Robert Sikoryak was going to adapt Moby-Dick, until another white whale caught his eye.
Perhaps best known for his short literature parodies, like those in his book Masterpiece Comics, the cartoonist had watched comics trend toward longer and longer works, and set his sights on one of his own. But as he struggled to find the right hook for Melville’s novel, his attention turned toward adapting an even less likely behemoth: the iTunes terms and conditions agreement. The result is Terms and Conditions, his latest graphic novel.
“Like Moby-Dick, it’s the text that everyone thinks they should read and they don’t,” says Sikoryak. “It just struck me as amusing and inappropriate and absurd, and those are all things I like to have my work play with.”
But how to do it? Adapting the text literally was out of the question. Instead, Sikoryak used existing pages from comics history as his template, jumping from comic to comic (and style to style), inserting the agreement text into the word balloons. The constant reinvention turns a text that’s intentionally droning and obtuse into a propulsive, and surprisingly compelling, read.
Each page follows the unedited text of the legal disclaimer, but the action bounces from Snoopy’s doghouse to Prince Valliant’s castle to Scott Pilgrim’s Toronto suburbs. Throughout, a Steve Jobs figure expounds upon the legal ramifications of using the iTunes software. By appearing in one environment after another, the character seems almost supernaturally pervasive—the cartoon version of iTunes’s digital sprawl.
“I was very excited when I realized that Steve Jobs had a uniform,” says Sikoryak. Turtleneck, glasses, stubble: Drawn in any style, it’s shorthand for Steve Jobs. “If I put him in a yellow zigzag shirt, you’d know what that meant,” says Sikoryak. “Instead, he’s got the black turtleneck. As he always did, [Jobs] came with a very clear design sense.”
Sikoryak began the project by adapting comics pages he knew by heart, but soon he expanded the scope. “I wanted to be catholic,” he says. “I didn’t want to just adhere to my own tastes.” He went to iTunes (naturally) to find popular comics he might not have considered, like Transformers and My Little Pony, and looked abroad for international titles.
It was also an opportunity to parody some younger artists whose work he hadn’t yet touched on—Kate Beaton, Allie Brosh, and Raina Telgemeier, for example—“people who are hugely popular and of a much younger generation than me, but whose work I really respect and admire.”
Sikoryak matched a few pages specifically with text—an explosive Green Lantern page hosts a section of the agreement that prohibits users from making nuclear weapons with iTunes products—but for the most part juxtapositions between comic and text were unplanned. “I was interested in seeing what happened rather than making things happen, or underlining the text,” says Sikoryak. “I was more interested in letting the echoes come as they would naturally.” Those unorchestrated echoes led to a lonesome Snoopy musing about “family sharing,” followed by the Endless siblings from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman continuing the thread.
In unintended tandem with the project’s improvisational nature, Apple kept changing the user agreement during the adaptation. Part C sprouted a Part D, causing Sikoryak to revise the text and add 20 pages. “Part of the point of this was to make a long comic, so I thought, ‘All I can do is adhere to the job,’” says Sikoryak.
Lately, Sikoryak has turned his pen to other matters, particularly The Unquotable Trump, a drawing project on Tumblr that recontextualizes the president’s more outrageous statements into classic comic book covers. (One of the first Sikoryak drew depicts Wonder Woman throwing Trump off a castle wall as he exclaims, “Such a nasty woman!”)
While there are surface similarities to Terms and Conditions, The Unquotable Trump is an entirely different beast. For one thing, Sikoryak is cherry-picking quotes instead of adapting a whole text. “And I’m drawing Donald Trump, I’m not just putting his outfit on someone else,” he says. “I mean, in one case he’s a duck, but it’s still clearly Trump as Uncle Scrooge.”
“This is much more my response, rather than my documentation,” says Sikoryak. “I think it’s not as interesting as Terms and Conditions because it’s less pure, but we are living in impure times.”
Although Drawn and Quarterly plan to collect the Unquotable Trump covers in a follow-up to Terms and Conditions, in the meantime Sikoryak occasionally displays the Trump covers as part of Carousel, a live comics performance he regularly hosts at Dixon Place in Brooklyn, among other venues. Comics artists read (or even draw) their comics as they’re projected onto a screen.
It’s the live aspect of Carousel that interests Sikoryak. “When you introduce a time element into the pace of reading a comic, it makes it something very different,” he says. Among other things, it creates a personal moment that artist and audience experience simultaneously.
“It’s kind of an intimate moment in a way,” says Sikoryak. “It’s very revealing.”
Robert Sikoryak will be discussing “Terms and Conditions” with poet Kenneth Goldsmith at the Strand Bookstore on Thursday, March 16, at 7 p.m.