Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Classics Remixed: Masterpiece Comics

Rob reviews the long-awaited collection of R.Sikoryak lit/comics mash-ups, MASTERPIECE COMICS (Drawn & Quarterly).

R.Sikoryak has long been a highlight of the many anthologies he's appeared in over the years, from RAW to DRAWN & QUARTERLY to HOTWIRE to MONKEYSUIT. He's perhaps the most notable chameleon in comics, a master mimic who can draw in any style or genre. His longtime interest has been comics' periodic attempts at adapting classic literature. Most of those attempts have been fascinatingly horrible, as anyone who's ever read most issues of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED (or anyone who's ever attended one of Sikoryak's slide-show lectures) can tell you. Sikoryak's shtick is to adapt works of literature mashed up with classic comics. What's most interesting about the choices he makes is that he strives to match up themes from both worlds of art, often in surprising ways. It's a stunning collision of so-called "high" and "low" art, done with an affectionate nod and wink to both.

The results are both hilarious on their very face and deadly serious in how devoted Sikoryak is in depicting details. He strives to match not only the lines of the artists he's parodying, but the way they were inked, colored and lettered. The book is designed as though it was a collection of issues of CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, down to the covers, cheesy ads ("Draw Homer", "Lit" [instead of Grit], etc) . It's separated into five sections--two sections of short stories and three longer stories. Probably the crown jewel of this collection is "Dostoyevsky Comics", a mash-up of "Batman" and "Crime and Punishment". Sikoryak draws a clear line between Batman as loner vigilante and Raskol as a man above the law, meting out justice to someone who richly deserves it. Rethinking Raskol as Bruce Wayne, having his chest symbol as the head of an axe instead of a bat, drawing the pawnbroker as the Joker, the inspector as Commissioner Gordon, etc. inspires both laughs as to the cleverness of his design and a real sense of connection between the two works. Sikoryak's aping of Dick Sprang-era Batman gives it a remarkable silver age feel. Genre comics have extremely simple structures and are mostly designed for children, which means that they have to have a clear set of themes and character types that immediately resonate. These characters aren't built for deeper story ideas, however, which is why using them as a framework for richer stories is such an incredibly clever idea.

In some instances, laying down a work of literature into a comics template made the original work more palatable. I've always thought that the "The Scarlet Letter" was a glorified bit of soap opera, albeit one designed to expose hypocrisy. The purple of that prose was made much more palatable in "Little Pearl", a mash-up of that book and Little Lulu. Reimagining Pearl, the product of adultery, as the scamp Little Lulu and Tubby as the meddling Roger ("a short, ugly husband") was another stroke of genius. Like in the other entries, Sikoryak makes sure to emphasize the story elements that translated best to comics action, playing up the most delightfully sordid elements of the story. Sikoryak's mastery of the fluid, cartoony John Stanley line may have been his single best imitation in the entire book. He manages to keep the action of the story consistent with a Little Lulu adventure as best as he can, down to Tubby/Roger being foiled at the end.

In "The Crypt Of Bronte", Sikoryak illustrates the ways in which Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" used a number of the same stock shock twists as 1950s EC horror comics, with characters meeting horrible ends in ironic ways. Beyond the inspired decision to conflate the housekeeper as the Crypt-Keeper as a narrative device, Sikoryak cleverly managed to highlight the most lurid (and scandalous, for the time) elements of the story: fights, overwrought emoting, forbidden romance, long-sought revenge and unexpected reversals of fortune. What better way to tell such an overcooked story than in the style of Jack Davis, one of the most expressive of the EC stable of artists? This story does tend to get a bit bogged down in the sheer Gothic density of detail from Bronte (and at 15 pages, it's the longest story in the book) and at a certain point the uncanny evocation of EC comics is no longer enough to prevent a bit of tediousness from creeping in. It was no easy task boiling down the story to its essential elements, and Sikoryak actually seemed to score more direct hits with the shorter stories.

In the "Classics On Parade" section, "Blonde Eve" is one of the funnier entries in the book, combining Blondie and the story of Adam & Eve from the Bible. The connections are numerous: the blonde temptress, the obsession with food (seeing the apples piled up on Dagwood/Adam's arms was especially amusing), the wrath of god/Mr Dithers, etc. "Inferno Joe", which brings together the Bazooka Joe strips and Dante's "Inferno", boils down that book's essence and turns
it into a series of bubblegum wrapper gags. Each strip features Joe visiting another circle of hell, but Sikoryak manages to tie the gags into the moral lesson regarding the sinners therein. "Mephistofield" is a hilarious pastiche of Marlowe's "Dr Faustus" and Garfield, with the title cat playing the seemingly-subservient but ever acidic demon with aplomb. Casting Jon, the loser who can never really get over, as the doomed Faustus was yet another pitch-perfect choice on Sikoryak's part.

In some ways, Sikoryak seems most at home distilling modern works of literature. "Little Dori In Pictureland" is one of the most technically dazzling achievements in the book, nailing the classic Winsor McKay style while retelling Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray". Sikoryak draws the obvious connection between Dorian Gray's living a fantasy life and Little Nemo's dream life, with both reflecting a certain turn-of-the-20th-century aesthetic. "Good Ol' Gregor Brown" draws another clear line between the eternal loser Charlie Brown and Kafka's doomed Gregor Samsa, the protagonist of "The Metamorphosis". What's especially trenchant about this strip is seeing Snoopy as a maid at the end, seeing the dead coackroach and cheerily noting "Happiness is a pest-free home". It's one thing to connect the misery of the two characters; it's another to use the occasional sentimentality of Peanuts to highlight just how grim Kafka's story was. "Action Camus" cleverly told the story of "The Stranger" through a series of old Action Comics covers from the 1950s. The Stranger and Superman are characters are both above morality in certain respects and men of action--though the choices each made certainly put them in different camps.

MASTERPIECE COMICS is a series of parodies that strives for something more than just surface recognition on the part of the reader. Those surface qualities still make up the bulk of the jokes and the appeal of these comics, as the reader will marvel at Sikoryak's ability to mimic any style successfully. However, every aspect of the pastiche has obviously been carefully thought through, even if it's just one or two elements (like Beavis and Butthead as the stars of "Waiting To Go", or Ziggy the innocent in a tumultuous world playing Candide) that are emphasized. This series of sight gags actually helps crystalize the central themes of these works of art, even as Sikoryak by design strips away dialogue and cuts away huge swaths of story. Still, Sikoryak surpasses old-school attempts at adapting classic literature into comics by recontextualizing it in the form of parody while still getting across the most salient details of the stories. It's a comic to marvel at and delight in as both a technical and thematic achievement, even if that enjoyment at times is more of craft than art.

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