After the November 2016 election, Robert Sikoryak felt an urge he couldn’t resist. Referring to the victory of Donald Trump, the award-winning cartoonist says “I really just wanted to put something out in the world that just said, ‘I object.’” That work is The Unquotable Trump, a collection that uses some of the president’s most infamous utterances on classic comic book covers.
Best known for mash-up pastiches like Masterpiece Comics and Terms and Conditions, Robert Sikoryak says that Unquotable Trump began as a fast and impulsive creation. “I make 16-page B&W mini comics or 24-hour comics— work that is more like sketchbook comics—very quickly, just as a way to get work out into the world,” he said during a phone interview last week. “I grew up with minicomics, the traditional photocopied, black-and-white, stapled pamphlets. I originally made this as a single minicomic, and I thought that would really be the end of it. I saw it as this punk ‘zine. And then I posted them on Tumblr, just because I realized that’s a better way of getting a slightly bigger audience.”
Sikoryak has done politically oriented work for The Daily Show, Mad Magazine, and The Onion but nothing as explicitly political as The Unquotable Trump. “I don’t know if I got into [his] headspace or if Trump got into my headspace,” Sikoryak offers. “But Trump was the first candidate I really felt [this strongly about]. Just as a public speaker, I found him so unpleasant and disruptive and hurtful that I felt like I needed to do something about it. I actually resisted until he actually won the election.”
Sikoryak says that although he hopes the comics clearly portray Trump as a villain, he has sold the book to Trump supporters. “I sold a copy to someone at San Diego Comic-Con and said, ‘I’m not sure you’re going to like this,’” Sikoryak explained “He said, ‘Oh no, I like old comics, it’s fun.’ I thought, ‘Well, get it home. Spend some time with it. See how you like it tomorrow.’”
In the gallery below, Sikoryak talks about the original covers he remixed for Unquotable Trump and the challenge of trying to embed the bloviation of the 45th President of the United States in classic comics imagery. (Click right on each image to see the original comic cover.)
When I began the project, I only wanted to focus on what he said that was objectionable while he was running for president. So after I made that mini and was expanding into the book, I was trying to touch on other topics that he covered, other opinions that he expressed that ran the gamut of what someone running for president might say. I’m really kind of fascinated by 90's “mainstream” comics, the density of the drawing, the attitude, and all of the radicalness of them and I thought this quote was a good summation of his military policy. Saying he was the most militaristic person in the room, he always has to be the best one, or the “most” one.
And this Transformers character [Commander Jhiaxus], he’s actually a character who’s outside the Decepticons and the Autobots. He’s from a third group, a different faction that’s completely untrustworthy. I was like “Yeah, that sounds like [Trump]!” I was really happy I chose that character because i didn’t want to put him in the place of one of the Autobots. I really wanted him to be either the villain or the loose cannon. Most of the covers work that way. There’s probably a few I’ve misconstrued, but I hope that if you had the original context, you’d be like, “Oh, I get it” with regard to his relationship to the characters.
I really wanted to use some Frank Miller in here. There’s two [Frank Miller] covers in the book. because Trump is always speaking of his love of the military, I just thought this was the right environment to insert him into. I was really happy the way his tie echoes the capes the characters are wearing. It kind of makes the connection but he’s still clearly out of place. So there’s the military angle and there’s the machismo that we associate even more with the film I think than the comic, that seemed just appropriate for him. Just going from 300 to 306 electoral votes was just too good to pass up. It’s something he won’t stop talking about. Doing a cover with a wraparound image allowed me to put in a lot of good text. I just imagine him, all day, not shutting up about it.
As I was making the book, the deadline was coming and I was hustling to make sure I had a structure for the book that made sense., I wanted there to be some sort of subtle narrative so I actually organized all the quotes in chronological order. So you could sort of follow the story, a couple had to be shifted around by a couple of pages. But, essentially. they are in order. So, you can see the brashness of the beginning to the final page, which I felt like I needed as some sort of final image.
I wanted the book have a tension between what he was saying and what was happening around him. So for the back page, I was hoping it would be clear he’s left a swath of destruction around him. I thought it was appropriate to have him reflecting on what he’s done. Even though it feels like a pretty clueless quote, it’s still as close as we get to reflection from him. But again, perhaps people would — his supporters — would like to think of him as Godzilla, but, this is just the static Godzilla. I’m always trying to find a way to subvert one half of the equation. So hopefully, it does that.
I wouldn’t even say this was the most ornate of them. I think the Wally Wood cover is the more time-consuming, where I was just like, “I have to draw all these lines...” just to make the hatching work. On those old covers, the real trick is getting Trump to look like himself to some extent, but also fit within the world of the characters. So I really found the drawings of Trump more tricky to do.
