Ed Piskor's Brain Rot: The Hip-Hop Family Tree / by David Anderson


Wow, what's it been, a year? Just about, I think. Maybe a little more. I might've missed the anniversary of this website. Eh, it was around this time I started working for this site, so, close enough. So in case you don't hang out in the nerd section of Internet Town (though if you're reading this website you probably do) you probably don't know what BoingBoing is. It's a blog that runs a variety of news items and commentary. Whatever you see there is stuff that interests them across a wide range of topics, and chances are you'll be interested in it as well. On a given day you'll see posts about nifty shirts and watches, articles decrying the latest copyright legislation, X-wing shaped beards, and Cory Doctorow. They host a few comics on their site too, such as the politically left-leaning Tom The Dancing Bug and Brain Rot. I want to focus on the second one today, because to me it's unique, fascinating to read and informative.

Brain Rot is a comic by artist Ed Piskor that tackles a wide range of topics, from NES games to Occupy Wall Street, but in particular I want to focus on his latest project, The Hip-Hop Family Tree, which is all about the history of rap and how it evolved from the streets of NYC into the phenomenon it is today. If you ever wondered who the big players who shaped the genre were, or why gang culture is such a cornerstone of rap aesthetic, the answers to those questions and more are here. The presentation is a montage of pictures, usually single-panel dialogues linked by a narrator to other events and people in the business. I find it to be a fascinating look into how a multi-million dollar genre grew from its roots in the streets and alleys of Harlem and other places.

It's got this giant family tree plot laid out beneath each comic, which can be initially kind of confusing, and there is a bunch of information packed into each page. However, it's also easy to read, because the dialogue is clear even when slang and speech impediments are added, and the narrator makes it easy to follow where the story is going. You may need to read it a couple times to figure out a concise, logical advancement from point A to B, but it's fun to read and it's not that big of a deal if you can't follow it- it's a big, complicated story, and it's better to just go along for the ride. You'll figure out the big players fast enough, which is enough. I like the feel of the narration. I can't help but hear it being voice-acted by the same narrator from that 30 second bit from Inglorious Basterds, where Marcel is about to light a bunch of film on fire, and the narrator explains the chemistry that makes old film so volatile. You know what scene I'm talking about. Gotta love a black baritone voice. Piskor just captures the sound of slang in those days real well, and while I can't tell whether it's idealized or authentic, it's still enjoyable to read.

The art is fantastic and emblematic of comic books of that era. The panel layout and the color of the background feel exactly like the old style of comics from that time period, and the art style is excellent. It's this simple, semi-iconic style with solid colors, and it has a little bit of that fine-detail look that guys like Roy Lichtenstein popularized, with grids of granular dots laid over the entire work like a filter. The color palette is focused heavily on brown, orange and red, with some cool colors thrown in here and there, giving it the feel of a hot summer day in the city. People are slightly caricature-ized, with some characters having heads that are a little too big for their bodies, along with faces and poses that are laid back and cool most of the time, becoming animated and detailed when there's drama thrown in. Despite characters getting angry and occasionally violent, there's never a sense of dread in the drama, like this is all dark and serious. It's more comical, and we read it with a sense of "so that's how things went down? Huh. Interesting."

Because a lot of events and people are introduced and followed in rapid succession, it can feel off-pace and cluttered, but as far as I'm concerned it doesn't break the comic. There's a lot of interesting people and facts in here, and I highly recommend you read it. At the very least, it will enlighten you as to the cultural reasons explaining why white guys can't rap, and you'll have a new appreciation for the genre in a way your republican uncles never had growing up.

TL;DR: Brain Rot is simultaneously entertaining and informative, and you shouldn't miss it if you like to learn about music or history.

Brain Rot: The Hip-Hop Family Tree is a comic written and illustrated by Ed Piskor. It updates every other Tuesday on BoingBoing.net.