Cartoonist Ed Piskor On ‘Hip Hop Family Tree’ And The Importance Of Creative Freedom [Interview]
Ed Piskor has been having a good year. His hacker culture graphic novel telling the story of Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle, Wizzywig, was nominated for an Eisner Award for the cartoonist’s distinctive book design, and was recently translated into a handsome French-language edition from Dargaud. Piskor also became the second recipient of the Columbus Museum of Art and Thurber House 2013 Graphic Novelist Residency. On November 2, Fantagraphics will release the first print edition in a series collecting the artist’s widely-read webcomic, Hip Hop Family Tree, which chronicles the history of Hip Hop’s most influential artists. ComicsAlliance contributor Tom Scioli got in touch with the artist to discuss his work, his approach to creating comics and more. You can read the full interview, after the jump.
Full disclosure: I drew a pin-up of the Fat Boys as bionic Saturday Morning superheroes for Hip Hop Family Tree volume 1, as well as drawing two panels in the comic that required some fake Kirby art.
Tom Scioli: What effect do you think writing and drawing about music has had on your work?
Ed Piskor: Interesting. I don’t think of this as even a project about music, so to be honest I don’t think it had much effect at all, but that being said, I consider whenever these guys bust into the raps–I consider that almost like a “finishing move” or something. An epic thing, so I pull in a lot of Kirby crackle and that kind of stuff into the art. In particular working on this Hip Hop thing I’m getting into more dynamics here and there just because I consider rap music to be pretty hyperbolic so the art has to have some more life to it than my stuff normally does, so I think that’s effected it.
Scioli: It seems like when the music kicks in, the style changes, things start to happen with the color. Out of everybody I know your style has been the most consistent, and this one feels different, and I wonder if it’s just simply that “this is in color” or “this is my latest work,” so that’s why it’s different.
Piskor: So the Hip Hop comic looks different?
Piskor: Okay, good, cause when you say “consistent” I’m like, “Oh shit, I’m not getting any better.”
Scioli: Your stuff started out at such a high level, so sometimes there’s nowhere to go other than sideways. You haven’t explored a lot of different styles, you’ve found this style that you’ve been refining and refining, but some artists reach a point where they’re satisfied with their style and if they want to shake things up, they go sideways. They try a totally different style, then try to master that or see what happens with that. Then try another one, then another one, but you’ve always had this laser-like focus on a style. Can you say anything about the intention behind that?
Piskor: You and I have had these conversations before where we don’t think much in terms of composing a single image, we’re not illustrators. You know we’re cartoonists, so interested in the storytelling, so the art to me it’s an appendage to tell the tale. I strive for clarity and readability. When I was a kid it was about noodling, but I think that at least with my panel-to-panel transitions there’s never a mistake of where you should read, of how the story should flow. That was really on my mind. I’m really corrupted by all the interviews that I read as a kid and going to the Kubert School they stressed readability–
Scioli: And consistency. That’s something that I really internalized, too, from interviews. They’d interview Joe Sinnott and it would be “consistency of each panel” and I really strove for that and valued that, but in recent years I’ve found that that’s not necessarily helpful to the reading experience.
Piskor: Yeah and then with Wizzywig I think I started to develop a little bit more of a sensitivity to the reader’s intelligence. The rule of thumb in old corporate comics was to treat your reader like they’re idiots, spell it all out for them. Even through Wizzywig to an extent, but now I’m trusting that people of a reasonable intellect are checking this stuff out. I think it could still work for a dope. I think an idiot could read it and still have a decent experience but even this Hip Hop stuff now will beg some rereading once the entire story is constructed.
Scioli: Yeah, that’s what you hope. Do you think being a webcomic helped with being able to trust the audience? Reading a comic isn’t an isolated experience any more. It’s not just you by yourself reading a comic, it’s everybody’s reading it together. There’s comments. People can fill in holes for each other.
