SPX Talks: Ed Piskor / by Patrick Smith

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Ed Piskor's recent body of work has interested me immensely since I first became familiar with it earlier last year. Wizzywig was a deft look at how a kid getting into trouble with a new hobby can quickly spiral out of control, especially during the dawn of cyber crime and how the law had no idea how to handle its perpetrators properly. Though that was impressive, his most recent project, The Hip Hop Family Tree, has been the thing to really hit me, as my knowledge of hip hop (as you will see) is pretty limited. Piskor makes a comic that is not only educational but also dynamic in how it uses the medium. I had a chance to talk to him at SPX, where he proved to be a really thoughtful individual to converse with, and we discussed all of that, along with Harvey Pekar, Boing Boing, matching research with personal interest, and the wild wonderful world of PUBLISHING CONTRACTS!!!  Spandexless: I’ve only really become familiar with your work in the last year or so when I read Wizzywig online, but I was wondering exactly what your background is. Is it in mini comics? Web comics? More traditional newspaper strips? Because from your style I can't really get a good bead on it one way or another.

Ed Piskor: Are you asking like influences, or -

S: Yeah, let's start with influences and then how you got your start.

EP: Influences, I guess a lot of people would describe my work as having an old underground style, like maybe from the sixties, or I guess when their was that paradigm shift from underground comics to alternative stuff in the eighties, I mean, if you want to put weird labels on the work. So a lot of my influences were guys like Crumb, EC Comics, certainly guys like the guests of honor here at SPX 2012, the Hernandez brothers, Clowes, Chris Ware, and Charles Burns. I started by doing minis but I actually started by doing a bunch of comics for Harvey Pekar -

S: Really?

EP: Yeah, American Splendor comics and then two “graphic novels” quote unquote. I drew this one called Macedonia for him and then the main story for a book called The Beats, which was about the beat generation.

S: Oh yeah, I’ve read that! I guess I do know your work before Wizzywig.

EP: The thing is, like with you sort of forgetting some awareness of me recently I really do feel like Wizzywig is my first book. I have hundreds of pages published before this but there was a lot of concessions made, and all that work was almost like art school to me. The books and the stuff I did with Harvey Pekar was like art school, I was learning storytelling and even the craft of drawing – like somebody came by my table earlier and they had a bunch of that older stuff and I just hadn’t gone through those books in years and I was like “Oh my god, oh what did I do to Harvey Pekars legacy! Why did he trust me with some of the last work that he did in his life!” [Patrick laughs] So yeah, and then all the while I was working with Harvey every spare second I was putting Wizzywig together.

S: You said working with Pekar was your version of art school, but even beyond that I’m curious did you ever consider formal training or were just one of those guys who decided to pick up a pencil and just do it?

EP: Have you ever heard of the Joe Kubert School -

S: Yes, yes I have.

EP: Right, it was advertised in Marvel comics and DC comics and so forth. I went there for one year in 2000 and you know that was a weird time because there was that shift between the analogue way of doing things and the digital way. They were still teaching us outdated philosophies and techniques, so you wouldn’t have been able to even get a job with what you were learning in the first year because everything was antiquated, you wouldn’t be able to turn in a piece of art work that looked like that because they wouldn’t know what to do with it. So I was sort of disenchanted with the school and I just went there the one year and that was it as far as formal training went, and I don’t know if I learned so much stuff but there was a great energy of just being surrounded by a lot of guys just drawing all day every day so it did give me the discipline to just sit down and draw. To see other guys out there who would put out that kind of effort I knew I had to match that effort and put one extra hour in per day.

S: That discipline sort of shows in your bigger projects like Wizzywig and now The Hip-Hop Family Tree, where it seems like there’s a lot of research involved. I think I’ve read interviews with you where you say the main character in Wizzywig is an amalgam of  a bunch of different hackers so I want to know how much research you do before you start to construct a story and the overall book together?

EP: My scheme for the comics Ill be doing on my own, probably for the foreseeable future, is to just exploit the things I’m already really interested in. So I like computers, and computer hacking and the culture of the Internet and things like that so I have this base knowledge just from my own enjoyment of that stuff. And a lot of people will use the word “research” but it really is just reading and ingesting this material for pleasure and I do have this weird twist in my brain where I really don’t want to feel like a hack or a slacker or something like that so I’m doing this activity that I enjoy and I’m reading about things that I enjoy so I ask myself how I can make this a productive experience, and so I’ll make a comic about it. Its like this two fold thing where the information will come into my head and then goes out in this steady almost perpetual motion kind of thing…yeah its kind of hard to explain but I kind of feel like a detective even by doing this kind of research and digging extra deep into this thing that I’m into.

S: Lets talk about your web comics under the Brain Rot banner over at Boing Boing, your one of the few comics guys there and that’s a HUGE site in terms of popularity so I wanted to know how that partnership came about?

