EQUAL PARTS TIMELY AND TIMELESS: Ryan Carey reviews R. Sikoryak’s CONSTITUTION ILLUSTRATED

Timing, as they say, is everything, and the passing of iconic Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so soon after receiving a copy of illustrator extraordinaire R. Sikoryak’s latest Drawn+Quarterly published comics opus, Constitution Illustrated, propelled it to the top of my reading pile immediately. We are, you see, on the precipice of any number of Constitutional crises simultaneously, from a likely-disputed election to a fractious court nomination battle to yet another round of presidential impeachment hearings, so I figured it might be a good time to refresh myself with what our country’s foundational document has to say on these matters before the Trump administration wipes its collective ass with it on their way to making a strong-arm play to assume dictatorial powers for as long as they feel like having them.

America — it was nice while it lasted, right?

Well, for some at any rate — but certainly not for everybody, and it’s admirable that Sikoryak, despite infusing this work with a fair degree of humor throughout, isn’t above taking pointed and entirely-accurate jabs at the evil codified in the Articles and Amendments (all of which are presented herein verbatim over the course of 144 pages), nor above taking victory laps when they’re corrected later on down the road. To that end, we have Marvel super-hero Luke Cage breaking free from a set of chains to drive home in remarkably unsubtle fashion the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery on the one hand, while earlier on, “Golden Age” mystical adventurer Mandrake the Magician renders a portion of the body of his Black sidekick, Lothar, invisible to illustrate the census’ early-days mandate to count each slave as, literally, three-fifths of a citizen. Sikoryak’s operating on multiple levels here, then, offering a particularly scathing critique of both the government’s racism and the comics industry’s in one fell swoop — but that the genius of his self-imposed remit: by appropriating the look of a different, fairly-recognizable, comic book, strip, cover, or even era on each page, he’s necessarily commenting on two things at once all the time.

A complete roll call of who he’s giving the old “sincerest form of flattery” treatment to here would take up too much time better spent examining the merits of the work itself — and there’s one in the back of the book anyway for those who may be a bit less “comics-literate”(hey, no judgments here!) — but what the heck? There’s no harm in rattling off a short list of names just to whet the appetites of any prospective reader a bit: Frank Miller, Charles Schulz, George Herriman, Chris Ware, Garry Trudeau, John Romita, Alison Bechdel, Scott McCloud, Lynda Barry, Roz Chast, Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez — it’s a veritable all-star lineup of hits performed by a one-man-band. And while one might be tempted to say that a number of these names are nearly as firmly ensconced in the past as the Constitution itself, it’s worth noting that even favorites of the right here and the right now such as Bianca Xunise and Noelle Stevenson find their work conscripted into service for this project.

Which brings us, I think, to Sikoryak’s central thesis: that the Constitution is a living document, and that the greatest part of its genius is that it can be either interpreted in such a way as to reflect the times, or changed outright to fit them. This is hardly a radical proposition, of course — founders such as Jefferson and Madison were quite enamored with the flexible and even transitory nature of the document they’d helped to author — but in this day and age, with the ugly specter of a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court for the rest of our lives staring us in the face, and the right trotting out the dusty old terminology of “original intent” and “strict constructionism” to mask the implementation of their reactionary agenda in words that make it sound like they give a damn about preserving freedom and democracy? Well, let’s just say that a colorful and imaginative — to say nothing of almost painfully well-drawn — refresher course on the fact that we aren’t supposed to govern this country as we did over 200 years ago by design is very welcome, indeed.

In many ways, this feels like the book Sikoryak’s been gearing up to do for quite some time. He’s essentially playing the same “cartoonist with 1,001 faces” card that he used to re-familiarize contemporary audiences with literary and comics classics in Masterpiece Comics, to point out the absurdities of the iTunes user agreement and the canonization of scumbag capitalist intellectual property thief Steve Jobs in Terms And Conditions, and to throw into stark relief the dangers of having a stark raving mad, perpetually-bankrupt, syphilitic, con artist game show host as president in The Unquotable Trump to point out both the standout features and cringe-worthy shortcomings of the Constitution at a point in history where it’s under fairly direct assault from the very people who proclaim their allegiance and adherence to it loudest, and to that end, I have to think that the decision to publish this book in a size roughly approximating those “pocket Constitutions” that politicians love to wag in front of the camera in no accident. Nor is it merely a clever aesthetic conceit — on the contrary, it’s a pretty damn on-the-nose reminder that the Constitution should be more than the convenient prop it’s become, and by translating and transposing it into an inherently populist medium, Sikoryak is giving it the sense of genuine utility that it should always possess.

That being said, there’s a fair amount of “inside baseball” going on here, and there’s no doubt that those with a more than passing familiarity with comics history are going to get a bigger kick out of this book than anybody else. None of which necessarily precludes that same “anybody else” from enjoying it, but a lot of the in-jokes and homages will be lost on folks who’ve had more productive things to do with their lives than spend a bunch of time with their noses in the funny papers. That’s been true of every Sikoryak project to date, though, and it hasn’t stopped them from garnering a fair amount of attention and acclaim from outside the four-color fever swamps, so hopefully the same will be true here, as this is likely the most grand, ambitious, and relevant application of his unique skill set to date. Heck, if Constitution Illustrated turns out to be a roadmap for how to navigate the precarious times ahead, it may even prove to be the year’s most consequential comics release, grandiose as that no doubt sounds.

And if turns out to just become something that libertarians pull out of their pockets to try and talk their way out of DUI arrests, then that will mean that either all is truly lost, or that things didn’t turn out so badly after all. Guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

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