In 2011, Ed Piskor created a webcomic for boingboing called Brain Rot in which he compared hip hop to comic books. In hindsight, that strip represents a pivotal moment in his career, foreshadowing both his Hip Hop Family Tree series, which won the Eisner Award in 2015 for “Best Reality-Based Work,” and now, X-Men: Grand Design, Piskor’s highest profile and best work to date.
Framed as an oral history narrated by the Watcher, Grand Design is a fire hose blast of early X-Men stories presented in the same pop research style that worked so well in Hip Hop Family Tree (the two series have enough in common that Grand Design could have been called X-Men Family Tree). Recounting everything from the origins of the main characters, to the formation of the mutant school, to the first adventures of the original team, Piskor distilled the essential moments from the X-Men’s formative years into just 80 pages. At the same time, he also integrated dozens of flashbacks and peripheral details which were later appended to these original stories. His goal “is to take the thousands of pages that make up Uncanny X-Men issues 1-281 and try to make a complete, concise, and satisfying 240 page story which includes all the most important elements, but none of the fat, redundancy, or deus ex machina from the series.”
Reading Grand Design is like binge watching an entire Netflix series on fast forward. Given its ambitious scope, Piskor powers through a lot of ground very quickly, abruptly jumping from one milestone to another. In many cases, an entire issue’s worth of plot is reduced down to a single page. Recognizing that the series is unusually dense for a Marvel comic, Piskor sought inspiration, in terms of storytelling economy and narrative compression, from a variety of classic newspaper strips. “I created each page to function as its own unique and complete episode/strip that, when read in total, would tell a bigger story.” Though his influences are broad, close inspection of his studio in the author photo reveals bookshelves filled with Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, and Peanuts hardcovers, as well as a complete set of the entire EC Comics line. Yet, even with Piskor’s diligent efforts, there’s a lot to absorb in Grand Design and the plot summarizations feel a bit relentless by the end. The best moments are those that focus on the main characters’ backstories.
The irony of Piskor’s title is that there has never been a “grand design” to the X-Men. Rather, Marvel’s flagship franchise has evolved organically for over 50 years with varying efforts by its revolving bullpen of artists and writers to maintain consistency and logic. So what is the point of retroactively imposing a grand design to the series now? Part of it, of course, is nostalgia, but for lapsed fans who grew fatigued with the endless soap opera, increasing complexity, unresolved plot threads, and sprawling cast, Piskor’s series also makes the X-Men accessible again. Rather than wade through 50 years’ worth of back issues, Grand Design offers just the right amount of background and story, while its chronological structure organizes the X-Men’s haphazard history in a way that clarifies and deepens the overall series.
Of course, the detailed historical content is secondary to the sheer pleasure of staring at Piskor’s panels. An unrepentant fanboy, he has often professed his love for mainstream superstars like Liefeld and Lee, but, having cut his teeth working with Harvey Pekar on American Splendor, his art style is more closely aligned with underground cartoonists like Clowes and Crumb. His neo-retro coloring techniques are also a crucial part of his work’s aesthetic appeal. The oversized Treasury edition, which mirrors Hip Hop Family Tree’s design, includes a full reprint of The X-Men #1 with Jack Kirby and Paul Reinman’s artwork recolored by Piskor. Of course, Marvel has been recoloring its back catalog for years, but Piskor’s distinctive approach makes for a much more striking revision than the technicolored Omnibus and Masterworks editions. “I feel like my artwork is kind of rough,” Piskor explained. “It doesn’t work with regular computer coloring, like the perfect paint bucket fill look . . . 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.”
Here’s an example of both the original and reprinted splash panels from The X-Men #1 - the first ever drawing of these iconic characters - contrasted with Piskor’s re-colored version. While the colorized reprints do have their virtues (e.g., the vibrant colors look sharp, particularly when reprinted on thicker, glossier paper as opposed to cheap newsprint, and are far better-suited for screen-based reading), much is lost in translation. The endless swaths of solid colors drain the stories of their pixelated four color charm. Piskor’s coloring remedies this not by resurrecting the old Craftint separation techniques, but rather - and here is the genius behind his approach – digitally copying palettes and textures from old ‘60s and ‘70s comics (Piskor described his “antiquing” process in detail when we spoke back in 2013). These colored patterns are then layered over the artwork in Photoshop, recreating the essential tone and texture of the Silver Age while eliminating the smudging and color bleeds that diminished the original linework. Piskor’s unique hybrid approach recognizes that Ben Day-style dots are the underlying atomic structure of superhero comics - the unstable molecules hovering in the air at all times - and that flattening them out of existence, even in an attempt to faithfully recreate the original colorist’s palette, suffocates the art. This hip hop-inspired approach to coloring by mixing and sampling has become Piskor’s trademark visual style over the years and it fits perfectly with the X-universe.
The faux yellowed newsprint backgrounds are also essential to Piskor’s overall aging effect. The grainy pulp texture which underlies each page gives a washed out, weathered feel to his artwork. Not only does this give his blacks a faded look, it also adds a powerful new color to his arsenal – white. Rather than a traditional negative space, Piskor uses white as a bold, vivid color. In the example above, the solid white of Magneto’s energy field practically radiates off the page. He also uses white throughout to convey the intense frigidity of Iceman.
If there’s one flaw in Grand Design, it’s that ironically, in its singular pursuit of an over-arching narrative, it sacrifices much of the emotion and drama of the classic storylines it pays homage to. The series is not plot-driven so much as it is a succession of synopses, hence Piskor’s perspective is not as storyteller but archaeologist, sifting through the past and excavating the gems from the soil. In that sense, it’s closer in ambition and spirit to The Marvel Saga, or even The Official Marvel Index to the X-Men, though, on the strength of Piskor’s cartooning, it far surpasses either of those prose-centric efforts.
For Piskor, who’s been an obsessive comics fan since he was a kid in the ‘90s, this series is “a dream project.” His boyhood sketches and strips reveal a deep passion for the subject matter, and it’s hard not to view this opportunity to produce an X-Men’s Greatest Hits album as the culmination of a lifelong journey. With his vast knowledge of the series, Grand Design is a comic he was literally born to create and his unabashed enthusiasm for the X-Men is contagious. “Second Genesis,” the middle arc of the trilogy which focuses on the classic run by Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, and John Byrne, ships in July and, for the first time in years, I am actually excited for a new superhero book. That fact alone speaks volumes.