Comics Conceptualism

Trevor Strunk on “Terms and Conditions,” the new graphic novel by R. Sikoryak.

By Trevor StrunkJune 24, 2017

Comics Conceptualism

Terms and Conditions by R. Sikoryak. Drawn and Quarterly. 108 pages.

UPON FIRST ENCOUNTERING R. Sikoryak’s new graphic novel Terms and Conditions, one might experience a series of emotions ranging from confusion to recognition to enjoyment — and back around again. The verbal element of the graphic novel consists of the literal full text of the Apple iTunes Terms and Conditions, that massive contract that, as a number of Sikoryak’s blurbers contend on the book’s jacket, none of us ever bother to read. Sikoryak, by his own account, has updated the text of the work as the Terms and Conditions themselves have been updated, publishing the first two parts, A and B, as black and white mini-comics, and then publishing C and D as well as revised versions of the previous sections. To say that the iTunes Terms and Conditions are a kind of limiting inspiration for Terms and Conditions, then, is a bit of an understatement. For Sikoryak, the content of the graphic novel seems to be directly tied to the content of the iTunes agreement, with the former changing and becoming outdated in stride with the latter.

This textual flow and flexibility becomes even more notable when one considers the content of Sikoryak’s images. Pushing to its extreme sequential art’s commitment to the alignment of image and text, Sikoryak adapts entire pages of classic and contemporary comic art to fit the confines of the iTunes agreement. The adaptations are universally excellent, and Sikoryak has a massive index of citations in the back of Terms and Conditions, though most — ranging from Steve Ditko’s The Amazing Spider-Man to the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets — should be recognizable to comics fans. Indeed, Sikoryak produces what could be called a new canon of commercial and independent comic book art, one consisting of works lovingly adapted, panel-by-panel, and placed alongside each other with open disregard for continuity or consistency. The only thing that has notably changed in these adaptations — aside from a few scattered Apple logos and iPads — is their protagonists, who have all been replaced by a typically turtlenecked Steve Jobs lookalike.

And so, all of the superheroes of the past, as well as the new icons of recent graphic novel history, are replaced by Apple’s erstwhile front man, resurrected for these pages as a kind of icon for the disembodied contractual prose that drives Terms and Conditions. Sikoryak presents readers with a juxtaposition of a commonly encountered (if unread) contract and recognizable and personally familiar images, turning Apple’s legal document into a hero’s quest of sorts — an exploration of copyright language through the fair-use adaptations of previously copyrighted art. This surface reading of the graphic novel goes a long way toward explaining why Time’s back-cover blurb calls Terms and Conditions “hilarious,” or why GQ positions the graphic novel’s aesthetic efforts as secondary to its “usefulness, since you’re far more likely to actually read the godforsaken [contract] now.” If taken at face value, Sikoryak’s work is a novelty, a reworking of a famously unworkable document in an effort to make it readable — a sort of updated version of the Illustrated Classics series that, allegedly, got so many kids through their middle school English classes. In this account, Terms and Conditions is a set of crib notes for contract law, a fun if somewhat unwieldy reminder of the language that “everyone agrees to but no one reads.”

Yet, while the book’s blurbers adopt this reading — and while Drawn and Quarterly further bolsters it with its tongue-in-cheek library categorization of Sikoryak’s work as a “Pictorial legal agreement” — this understanding of the book misses the forest for the trees. Sikoryak certainly has had his tongue firmly in cheek throughout the production of Terms and Conditions, and I do not want to suggest he is somehow more serious or stern than this reading asserts. However, I think a brief perusal of Sikoryak’s previous publications suggests that we need to understand Terms and Conditions as something a bit more complicated than just a fun dissociative romp.