Piskor: Yeah, the community aspect of the Hip Hop comic is cool in that way. In the comments section people will post some complementary videos or link to some complementary minutiae and that’s a fun thing. There certainly are acolytes who’ve developed who are into it and comment all the time and send me emails all the time.
Scioli: Why do you think all of that supplementary stuff, why do you think your comic the gathering place for that? You’d think that somebody somewhere is posting old Hip Hop videos. Why has your comic become the center for these things as opposed to the reverse? Why isn’t it like somebody has posted a video and your comic is the supporting document for it?
Piskor: Well, first of all, I don’t know that that isn’t the case somewhere. I think that people appreciate that the time is being put in on such a real project and it has a kitsch value to it. The big thing with comics imagery is that it’s so inviting to look at, it could stop you in your tracks if you’re looking at just any old regular magazine and you come across a Mark Zingarelli ad for Altoids, you stop dead in your tracks and you’ll stick with it for a few extra seconds. So you take comics imagery and stick it with peoples’ favorite subjects, man, and that becomes a really inviting waste of time for them. They’re happy to sit with it. It’s not a calculated decision on my part. I just want to do comics that I want to do. I’m not looking for parts of the market that haven’t been tapped yet or some kind of bullshit like that, man. That’s the thing with certain friends of ours, they’re so calculated, man, and I’m nervous to think that they think I’m as calculated as that. I think that would be scummy.
Scioli: It seems like you couldn’t have chosen better, because it seems like it fulfills all of those things that you said. If someone were trying to reverse-engineer it–it’s like you did find the perfect thing. Then, from what you’re saying, there’s a bunch–you could just pick a different topic and somebody could do the thing that you do just based on their particular thing that they loved or that they grew up with.
Piskor: Yeah, there doesn’t have to be all the same kinds of comics and actually I care less about the community of comics than other cartoonists. Everybody seems to love getting together at these conventions and circle-jerking and stuff.
Piskor: It’s fine and everything, but I don’t care about it as much. I’m not making comics for those guys. I’m not making comics for my friends, really. For me in particular it’s to share this fanboy interest in these different subject matters with people that give a shit about this stuff. So what I’m saying is why isn’t there a comic like mine about pro wrestling or something like that? I have all of these interests, like wrestling fits into the mix. Skateboarding. The history of fast food is a big interest of mine. I can’t help these things, but they’re just interesting stories to me.
Scioli: “Circle-jerk” is interesting. I’ve thought of that description of the comics scene. That is one thing that troubles me about it. It’s so self-feeding and it seems even more so. It seems like in the past we would criticize superhero comics for having that, which it definitely does, but it seems like our generation, however you want to group it, it seems like it’s even more so just because we’re all reading the same things. We’re not in our own isolated corners discovering whatever it is we happen to discover. We’re all sort of discovering and sharing.
Piskor: I think that’s great and stuff, but even if the community dries up, I’m gonna be drawing comics and I don’t know that I could say that about 90 percent of our friends, people that we’re gonna see at SPX and enjoy. I think most people now they do comics just to make friends and that’s the motivation. It has nothing to do with the art. “I’m socially inept and this is the only way I can think of to say ‘hello’ to you.”
Piskor: Seriously, bro. That’s absolutely how I look at it .
Scioli: If somehow there were going to be some electromagnetic pulse, something that kills off all printing–would you continue to draw comics and just sort of stack them up in your basement? Comics that no one sees but you?
Piskor: Yeah, I have 140 pages of a comic that I’ve done so far that I do in my spare time and nobody has seen it and I don’t think will ever be published, so probably, man, probably.
Scioli: Do you think comics, or your particular relationship to comics in general, is a dysfunction rather than a vocation?
Piskor: [laughter] I think the good guys are all screwed up. I think there’s a certain–I think what we have is this manic energy. It doesn’t go away, so I feel like the world is kind of lucky that we are always putting our heads in this place because I could see some of us becoming serial killers or just trouble, like if you take that energy and put it to something screwed up. I don’t know about you, but I put the same level of thought in everything I do, not just comics, so it’s not something I could just shut off. So I guess that’s a long way of saying that yes, to an extent, it is a mental disease.
