Graphic novels now serve as a go-to medium to make any topic more accessible and exciting. With “Terms and Conditions,” R. Sikoryak presents a challenge to the bounds of the medium: is there a topic so boring that even a graphic novel format can’t make it more interesting? Or at least more readable?
Sikoryak has attempted to make "unreadable" text accessible in previous pieces. "Masterpiece Comics" creates mashups of comics and the high-level literature that many of us never read; Diggy becomes Candide, Superman is Camus' Stranger, and Beavis and Butthead find themselves waiting for someone named Godot.
In his greatest challenge yet, “Terms and Conditions” takes on the full text of the iTunes Terms and Conditions (as it read on October 21, 2015). Let me repeat that. "Terms and Conditions" is, literally, those pesky iTunes Terms and Conditions (that we all ignore in each software update) illustrated into comics. That's the book.
You may think the next sentence is: don't waste your time. But to the contrary, "Terms and Conditions" is a wildly entertaining and creative work that is well worth the read. Sikoryak’s stylistic parodies are spot-on and turn the book into a treasure-hunt for graphic novel and comic aficionados. The book also turns the spotlight on the agreements we ignore that affect our everyday lives.
Having read it, I can now make a claim truthfully uttered by likely only a few bored, privacy-conscious people: I have read all 20,669 words of the iTunes terms and conditions all the way through. Twice. And while the medium-shift definitely made the terms and conditions more readable, I can’t claim that it made them engaging. To be fair, this is part of Sikoryak's point. The challenge of making text readable (as he certainly does) is not the same as making the text entertaining (as literally no one on earth could do). The point here was to make people read what is undeniably an important text — not important in the sense of literary genius, but important in that these terms and conditions represent an agreement that we all unthinkingly make.
Sikoryak is a brilliant mimic and he parodies many styles throughout the book, substituting Steve Jobs for the popular characters in each adaptation. So on each page, the style swings wildly, from classic Spiderman to Hark! A Vagrant, to Saga, likely keeping avid fans of comics and graphic novels thoroughly entertained. After an excited first run-through absorbing the various art styles, I forced myself to go through the book again, actually reading every single word of text rather than skimming.
This lead me to two conclusions.
First, the text itself is stultifying and dense, but the visual medium of graphic novels serves to make the language stick in the reader's brain. More fun still were the instances where the parodied comic had a connection with the text. For example, in one panel, Steve Jobs-as-Superman urges users to avoid content that is obscene or "in poor taste" — a view the do-gooder himself would appreciate. "Snoopy-Jobs" discusses sharing products within a family, while "Spider-Jobs" explains that Apple reserves the right to disband a family-sharing program (jokes about Uncle Ben forcibly leaving his family welcome here). The stylistic differences are fascinating and fun, but were only capable of making me stick with the text and continue the book. The art couldn't force me to understand or absorb the text.
This leads me to my second conclusion – terms and conditions are a ridiculous way to establish user knowledge and consent.
Pretending that the various terms and conditions of the sites, apps, and products we use function as actual consent is a legal fiction – no one truly believes that consumers read and understand them, but we enforce them as if it were true. Their texts are impenetrable and impractical for users to read.
A 2014 study found that if an average user were to actually read all the privacy policies of the sites s/he visited in a year, it would take 250 working hours, or 30 full working days. The time cost of reading and understanding these policies has been examined and critiqued many times over. Beyond that, the language is often difficult to parse and meaningless to the layperson. I’m a lawyer, and I can personally attest that I had to reread at least half the sentences in "Terms and Conditions" to be sure I understood what they were saying or to grasp the basic sentence structure. These agreements are meant to be binding on users, but they are functionally impossible for users to understand. Informed consent is clearly not a real consideration here.
By building a graphic novel that is unbelievably fun despite its text, Sikoryak highlights the absurdity of pretending that impenetrable terms and conditions have any true meaning.
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