Sikoryak’s work prior to Terms and Conditions is divided between graphic design — primarily covers for The New Yorker and other prestige magazines — and sequential art. The sequential art is what most informs Terms and Conditions, as all of it follows the same appropriative format. His Masterpiece Comics consists of a series of incisive, summarizing jokes in which classics of world literature are paired with a particular cartoon style in order to reveal the heart of their thematic content: Voltaire’s Candide becomes Candiggy in a marriage with office-wall stalwart Ziggy; Beavis and Butthead take on the roles of Estragon and Vladimir in a recreation of Waiting for Godot called “Waiting to Go.” These pieces, mostly first published in Drawn and Quarterly’s self-titled house journal, predict the dissociative pairing of drawing styles and texts that Sikoryak uses in Terms and Conditions, suggesting that it is more of a stylistic signature than a quirky one-off project. Sikoryak’s other recent graphic novel, The Unquotable Trump, goes even further in providing a lineage for this appropriative style, consisting as it does of a series of classic comic book covers redrawn to feature Donald Trump and one of his more troubling or insensitive quotes. As in Terms and Conditions, the immediate political gags are less important than the pairing of unyielding text and malleable image that characterizes Sikoryak’s work more generally. The cover images shift to allow Trump in as a character, while the text abides by the constraint that it must consist of a real Trump quote.

Indeed, while whimsy seems to be a consistent trope in Sikoryak’s comic art, the other constant is a sense of constraint. Every project has some arbitrary constraint that in fact allows Sikoryak to proceed: in Masterpiece Comics, he is constrained by the style he chooses to employ in retelling a work of literature; in The Unquotable Trump, he not only recreates various styles, but also pairs real-life dialogue with duplications of well-known comics covers; and in Terms and Conditions, the recreation of comics pages meets the even stronger, context-proof legal language of contract. In this respect, Terms and Conditions appears to be less a device for making Apple’s legal language palatable and more a piece of conceptual art.

Conceptual art, what Sol Lewitt describes in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art” as art committed to a process that is “mechanical and should not be tampered with,” is perhaps best described as art that is intentional in its design but without intention in its execution. In this sense, Terms and Conditions makes a certain kind of aesthetic sense: the double constraint of the Terms and Conditions text and the adapted comic pages combine to produce a kind of mechanical process. Sikoryak picks his chosen objects, draws them, and then inserts the sentences of the iTunes Terms and Conditions into the dialogue frames he’s given himself. In true conceptual fashion, the meaning produced has something of an unpredictable feeling about it, as the panels do not correspond with their text, and any emotional weight produced by the expressiveness of Sikoryak’s art purposefully fails to jibe with the bloodless contract. In this way, the dissociative quality of the work is less a clever gimmick, as we might have imagined it to be without the conceptual frame, than an aesthetic model meant to provoke a particular meaning. The question then becomes, what meaning are we to derive from Terms and Conditions?

There are two directions we can take in breaking down Sikoryak’s difficult book. First, we can assume that all of the meaning in the text is intentional, maintaining the concept of constraint while also insisting that any and all meaningful moments in the text are not coincidences, but are placed there on purpose. This approach appeals to our typical ways of reading a graphic novel as a marriage between image and text, a sort of causal relationship that splits the difference between prose and film. In this sense, the relationship between the text and the art mean everything for Terms and Conditions, and that relationship becomes the only way to read its meaning reliably.

The relationship between word and image in a work like Terms and Conditions is of course fraught, particularly if it is given the responsibility to confer meaning. There are readers who will embrace the zen-like experience of what conceptual poet Kenneth Goldsmith might enthusiastically call “being bored” by the text in Sikoryak’s work. Outside of learning a few things about the iTunes Terms and Conditions — for instance, I now know that people under 13 years old cannot open an iTunes account — there is something relaxing about reading a text with no clear meaning outside of its typical context. As in Goldsmith’s Day — a full-text reconfiguration of the September 1, 2000, issue of The New York Times into the form of a massive, traditional tome — once text appears outside of its typical configuration, it becomes defamiliarized, an object for distant and detached aesthetic consideration as opposed to pragmatic use.

