Artist Robert Sikoryak’s most recent graphic novel found a new supervillain in Donald Trump. His latest work is even more surreal – a surprisingly readable adaptation of the iTunes legal agreement.
Like The Unquotable Trump, Terms and Conditions (the title under which Montreal-based graphic novel publisher Drawn & Quarterly is releasing the book) began life as a Tumblr project, Sikoryak putting up a page at a time.
Each page is a loving tribute to a comic book that Sikoryak loves or respects, taking in all kinds of styles from the recognisable superhero output of Marvel and DC through the well-known American newspaper strips to some more obscure or cult graphic novels
It begins with a homage to a US government-issued comic book from 1980, Rex Morgan, MD, Talks About Your Unborn Child and the words, “The legal agreements set out below govern your use of the iTunes store”. It ends – spoiler alert! – with an undeniably poignant page where the sun goes down on syndicated newspaper strip star Ziggy and his pet dog, and the closing legal disclaimers of the contract.
Each page is redrawn by Sikoryak in the relevant style, with the main character subtly altered to become an image of Apple founder Steve Jobs, who died in 2011. Sikoryak says, “I was excited to realise that I could use Steve Jobs’s clothing and hairstyle on my main characters, to link the pages together. If I’d chosen to use Amazon’s Terms and Conditions, for instance, I wouldn’t have had such an iconic visual style in the appearance of Jeff Bezos. For me, that made the project possible.”
And rather bizarrely, it all works. Sikoryak hasn’t just thrown the text at random pictures; he appears to have actually read this thing through and selected from the vast historic tapestry of comic book imagery a highly appropriate sequence that seems to suit the relevant quoted words perfectly.
He says, “I have a good knowledge of comics history, but I also spent a large amount of time looking for specific pages and searching for different, popular strips to include. The book was drawn in groups of 10 to 14 pages, and then that artwork as paired to the text. Occasionally I would shuffle the pages to match specific lines of the text, but for the most part, the way the words and pictures came together was arbitrary. As readers, I think we’re inclined to find coincidental connections, and I was happy to see them myself.”
So the chunk of text about not using Apple products to post harassing or abusive material online fits in rather neatly with Sikoryak’s take on Scooby-Doo and a Jobs-alike Shaggy fleeing all manner of cartoon nasties and trolls; paragraphs about copyright of logos and symbols accompany Tintin and Snowy through a hieroglyph-ridden pyramid from Herge’s Cigars of the Pharaoh, and images from Neil Gaiman and Mike Dringenberg’s Sandman and its “Endless” immortal siblings go rather well with the instructions on setting up “Family Organisations” on Apple products.
But ultimately… just a novelty, an artistic conceit? Well, possibly. There’s no denying Sikoryak’s artistic talent, and it does extend well beyond the mimicry of comic book styles exhibited in both Terms and Conditions and The Unquotable Trump, though that style has served him well with his previous book for Drawn & Quarterly, Masterpiece Comics, which adapted classic literary works in contemporary comic homages. But his work has also appeared in GQ, The New Yorker and satirical website The Onion, and he teaches illustration at New York’s Parsons School of Design.
That said, though, Terms and Conditions is curiously readable, and that’s doubtless due to the presentation of what is inescapably boring and mundane text with bright visuals. And that’s something that schoolchildren from previous generations learnt very well thanks to the old Classics Illustrated comics, a series that adapted great works of literature, which ran between 1941 and 1971 and which many an American student’s book report would doubtless have been based upon.
Perhaps Sikoryak’s trying to prove the point that context is everything. Hands up if you’ve actually read the iTunes terms and conditions? Now all those who work at Apple’s legal department put your hands down. Should we even care that not one of us has bothered to read it? Well, yes. It’s a legal and biding contract, and we happily sign it without a second thought. That’s a pretty bad habit to get into, especially in a world where executive orders from the Oval Office are flurrying like snow and our lives are governed by reports and papers and legislation.
What if we just never bothered to read the small print, ever? What freedoms might we consign to history? I think that’s what Sikoryak is trying to do here, and the message is never more strongly driven home when the artist’s two current projects, Terms and Conditions and The Unquotable Trump, are taken side by side, as two faces of the same coin.
Sometimes it needs us to look at things with fresh eyes to see exactly what they are, and using the venerable, honourable and vital medium of comics, Robert Sikoryak might well be giving us the tools to see that perhaps only by considering Donald Trump as a comic book villain might we truly see the real-world implications of words that even the most trashy comic hack of yore might have balked at putting in the mouth of a made-up bad guy.
“I suppose the two projects are very linked,” says Sikoryak. “But Terms was meant as a grand statement of comics, and I wasn’t interested in making any overt commentary. On the other hand, The Unquotable Trump is really responding to an immediate situation and a more emotional one. I've never felt that Trump was hiding behind small print! He’s been very overt all along.”
The impressive readability of the project suggests that more impenetrable documents might benefit from the graphic novel treatment… perhaps all those government white papers that we generally find so dull?
Sikoryak agrees, but the experience of wading through Apple’s contract might be enough for him personally. “I would love to see more,” he smiles. “But I don’t think I’ll be doing it.”