HiLobrow.com has curated a collection of our favorite recent blog posts by comic-book scriptwriter and translator Adam McGovern. This is the sixth in a series of ten installments.
The Great Funnybooks
(or, We’d Like to Thank the Agora)
Comics’ greater academic acceptance this decade has gone in both directions, as the barriers that used to relegate comics to ephemera in the literary cannon and relegate classics to a badly drawn and distributed late-night PSA niche within comics have faded like old newsprint.
Warren Ellis’ revisitations and recombinations of Victorian popular literature at Avatar’s Apparat imprint, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s resuscitation of prose heroes as graphic action-figures in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Van Lente & Dunlavey’s best-selling comedy companion commentary on a few thousand years of life and letters in Action Philosophers, and Pak & Van Lente’s ongoing stranger-than-fact reprocessing of the ill-tempered and badly-behaved mythic types that form the foundations of unknowing Western Civilization in Incredible Hercules all show the shared continuum of vernacular and lofty learning as surely as recent years’ raft of Pulitzer-winning novels with footnotes about the Fourth World.
But that’s this decade. With 360-degree retrovision that sees clearly to the mustiest tomes and the sleekest media, R. Sikoryak has spent 20 years perceiving and conveying the persistence of fundamental literature and the pre-eminence of pop. Masterpiece Comics is a lavish tabloid-sized hardback compendium of what he’s accomplished. One of the most inspired stylistic impostors the comics medium has ever seen, Sikoryak reimagines everything from the Bible to Brontë in every mode from Sunday Funnies to Bazooka Joe. His keen insight into what makes each source enduring is what elevates each piece beyond its core joke (though what a joke).
Central to all of the high-low-colliding comics is the conviction that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing but full disclosure can be pretty unsettling too; this is clear right from the get-go of Sikoryak’s new collection, where, in the Genesis retelling “Blond Eve,” the direct lifts from Biblical texts are hilarious in the Blondie/Dagwood/Dithers context but the evident elisions are ominous; mistranslated and selectively accepted Biblical readings have been the cause of much darker mischief than any slapstick comic character ever came up with.
Dante’s Inferno, uh, boiled down to a series of gum-wrapper gags, asks the kind of question the book-club back-pages never will; are moralists nothing much more than comedians making sport of misfortunes and misjudgments they’ve managed to avoid or hide?
Sikoryak forms the perfect prison around the shortsighted murderers of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in “Mac Worth,” a transposition of the tale to the Mary Worth strip’s drab domestic drama (with the original title character in the Lady Macbeth role and the comic-strip doctor Rex Morgan thrown in as the one wielding the dagger, in a deft extra maneuver of reassorted source material and an ominous slice of thematic free-association). A limitation of perspective is death for human values or for art forms, and “Mac Worth”’s characters, newspaper constructs to begin with, rise and fall on the eerie portents not of ghosts and floating weaponry but of the daily horoscope, metaphorically one page over from them.
Emily Brontë was a proto-psychologist who realized that hell is other people you’re related to, so it’s only right that Sikoryak chooses to tell some of Wuthering Heights as a bloodcurdling old EC Comic, surely the most highbrow pop of its own day. The contrast of Jack Davis-esque overemotion with the legalistic language, and the shock of comicbook shorthand at moments of tragedy (upon Cathy’s death, from her husband and child: “Choke…” “Waaah!”) loads the form with an almost unsustainable weight that, through exposing comics’ inadequacy (and perhaps Brontë’s exaggeration), creates an atmosphere of oppressiveness closer to both EC and Brontë than any homage or adaptation of either has achieved.
Sikoryak leaves no artifact unnoticed, keeping in the text ephemera – ads, letters pages – that typically ends up being more forgotten than the most obscure (but resellable) comics content. Such transient testaments usually tell us more about the times a comic was produced in than the escapist or idealized material itself; ancient commercial come-ons and clueless, obsessive fan musings often signify naiveté to us (and that’s what fascinates Moore and Chris Ware when they subvert the same stuff), but Sikoryak converts them to enlightenment, providing a magic-realist running commentary on his aims and methods (lit-class-like letters pages; close-reading X-Ray Specs ads) for those willing to find sacred texts in the ignored fine print (not to mention cosmic jokes on both you and the author as he de-deconstructs his sources in a way that disclaims the effort he’s gone to in the first place).
In “Action Camus” The Stranger is brilliantly retold in eight nihilistic aphorisms across the same number of vintage Superman covers; Batman is put in place of Raskolnikov for a Crime and Punishment serial in “Dostoyevsky Comics.” That the altruistic Superman is substituted for Camus’ amoral individualist and the law ’n’ order Batman is swapped in at the other end of his stern verdicts is a parodic treat for the well-researched fanboy and a comment on the malleability of human conscience for the eggheads.
There are some beasts even Sikoryak can’t subdue, and in another kind of revealing companion-piece he knowingly bows to the enormity of Moby-Dick, in its original form neither prose novel nor pop potboiler so much as endlessly permutative proto-hypertext, by condensing it to a single page advertising the premium of an “Over 7 Feet Long Pequod Whaling Ship.”
In other cases, there are truths about the text that only the comics medium can magnify. Wilde’s slender but fraught The Picture of Dorian Gray is slimmed to a single Winsor McCay broadside, “Little Dori in Pictureland,” which takes place entirely in front of the offending portrait as it morphs like a grotesque slow-motion flipbook, all of “Dori”’s transgressions kept offstage and his own image practically the only one we see in a distillation of the narcissism Wilde was held and horrified by. It’s not certain if Sikoryak means the early, mephistophelean contours of the cursed picture’s changing hairstyle to look so much like Wolverine’s, but in any case there’s something about the graphic simplicity of seeing Little Dori lunge at his own portrait with a knife that underscores the theme of relief from disturbing realities coming only through accepting them or removing yourself, in a way that communicates a bit clearer here than it seems to in Wilde’s own jarring wrap-up.
The efficiency with which the four-panel cartoon in general and the laconic Peanuts cast in particular lets “Good Ol’ Gregor Brown”’s feelings be dismissed matches the austerity of familiar Kafka translations and, in its magnification of the offhandedness of the lead character’s exile from humanity, seems to add even more crushing weight; a Waiting for Godot adaptation starring Beavis and Butthead lookalikes (the comic-centric collection’s one import from TV’s vast wasteland, heh-heh-heh) shows that the human soul and its aimless owners had somewhat farther to fall than it seemed in Beckett’s day.
These characters experience the emptiness that comics are pointedly meant to provide respite from. Sikoryak’s comics have a built-in hilarity from their essential incongruity, and further rewards from their considered intricacy; he’s the inventor and master of a special strain of tragic relief. He’s also on the front lines of intellectual-property wars that have only gotten harder-fought in the time he’s been doing this.
The way that basic elements of the types of stories Sikoryak selects act on us whether we know them directly or thrice-removed from movies, CliffsNotes and abridged bad comics – and the very fact that even stories not read can be so well-known by reference – shows that they strike cords and spring from primal patterns that are essentially public property. It also testifies to an identity that should be paid respect. Classics and comics alike have an appeal that can be admitted by all readers, and spark responses that can be welcomed by all creators. Is it right that the commercial icons everyone loves are so aggressively guarded, or that the great novels anyone can download legally are barely looked at? Sikoryak and the other new comic classicists don’t see in neat boxes, and take the wider view of solid insights and simple joys which, one way or another, belong to everyone.
This post originally appeared at ComicCritique.COM, on October 27, 2009.
CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators