Why Does He Draw Like He’s Running Out of Time? R. Sikoryak Discusses Constitution Illustrated
May it please the jury, I direct your attention to the following book jacket:
You may remember R. Sikoryaks’ previous works, including Masterpiece Comics, the formidable challenge in which he fully illustrated Apple’s Terms and Conditions, and The Unquotable Trump. Mr. Sikoryak possesses a remarkable, at times downright uncanny, ability to mimic the artistic styles of comic artists from the past as well as today. Yet never before has he so fully embraced contemporary children’s comics as part of his oeuvre. In this, his latest work, he has illustrated the United States Constitution. From Preamble to Amendment XXVII, this is a comic lover/political junkie’s dream. Today I shall prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that this is one of the most exciting comic works to come out in this, the year of our lord, 2020.
Members of the jury, I call to the stand, at this time, one R. Sikoryak.
Betsy Bird: Thank you so much for joining me today. Okay, let’s count them down: webcomics, graphic novels for kids, newspaper comics, comic books, animated cartoons, New Yorker cartoons… these are all subject to the loving homages you’ve made in this book. I mean, you essentially kick it off with a little Yellow Kid and Little Nemo and go from there (though not chronologically, of course). The sheer scope of it is enough to blow my tiny little mind. I’m just trying to wrap my head around your process. Did you have a list of which artists’ styles you wanted to include?
R. Sikoryak: Oh, absolutely! I had many lists of artists whom I wanted to include, and I kept adding names throughout the process. As I was breaking down the Constitution text into separate pages, I sometimes realized I could make room to insert a few more artists, so that made me go back to my list, or consult bestseller lists or critics’ lists, and look for new possibilities.
I also broke down my list according to decades, because I wanted to make sure that I had a good representation across different time periods of comics. In addition, I chose artists to show a diversity of race, gender, age, and more.
BB: For that matter, was there a comic you wanted in the book that for one reason or another never made it in?
RS: There are many more comics and artists I wanted to include but couldn’t, sometimes because I couldn’t find a piece of text that was appropriate, or I felt that I had already represented that decade well.
I kept hoping to add Emil Ferris, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and Will Eisner, for instance. And I got some great suggestions from friends (everything from Alley Oop to Bitch Planet). All worthy, but I didn’t see obvious places to put them before I ran out of room.
BB: While I’d be perfectly happy to read Masterpiece Comics to my kids, Constitution Illustrated is the first work of yours that I’ve seen that seems to extend a hand out to kids (particularly those that love Hamilton and comics in equal proportions). For those of us diving back into virtual learning with our children this fall, it dovetails nicely with Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, The Cartoon History of the United States, First Second’s new History Comics imprint, etc. Plus it includes the styles of everyone from Jeff Kinney, Raina Telgemeier, and Dana Simpson to Kazu Kibuishi, Gene Luen Yang, and Dav Pilkey. To say nothing of contemporary newspaper comics (though I admit that kids today probably don’t see them all that often) and, to my own infinite delight, shows like Steven Universe (your Amethyst is impeccable). What’s more, I can use this book to give my kids a proper background in their comic history. Did you intend a young audience to gravitate to this when you made it?
RS: Yes, I hoped that young audiences would appreciate it, and I definitely wanted readers of all ages to see a style or character they recognized. That’s one of the reasons I put Raina Telgemeier’s characters in the Preamble, because I wanted to be inviting from the start. So, even if the Yellow Kid page looks ancient, it’s right next to my Dog Man parody.
Also, this was an opportunity for me to parody a lot of comics that I have never drawn before, and there are so many accomplished young cartoonists whom I admire.
BB: You seem to have your finger pretty firmly on the pulse of what kids ask for in the library these days. It’s a very impressive line-up of truly contemporary artists as well as some classics. Did you have any help in deciding what newer comics to include or do you keep up with the bestsellers?