Scioli: I ask because there’s been points where I’ve tried to shut it off because I’d think maybe it’s interfering with my ability to be happy, but it’s just impossible.
Piskor: I was always most curious and most envious of Todd McFarlane. “Amazing Heroes” and stuff how he would talk about how it’s a 9 to 5 job, and he’d chill out with his wife on the weekends, go catch baseball games and stuff like that. From a very young age I’ve never understood that and I sort of don’t even respect it. I think you should be obsessed.
Scioli: Todd McFarlane is one that I think of for that same reason you’re saying. I just never had the opportunity to view it as just a job, no massive early success. I guess it’s not early [for McFarlane] but he can say, ‘it’s just a job,’ because it really is a job, but for me, I don’t want to speak for you, but for me it feels like you’ve got to squeeze really hard for every little bit that you get. It’s certainly not the sort of job where you just put in your hours and get your rate. It seems like so much more work per dollar.
Piskor: Yeah, people who try to trap me and get into that conversation of, ‘”well break that down into an hourly rate.’” If you do that it’s probably the most crippling thought you can have as a cartoonist because it should not be about that. And there’s a revolving door of people at these conventions that we go to that are obviously there to try to make money, but they’re gone the next year and some other kind of schmoe takes their place and comes with $150 worth of vinyl signage and their one comic that they’re selling for $3 and they get disenchanted and then they go away. I read that the unemployment rate in America is always supposed to be about 4 percent or something like that. I think that maybe there should always be like a 40 percent whack-ass comic douchebag contingent. [laughter] Make sure that sees print.
Scioli: [laughter] How much of your style is intentional? How much is it things you’re specifically trying to do, and how much is, “this is the best that I can do?”
Piskor: It’s all really the best that I can do and as sad as that might sound, not trying to be like that phoney self-effacing kind of guy. Throughout my life I’ve had way more opportunity to do comics than anybody that I know. Super supportive parents, they put me through all these courses as a kid. I was sick and home from school a lot as a kid. I just drew and drew and drew constantly and this is just as good as I can do. And I don’t know what that says about me I just think about if you or Jim [Rugg] had the exact same opportunities and stuff, what you would’ve done with the chances that I’ve had over the years. I just feel like everybody would be superstars.
Scioli: [laughter] The way you just described that, I am a little envious of that because I was kind of a late bloomer with comics and I didn’t have–I had encouragement also, but not to that degree.
Piskor: In the kitchen. My pops had a– he took it home from work–he had this drafting table. It was 4 or 5 feet high, the surface and you could put 11 pages of 11x 17 comics pages across, and then you could put another level underneath and you could still have a permanent surface to draw on that never even touched, so you could have a whole issue of comics and that would be in the kitchen. The only reason why they took it out is because he knocked my mom up when I was 18, man, and had to make space for the baby. It took up real estate in the crib.
Scioli: That’s incredibly helpful, because even now that’s kind of a luxury to be able to view an entire story in progress. I could see the benefit of that. I have a tendency to view things in historical terms, in Marxist terms, I suppose. Do you think that these things are a result of your specific geography, the time and the place that you grew up in: Pittsburgh, as it’s collapsing or just after the collapse so that you would have people getting rid of drafting machinery that’s no longer in use?
Piskor: Sure and that table set, that all came later, but it has to do with the geography in as much as everything I asked to participate in as a kid cost too much money. My folks just didn’t have that loot. We didn’t have health insurance, at least they said we didn’t, so I couldn’t play kickball, because that would be the number one thing that you would have to sign off on to participate in–organized sports–and all the kids were doing that. I couldn’t do that. Didn’t have the money to rent a woodwind instrument for the school band. But pencil and paper? Mom and Dad would get pencil and paper just to write down phone numbers, so in the worst case scenario you could commandeer that stuff and just draw all over the precious phone numbers or something if there’s no other space. It was a function of that clearly just to be able to have access to pencil and paper at least.
