Illustrations: Ed Piskor
Ed Piskor is one of the most fascinating young cartoonists in America. Self-taught as a child, Piskor broke into the industry when he was invited by Harvey Pekar to illustrate an American Splendor story. Impressed with the young artist’s chops on that strip, Pekar hand-picked Piskor to collaborate on several graphic novels, including Macedonia and The Beats: A Graphic History.
However, although grateful for the opportunity to work with one of the most celebrated writers in comics’ history, Piskor’s fascination with ‘80s popular culture compelled him to branch out on his own and explore the fascinating world of early computer hackers. Initially self-published, Wizzywig was eventually released in 2012 by Top Shelf Comix and the fictionalized historical graphic novel earned a spot on many critics’ year end lists.
But Piskor’s dream project, which he began serializing as a web-comic on the eclectic pop culture site, Boing Boing (archive), is an exhaustive history of the hip hop music scene. Partially inspired by his work with Pekar and also his own obsessive passion for the subject matter, The Hip Hop Family Tree quickly mushroomed into a monumental project, chronicling, in retro-comic vivacity, all sorts of intriguing minutiae related to the “viral propagation” of the subculture. Meticulously researched, and drawn with a keen eye toward historical accuracy, Piskor’s exploration of hip hop immediately earned him the respect of cartoonists and musicians alike, as well as a book deal with Fantagraphics (due in 2013).
Having watched Piskor develop over the years, since discovering his first self-published mini-comic, Deviant Funnies #1, all the way back in 2004, I was excited to interview him about the trajectory of his career and his plans for the future. We spoke by phone for several hours on November 29, 2012, the same night the world lost the great underground cartoonist, Spain Rodriguez.
January 21, 2013
Illustrations: Ed Piskor
“Drawing and Withdrawing”
MARC SOBEL: To start off, can you give me a quick background on yourself, like where you’re from, your family background and so forth?
ED PISKOR: Sure. I’m the first born of four siblings. The youngest one is eighteen years younger than me. She’s twelve now. We’re from this area of Pittsburgh called Homestead. It’s one of those areas where the only source of economic income for the town was the steel industry and that went away like two years after I was born. So we were pretty poor and there wasn’t much money to do anything but luckily pencils and paper were cheap so I was able to hang out and draw.
Also, I was one of the only white kids in my neighborhood, which was no big deal until I started getting a little bit older, like middle school age, and then it was weird. After one summer, coming back to school, suddenly race was an issue. It was confusing to me because we were all friends the previous year and then when we came back, some epic thing must have happened that I was just completely ignorant of because suddenly race was a factor. So after that I just became withdrawn and hung out by myself and drew.
I was also one of the only kids whose parents were still together, and, as weird as this sounds, that was an embarrassment to me because people would make fun of me. It’s so weird but I was really susceptible to that kind of stuff. Dudes were like ‘aw man, you live like Leave It to Beaver,’ and shit like that. Now it’s completely obvious that dudes were just jealous that I had a mom and dad who got along, but at the time I was just like, ‘oh man.’ I didn’t fantasize about them getting divorced or anything but I was like ‘why can’t I just be like everybody else?’ That sounds so pathetic, though, right?
MARC SOBEL: <laughs> No, it’s interesting.
ED PISKOR: Yeah. I guess that’s really it. Well… I could take it to a dark place. In high school, when I was 15 years old, I got really, really sick. That’s not something I like to get into but it informed where I’m moving in terms of an art career and stuff, because… I got very sick to the point where, in tenth grade I was home-schooled for the last two and a half years of high school. That provided me with copious amounts of time to hang out, draw and read comics.
The way the schooling was structured, two teachers from the school would come once a week each, after school to my house from 3:00 to 5:00pm and that’s all I had to worry about per week. So I only really had four hours of school a week.
MARC SOBEL: Wow!
ED PISKOR: The rest of the time I spent drawing. And because all my friends were in school all day, they had to go to bed early, so I started hanging out with older kids and even people in their twenties. Those guys introduced me to graffiti and things like that. I wasn’t good enough at drawing comics yet back then, but still I had this urge to put work out there and have it seen, so at that time, graffiti was my outlet to express myself publicly. Once I got better, I would stay out all night and do graffiti, then come home, crash, wake up at like 3:00pm, have my teachers come over, do that school shit, and then just do it all over again. This went on for a couple years.
MARC SOBEL: So you were sick for two years?
ED PISKOR: Yeah, but honestly, I was sick for like a year, but the recovery process took forever. What’s weird is that since getting into comics, I’ve met a bunch of guys who had that same problem. It just has to do with being so anal retentive and obsessive. It seems to be a common thing amongst a lot of creative people, which is something that the doctors told me as a kid.
MARC SOBEL: There’s definitely something about creativity and control. Comics gives you almost complete control over the world that you’re creating.
ED PISKOR: Yeah, for sure. And especially as a kid, you have zero power over anything else so you try to control that little world. Plus, you spend a lot of time in your head and it just bleeds over. But, like with everything that I do in general, during school I wanted to be the best student, but my mind isn’t a sponge for information. I know some people who learning comes easy for them, but that’s not me. I always got great grades, but I had to work my balls off for that. So that shit just caught up to me after a while. After I got sick and I was recovering, I sort of made a change, but it still creeps back now and then and when I find myself getting really obsessive, I have to take a break.
To be honest, when you first called me up, I was going through a big-time depression. It just happens every now and again because I spend so much time drawing and withdrawing. This time it was because the guys at Fantagraphics had just sent me my advance for the book and so now… I’ve never borrowed a dollar from a person in my life so now I feel like I’m in their debt, you know? I feel a big responsibility to make it as good as possible, so I just put this weird pressure on myself. I’ve always done that.
“I Can Do This Stuff…”
MARC SOBEL: Obviously, I’m guessing that you were a huge comics fan growing up?
ED PISKOR: Yeah I was. I was a huge X-Men fan as a kid, but what really opened my eyes was… One day, I think it was on the A&E television channel, that documentary from the ‘80s called Comic Book Confidential.
MARC SOBEL: Sure.
ED PISKOR: That was one of the most important things that ever happened to me, coming across that documentary when I was eight or nine years old. I remember flipping through the channels and seeing Spider-Man on the screen, so it was during the Stan Lee portion of it, and that took me aback because it was like, ‘whoa, Spider-Man’s on TV. Cool. I’m going to check this out.’ Then what follows right after the Marvel Comics stuff is the undergrounds. So they get into Crumb and Harvey Pekar and there was one scene when Crumb was talking about the transformation of Fritz the Cat and he said something like, ‘Fritz the Cat was just this character that I drew in comics as a kid,’ and they showed this image of a comic that was drawn on notebook paper. That was incredibly important to me, because, even at a very young age, I immediately made this connection, like ‘ok, I can do this stuff.’
That documentary includes all of my major influences, both at that time and forward. Everybody in that film is the jumping off point for where I would go in terms of finding other comics. Kurtzman, Eisner, Kirby, Charles Burns, Jaime Hernandez, all those dudes were super important to me.
