Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Masterpiece Comics by R. Sikoryak

Posted by on February 3rd, 2010 at 1:00 PM

No book of the year past has given me more enjoyment — that is, happy fulfillment peppered with laugh-out-loud moments ending with kid-showing-off-a-great-new-toy excitement — than R. Sikoryak’s hardcover collection Masterpiece Comics.

You might have seen some of these pieces originally in anthologies like Raw and Drawn & Quarterly, where they effectively planted their conceptual flag and held their ground amid very heady company. To put it less militaristically, Sikoryak’s mash-ups tend to be like those party guests that sparkle in the crowd, enticing with their exoticism and wit, disarming with an easy, affectionate familiarity and inevitably being remembered fondly long after.

Well, not mash-ups exactly. Sure, they represent exuberant mating of surprising objects and distinguished ideas, like, oh say, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights rendered in the grand EC horror style of Jack Davis or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment done by Dick Sprang as a Batman story, both of which are included here.

But in practice “mash-ups” have additionally come to carry the implication of snarky, amateur collisions that all too often result in shallow one-note curiosities, oddities that hardly bear repeat exposure.

Not so with Masterpiece Comics, in no small part because mere novelty, however ingenious, was never Sikoryak’s goal. As he related in a Comics Journal interview (issue #255), “the comic adaptations came out of this desire to talk about these pieces of literature that seemed essentially dead as far as the contemporary culture was concerned. I wanted to be faithful to them and also acknowledge that they’ve either been ignored or degraded … I think of my comics as book reports.”

As such, they represent two-way précis, encapsulations of content and homage to form. These comics begin with smart and elegantly apt alliances between author’s text and cartoonist’s distinctive visual and narrative style. The source materials are pared down to pivotal, memorable moments and signature flourishes to be married by accomplished (and incredibly adroit) graphic mimicry. They are not exhausted after initial impact. Think instead of a broadened sense of thematic expression, a widened sense of dramatic presentation, a heightened sense of sophisticated integration in the service of amused, knowing homage. Think of `em more as “mesh-ups.”

From "Little Dori in Pictureland" ©2009 R. Sikoryak

The Bronvis and Spranstoevsky team-ups are among the longer selections included here, along with my personal fave, an extended retelling of Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in the style of Irving Tripp’s Little Lulu.

The shorter pieces, if anything, represent even more exquisite distillations: L’Etranger cast as a series of Superman covers for Action Camus, Dante’s Inferno redone as a sequence of bubble gum comics featuring “Inferno Joe,” or revisiting the Fall from Genesis’ Eden with three Sunday funnies strips of Blonde Eve with Dagwood as Adam and Mr. Dithers as YHWH.

If Masterpiece Comics were a one-trick pony or freak act, I’d regret divulging the couplings underlying half the entries of the book. But the comics are not like jokes spoiled if their punch lines are known ahead of time. For fans of the form or of world literature, these media miscegenation make for indelible, enduring works, every bit classics in their own right.

P.S.    In that Journal interview? Sikoryak went on to add “At first I thought, ‘Here I am, taking a dead form, literature, and putting it into a living form, comics.’ But now comics seem dead, too.” May all arts rest in such vital, riotously funny peace.

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