RS: I sometimes asked friends and serious comics readers whom they thought I should include. I also looked at the bestseller lists, or I browsed in comic shops and bookstores. I kept trying to make sure I didn’t miss anyone obvious, but with only 114 pages, there was no way to represent everyone.
BB: Let’s talk about your decision process a bit. Some of these pairings feel like no-brainers. Heck, if you hadn’t made a 40s era Wonder Woman introduce the 19th amendment I imagine there would have been a great rending of garments from the reading public. Other choices make you really sit down, read the Amendment, and think about why you chose that particular comic to accompany it. Were there any pairings that you instantly knew you had to include?
RS: Yes, definitely. I drew the first 10 or so (not sequential) pages based on ideas or characters that I knew I had to use. Drawing Wonder Woman for the 19th amendment was a natural. And using the Peanuts characters for the 1st amendment seemed obvious. I always think of Lucy shouting her opinions and Linus musing on religious matters. Plus I remembered the characters would often carry protest signs in the 1960’s.
Whenever “powers” are mentioned, that was a potentially good opportunity to include a superhero. And I knew I wanted to include Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but it wasn’t until I came across the word “journal” in Article 1 that I knew there was a good place to insert him. The Lumberjanes felt natural for the 26th amendment (even although some of the characters aren’t old enough to vote yet).
BB: The simple fact of the matter is that some amendments are more exciting than others. You often break off the Sections into their own separate comics, which adds to the fun. And you find good solutions to dull portions, like getting Rube Goldberg involved in one of the Article Seven resolutions or letting the Hulk carry the weight of overwhelming debt in Section Four of Amendment Fourteen. Were there any sections that proved to be a particular challenge?
RS: There were a few sections that were very challenging. In particular, there was one difficult portion that appears almost verbatim in two different places! In Article 2, there’s a paragraph (pages 41-43 in my book) that describes in great detail the procedure for voting, counting votes, and choosing the president. It was slightly revised and rewritten by the 12th amendment (pages 89-92). The drawings could just consist of piles of paper votes, sealed letters, and crowds of voters. Nothing inherently exciting. And I had intentionally avoided caricatures of actual Presidents throughout the book, so I wasn’t going to include them here.
But the groups of voters did let me include some famous casts of characters, such as those from Bone, Little Nemo, Doonesbury, and Spongebob. Plus the verbose text left room for me to add the Phantom Lady (drawn in the 1940’s by Matt Baker, one of the first-known black comic book artists), Sarah’s Scribbles (a current webcomic), and the Katzenjammer Kids (one of the longest running newspaper comic strips). So the repetition became an advantage.
BB: And now the tough question: Muppet Babies. Why Muppet Babies? I can understand the Lockhorns. I can justify the Barbie . . . but Muppet Babies. No offense meant because I ask this in all sincerity. Are you a fan? Was it a play for Gen X nostalgia? Are you buddies with Marie Severin? Very curious.
RS: I’m actually a big fan of Marie Severin’s drawing, and I wanted to represent her in some way. She drew lots of different humor comics and superhero books over her long career, but I only discovered her Muppet Babies comics while researching my book. She drew the series for 4 years. I hadn’t seen the TV show, but I certainly watched the earlier incarnations of the Muppets, and I knew the characters would be instantly recognizable. Plus, the show was recently revived. Which meant that at least two generations of kids would have a connection.
BB: I am so out of it. I didn’t even know that. Okay, final question for you: Can you say what you’re working on next?
RS: I’m still working on a sequel to Masterpiece Comics, which will consist of a least 12 short adaptations of classic literature. A good portion of the book is already done. As for the rest, I’ve got a very dense, 20 page Moby Dick comic that I’ve been grappling with for years. And I’m considering a quick adaptation of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, because like everyone, I’m thinking about plague literature a lot right now.
BB: Lord, who isn’t?
I want to thank Mr. Sikoryak for his time, as well as Kaiya Smith Blackburn of Drawn & Quarterly for making the connection.
The case rests.
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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