Scioli: That is to me the best thing that can be said about comics, the fact that there’s this low barrier to entry that anybody can at least start down that path.
Piskor: Yeah and you say that you speak in Marxist terms, but I do consider that to be a very democratized thing, where it’s like literally something that everybody can do.
Scioli: Yeah, when I say “Marxist” I don’t mean like Communism vs. Capitalism or Communism vs. Democracy or–
Piskor: Yeah you do, you red.
Scioli: [laughter] I just mean like that approach to history where it’s like “where’s the money coming from?” What do you see as your strengths as an artist?
Piskor: I think we touched on that a little bit earlier. Just clarity of storytelling and stuff like that. Just boring stuff. Like my stuff has no flash to it and that’s not something I strive for. In those early interviews I read that was something they always stressed, just learn how to draw the actual object before you start to get fussy with style. That was something I always subscribed to as a requirement, but it really isn’t.
Scioli: Well you definitely dodged a bullet because that really is what matters, that structural stuff, and your style is just going to naturally–you can’t help having a style.
Piskor: I think that that is the way to go, too, in a way because if you just do stuff and are true to your work, those are the guys who get to keep making work. All those rank-and-file hacks who commandeer this guys style or that guy’s style, they get work for the meantime.
Scioli: While that style is hot.
Piskor: Yeah and then they’re chaff and they’re just tossed away. So I think that it’s a way to just exist. People dig your stuff now and it’s not exactly what everybody else is doing. It should be accessible throughout your career or people will at least travel with you on that journey, man. Watch things develop or deteriorate depending on which years of your life they’re looking at.
Scioli: It’s really easy to undervalue, that people are invested in your story, your personal story as an artist. All kinds of examples of that.
Piskor: Sure, man, and my favorite comics series of that, The Complete Crumb Comics is like that to me. It’s my favorite comics series probably.
Scioli:What do you think are your weaknesses as an artist?
Piskor: I’d probably have way more readers and stuff if I would go along with certain tropes of popular styles. You can manipulate yourself to be part of that conversation, man, but in the long term that’s not a good play, so I guess that’s not a weakness. I don’t know. It’s all there for you to see and I don’t know if I can be the judge. I think plenty of people probably have opinions about what’s weak in terms of what I do, but I don’t know if I’m the guy to showcase that or whatever. There’s a stiffness to my work that I would like to loosen up, and I try to, but there’s something in the finish that kind of keeps my characters blocky so I tend to embrace it in my comics work, and then really try to work on it in my sketchbooks, really try to work it out.
Scioli: Saying that you’re not the one to judge, I find that, talking to artists, they seem to be hyper-aware of their weaknesses. Like it’s almost the inverse of what you’re talking about where they couldn’t really tell you what their strengths are, but then they could list in detail what their failings are.
Piskor: Yeah, I’m not going to be a part of that kind of thing anymore. I’m not gonna get myself sick over my shortcomings, man. I’m always trying to improve, that’s important to get on the record, but I’m not gonna hurt myself.
Scioli: [laughter] Mental violence?
Piskor: Because as a kid I was sick for a long time and it was this mental anguish that I put on myself for not being perfect in everything. That’s unsustainable. I’m fully aware of that. They’ll find out. You can really cause trauma to yourself.
Scioli: I’ve heard you talk about the connection of Hip Hop to superheroes. I don’t know that I’ve read it or heard you talk about it in a public forum. I understand the connection with those things for you personally, when you encountered both of those things, but do you think there’s a larger, more universal connection?