So I watched that movie on a Friday on regular television and literally the next day I made my mom take me to the library and there was this book, it was the only book on comics in the entire library, called Comix, with an ‘x’ by Les Daniels from the ‘70s. It was great because I watched that documentary, got schooled a little bit, and then I got that book and almost everybody that was discussed in the movie is talked about in that book. Plus, there were actual, full excerpts of stories by people like Robert Crumb and – rest in peace – Spain Rodriguez.
MARC SOBEL: Yeah!
ED PISKOR: So, I feel extremely lucky because I was exposed to underground comix before I hit the double digits of age.
“We’re Gonna Be Fucking Billionaires”
MARC SOBEL: I know you went to the Kubert School for a year, but are you mostly self-taught?
ED PISKOR: Yeah.
MARC SOBEL: Talk to me about how you learned to draw. You started to touch on it when you mentioned all the free time you had, but can you give me a little more detail?
ED PISKOR: Yeah. I relate hip hop culture a lot with my learning to draw because… There’s this certain mind frame. All through school I was definitely one of the worst people at most things, but with drawing I could at least hold my own. There was no way I was going to be able to beat anybody in any kind of organized sport or anything like that but I was at least a contender in the drawing thing. And the hip hop mind frame helped because people would snap on my work. They’d say something like ‘That sucks, man. I can’t believe you drew that,’ or, ‘do you need glasses?’ Shit like that. We would just bust on each other for being able to draw. So that provided a natural incentive to do better work because I thought, ‘oh man, I have to blow these dudes’ minds next time.’ Of course that never happened. Even when I got to a point where I was reasonably sure that I was better than them, they could still cut me down, which was cool. It was character building.
MARC SOBEL: So you were putting drawings in front of all your friends on a regular basis?
ED PISKOR: Yeah, we all were. When I was in sixth grade, there was this weird period where comics were really popular with everybody. Even a lot of the jocks were into them. This was after the “Death of Superman” and the first coming of Image Comics.
Everyone was buying these things, even football players, but most people were never looking at them. A lot of dudes would have Comic Buyer’s Guides, the new ones, or their Wizard Magazines in class all the time and they would be calculating their wealth. <laughter> It was like, ‘oh man, I’m worth $15,000 this month.’ So the cool people were into this shit for a brief time and it was really a cool thing to do.
And a lot of people were drawing too. Recently I sent a bunch of my friends this clipping from an old Entertainment Weekly from around that time where, there was this guy named Chap Yaep, who drew Team Youngblood.
MARC SOBEL: I remember that guy.
ED PISKOR: Yeah. He was 19, so he was only a couple years older than us, and the article was like, ‘Cartoonist rookie stands a chance at making $250,000 this year.’ <laughter> That’s fucking crazy, man, but we were all like ‘yo, we’re gonna be fucking billionaires drawing this stuff.’ So me and all these dudes, we were submitting work to the Extreme Studios talent search to try to get an opportunity to draw Brigade comics, or Bloodstrike, or whatever.
MARC SOBEL: Wow.
ED PISKOR: It was pretty cool. So a bunch of us were always drawing and we would show each other stuff, but… We were encouraging in as much as we’d bust on each other. Like, ‘dude, you suck, man. It looks like you drew an arm where his leg’s supposed to be.’ <laughter> Then another dude would be like, ‘Ah, you’re a fucking dick,’ and then everybody’d just keep drawing. But eventually those dudes discovered chicks or something like that whereas I was just stubborn enough to keep going. I think I recognized that with each little piece I was drawing, my stuff was getting a little better. So that was incentive enough to keep going.
Another big school of cartooning for me as a kid was I would copy full comic pages off of existing books. So for a period of a few years there… and I still have some of this stuff… I was drawing whole pages from Spawn comics and Youngblood, or Rob Liefeld’s X-Force. Then my tastes gradually got more sophisticated and it got to the point where I was drawing pages from Dark Knight Returns and John Romita, Jr. Daredevil comics, and then it was EC Comics. Finally it was like, ‘ok, time to start drawing my own stuff.’
There was also an art school in town for kids. It was just one of these extracurricular things where every four quarters you could sign up to take a cartooning class. So I participated in those and I absolutely adored those classes because it was a little bit healthier of an environment in terms of learning. It wasn’t just about making fun of each other.
Illustration: Ed Piskor
The best part was that eventually they put together these comic book production classes at that school. So what we would do is for eight weeks, we would work on a four or five page strip and then, at the end of the course, the teacher would go and print them up into this little anthology book. I mean, this thing was bound and saddle-stitched and it was a real comic. Everybody would get 10 copies of the book and that really started my addiction with the print medium. There were 10 or 15 people in this class so that meant there were 150 copies of my story out there. I think I did like five issues of that stuff, and it was just so great because I could pour all of my creative energy into that for those eight weeks and then I’d have a real comic book. It felt magical, like I stacked up against anybody else, even though it’s so apparent when you look through those things, that I’m literally the only person that took that stuff seriously at all. Every other kid was just there to be babysat. Like, it would give their parents three hours with the kid out of their hair. <laughter> I’m still friends with that teacher to this day and he was like, ‘dude, I always knew that you were going to end up drawing comics.’
Illustration: Ed Piskor
“My Version of Art School”
MARC SOBEL: So was Deviant Funnies #1 your first real mini-comic?
ED PISKOR: Yeah, and the material that’s in that mini, those are the same strips I sent Harvey Pekar that put me on his radar. He gave me a call after checking out some of that stuff, although I actually hooked up with him before I printed that book up.
What I would do is draw a four or five page strip and submit that to Fantagraphics and Top Shelf with a proposal for what I would want my Eightball-analogue comic to be. My idea was to do a personal anthology, but all those stories were pretty crappy. My proposals had such naiveté attached to them, but, to an extent, I feel like that was an important component to getting published, at least for a guy like me where everything’s pretty gradual. I’m not James Stokoe, or whoever, with all this great natural ability. I have to really break my balls
So, I put myself out there and I think that was an important part of being able to get started. Nowadays, I could never see myself sending stuff to a cartoonist who I love, like ‘oh man, it would be great to work with you, Harvey Pekar.’ That’s a crazy thought to me now.
MARC SOBEL: You had that one-page strip in Deviant Funnies about Harvey calling you up, but can you elaborate about how you guys first started working together. You started out doing American Splendor strips, right?
ED PISKOR: Sure, yeah. So, like I said, I would send stuff to Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, Alternative Comics, all those places but I always would get rejected. So it was like, ‘what am I going to do? I’m just going to do these strips only to get rejected by these five people?’ That seemed kind of whack, so I started sending stuff to cartoonists that I dug. Basically I would do a strip and send it out to maybe 50 or 60 guys. So I found Harvey’s address on… I had lots of old American Splendor comics, but there was one recent one that I had and on the cover it had a photograph of his face. And it was mocked up to look like Time, or some other subscription-based magazine, where they laser print your address on the cover whenever they ship it. So it had an address and I was like ‘I’m going to send my strips to this address and just see if it gets rejected, or if it’s even a real address.’ I didn’t hear anything, but since the packages never came back, I just assumed they got to the guy.