Most of these artists hadn’t drawn Trump so I have to ask myself, “how would George Perez draw Trump?” I tried to find as many photos in similar poses to what I want and finding a way to render them into the specific style. So, with this Perez piece, he resolved all the issues for him in terms of layout and even inking marks. It was really just a matter of, “How can I get Trump to stay within that world?” And [Perez] is super detailed in his images. I think he inked this one himself, if I’m not mistaken. So it’s just extra ornate.
I used the Hulk twice, on the cover and on page 26. The image on page 26—which was also called “The Unquotable Trump”—was the original cover of the mini-comic that I made. I didn’t want to recycle that for the book cover. I based the new cover on an old Marvel Treasury Edition because we were making this oversized and because I kind of wanted to keep the cover of my book similar in approach to the interior pages.
I felt a little hemmed in to make it another Hulk parody but I suppose the Hulk and Trump are kind of superficially similar. I think the Hulk is more sympathetic than Trump. Trump has resources that the Hulk doesn’t have.
Picture Stories from the Bible, the original book, I think it’s the first, major, full-blown comic-book adaptation. Certainly, other people adapted stories before but I think Picture Stories from the Bible was the first one to say, “We’re going to do all the Old Testament and all the New Testament.” [The creators] essentially made a graphic novel in the 1940's. They’re very earnest. They’re very square. And they’re kind of boring. But I find them really charming.
I’m usually adapting literary works, or texts into comics and I’ve always been fascinated by the history of adaptation in comic books. It was fun to go back to that. I did really want the book to have a lot of unexpected turns, so going to this was perfect. Trump’s said more than once about how the Bible is his favorite. But Art of the Deal is his second. Again, this is something I think his fans love about him. He’s so braggadocios. But it just seemed really inappropriate in a Bible comic. He’s also Herod, of course. So if you know the source material, it adds another layer. He’s in the place of a leader, but not a sympathetic character in the Bible story.
I thought I needed to mention Russia. I was actually really put off by the way Trump would dismiss any authoritarian action by Putin, “we do bad stuff too”. He’s very forgiving of people he likes that are reprehensible. I didn’t want this book to include Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, I really didn’t want it to be about anybody but him. But Putin was just a politician he had a bet with, he’s the leader of a major country. So I felt he was of high enough stature and people would recognize him. And hopefully, if we’re not blown up by North Korea, there’ll be people in ten years who see this book and know what I’m talking about.
I drew this before Charlottesville because, again, I wanted the book to catalog all of the aspects of what he was saying and he said this before the election. There shouldn’t be anything he’s said today that’s surprised anyone. The fact that he won for talking like this means he thinks he can keep talking like this. I actually was uneasy drawing this one. It almost seemed unfair to him. But I was like, “No. That’s appropriate.” That’s what happens when you equivocate and when you don’t take responsibility for what you’re saying. I didn’t want to put his name in it, but he was talking about David Duke. So it wasn’t out of place to have the hoods behind him. Dog whistles are still hurtful. And I thought, “This one’s not funny at all”.
For this one in particular, the quote is just astonishing. Holy smokes, who talks like this? How far back do you have to lean to invoke such an antiquated mode of prejudice and racism? I knew it was a good one to do, but it’s also really heavy. He’s not a good person!
I didn’t actually want to mention the “grab ‘em by the pussy” quote but I did want to address his constant claims of loving women. So the title is really cheap, but I felt it was suitable in this context. With the original cover, I’m not exactly sure what the relationship is between the Catwoman and Penguin, who gets replaced Trump on my version. They have a fight in the issue.
But this cover says they’re existing together, but they’re not talking to each other? Maybe that’s a good way of describing why I thought this cover worked. They’re each in their own plane. They both feel like they’re on display. Paul Gulacy is a great designer, and I wanted to play with that. Again, it was just a different approach. It would have been very easy to draw 48 pages of Trump getting punched by a superhero and saying something, but I was trying to find different ways of addressing the various situations.
When I asked Sikoryak if he felt like he could do more of these parodies over the course of Trump’s remaining term, he seemed weary. “ I really struggle with that,” he answered. “I was really happy to finish the book and put it aside. As someone who deals in fiction, I like closure. But there’ve been so many daily, outrageous things I’d like to respond to. I tried to close the book on something that would work as an ending, of sort, I feel like it’s still an open situation. But it’s hard to say [making Unquotable Trump] has been cathartic because we’re still in the middle of it all.”
“I’m drawing other things just to clear my head for awhile. But, depending on the response to the book, and how I’m feeling in a couple of months, I think there’s a chance I’ll be going back to it in a couple of months. I’ve been cataloging quotes and thinking of images to use for covers, but, I really can’t get stuck in his head to that degree for the rest of the four years. It seems likely I’ll have a few more just to put on Tumblr. Whether it becomes a whole book or not, I don’t know.”