (laughter). When I think of a good title, sometimes that’s enough of a leap to get me over, to start thinking “All right, this could work.” For that strip, it was a matter of deciding I should probably do Hamlet at some point. “All right, who’s Hamlet? Who has an antagonistic relationship with his ‘uncle’? Wouldn’t it be nifty if the next-door neighbor is the uncle?”
So Mr. Wilson is Claudius?
Yes. And everyone dies at the end, which makes for a funny story.
There’s a long list of books I want to get to, and there’s a long list of comics I want to get to. They don’t always hook up, but sometimes they do. For instance, those two seemed right on to me.
Once you’ve got an idea, where do you go from there? Can you take us through your research process?
After I read the book – I always read the book first – I do the research. CliffsNotes, for example, are sometimes useful because they do tend to break down the book into the themes and main action. Sometimes I find that what they emphasize in the plot is not what I want to emphasize, but still it can be really useful to go through it and think about what points I want to focus on.
I think my Little Lulu/”Scarlet Letter” parody is a good example of this. For that story I emphasized the scenes that the daughter, Pearl, was in, because I thought it would be interesting to tell “The Scarlet Letter” from the viewpoint of the kid rather than that of Hester Prynne. By referring to CliffsNotes and re-reading the novel multiple times, I pick out the scenes I can use to make my point. In the case of “The Scarlet Letter,” that meant emphasizing the scenes where Pearl is pushing the action forward. In a certain way, it skews the plot of the novel, but I never invent situations. I never invent plot points. I will just emphasize the parts that fit my thesis. I didn’t create any scenes or rewrite the plot, but I did excise stuff that was peripheral or wouldn’t fit.
The Mary Worth/”Macbeth” strip is another example of that sort of thing. There’s not too much Banquo there.
Oh sure. That’s another good example. Also, I only had two pages for that, so I only had time to focus on Lady Macbeth.
In any case, as I go through the novel, I take notes. These days I script out the pages in a layout program called InDesign. I’ll compose and edit the text on the computer, laying out boxes, captions, and word balloons, to figure out where everything will fit on the page. And while I’m doing that, I’m also doing sketches by hand. I really make an effort to keep to the rhythms of the original strip. So while I’m cobbling together the text that I want to use, I’m also trying to figure out a way to visually reflect the strip.
For instance, in the “Little Pearl” story, it meant using four tiers per page, because that was the layout of the John Stanly/Irving Tripp “Little Lulu” stories; I very carefully kept the rhythms of the pages and storytelling, which meant reading a lot of the stuff. Although the Dark Horse books hadn’t come out yet, I borrowed as many of the big hardcover collections as I could find. I also bought a lot of old comics, which is always one of the most fun things about the process. I would also photocopy stories. Often what I’d do is create what’s called a morgue file, with visual reference for all of the characters. Even with Google, I still have to go back to the original comics, for the most part. So I’ll photocopy shots of say, Tubby, in every expression and every potential pose that I might need. I’ll photocopy panels that had great, iconic compositions that I might want to rip off, such as crowd scenes or action poses. Whatever I might need for my story, I try to find parallels to it in the comic strip. So I create these binders that I use for reference, while I’m doing the sketches.
I should emphasize that all my strips are drawn by hand, which is one reason why it took so long for this book to come out (laughs). There’s a long process of figuring out how to create the imagery to match the style of the strips, and then fine-tuning the text of the novel and maybe trying to fit in some colloquialisms from the comic strip. For example, no one in Hawthorne’s novel says “Yow!” But I found a place to insert “Yow!” in that actually fit. You try to find places where you can insert the tropes and cliches of the strip while still keeping the incidents of the novel. It’s a back and forth process of eliminating stuff that seems peripheral to my point or emphasizing stuff far beyond what anyone else would think of doing in their version of the novel. It’s a process of weeding out the impurities and trying to get to the core of both source materials.
Was there a particular story that gave you a lot of trouble, that proved more difficult in adapting than the others?