Piskor: Yeah. It’s like that proletariat kind of culture that they all sort of inhabit. They inhabit this universe of being ephemeral, very cheap. When we were growing up they were a very accessible form of pop culture. I would step out the door and see guys rapping in the street together and you would go into any store and be able to get some comics, so that fits in. And there are other things. It’s all stuff that would make a yuppie parent nervous that are all involved in the same world. Like comics, like Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, like skateboarding, like 1980′s wrestling, like M.U.S.C.L.E.men figures, all that sort of stuff. It’s under the same umbrella. It’s like youth culture. We could zero in and get way more detailed of how these are New York American creations basically.
Scioli: New York being a center of publishing and a center of music production?
Piskor: Like Rap comes from the Bronx and Max Gaines and all those guys they were NYC cats.
Scioli: These would be the same streets 50 years prior, where Jack Kirby would be getting in a street fight throwing corn cobs at people. You’ve made it pretty clear that this is a series. Hip Hop Family Tree is something you’ll be working on for a long time, for the next decade.
Piskor: Who knows, man, but I just had a conversation, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to fully go public with this. I just sent them a mock cover for issue 2. We’re looking to get issue 2 out for Comic-Con next year and that’ll be 7 or 8 months after the first book comes out. I only have about 28 pages to draw of that. It’s close. I took a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to publish this first book. The book might’ve been 75 percent completed, Hip Hop volume 1, as I was just seeing what my options were. Once I knew there were enough publishers interested, then I started to try to get exactly what I wanted format-wise The book is what matters most. I could have easily sold out to a way bigger company and made a lot of money and wouldn’t have to worry about stuff but there were issues with that. There were editorial issues, there were formatting issues. It was just going to be another book with this big company. There were a lot of questions I was being asked that I felt insulted by answering like, “why are you the one to talk about Hip Hop and this and that.” I can’t work in those terms. There’s a lot of passion that’s encapsulated in what I do and I can’t scientifically dissect to you and explain to you like an engineer what I’m doing. I can’t engineer a story either. I understand where they’re coming from. They’re going to be investing a lot of money.
Scioli: I imagine they’re anticipating what questions you’re going to be asked, once this thing becomes a book. There are things that are going to come up in an interviews or press appearances.
Piskor: Yeah, but their reasons weren’t to prepare me for that kind of stuff. Their reasons were, “Who the hell are you, what makes you so special about this stuff?” Fantagraphics is so hands-off until it really matters and that’s what I want in a publisher. Leave me the hell alone. Let me do the book how I want to do it and help me correct my spelling and shit.
Scioli: Now that all those hurdles are past and it’s just a matter of making the comic, what looks like a decade’s worth of comics might take less than that?
Piskor: I’m signed on with them for five volumes and then it’ll probably be one of those things that in that much time let’s see if we still care enough about each other to keep working together — Is that a Ditko? We’ll have to keep that up front. Maybe my creative whimsy will take me to a different place where there’s other stuff. I’m constantly putting down ideas so there’s a lot of fiction work that I want to do, but right now this is where I’m at.
Scioli: That was the main reason I asked. It seems hard to commit oneself to such a long term project, and so far into the future, but you seem like somebody who actually is capable of that.
Piskor: Wizzywig took 5 years and it was loads of fun the entire time. There was never a moment when I felt it was a daunting thing and this Hip Hop comic is more fun. I’m having a better time.
Scioli: You were talking about different ideas you have for things and I saw very recently you started doing a sci-fi comic. How did that come about?
