Best known for producing brainy parodies of classic literary works as comics, Robert Sikoryak hit a cultural sweet spot after creating a graphic novel adaptation of the complete and unabridged legal text of Apple’s iTunes terms and conditions agreement.
Sikoryak, author of the 2009 graphic novel Masterpiece Comics (Drawn & Quarterly), a similarly parodic work, has turned the text of the iTunes agreement into a 94-page comic book narrative starring Apple founder Steve Jobs, spun from the drawing styles of a succession of well-known cartoonists. The artists he mimics include Kate Beaton, Alison Bechdel, Dan Clowes, Will Eisner, Rube Goldberg, Frank Miller, Jeff Smith, Akira Toriyama, and many more. The story is done in more than 90 different styles.
We spoke with Sikoryak about The Unabridged Graphic Adaptation: iTunes Terms and Conditions, his informally published graphic novel, and how he came to make it.
Why adapt a legal document into a graphic novel?
I was struggling with finding a different way of telling a story. I have been working on a parody of Moby-Dick, which is like the iTunes agreement—a really long difficult text that people are ashamed to admit they haven’t read. In my own comics, I boil things down, while the trend in comics these days is to expand. Long, expansive works like Nilsen Anders’s Big Questions or Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor. My Moby-Dick adaptation will be about 20 pages. I decided that I wanted to go in the other direction and do something really long.
When did you start working on the iTunes graphic novel?
About a year ago. I did about 10 pages and found that it was very liberating. There’s no drama, no characters, and no narrator [in the original iTunes text] to illustrate. Obviously I needed to have a narrator, and that’s where Steve Jobs comes in. He already had his own superhero uniform [black turtleneck, glasses, and jeans], his own Charlie Brown sweater outfit. Jobs has his own sartorial style. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos doesn’t have a visual style. Using Jobs as the narrator gave me a way to link all the pages and comics styles together.
What was your process for adapting the text into a narrative work?
I downloaded the text of the iTunes agreement and parsed it out over the comic in 200- to 250-word chunks. I went to my comics collection and looked for comics I could use for their style, comics that had a male protagonist or characters so generic I could turn them into a male. The sentences in the iTunes agreement are long, so I had to break them down so they made sense. I tried to create a flow.
I used comics taken from across the full range of comics history. I wanted variety and to offer the readers something like the iTunes store itself. I wanted to offer infinite possibility. The first version of the comic was 70 pages, but Apple expanded the agreement over the summer, adding about 20 pages to the document when they released the new Apple Music service. I produced a new version, called iTunes Terms and Conditions [a two-volume document that includes iTunes Terms and Conditions Part A&B and iTunes Terms and Conditions Part C&D] that is now the complete unabridged version.
You mentioned doing an NPR interview since this thing has blown up. How are you handling the media attention?
It’s strange because I have been serializing the iTunes graphic novel on Tumblr for about a month, and I’ve been selling print copies of it online since April this year. I even displayed it at MoCCA [the annual New York City indie comics festival] in the spring. But no one seemed to notice it until I sent out an email press release about it [in early November]. It’s been nuts [ever since].
So you self-published a print version of the book. Is it legal to print and sell borrowed legal boilerplate?
I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know. No one seems to have the answer to that question. Apple has not contacted me. It’s a photocopied black and white stapled book that I get printed at the local copy shop. It costs me about $5 per copy to print. I print them in batches of about 100, and I think I’ve sold about 300 copies. I didn’t do this to make money, and I’m losing money on every copy I sell. I did this to find a new way to make comics, keep my adaptations going, and amuse myself. This is one of my personal obsessions that seems to connect to other people. I hope it is received with the same spirit in which it was created.