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Classics, Comics In Masterful Mashups

It would be a mistake to dismiss cartoonist R. Sikoryak's highly stylized mashups of comics and classic literature as mere parody. They are that, of course: It's certainly amusing to see the artist depicting Lady Macbeth, for example, as Mary Worth, the funny pages' most venerable buttinsky.

But Sikoryak is up to something more substantial here — he's not simply satirizing Shakespeare's regicidal Thane (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Rex Morgan, M.D.), nor is he just poking fun at the way Mary is always sticking her blue rinse into everyone's business.

R. Sikoryak specializes in creating highly stylized mashups of comics and classic literature.
R. Sikoryak specializes in creating highly stylized mashups of comics and classic literature.

No, in "MacWorth," and in the 13 other cartoon sendups of the literary canon collected in Masterpiece Comics, Sikoryak skillfully finds and plumbs the connections between so-called high and low culture. These parallels are his true medium, and as fun as it is to see the chameleonic Sikoryak deftly interpolating the art style of Little Lulu, Garfield and Superman, the real joy of Masterpiece Comics comes in seeing how, again and again, the cartoonist lines things up to ensure that comic strip and classic book comment on one another.

When it works — when he locates deep affinities between a literary work and a contemporary strip — the result distills the essence of both, allowing you to see them with fresh eyes. Often, the connections Sikoryak uncovers are intuitive, reflecting similarities of tone and mood between the two works in question. This is nowhere more apparent than when he marries the tale of Kafka's Gregor Samsa to that most haplessly Kafkaesque of all comic strip characters, Charlie Brown.


The fusion ("Good ol' Gregor Brown") works so well that you can't help but notice how much emotional real estate the two authors share. And Sikoryak has internalized the strip's simple line work so well that even though you know in your head that Schulz never drew a giant dung beetle wearing Charlie Brown's iconic yellow shirt, you feel certain this is what it would look like if he had.

Masterpiece Comics is full of "but of course!" moments like that one. In retelling the Genesis story, what better candidate to personify the quick-to-anger Old Testament Jehovah than Dagwood Bumstead's hotheaded, cigar-chomping boss, Mr. Dithers? The tale of Dante's Inferno plays out, canto by canto, as a series of Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrappers; Wuthering Heights becomes an old EC horror comic; Voltaire's Candide gets re-imagined as Ziggy; Garfield shows his Mephistophelian side in an updated Doctor Faustus.

Until now, fans of Sikoryak's takes on the classics have had to seek them out in indie-comic anthologies like Raw or Drawn and Quarterly. Masterpiece Comics combines those previously published works with new material designed to look like ads from vintage comic books, including one for a scale model of Captain Ahab's doomed whaler ("Because of the PEQUOD WHALING SHIP's enormous metaphorical weight we must ask for 75-cent shipping charges").

Masterpiece Comics is an impressively diverse collection of Sikoryak's clever, distinctive and ultimately illuminating work; it reads like the assigned textbook for the coolest Great Books survey course of all time.

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Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.