So, the American Splendor flick comes out (in September 2003) and I dragged a bunch of friends to go check it out and just a few weeks later, Harvey Pekar calls the house. That was what that strip’s about. I just couldn’t believe it. It seemed insane. So he’s like, ‘yeah, I dig your stuff.’ Also, I think there was a part of me being from a sister city to Cleveland that was interesting to him. The fact that I was young also helped because he felt weird asking a lot of the old-timers to work for $100 per page. That’s not a lot of money.
So from when I first spoke with Harvey, it was about one year later before we actually started working together. It was this crazy waiting game. I would be in touch with him fairly regularly, maybe every couple of months or so. I would call to check in and see if it was still real. Like, ‘Hey, Harv, do you still remember me?’ He’d be like, ‘yeah, yeah, yeah, what are you talking about? Yeah, I remember you, man.’ He was like, ‘I’m still working on this thing, and as soon as it’s ready to go I’ll get these strips to you.’
So it was this long build-up and then I did a four-page strip for American Splendor: Our Movie Year. And that was it. I was like, ‘ok, well, I did that. Cool.’ And that was going to be it until the book was wrapping up. Apparently he was contractually obligated to make it a certain number of pages and they were like 25 pages shy. So, it’s like a week before my birthday and Harv calls me up and he’s like, ‘hey, do you want to do a bunch of pages in a really short amount of time?’ I’m like, ‘alright, yeah. Sure, man.’ He needed this 24 or 25 page story in like that many days, maybe even fewer, like 20 days. So I’m like, ‘OK. Cool,’ and I put my birthday on hiatus. I was just like, ‘I’ll celebrate after I’m finished with the strip.’
That turned out to be a real cartooning boot camp for me because of the tight deadline. I really didn’t want to disappoint him, so I worked my ass off to get the work done. But after some time, it became apparent that he was testing me a little bit. I mean, I’m sure we did have a tight deadline, but right after delivering, he was like, ‘Ok, man. Do you want to work on this 150 page book with me?’ Obviously I was delighted.
MARC SOBEL: This was Macedonia?
ED PISKOR: Right. And when he called it “Macedonia,” I was like, ‘this is fucking awesome. Harvey is turning a new leaf. We’re going to do a comic about Alexander of Macedon, and shit like that. We’re going to do a story about this guy taking over the world.’ I was already thinking about referencing Pythagoras and Diogenes and all these old philosophers. But then he was like ‘no man, it’s about the geopolitical de-stabilization of the Balkan region through the story of this young college girl.’ <laughter> I was just like, ‘Fuck! ...Alright I’ll do it.’ <laughter> But then I got the script and I’m like, ‘holy shit!’ He had told me that it was derivative of this girl’s thesis and I’m like, ‘yeah, it reads like a fucking thesis, man.’ <laughter>
MARC SOBEL: There’s very little visual narrative there. Was it tough to work on a story like that?
ED PISKOR: It was SO tough, and I absolutely wasn’t ready. I wasn’t good enough to translate that in any way. Also, it should have been maybe a 300 page comic, so there are pages that have maybe fifteen panels on them, and each one is just loaded down with copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like an EC Comics amount of dialogue hanging above all the characters’ heads.
That is the reason I describe Wizzywig as ‘my first book.’ All the Harvey Pekar stuff really was my version of art school. I’m embarrassed by those books because they’re some of Harvey’s last work and I didn’t show up properly. I’m not saying that I hacked that stuff out. I did my absolute best for my skill level at the time, but my skill level was just not there, you know? It just absolutely was not there and the result is that that’s some of Harvey’s last work and it’s seen through the lens of a fucking 23-year-old jerk-off.
MARC SOBEL: What would you do differently with those books if given the opportunity now?
ED PISKOR: Well, it’s been a while since I really looked at that stuff, but I would definitely try to just gussy it up with some visuals. I would try to give it room to breathe, and the overall aesthetic of the art would obviously be way better. But, to be honest, Macedonia was a hard book. I still really have never read it. I sort of read it as I went along. I read it initially in script form and was just like, ‘Fuck!’ I can’t say no, but I don’t think I’m the guy for this job.’ But I just had to do it. I wanted to draw comics so bad. I don’t know. It was so long ago. It honestly caused me a lot of pain because we don’t have Harvey around anymore and I look at some of that work I did with him as a blemish on his career. I was just so inexperienced and stupid.
MARC SOBEL: What about The Beats? How do you feel about that work? It looks to me like your art came a long way in terms of improving and tightening and developing into the style you’re working in now from where you were on Macedonia. Would you agree with that?
ED PISKOR: I would, but I still hate that artwork a lot, too. It definitely got better from Macedonia but it’s still pretty hard for me to look at. I can see all this Dan Clowes wannabe stuff, and I was using rulers on every line so it looks kind of dead or maybe constipated or something like that. That shit is tough for me to talk about. I don’t know what I was trying to do.
MARC SOBEL: Beyond just checking in periodically, did you have much of a personal relationship with Harvey? Did you guys ever meet in person or anything like that?
ED PISKOR: Yeah. In that first year waiting period, I travelled out to Cleveland and we hung out. And then he was a guest of honor at SPX one year, so we hung out there, and we gave a talk at a few colleges, too. So maybe like five times we hung out physically, but for two and a half years, I spoke to him almost every day on the phone. And that was really cool. That guy was really, really funny.
MARC SOBEL: Yeah?
ED PISKOR: Oh yeah. Every now and again, you would catch him when he was in the doldrums or whatever, but I never once got that sense of… You know how people use that word ‘curmudgeon’ whenever you bring up Harvey? I really think that’s the power of television because that’s the character he portrayed on Letterman, and therefore that’s what people remember, but he absolutely was not that guy. He was super magnanimous and cool. I never once got that ‘bah humbug’ vibe from him. If anything, there would be times when he was just kind of sad or something, but never a big grump.
Illustration: Ed Piskor
“It’s Interesting to Know Subversive Shit”
MARC SOBEL: Can you describe Off the Hook, the radio show you listened to while working on the books with Harvey, in terms of what it was, the format of the show and how it inspired the story of Kevin Phenacle?
ED PISKOR: Yeah. It’s an hour long show on WBAI out there in Manhattan and I started listening to it while I was working on Macedonia. The show is hosted by this guy whose nom-de-plume is ‘Emmanuel Goldstein’ and he is the publisher of 2600 magazine, a hacker quarterly. He’s been publishing it since, I believe 1984, which might be why that’s his name.
MARC SOBEL: From the George Orwell book?
ED PISKOR: Yeah. So, by being this publisher, he was on the forefront of a lot of the political issues regarding computers and the general public. It was incredibly fascinating stuff to me.