They’re all sort of difficult (laughter). One that gave me a lot of trouble, and I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it, is my version of “Wuthering Heights,” called “The Crypt of Bronte.” I really tried to keep the rhythms of the EC horror comics I was parodying, but they’re very wordy. They’re not the most elegantly designed comics, let’s put it that way. As much fondness as I have for those stories, the horror comics are just not thought through as rigorously as the Kurtzman war comics. The storytelling is much more haphazard. I tried to find the structure in those while being faithful to their lack of structure. I think the lesson for me is to find comics that have captions that are less than eight-lines long (laughs). But I like the echoes of revenge and retribution that are in those EC comics and throughout “Wuthering Heights.” Granted, “Wuthering Heights” is a rather long novel, and I did cut it down to 14 pages. Even so, I think there might have been ways to trim it even further. But at a certain point the deadline comes, and you have to say “OK, enough!” I must have spent a year longer on this story than Jack Davis would have (laughter)!
Did you ever have a situation where you started a project and then found that it wouldn’t work for whatever reason?
I often have doubts in the middle of a project, but luckily, I have to get beyond the doubts. If it’s a month or two into the process, it’s really too late to go back, I have to do it, the deadline is coming up (laughter)! So that forces you to proceed. By the time I show my sketches to my editor, whoever that is at the time, I’m committed to it. I certainly have lots of notes in my sketchbook that are never going to work as strips. But by the time I start working in earnest, I’m committed to the idea.
I remember in the process of doing the “Little Pearl” strip, I worried the concept was just not going to work, but now I think it actually came out much better than I expected. I did really love the parallels between the characters. Having the novel’s antagonist, Chillingworth (a jealous husband who tries to find the daughter’s father), played by Tubby (a little boy who suspects the girl’s father of being a criminal) really worked for me. There’s something in the way that both characters create disguises and become obsessed by these mad desires; I thought that parallel was just great.
You talk about your stories being parodies, but they come across not only as funny strips, but also as critiques, both on the literary and the comic book world. By combining them, the reader is able to see both works in different lights or ways they maybe hadn’t thought of before. Is that intentional?
That’s part of what parody should do. Parody is often reduced to being just a funny joke at the expense of its subject, but I think the best parodies should be a critique. That’s what “Mad” was doing, even at the beginning. So I’m glad to hear you say that. Parody is a useful word to use, because people pretty much understand it, but I do hope there is something deeper going on, that there is a lifting the veil of the source materials. I’m kind of amazed at how well Dostoevsky could have written a Batman story in the 1950s. Maybe he could have gotten a steady paycheck there!
Are you at all ever concerned about your work being one-note? Is that a pitfall you are nervous or at least aware of?
I’m very nervous about that, actually. That’s one reason I was a little skittish about “The Crypt of Bronte.” It’s longer than I would have liked. I think my work is more successful when things are shorter. But by the same token, I think the “Dostoyevsky Comics” strip is pretty strong and sustains itself. There are enough characters and meat in the 600-page novel that you can make a 10-page comic strip out of it. But I do tend to want to boil things down further. The problem with that is you don’t have the time to revel in more of the details. That’s something you can lose.
It’s very easy to reduce what I do to a high-concept tag line, and I’m grateful for that because it helps to pitch the book. But I do think there’s more going on than the one-note spoof. It’s a struggle to find the balance between emphasizing the main joke and also letting the deeper meaning seep in.
You once did a mash-up with Garfield and de Kooning. Have you ever been tempted to draw from different, non-literary sources, like history or modern art?
I enjoyed doing the “Garish Feline” strip, but I think one thing that makes my work more interesting is when I choose source material that’s farther in the past, more distant from us. This wouldn’t exclude history, but it probably would exclude more modern art. Even de Kooning’s work, and his most famous work is over 50 years old, even that work can feel very close to our sensibilities. His art is more aware of and more tuned into our culture than something like Emily Bronte’s novel could be. I understand that Bronte has been pulled into our culture via “Twilight” and other contemporary cultural references, but that wasn’t her idea! I think there’s more excitement when the source materials I’m combining are farther away from each other, in terms of time.
If I had another couple of lifetimes, I could certainly pursue a lot of variations of this approach to keep busy. We’ll see what I do next, but for now I’d certainly like to keep adapting literature.
What was your thinking behind the production of this book and how you made it look like an old DC comic, letters pages, advertisements and all?
When I was putting the book together, I had some trouble trying to reconcile the 12 different strips that were created over many years. I had always imagined them being in one book, but I didn’t have an organizing principle for them. It became clear that I had to find some structure. I’m all about structure. All my work is about finding some kind of formula to play around with. It becomes easier if you’ve got some constraints around what you do.