We might thus read the sequential images that Sikoryak uses in Terms and Conditions as a way of directing this aesthetic consideration into particular avenues of thought by invoking comic scenes that already have emotional resonance. For instance, at one point Sikoryak adapts the famous scene in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen in which the Silk Spectre, Laurie Juspeczyk, discovers that her lover — the near-omnipotent Dr. Manhattan — has split himself into many different personas while making love to her. Instead of many Dr. Manhattans, however, Sikoryak gives us many Steve Jobs, each talking about the functions of privacy and password protection in one’s iTunes account. So when Laurie throws an iPhone at and through Steve Manhattan, and he fixes it without breaking from his monologue on password protection and data privacy, her horror at her lover’s depersonalization is felt by us as consumers. The monolith of Apple — presented more lovingly in pages featuring Steve as Calvin from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, or as Jon Arbuckle talking to an iMac Garfield — is here stripped bare and shown as a depersonalized shell with a stylish facade.

But while there are a number of similar moments of what we might want to call anti-capitalist critique throughout Terms and Conditions — for instance, the Gene Colan–inspired look of blankness and fear on the face of Dr. Strange-cum-Steve Jobs at a reference to the suspension of iTunes service — there are just as many moments that seem to have no reference whatsoever. What makes Sikoryak’s presentation of Steve Jobs as Archie so enjoyable, for instance, is the replacement of Archie’s usual teen hijinks and misunderstandings with seemingly impassioned dialogue about the intricacies of iTunes Match. Moreover, the book rejects any sort of overarching narrative or arc among the images — and to be sure, the chosen text actively resists any attempt at narrativization. As a result, while it is tempting to read Terms and Conditions as a kind of blow-by-blow heroic journey through the limits of contract capitalism, Sikoryak seems to have something more freeform in mind.

So we might instead try to read the relationship between words and images in Terms and Conditions in a second, more or less opposed way: as indexical to a process rather than a meaning. Ironically, this reading may, in fact, align more closely with Sikoryak’s intentions, assuming that he is telling the truth when he writes in the novel’s “Development Notes” that while he “would occasionally shuffle the order of the drawn pages to allow for some interesting juxtaposition of word and image […] generally any connection between the two was happenstance.” There’s no reason we as readers need to take Sikoryak at his word here — the text itself is tongue-in-cheek enough to assume some dissembling — but if we do, we can also assume that the relationship between the text and the art means nothing, or nearly nothing, in the sense of authorially intended meaning. Outside of some spare “interesting” moments, the book simply fills the bubbles where it needs to and does not meaningfully engage with the text of the iTunes Terms and Conditions.

If this is true, then we can understand the moments of anti-capitalist critique that we see in the work as incidental products of an artistic process Sikoryak puts into place through a commitment to his formal constraints. In other words, the scene in which Dr. Manhattan’s depersonalization is written onto the techno-messianic figure of Jobs and his iTunes contract is meaningful only as the product of a reader seeking meaning in a mechanical text.

In this reading, the structure of the text becomes more important than its individual beats. Terms and Conditions functions conceptually as a totality rather than as the sum of its parts. While the art itself certainly falls under condition of fair use, the irony of stern warnings about theft and impropriety being set against full-scale recreations of some of copyright’s heaviest hitters is surely something that Sikoryak’s conceptual process is meant to invoke. Furthermore, the inclusion of Jobs at the center of every image, often as the titular hero from the appropriated page, conjures fears of Apple’s corporate reach, Disney-like in its acquisition of every media property and icon by virtue of the ubiquity of the devices it produces for the display of these properties. And so while Sikoryak’s conceptual approach foregrounds the punk-rock thrill of copyrighted language spoken by pirated characters, the moral of the story seems to involve precisely the opposite: the homogeneity of media itself, its total subsumption under the trinity of Jobs, Apple, and iTunes.