The reason I started listening to this show with such prurient interest was that deep down I think we all fantasize a little bit about being a master super villain, or having that kind of knowledge. So I was like, ‘I’m going to listen to this show and develop this hacker skill set that could make me dangerous as fuck if I wanted to be.’ I’m real interested in knowing about stuff you’re not supposed to know about, for trivial reasons mostly, because all I really want to do in life is just sit around and draw comics, but it’s interesting to know subversive shit.
So, that was the initial interest, but when I started checking it out, very quickly I discovered that what I thought a hacker was is not what hackers think they are. I had been misled by mainstream media to develop this correlation between a hacker and a criminal, like it’s some sort of evil thing to know about computers, when it was actually a term of endearment for years.
So with the position that Goldstein has as publisher of 2600, he got to speak to all of the biggest names, the most interesting and skilled people within that culture.
MARC SOBEL: You just went through it chronologically from the beginning?
ED PISKOR: I did, which took a while because I think there might be over a thousand hours worth of that stuff. It was a twenty-plus year archive, maybe twenty-five years. And it’s great because there are several really big stories that play out over time, and it seems dramatic, like it was written and preconceived. For example, he might have some guests on the show one week, and the next week, those same guys might very well be fugitives from the law, hiding out or on the run. Then whenever one major piece of drama would wrap up, something else would happen. These guys just fucking got in trouble all the time and you were able to follow along as it’s happening.
There was one co-host who you kind of grow to adore. His name is ‘Phiber Optik,’ and he’s the co-host for probably a year’s worth of the show. He’s so smart and so young, and he sounds like a little boy, but he has such knowledge about all these different systems and things. Then suddenly one week, the kid can barely speak on the show, even though he’s there in studio, because of gag orders. I guess his lawyer advised him not to say anything. Then a few weeks go by and you don’t know what’s going on, then suddenly you find out that he’s in jail. So then a whole year of shows goes by and then they do this special broadcast where they go down to get him out of prison and drive him from the jail to the radio station to be a co-host again.
Then there was this one guy who was on the show all the time, his name is ‘Bernie S,’ who I actually became great friends with. He also got sent to jail, but he still managed to co-host the show from fricking jail because they figured out a legal loophole. See, if you’re in prison, you can’t call a radio show and broadcast, but they discovered that it’s perfectly legal to call a civilian’s house and if the civilian just so happens to forward the call to a radio station, that’s legal. So the dude was co-hosting the show from prison, and you would hear the little intermittent beep that meant the call was being recorded. These guys were some brash, fucking bad ass motherfuckers! So I fell in love with all that stuff.
MARC SOBEL: Somebody I was talking to at the Brooklyn Comics Festival who had read Wizzywig described Kevin as “a modern day Robin Hood.” Is that how you meant to portray him and do you see him as a kind of mythical character?
ED PISKOR: The Robin Hood thing is a little strong. I just see him, and the hackers who the character is based on, as being people who are way too curious for their own good. But I don’t see harm in that, you know? It’s almost like saying, ‘oh, you’re too smart,’ or something like that. It’s ridiculous. With Kevin, what I wanted to get across is that these guys were doing this stuff way before the government had a clue. The legislation had to catch up with what they were doing and some of these guys were doing this silly shit on computers for ten years by the time the first laws were on the books, so it was a part of their life and they just couldn’t stop because they loved it so much. So if I have to distill the character down, I just consider him to be this pranksterish, extremely curious little nerd who didn’t know when to say when.
MARC SOBEL: You had a character all the way back in Deviant Funnies #1 called ‘Boingthump.’ Has that character been with you all that time, or was it just the same name?
ED PISKOR: So a big part of my interest in hacking comes from a friend of mine whose name is very similar to Kevin Phenacle’s, and his hacker name is Boingthump. If you search online for Boingthump and you see something that doesn’t have to do with comics, that’s my homeboy.
That dude is definitely pretty nuts. He’s pulled off some hacking capers in his day and he told me those stories which sparked my initial interest in learning more about the culture. So my character’s kind of a nod to him for giving me that germ of an idea to go down this route.
MARC SOBEL: Have you ever done any hacking yourself?
ED PISKOR: You know what’s crazy is listening to the entire 25-year archive of the radio show, you fricking learn some shit. It’s such a piecemeal operation but if you’re paying enough attention and you listen to enough of this stuff, you can start to put these little pieces together. There were times where I would lay in bed and think, ‘oh my goodness. I think I can get a free long distance phone call using a pay phone.’
So, the last real job I had was working at a call center when I was twenty years old and I sort of knew how their internal system worked, so I decided to see if I could use a pay phone to get into their system and make long distance phone calls. And I was able to do it. It’s highly inefficient, but I accomplished it. Of course, it makes zero sense now, especially in a day when cell phones are so cheap. But I did it, and it was free and it was probably illegal. So that’s one example, but mostly my interest is purely informational.
“Alternative Cartoonists Today Are a Bunch of Pussies.”
MARC SOBEL: Was it while you were working on Wizzywig or after that you started contributing to Mineshaft?
ED PISKOR: That’s a good question. I was definitely still working on Wizzywig, but some of the stuff, like the stuff I did with Jay Lynch, I did that in that interim period before I really started working with Harvey. So, thinking about it… Harvey was the first call I got and Jay Lynch was the second. Jay’s work is in that Comix book by Les Daniels, too, so I was aware of him, but his work was always so elusive because you would have to pay like seven dollars to get an old Bijou Funnies comic, or something that would have some ‘Nard and Pat strips. But I always loved his work. It’s so meticulous and detailed and perfect-looking.
MARC SOBEL: Did he invite you to contribute to Mineshaft? Is that how you got hooked up with them?
ED PISKOR: That came up after. First, we were just working on these strips and it was going to be a 32-page comic. His whole thesis was that ‘these alternative cartoonists today are a bunch of pussies. They’re all crybabies,’ like all the kids in the generation after him, or maybe two generations after. ‘They’re all a bunch of wusses. Back in our day we used to have sex, do drugs, fight, and live in hardcore neighborhoods, shit like that.’
So we were working on this thing and it was going to be like ‘Two-Fisted Cartoonist Tales,’ just short strips about some crazy stories that those guys were involved in. So we did maybe 17 pages worth of material, five stories, and we submitted that and the guys at Top Shelf were like, ‘absolutely, we will publish a book of this.’ But the times were different back then, and… I mean, I was fully aware that we weren’t going to make a lot of money on this, but I guess those older cartoonists, the underground guys, they had a sort of a union in a way back then. They got a page rate for everything even though the rate was kind of nominal. But that certainly doesn’t exist now, and I think Jay was just a little put-off by the royalties aspect of it, which I understand. It is kind of crazy and you have to hope that the publishers are doing the right thing. I don’t think they would continue to be in the game if they weren’t, but it is possible that some scummy guy could fudge numbers and say that he sold a thousand less books. Who’s to say? I’m sure they don’t, but you just have to put a lot of faith in people.