Piskor: Just hanging out with Caitlin Boyle, she’s the artist and she’s the co-creator. She would draw these robot characters in her sketchbooks and I wanted to read these comics. I wanted these to be comics. It seemed like such a cool design and like she had a million-dollar idea and I would constantly bug her. She would just have other things going on so eventually I go, “I look at your art and it inspires me in so many ways. How about we work on a comic together? I will write a story for you and you could draw it.” And she’s down with it and it’s really fun. Some of the itches that the Syntax Era strips scratch–it goes along with that narrative collapse idea of each one of these strips is a one-page moment and it could be seen as a complete comic or you could continue reading and explore more about the character, but its these one-and-done things. We only have one live right now and I was thinking of what the next one’s gonna be. It’s gonna be an homage to Frank King’s Gasoline Alley where the entire thing would be 12 panels of cross sections of one environment. I have kaiju on the brain after Pacific Rim so it’s gonna be this big-ass kaiju face that’s battle-damaged and the little robot chick is mending the kaiju along the way. Pulling arrows out of him. There’s gonna be crashed planes, so she’s gonna have to rescue a pilot. There’s gonna be people camped out in the kaiju’s nose like it’s a cave. It’s just a really fun thing to build and explore this world. That’s always in all my comics. That’s an ongoing theme, it seems, just this world-building and creating a bigger universe than just the immediate characters that are being focused on.
Scioli: I could see Hip Hop Family Tree not scratching that itch because it’s curatorial. You’re writing about something that already exists as opposed to that pure creative act. Do you consider yourself a journalist?
Piskor: I never thought about that at all until people brought that to my attention. I don’t know the definition of journalist so I don’t consider myself to be one, but everything needs to be as factually accurate as possible. I’m following along all the same guidelines that a journalist follows: getting more than one source about different subject matters, different moments and if I don’t have those sources then putting the words in the mouth of the person who created these possibly apocryphal stories, but I think it would be daunting to think in those terms as well. All comics production for me — there’s so much mental trickery that I have to do upon myself to just keep going.
Scioli: Even at this stage? I understand when you’re first starting and there’s no paycheck involved, but even the fact that there’s money directly attached to it, that doesn’t work?
Piskor: I don’t even think of this stuff. To this day I still have to put down a lot of lines on a page. I have to rule out these panels, and there’s something about just doing that that makes the rest of the drawing process so much easier. It’s so much less nerve-wracking.
Scioli: Once that empty box is there you have to fill it in.
Piskor: Yeah, so it’s hard to explain, but there’s all this stuff I have to do just to keep going. I feel like a lot of stuff is that way. Exercising is that way. It’s not yet a pure habit. I have to have music. If I don’t have music to listen to while working, then it’s not as fun and my focus goes away.
Scioli: How serious are you about your Image Comics fandom? That’s something you talk about and I wondered how much of it is irony and how much of it is genuine.
Piskor: Yeah, none of it is irony. That’s sort of what I hate, because you have your people who are that, no doubt. There’s all these kids who got into comics 5 years ago who weren’t a part of that shit when it first came out. And so they’re like, “look at how stupid these guys are.” My interest has nothing to do with that. The one blemish on my fandom of Image Comics and those guys was a financial motivation that burned itself pretty deep as a kid. So reading about Chap Yaep in Entertainment Weekly making 250,000 dollars that year, that was rock star stuff to me. So there’s that part of it that’s tainted, that’s not a fully artistic interest to me.
I’m talking about the top guys. Their stuff is really exciting to look at. Just your average reader is so stupid when you bring this up in conversation, because they lambast you about having those interests and they’re like, “I can’t even look at your work now.” If you think my work looks anything like any of those guys you’re just a fucking moron, so maybe it’s good that we–don’t read my comics, because I respect my readers and you’re an asshole. I think all of that artwork, in spite of the flaws, is really exciting to look at . It motivated me through 5 of my most crucial formative years. At that point 5 years was a third of my life, 33 percent of my life was wrapped up in those initial 6 – 8 guys, because I like Sam Kieth and those dudes, too.
Scioli: Yeah, it’s interesting. It seem like your strengths are exactly what their work lacked, that they had this tremendous surface and if only there was some great structure underneath there wouldn’t be the problem.
Piskor: There’s art history for a reason and it still goes along with our evolutionary growth as people so you have to take what’s come before and you have to keep moving forward, man, and refining this craft and adding your own voice to the conversation. That’s what everybody’s doing in a way. You absorb, you digest these influences, and then you become yourself.