Masterpiece Comics

Comics have an uncomfortable relationship with classic literature. For a long time, American comics had a reputation as bastard descendants of the classics: they were the disposable pamphlets that children concealed inside the serious books they were supposed to be reading, or that dumbed down the Great Works into Classics Illustrated. Even now, there’s a persistent myth that the best comics are “literary” — that, in other words, the best thing comics can do is act like prose literature.

That attitude, of course, is blind to everything outside the word balloons, which is one of the jokes of R. Sikoryak’s dead-on parodies. He’s been publishing the pieces collected here for a few decades now, and he’s got a deceptively simple formula: take one masterpiece of world literature, render it in a familiar comic book or comic strip’s style, repeat. So, for instance, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus becomes “Mephistofield,” a set of bing-bang-boom three-panel gag strips with Jim Davis’s Garfield as Mephistopheles and Jon as Faust, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray morphs into “Little Dori in Pictureland,” by way of Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland.”

What Sikoryak is parodying, though, isn’t his literary sources but his cartooning sources. (“Dostoyevsky Comics” isn’t simply Crime and Punishment as a Batman story: it’s Crime and Punishment as the specific kind of Batman story Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson were writing and drawing in the mid-’40s.) He nails not only the visual styles of the cartoonists he’s imitating–their compositions, their linework and lettering, their particular obsessions and tics — but their entire sensibilities, right down to the way they pace a joke. “Good Ol’ Gregor Brown” presents Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” as a series of “Peanuts” daily strips (Gregor Samsa has here become a gigantic bug wearing the familiar yellow-and-black zigag shirt), and it actually reads like Charles Schulz’s cartoons. Sikoryak pulls off the distinctive wobble of Schulz’s lines, his habit of pulling in for a close-up in the second panel, the way he staged off-panel action, and most of all the alienated anger that often percolated beneath the whimsy of “Peanuts.”

Sikoryak’s also a world-class condenser: “Inferno Joe” boils the entirety of Dante’s Inferno down to a set of ten perfectly corny three-panel “Bazooka Joe” strips, complete with dumb puns (“Well, ‘Dis’ must be the end!”) and little ads for prizes (“3 foot rubber tail, just like Minos uses to judge souls. Try it on your friends!”). And, occasionally, the twin sources for one of his parodies resonate with each other in unexpected ways. “Action Camus” transposes Albert Camus’s The Stranger to ’50s-style covers of Superman comics, on which its perverse reversals of ordinary emotions seem entirely fitting. (“An indestructible guillotine, a huge, hateful crowd — it’s all I hoped for!”)

The central point of Sikoryak’s mashups, though, is the unexpected sturdiness of light entertainment, and the way its forms can carry the content of dark, cruel moralism. It’s pretty hilarious, on the face of it, to see The Scarlet Letter presented in the manner of John Stanley’s “Little Lulu” comic books, with the role of Roger Chillingworth played by Lulu’s pal Tubby with a toy beard. The surprise, though, is that “Hester’s Little Pearl” turns out to be a wholly appropriate vessel for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s characters and story. Stanley’s “Little Lulu” stories were made to amuse children, but they were deep and durable enough that their style is still instantly recognizable more than half a century later. Isn’t that the mark of a masterpiece?