So we didn’t pursue the full 32-page comic. Then over time, Mineshaft, which is one of the few ‘zines that comes out on a consistent basis, they would get a lot of material from some of the old underground guys. That’s sort of the wheelhouse of what they publish, so we ended up submitting to those guys so at least those strips could see the light of day.
Illustration: Ed Piskor
“I Couldn’t Get Out of Bed for Like a Month”
MARC SOBEL: Just to clarify your chronology, after you finished Wizzywig, is that when you got involved withAdult Swim and the Mongo Wrestling Alliance?
ED PISKOR: Yeah. I was self-publishing those Wizzywigs for a couple of years. In between Macedonia and The Beats, I did the first volume of the self-published Wizzywig Comics. Then I did The Beats and then volumes two and three came out. After volume two, I almost had enough of volume three done to publish it but the Adult Swim guys got in touch and I had to put it on hiatus for months. I literally just needed to finish like fifteen pages, but I was putting all my time into the Adult Swim stuff.
MARC SOBEL: How did that opportunity arise?
ED PISKOR: They got in touch with me during the summer, after a San Diego Comic-Con. The show’s producer, Eric Kaplan, just sent me this very short email, and was like, ‘do you want to design characters for an Adult Swim cartoon?’ Or a ‘possible cartoon,’ he said. I was pretty skeptical at first because you get these kinds of offers from time to time and it’s always bullshit. It’s usually some kid fresh out of art school, or college who has an idea that he thinks is going to make a million dollars.
So, since I’d never heard of Eric Kaplan or anything, after I got that email I did some Google searching and I realized, ‘this guy actually has stripes. This dude exists. It’s not just some silly bullshit.’ But then I got worried that maybe these guys didn’t know what it takes and they wanted me to do a bunch of free work ‘for a percentage of the back end,’ or something.
So I started emailing with him and it turns out that he was talking with Peter Bagge, who hipped him to my name. Pete is another guy I corresponded with early on when I was sending huge packets of shit out. I thought it was so cool that Pete still remembered me after so much time because I didn’t really keep up correspondence or anything.
So after a few weeks, Kaplan was like, ‘alright man, are you ready to do this?’ Then a bunch of phone calls happened and contracts were sent, which was another thing I got very nervous about because you hear a million stories about Hollywood. I was like, ‘are these guys going to rape and pillage me?’ <laughter> Because make no mistake about it, for all of the advances with creators’ rights, the majority of contracts that are out there are still that same old Jack Kirby contract where you’re coming up with shit for other people and you get no percentage of anything.
So, in addition to Peter Bagge, I saw that Kaplan was working with Tony Millionaire, and several other cartoonists. So I consulted with all those guys with questions like, ‘is this Kaplan dude legit?’ And then, ‘can you look at this contract for me and tell me if it looks weird?’ But everybody was like, ‘it seems cool, man, if you want to create some characters. There probably won’t be anything that comes from this other than you’ll make some money and that’ll be it.’
The initial job was to design four characters, and then after that I got another contract to design four more, and then four more. After that I didn’t hear anything for months, until I was carbon copied on this email that showed the production schedule. I was like, ‘oh shit, this show actually got picked up. That’s fucking cool!’
So I sent the guys I worked with a short email like, ‘that’s so cool that you guys sold this show with those characters and everything. I can’t wait to see what that looks like,’ and they were like, ‘you didn’t get our other emails?’ I was like, ‘what other emails?’ They’re like, ‘dude, we need you to do all this other production work. We need these key frames, and you need to come up with all these little assets, which are these little objects that would be in the show. I’m like, ‘are you kidding me? This sounds like a big job.’ And it was, but it paid well, and it was very fun to work on for a year and a half.
MARC SOBEL: What was the experience of working on a cartoon like as opposed to doing your own comics? What were some of the things you did and didn’t like working in animation?
ED PISKOR: It was a lot of fun in a million different ways. I felt really respected by everybody I worked with. At first I had an inferiority complex because I would Google stalk these guys to see who I was dealing with and they all have Emmy Awards and went to Ivy League schools, and I have nothing like that. But any ideas that I had they were real respectful of and I felt like they were really fair with the ideas that I came up with.
Initially, all the scripts were really top notch and I really dug it, but the final shows that came out were nothing like any of the scripts that I read, and… See, this is the part where I’m literally contractually precluded from saying anything bad about the show. But ultimately it just wasn’t what I initially read. I should have known, too, because after a certain point, I was locked out of the little system where we would upload the assets and new materials. Once I was locked out, I was like, ‘alright, cool. I guess my bit is done. I’m just going to go ahead and work on my comics.’
At that point, I had sold Wizzywig to Top Shelf and I was just fine-tuning the book, getting it all together, and coincidentally just when I sent it off, that’s when the first show aired. And with the combination of those two things, I just got so depressed, because a lot of people in my life were very excited about it.
See, I never talk about this stuff while it’s still in a production stage, or anything like that. There are just too many factors that could make you a liar or a bullshit artist if it doesn’t see the light of day. So I never talked about the show until the commercials were out. Then I was like, ‘dudes, look, the reason I haven’t been able to hang out is because I’ve been working on this cartoon and it’s coming out soon, and I’m stoked and it’s awesome.’ So I had everybody in my life rooting for me, and then after everybody checked it out, which was also the first time I’d seen it myself, I couldn’t get out of bed for like a month. It was just so different from what we initially put together.
MARC SOBEL: It’s so hard to maintain real personal vision in a product that has so many people’s imprint on it. That’s why comics are such a pure art form.
ED PISKOR: Absolutely. I would say that it’s impossible to get across a solitary vision. I mean, there are certain auteurs in film and things like that, but I bet you if you sit down and speak with them, they just take what they can get in certain instances. I felt really lucky to have Wizzywig at that time, where I could just have my own world and do my own thing without any sort of committee.
But some people are really into collaborating. At last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, I spoke with the producer. We had lunch and I asked him, ‘do you have some creative thing that’s all your own apart from all this team effort shit, because I don’t know.’ He’s like, ‘No, man. I love working with people. It’s really fun. I love the communal aspect of a lot of mental energy coming together to create a big project.’ So, it’s not quite where I would envision myself being throughout my career, but some people are into it.
“I’m Like Rain Man When It Comes to This Shit”
MARC SOBEL: Can you talk about what initially sparked your interest in doing such a comprehensive history of hip hop?
ED PISKOR: For years, since high school, I wanted to tell a story within an old school ecosystem where I could indulge in drawing graffiti on the walls, track suits and all the fashion of the time, but I just couldn’t think of a MacGuffin to make it happen. I was like, ‘should it be a crime story, or…’ And then, doing Wizzywig, I wanted… Like, Wizzywig would have been just a biography of Kevin Mitnick if Kevin would have taken me seriously when I started it, but I was nobody at the time, so I had to do this fictional thing. Also there’s just limited material out there about those initial hackers, but with hip hop, there’s tons of stuff out there. You just have to dig into it and find everything, but it already exists. So ultimately, I just said, ‘I’m going to do a hip hop history book, that’s perfect.’