EP: I was self publishing Wizzywig in these very flimsy, you know LuLu print on demand type – you see a million of them here. So I would buy a blocks of  a hundred of these books and you receive five boxes of this stuff and realize you don’t have that much space in your house, so I had to figure out how to get the work out there so I sent comics to Boing Boing to just maybe get a review or something and they would write about the work and tons of people would buy the stuff afterwards. So that’s sort of how I forged a little bit of the relationship with them by just sending them “Here’s the next issue” or whatever and then when I was done with Wizzywig completely I had sometime on my hands and I thought I would throw this little post partum thing because Wizzywig as my baby was gestating for five years. So I had room to breathe and I was five years older with half of my twenties spent on it, so I just asked them “can I do a comic for your site?” and there are five freelancers who are the editors over there at Boing Boing and they got together and agreed that it would be cool to have another comic on the site.

S: And Boing Boing is hosting The Hip Hop Family Tree, which is an incredibly ambitious project because Hip Hop is one of those things where people can forget how far back it really goes, lord knows I did until a few years ago where I thought “Hip Hop started with the Wu Tang Clan was formed and that’s it!”

EP: [laughs] right.

S: But that is not true at all, and you have gone really far back and again this is clearly something you know a lot about, no body will be able to see this but you are wearing a Public Enemy t-shirt as you were yester day so clearly -

EP: But not the same shirt!

S: No! Not the same shirt! Lets make that clear, Journalistic integrity damn it! [laughs] so your clearly a guy who knew a lot of this but these are also real people your talking about and not an amalgam like in Wizzywig. So how much did you leave out? What did you put in and are you worried about being sued for liable?

EP: All good questions, so where should I start….because of my own interest in Hip Hop, there were gaps in my knowledge that I needed filled and in terms of the records I have a sort of encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff, but there are certain gaps in my knowledge for how things came about. So the pleasure is to read about that and see what had to manifest for that album to come out. The book was just announced this weekend -

S: Right, Fantagraphics is publishing it. I’m assuming when it eventually concludes -

EP: No, its actually going to collect the first year of strips so it will, hopefully, premiere next year at SPX.

S: Oh, cool!

ED: Well that’s at least what we’re very loosely shooting for, and it will cover from like 1975 to maybe just the tip of 1981. The reason I chose Fantagraphics was because every, well not every publisher but most publishers wanted to give me a deal that would have required certain concessions. Some would want me to go from DJ Kool Herc, whose largely considered the godfather of Hip Hop to the death of Tupac Shakur in like two hundred pages. I feel like the success of this project would come from the fine details, in  the little intricacies that are woven into the overall story of how Hip Hop got to be this giant monolithic culture in just a few years, without any internet or anything like that so that’s what’s fascinating about it to me. So Fantagraphics are giving me the room to breathe and just get into the nitty gritty as deep as I want to. So the only stuff that’s getting left out is just because its completely under my radar, if I had my say I would include it all. Now if you were to talk to me in a couple of years where maybe there are thousands of acts and certainly dozens of vary popular ones I’ll probably have to cut some of that out but its early enough where you can really talk about everybody. So we’ll see what happens in a few years as the story continues to develop.

S: Do you have any time table when it’ll rap up or are you just going to do it for as long as it takes?

EP: I don’t have a time table for when I’m going to end it, but I do have an idea for where the story will end and it will probably end with where my interest in hip hop ended which is probably around 1992 – 93 when Wu Tang came out. So like where Wu Tang was the start for you, its over for me. Its like it became just divorced from what initially interested me in that genre of music and I sort of think, and I’ve talked to people about this,  maybe I’ll discover what it is that sort of turned me off so that might show up in the work.

S: You might not have an answer for this but the Fantagraphics thing will be Volume One when it premieres next year so is there a deal in place to keep it going? I don’t know how publishing works so I’m curious?

EP: Right, well I said yes to Fantagraphics because they said yes to many things to the format, to a lot of the ideas I had, its going to be oversized its going to be full color, all sorts of production things I wanted are in there. Plus, they’re not asking any questions about content. The one “yes” I couldn’t get out of them was to accept the work as a series but I got them to put into the contract “If you hit X amount of copies that you sell, of course we’re going to do book two” and that number is very low. So they didn’t formally say “We’re in it to win it!” or “we’re in it for the long haul” or shit like that but if I don’t hit the number that they put into the contract to produce more books I really might quit comics because its that low of a number.

S: I don’t see that as being much of a problem for you, alright well I think I’ll ask my last question which I’ve been asking everyone: At this SPX what’s something you’ve seen, read or met that got you really excited for the event or comics in general?

EP: I feel, and it’s a weird thing, but I think there’s just this tangible difference to like where I’m at as a cartoonist so in a weird way I feel like I’ve been brought into the fold a little bit more.  Where I once felt like a little bit of an outsider I now seem to have way more friends in comics, and the energy and the buzz is quite – I’m not going to name specifics because the answers I would give you are the answers everybody else would say too, but just the energy, this year in particular is just great. It seems to be, uh I got to go to this arts festival in Copenhagen, Denmark and Dan Clowes and Chris Ware and Charlse Burns were out there and that festival it was all about exchanging information and it had nothing to do with the economics of comics and selling crap and all of that mucky stuff. It was just about the love of the form and talking about it and the list of programming at this years show it completely mimics or parrots what I experienced out there and its been really cool.

You can find more or Ed Piskors work on his website or on Boing Boing.