But this still doesn’t get at exactly what makes Terms and Conditions so successful — which I would argue it is — as a piece of art. The joy Sikoryak demonstrates in his adaptations and the life he puts into them undermine the grim totality of cultural homogeneity. Consider, for instance, the ways in which the avatar of Jobs changes along with each style, never remaining consistent in shape, size, or (in the case of Felix the Steve Jobs Cat, for instance) species. Jobs is as subsumed in the process here as is the art itself — no all-powerful cultural icon, he is simply the mouthpiece for the irreducible and unstoppable language of the iTunes Terms and Conditions. Sikoryak’s suggestion that he was largely a passive creator reads a bit disingenuously in this light, insofar as Terms and Conditions successfully frames the impassive dialogue of its titular document in such a way that emotional moments emerge from the otherwise mechanical process of the text. The emotions, however, are aesthetic rather than thematic.

The achievement of Terms and Conditions, then, is to put a particular sequential twist on conceptual art. While I think it would be a mistake to completely ignore scenes like the Dr. Manhattan page discussed above, the best place to locate the book’s sequentially conceptual quality is at its beginning and end. These are, practically, the only two places Sikoryak could truly control, since they would remain structurally stable despite any individual revision of the Terms and Conditions.

We shouldn’t ignore, then, the fact that Terms and Conditions begins with an adaptation of a page from Rex Morgan, M.D. Talks…About Your Unborn Child!, a choice that aligns the beginning of the creative work with birth, as well as equating the acceptance of the iTunes Terms and Conditions to a prenatal blow by blow given by Dr. Steve Jobs. This existential dimension is, in turn, mirrored on the final page. Here Steve Jobs, in the blob-like form of Ziggy, watches the sun set with his dog — the text reading “Last Updated: October 21, 2015” as Ziggy-Steve leaves the dark beach behind.

Birth and death are stark enough bookends for Sikoryak. But Terms and Conditions includes one more page after the Ziggy adaptation: a full page of static with a small Steve Jobs figure hanging onto an iPad and either waving or drowning. This final page alludes to the final page in the hardcover version of Chris Ware’s seminal graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. In Ware’s book, the superhero whom Jimmy had seen leap off a ledge earlier in the work now flies, waving happily with a child — presumably Jimmy — in his arms. If Sikoryak has Ware’s work in mind, then this ending is as ambiguous for the Jobs avatar as it is for Ware’s tragic protagonist. Subsumed by static, and unspeaking now that the Terms and Conditions have run their course, the Steve Jobs figure waves a Porky Pig goodbye, but without any clear mirth or message.

Ultimately, this is what I take from Terms and Conditions: Sikoryak’s graphic novel at once disorients and amuses its reader with an unexpected and ultimately mechanical correspondence between text and image, and also contains a more profound claim about anomie under contractual and late capitalism at its core — an anomie that the book nonetheless opposes through the joyousness of its many aesthetic appropriations. The strangeness of birth as the start of a contract and sunset or death as the end is emphasized by the floating Jobs, who stands as champion and victim of the contract, ultimately depersonalized by it despite his fame. Sikoryak’s ability to produce this sense of melancholy with such a seemingly simple concept is remarkable. Yet in the end it may be less important than — and is in an important way directly opposed by — his ability to find in the seemingly rule-bound practice of conceptual art multiple spaces for the production of aesthetic joy.


Trevor Strunk is a PhD in English with a focus on contemporary American Literature and emergent forms. He is currently a lecturer at DeSales University and produces critical work on gaming and the digital humanities at No Cartridge and No Cartridge Audio.

LARB Contributor

Trevor Strunk holds a PhD in English from the University of Illinois at Chicago, with a focus on contemporary American Literature and emergent forms. He is currently a lecturer at DeSales University and produces critical work on gaming and the digital humanities at No Cartridge and No Cartridge Audio. His critical work is also forthcoming in Criticism, nonsite, and Electronic Book Review.


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