You see, I’m like “Rain Man” when it comes to this hip hop shit. <laughter> So I figured that to make it at least a productive thing, I’d take all that obscure knowledge and make a comic book. That way I wouldn’t feel like a complete slacker spending all this time obsessing over fucking trivia about old school rap. So, that was the impetus. I was like, ‘I already have the knowledge of the hip hop records and stuff, so I’ll just fill all the gaps in my historical knowledge by researching everything.’
So I put that first strip up on boing boing and at first it was going to be very intermittent, just whenever I felt like doing one, because I’m not obligated to do a two or three-page story every week. I could do a strip that’s one drawing and still get the same pay. But I just started digging it too much. I did that first one, and then that led me right into another strip that I wanted to do, and then it just kept growing.
To be honest, I wasn’t initially thinking about this as a book. I had some vague idea that maybe there would be a 32-page comic or something, but over time it became apparent that there’s way too much story to be told and it is too much fun to draw.
MARC SOBEL: Was there a particular moment or song that really crystallized your connection to hip hop?
ED PISKOR: I don’t know. I was born in 1982, so the fad of hip hop was at its apex with shit like that Fruity Pebbles commercial <laughter> with Fred and Barney rapping. So it was just a normal part of my life as a kid, and over time, as the costumes became gaudier and the character of each rapper became more outrageous, I just got totally into it. It was extraordinary; it wasn’t real world stuff.
Also, that was the music that everybody listened to in town so I heard a ton of it. But even then, I still fucked up because if you would listen to the shit that was even six months old, you were considered played out, or kind of whack, but I just couldn’t help it because I would get obsessed with trying to find every rappers’ first songs. I would hear songs with little bits of other songs sampled, and I would have to find out where that sample came from. And then I would listen to that song and it would have samples of older things, so I felt like this detective, or something. I would just fall down this rabbit hole where I was digging into deeper and deeper old hip hop tracks that had nothing to do with the original song. And everybody would be like, ‘you listen to some tired ass bullshit that my dad listens to,’ <laughter> but I couldn’t help it. I just loved it so much.
MARC SOBEL: Is there a particular era of hip hop that you favor?
ED PISKOR: The earliest stuff is the stuff that I most love and adore. I kind of equate those old records with standup comedy. A lot of the first hip hop records are the result of so much test marketing, I guess is the best way to put it, where these people created routines and they put them out there in front of a very hardcore audience of people who might only have ten extra dollars to spend a week for entertainment. So you’re putting on a performance to a hostile crowd. You fine tune it, and you figure out every little piece that works, and every little thing that people respond to positively, and you keep building and adding and making it better.
Then the first rap records happened, so you got these fifteen minute records of all their best material put on wax right there, and it’s all this perfectly tried and true stuff. So it’s great; it has all this heart and soul and a lot of feeling. I listen to those old rap records and literally get tears in my eyes just thinking about the situation that these people were in. You’ve got to understand what the climate was like in New York back in the ‘70s, and how all this funding was being cut from schools and there were no music departments, yet music was such a part of everybody’s lives. So what did they do? They just got together whatever they could, whatever could make some noise, and they figured out how to use that to be creative in their own ways. It’s remarkable.
And if you listen closely to those old records, you can tell that they’re absolutely taking their best shot, like they may never have this opportunity again, so they’re busting their asses. And that’s like a standup comic who goes around to the Chuckle Hut or the Funny Bone and they’re testing material out for their HBO show, or their record, or their appearance on David Letterman.
I identify with a lot of those folks because I also come from very humble means and was able to do some creative stuff. I see doing comics as similar in that it’s taking paper and pencil and making something new. At the end of the day, a page of comics develops that wasn’t there before, and that’s not that different from taking a drum beat from a James Brown record and then rapping over the top of it to create a completely new piece of material.
Then, my other interest is… I’m really fascinated with the viral aspects of how hip hop grew so huge in such a short amount of time, without any internet.
MARC SOBEL: I know in the most recent strips over the last couple of weeks you were talking about how the rise of MTV played a role.
ED PISKOR: Right. Yeah, and the strip I’m working on now, what it’s about is in 1981, there was this segment on 20/20, you know that show with Hugh Downs?
MARC SOBEL: Sure.
ED PISKOR: It talked about how ‘you hear this music all around, but what is it?’ They did this really fair, really insightful ten minute piece about hip hop and its origins, and they did such a good job for like 98% of the thing, but it’s hysterical because at the very end, when Steve Fox, the 20/20 correspondent, is summarizing everything, he makes some statement about the beauty of rap and how quaint it is. He’s like ‘not everybody can sing, but anybody can rap.’ <laughter> And that was the final word on it, which I thought was just so hysterical because they did this really nice job of building it up only to essentially say that ‘even a caveman can do it.’
MARC SOBEL: Would you describe your book as your personal version of the history of hip hop, or are you working from some generally accepted history of the music and the scene?
ED PISKOR: I guess that it’s a generally accepted view because I put this material out there on boing boing and it’s seen by the people who matter and nobody is calling shenanigans on any of it. I’m certainly not taking any controversial stances or anything like that. I’ve done very few interviews personally; I’m pulling from existing material, so I guess it is a generally accepted thing.
MARC SOBEL: So then what sets your book apart from the others?
ED PISKOR: I think the value that my book has and will have over time as I keep moving forward is that it really does stand a chance of being one of the most comprehensive histories of hip hop culture. There really isn’t one resource that includes all of this minutiae and stuff that I’m focusing on.
One of my favorite strips… There are maybe two that took literally days worth of research to yield the strip, but they’re all the better for it. First is the sequence where Kurtis Blow is on a world tour and, in the strip I have four different locations around the world, which I pulled from four different resources. For example, I found this interview where he was talking about being in France, and a different one where Russell Simmons is talking about when they were in Amsterdam, etc. So it’s pretty detailed, and I had to dig up that material in a bunch of different places to be able to put that strip together, but there’s a lot of pleasure in that for me.
Then there was another strip where there was a pretty important event in hip hop culture, but also in the fine art world, called the “Times Square show” that happened on the infamous “Forty Deuce,” and this is where Fab Five Freddy first hooked up with the director Charlie Ahern to start the ball rolling on making the Wild Style movie. It’s also before Keith Haring ever did a major public show so he’s still in SVA, but he’s there getting juiced with everybody, and that show also happened to be Jean Michel Basquiat’s first public exhibition of his artwork. So I pulled all that material from a bunch of different resources and was able to marry it together in the comic strip. All of those connections aren’t made anywhere else, as far as I know.
MARC SOBEL: How do you keep from getting lost in the details?
ED PISKOR: That’s where this weekly deadline comes in. That’s what’s keeping me on track. I realize that these pages take a certain amount of time to do and I have a certain allotment of research that I can do, and then I have to start putting pencil to paper. So that’s my mechanism for keeping me from literally falling in too deep.
MARC SOBEL: How deep into hip hop history do you plan to go?