In any case, I had done three long stories for the Drawn and Quarterly anthology and they were “The Crypt of Bronte,” “Little Pearl,” and “Dostoyevsky Comics.” I had created comic book covers for each, and they were all novels from the 19th century. And I had a number of short stories based on earlier works of literature, as well as several stories that were from the 20th century or late 19th century. To organize those, I created fake covers for the earlier and later strips. Once you start adding comic book covers, then comic book ads, letters pages, and so on are a natural addition. So it grew organically from trying to stuff all of the different work into some semi-cohesive whole. For the cover, I considered making it look more like a textbook for some literature survey course, but Chris Oliveros suggested I slavishly continue the comic book pastiche. “Don’t lose that thread,” which was the right direction.
When I started doing these strips, there was a lot of talk about high and low culture. There was a big show at the Museum of Modern Art that suggested that comics are great because “real artists” can take those ideas and elevate them! I was always interested in subverting that opinion. Somehow, making it look like a comic book was very important. And it resembles an old-fashioned comic book – it’s not called “Masterpiece Graphic Novels,” it’s called “Masterpiece Comics.” There’s a charming quality to those cheap old pamphlets, created by guys working hard – just making a living, toiling away, drawing comics as fast as they can to keep the publisher afloat! I wanted to evoke some of that feeling, even though obviously my deadlines are longer than theirs!
There are a number of comics and strips you reference in the book that are still alive and kicking, but most of the material harkens back to older strips or comics that have a long history. Have you ever been tempted to draw on a more contemporary source? Like Rob Liefield meets “Two Gentlemen from Verona?”
I would love to do an Image parody. I haven’t found the right source material yet. If it occurs to me, I’d love to do that. I’ve never tried to draw in that style, and it’s not quite my comfort zone. But I never thought I’d be trying to draw like the Dick Sprang Batman strips of the 1950s, either. I think an Image parody would also confound a lot of people who like my work, which would be fun. I like surprises.
I’ve found a lot of joy in those old strips, and maybe that’s why I’ve stuck to them more. Again, when I started this project, Bazooka Joe was going, “Peanuts” was going – they’re both still present in the culture, but certainly in the case of “Peanuts,” it’s different now, it’s really part of history. My initial idea was to combine modern comics and classic stories, but that’s shifted a bit. Today’s comics are far more self-aware or self conscious than the older stuff. And somehow the more naÃ¯ve or innocent the work appears [on the surface], the more excitement you can generate when you pair it with something that’s more mature. If you’re telling a morality tale, it can be much more striking when you draw it in a stark and simple style.
Certainly superhero comics are more self-aware than they’ve ever been.
Oh boy, yeah. I would love to do a “Sin City” parody, but [Frank Miller’s] already acknowledging…
It’s almost already a parody.
Right. And he’s aware of that; he knows what he’s doing. So it wouldn’t work the same way, although again, it would be fun to do. Hopefully I will get around to some of those modern styles.
The reason I chose to evoke the 40’s Superman style and the 50’s Batman style is because those are iconic designs that people remember. Maybe that memory is fading; certainly there have been many incarnations of Batman, but even the current “Brave and the Bold” Batman cartoon borrows from that look as well. So those styles still have some cultural resonance.
There’s material you’ve done that hasn’t been collected in this book, and you’re working on more. Are there plans for a sequel?
I would love to do a sequel. My story for “Hotwire 3” was conceived after the book was put to bed, and I plan to do more of these.
I’ve done a lot of other material that’s parody, but it didn’t fit this book’s subject of “classic literature meeting classic comics.” Maybe there’s a different book collection in there, though I don’t think it would have the same thematic unity. I’m not exactly sure what to do with it. It would definitely be more of a grab bag.
I worked for Nickelodeon Magazine for 12 years, and we did a lot of great stuff there. There’re a lot of things floating around. Maybe I’ll think of a way to link it together, or I’ll just give up and put it in one package.
What else are you working on now?
I’ve been doing a whole lot of freelance work right now, because I spent so much time putting the book together. I’ve got a number of different projects. I’ve recently finished a big animation job and I’m currently illustrating a humor book for some friends of mine. Plus I have enough ideas for a second book.
Do you have an idea list you keep with you?
I have notes scrolled all over. I don’t have one single list, but I’m always writing notes in my sketchbooks. You can probably name five characters that I should’ve gotten to. But I will. I haven’t even touched Marvel Comics yet! I don’t know if Disney is going to be more litigious about Marvel parodies, but Marvel is certainly rife with possibilities.