ED PISKOR: I really want to go for a while. I hope my health holds up because my interest goes up to when Tupac and Biggie Smalls died. I’d love to take it up to their deaths because a lot of people who I respect, writers and journalists, they all pretty much agree that those two guys were the last of the MCs, so it would be cool to try to encapsulate everything up until then.
Hopefully I’m able to keep on this track with Fantagraphics and do these regular 112 page books. This first book covers ’75 to a nice portion of 1981, but there might be one whole book that only covers 1987, depending on how much stuff I uncover. So who knows? I’m just going to keep it going for as long as it’s fun, but ideally I would love to go up through a decade and a half or so. But each book is formatted so it can be its own thing, in case a fucking anvil falls on my head or something. Each book should be a full experience and if that’s a period of time that resonated with you, that’s all you’ll need.
MARC SOBEL: What inspired the family tree structure?
ED PISKOR: Have you watched The Wire?
MARC SOBEL: I finished the first season, but haven’t gone onto season two yet.
ED PISKOR: OK. Still in the first season, in the police office, they have that huge flowchart that connects all… like Wee-Bey’s connected to Stinkum?
MARC SOBEL: Right.
ED PISKOR: That was the inspiration. Because of my interest in hip hop and digging deeper to see how everybody was connected, I had this mental flowchart in my brain of how hip hop worked. If you take a look at the strips on boing boing, at the end there is this ever growing flowchart that connects each new hip hop dude who’s introduced in the book with the guys who are already established. So that was inspired by The Wire, after looking at that flowchart of organized crime in the Avon Barksdale family. I was like, ‘I’m going to put this flowchart together and let it grow to Chris Ware-ian proportions.’ <laughter>
MARC SOBEL: Is Fantagraphics going to do a big foldout of that?
ED PISKOR: I don’t know. We have to figure something out. I don’t know if they would be interested in doing something like that. Design-wise, I need to speak with somebody because right now that’s a conundrum. I need to figure out how to get the flowchart to work with the book somehow. I’m not sure how to do it. Maybe we can do a dust jacket or something and have it printed on the inside of that. I don’t want to do it on the endpapers because I have an idea of what I want those to look like. So I don’t know, but that’s definitely the latest creative challenge that I’ve got in the back of my mind.
MARC SOBEL: How did working with Harvey help you in terms of writing this book?
ED PISKOR: The Beats book was a great template for this project. I paid a lot of attention to the way he formatted the stories in that book. There’s very little linear, panel-to-panel, second-to-second storytelling. It’s a lot of captured moments, using captions and things like that, where a year’s worth of time can take place within the gutters between one panel and the next. So, I really paid a lot of attention to the specifics of the moments that he was capturing with the little bit of knowledge that I had about the beat generation, to see what he omitted and what he kept in to keep the reader’s interest. So that book in particular was a real big inspiration to help me format each page with the panel-to-panel transitions and stuff like that.
Ed with Flava Flav
MARC SOBEL: Has the fact that you’re a white cartoonist drawing the history of a predominately black art form ever come up as an issue?
ED PISKOR: There have been times where guys fricking test me, at conventions and stuff, but I always rise to the occasion. I’ve done six or seven shows this year and at every one, people will come up and discover that I’m just a little white dude, and they’ll test me, but they can’t step to it. I invite challenge because I really do feel like my trivial knowledge is a little bit ridiculous when it comes to this stuff. So I’ve been proving myself with whoever’s come up and they seem satisfied with it.
MARC SOBEL: People just come up with obscure questions, or how exactly are they testing you?
ED PISKOR: It’s always older guys, mostly black dudes, and they’re like, ‘man, what do you know about the Cold Crush Brothers?’ So I’ll let them know what I know and then we start talking about, ‘well, who’s your favorite group?’ and it just develops naturally. I feel like, because it’s a conversation, you can’t fake that kind of shit. You have to have some knowledge. So I think that everybody I’ve talked to that’s come up to me has been satisfied that this comic is in good hands.
Also, everybody who has read it online… There’s been very little criticism, and there’s been absolutely zero criticism from anybody who counts in my opinion, like anybody in the hip hop world. Everybody digs it, and it’s people with stripes, like the Furious Five. Fab Five Freddy is down with it. I’m going to have this pull quote on the back cover… He shared one of my strips on his Facebook page, and he said, ‘being in an Ed Piskor comic is cool enough to freeze hot water,’ or something like that. <laughter> Also, Chuck D. tweeted this stuff, and people within hip hop who actually matter to me, they all dig it, so it’s very cool.
MARC SOBEL: Did you happen to go to the New York Comic-Con this year (2012)?
ED PISKOR: I didn’t, but I was invited to participate on that panel.
MARC SOBEL: Right, I was going to ask you about that. They had a panel called “Hip Hop and Comics: Cultures Combining.” What do you think of that? Do you feel like there’s this broad convergence between comics and hip hop?
ED PISKOR: I don’t know so much about a convergence, but… I don’t know if you ever saw that strip I did on boing boing that drew comparisons between rap music and comic books, but they have always felt synonymous to me. Comics, hip hop, and pro wrestling, for some reason, all seem like sister pieces of trash pop culture. You’re dealing with a lot of the same elements. Maybe it’s the ephemeral cheapness of the way it used to be back in the day. You know, comics were cheap, and ‘anybody can rap.’ That kind of lo-fi aspect. I’m not sure, but it seems like a no-brainer to have a panel like that. Also, in South Carolina they had Cola-Con last year, which married rap music and comics. Phife Dog was the guest of honor and they had a bunch of cool cartoonists come down, too.
They also both lend themselves well to obsessive trivia and collecting. Like, looking for all those old records and stuff, it was no different than rifling through comic book long boxes. Spending all this time in record stores digging through all this old crap for such and such’s first appearance is really no different than trying to find New Mutants #87 to see what it was like when Cable first popped on the scene.
MARC SOBEL: Do you see the concepts of sampling and mixing flowing into comic books at all?
ED PISKOR: I do in a lot of ways, and definitely within my own work. I was listening to Sammy Harkham’s panel at SPX where he was talking about, ‘in comics, if a certain scene comes up, let’s say you’re drawing a comic one way and then a car crash happens and you just have it in you to draw the most Geoff Darrow car crash, but that’s totally different from the rest of the story, even if you have that urge, you can’t do that.’ That’s a good description of what I have and what I need to get over because, I’ll read Akira, for example, and then the very next time there’s a part in the comic where I have to draw a speeding car, I’m going to reference some Akira stuff, like the way Otomo would draw a chase sequence or something like that.
So I definitely do see a lot of sampling in comics, and a lot of swiping, too. Like Bernie Wrightson who’s the child of Frank Frazetta and “Ghastly” Graham Ingels, or Kelly Jones who samples Wrightson, and, I mean this is something we could talk about forever.
MARC SOBEL: I guess there’s a fine line between being inspired by somebody and sampling their work, if you know what I mean. Like, take Dave Stevens, for example. I think everybody would agree that he was inspired by Frazetta, but did he actually swipe his work? That’s debatable.
ED PISKOR: Right, yeah. But then even Frazetta swiped Hal Foster multiple times. But I don’t see a problem with it so much. I do when its wholesale tracing, but there is room for homage and things like that.
MARC SOBEL: I guess what I’m driving at, though, is in hip hop, it’s common to literally take a segment of music from another song and merge it into your own song to create something new.
ED PISKOR: Right.
MARC SOBEL: But in comics, that would be a little less… or would it be less acceptable?
ED PISKOR: Well, it’s a weird fine line, and even in hip hop, there are guys who do it wrong and. I think purity of intent is the important factor. You can find any number of b-list Marvel guys who, in the ‘80s, were drawing like John Buscema and then in the ‘90s were trying to be like Jim Lee. And those guys are just fucking hack dorks. They were just trying to cash in on someone else’s style. But then there are guys who, like Art Adams, coming after Michael Golden, where he takes this initial thing and builds upon it, and that’s a cool thing.
In hip hop, there are dudes who basically did the same thing. Like Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh put out this record called “The Show and La Di Da Di,” and suddenly afterward all these records came out - and even Will Smith is guilty of doing a La Di Da Di-wannabe record - where it was like all you need to be successful is to have a guy beat boxing and then rhyme a story over the top of it and you’ll make a million dollars. There are a million examples, but you never hear of any of those records now because of that purity of intent. It was just people copying what was successful in pursuit of the almighty dollar and everyone saw through it. It didn’t have that spark, or whatever that x-factor is that gets people initially interested.
MARC SOBEL: That an interesting way to frame it.
ED PISKOR: You go to these comic conventions and you can just tell in two seconds… I just size people up and I feel like my gut instinct bats a very high average. You can see what people are about in how they carry themselves, or just by looking at their tables. There’s always a section of people who, they have maybe $100 worth of vinyl banners and signage and they have one hack comic on their table, and it’s like you will never see those people again. They won’t be there next year. They don’t have a clue and they’re going to be very disappointed that they’re not making a million dollars. There’s a scuzziness to it that’s just kind of gross.
“I Never Thought About That”
MARC SOBEL: One of the things I love about The Hip Hop Family Tree is the old school texture of the pages, and the overall feel of the art, with the yellowed newsprint effect, and that whole ‘70s aesthetic. I wondered how you create that?
ED PISKOR: I don’t know if he would be uncomfortable with me saying it, but a big mentor to me was my friend, Jim Rugg. He mastered that aesthetic of antiquing old comic pages and creating those visuals. In fact, ideally I would want Jim to draw this thing, but he’s not going to do it so I have to.
The other thing is the aesthetic of the coloring. I feel like my artwork is kind of rough. It doesn’t work with regular computer coloring, like the perfect paint bucket fill look; it’s incongruent with my artwork. My art is rough and not academically sound, so that style of coloring is too perfect for the wobbliness, or whatever it is that my art has. But the texture and grit of the old four color stuff lends well to my line. So …was your question how or why?
MARC SOBEL: How.
ED PISKOR: OK. So, what I do is, a while back I found this color chart that was indicative of the 64 colors that were used in old print comics for the four-color process, and I made a digital PSD file that people can use. And people did use it in good health to approximate digitally all the old colors of comics printing. Then I decided to take that a step further and create a 64 color swatch using these dot patterns, and what I would do was I’d grab a big swatch of yellow, grab a big swatch of cyan or blue, grab a big swatch of red or magenta, and mixing the different values, I created 64 swatches. It’s like eight Gigs worth of these color samples that you can just copy and paste underneath the line art. The way I got there was I just grabbed the Spider-Man vs. Superman Treasury comic and found a big swatch of yellow and scanned that in, and then made a big file of that. The red is Superman’s cape and the paper texture is from Hawkman #9.
Also, if you remember those old DC books, they would have huge margins where you’d just see a lot of newsprint, so I scanned in a couple chunks of that, hit it with the clone tool, and made a big file of newsprint page. But now that I’m putting the book together, I’m going to have to make maybe twenty or thirty different newsprint pages because the illusion gets ruined when you see the same little imperfections on every single page.
MARC SOBEL: What you’re describing to me, that’s sampling. That’s a straight-up example of the concept.
ED PISKOR: Yeah, you know, I never thought about that, but I like that a lot. I’m going to use that in interviews.
MARC SOBEL: <laughter> Cool.
ED PISKOR: Yeah. For sure.
MARC SOBEL: So, you’re going to create twenty or thirty more templates for the background?
ED PISKOR: Yeah. It’s going to have to be twenty or thirty, and then I can flip them, so I can probably get four pages out of each file, or at least two. So there’s still a lot of work to do.
MARC SOBEL: How much do you rely on photos and visual reference for the art?
ED PISKOR: I’m going to start getting into that more because now I’m getting into the music video era. But for the early days it sucked because for some guys, there just weren’t a lot of photos so I had to fake it. For a couple of guys, there’s no published photos that I could find so I literally had to check the Facebook accounts of associated rappers and look through all their shit and just be like, ‘oh, so that’s what Rocky Ford looks like.’ But that photo that I might have pulled from could be very hazy so I’m not sure if I got it 100% right. So for this first book, I used very little photo reference because there isn’t that much material but in the subsequent volumes, everybody’s going to look more like who they’re supposed to be.
MARC SOBEL: What about in terms of the fashion and the clothing?
ED PISKOR: Oh yeah, sure. I definitely use a lot of reference for that stuff. And that’s pleasurable, too, because I just love that old hip hop fashion.
MARC SOBEL: Last question, and this is kind of a silly one, but when I Google your name, the first result I get is this picture of you sitting there naked at your drawing table. What is that all about?
ED PISKOR: <laughter> Yeah. I fucking love that that’s the first thing that pop’s up. <laughter> And the really cool thing about that is that whenever I meet a girl who likes me and knows who I am before I know who she is, I’ll bring that up in the first conversation and if she turns red, I can tell she really likes me, you know what I mean? Like, she’s down, because she got a little flustered in my presence. So that photo has served a great function in my dating life.
But, you know what that is from? Do you ever listen to Inkstuds, the Robin McConnell podcasts?
MARC SOBEL: Oh yeah. Of course.
ED PISKOR: That’s what that was from. The title “Inkstuds” cracks me up, and at the time, they were putting up examples of each artist’s work to go along with their interview, and, although I’m the only frigging douche bag who would do what I did, I was just like, ‘you know what? Fuck this, man. It’s called ‘Inkstuds’ so I’m just going to put this naked picture of me up there.’ It’s not like you can see anything. It was just funny to me.
See, the only thing I really take seriously in life is comics. Comics are so intensely important to me, but everything that goes along with comics, and pretty much life in general, it’s just silly. So doing a show called “Inkstuds,” I figured he should have a ridiculous photo to go along with it. Honestly I didn’t think the guy would even put it up, but he did and I couldn’t be happier.
• Be sure to pre-order Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree from Fantagraphics Books.
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