Michel Fiffe, Ed Piskor, and Tom Scioli Make Corporate Comics Their Way

Comic book creators working on corporate properties is hardly a new thing. It’s been going on since the beginning of comics, and you can find dozens of examples every week at your local comic book store. Hell, you can probably find a dozen examples involving Batman alone. But three creators working on other people’s characters are a little different. Michel Fiffe, Ed Piskor, and Tom Scioli are something rare in mainstream comics: auteurs. Each writes, pencils, inks, colors, and letters their own comics. In the case of Fiffe and his series Copra, he’s also been the publisher (until Copra’s recent migration to Image Comics). So, what happens when creators accustomed to total freedom and autonomy work under the constrictions of corporate comics?

In a word, classics.

Scioli’s G.I. Joe vs. Transformers(2014 – 2016) was one of the most adventurous art comics of the century thus far, and his current series, Go-Bots, proves that even Transformers knock-offs can be the subject of an innovative comic. Piskor’s X-Men: Grand Designlends a singular vision to the byzantine, bananas continuity of the X-Men. Fiffe brought his frenetic style to Rob Liefeld’s Bloodstrike, and his three-issue series, G.I. Joe: Sierra Muerte, made America’s super soldiers as distinctive as his own wild creations, such as Negativeland.

I recently talked to Fiffe, Piskor, and Scioli via the uncharacteristically cooperative Adobe Connect. Here’s a slightly edited transcript of the conversation.

“[Collaborators] don’t give the fuck that I give a fuck.”

Mark Peters: A lot of comic book creators tend to be just writers, or just artists, or just pencilers, colorists, letterers, or whatever. How did each of you end up deciding, “I’m going to do it all.” How did that evolve?

Ed Piskor: I think I sort of grew up with the idea — and I would bet, Michel, Tom, speak up if you concur — but the drawing part of comics was the more attractive part when I was growing up. So, I would’ve been happy to have been like a jobber penciler or something. I was kind of on that trajectory when I was in my teens and extremely early twenties.

It was when I met Tom and Jim Rugg, when I was like 20 or 21, that I sort of realized you’re leaving a lot up to fate if you get into the game doing one discipline. You might have some hack writer that you have to draw for. Not only can they write their scripts in a weekend, but they can write 5-10 scripts a month, and throw a whole lot of stuff at the wall and see what sticks. And you’re stuck there with their crappy, dashed-out script for a month, and all your time’s going into it, all of your creative capital. So almost like a self-preservation mechanism, I have to do everything. I have to maintain control of the entire process because I don’t want to leave any component piece of my comics up to fate. And up to this point, every single thing I’ve done on my own has been nominated for awards, and any collaborations I’ve done fall by the wayside, so there you have it.

Michel Fiffe: That’s the proof right there.

Ed: It’s true, man. Like almost everybody I work with, I can just tell that they don’t give a fuck. They don’t give the fuck that I give a fuck.

Michel: Collaborations are such a weird topic. It’s a big part of what makes comics, especially the comics we all love, you know? So, it’s kind of weird to work against that in a way. Growing up, I did think I had to start as sort of a worker bee. That was the trajectory in the beginning, and then the reward was being able to just go off and do my own comics, the way the Image guys did.

It was easy for me to tap into that because as a kid that’s how I already made comics. I just wrote them and lettered them and drew them on typing paper with whatever pencils were around. You’re doing it on your own just because you have to — you’re not going to wait around for anyone to contribute to your passion.

So, the thing about becoming a “jobber,” like Ed describes, that just came into my field of vision when I wanted to break into the industry as a teenager. The art was always the number one thing for me. That was my assumed entry point. That’s what I was going for. But then you kind of discover the undergrounds and the independents, and they do it all themselves, so it’s like, “Why not?” That’s the thing that makes the most sense.

Tom Scioli: For me, I wanted to do the art, and I figured I’d hook up with a writer to take care of that, but in the meantime, there’s nobody around. I didn’t have any friends who were like, “I’ll write some stories, and you can draw them.” So back then, I’d write them myself until I got to the point where somebody else would write it.

And even back then, just the fact that I inked my own stuff felt like a step into the unknown. “Oh, you ink your own stuff? Wow, that’s crazy.” And I didn’t have the confidence in my own ideas, my own writing at that time. I thought, “I’m an artist; I’m not a writer.” But as time went on, just the practice of writing, I started to realize I do have things to say. I do have stories to tell. It’s not like there’s somebody out there who has all the answers and is going to provide me with some great scripts. It’s like everybody is in the same boat. Everybody’s just making it up, trying to figure things out, putting it together one word at a time. I thought I’d meet some guru or somebody, some genius, and I’ll illustrate their scripts, but that’s just a childish wish, like a childish worldview. And when you become a man, when you become an adult, you realize it’s all on you.

Ed: When I was getting started, I grew up with several dudes who were in punk rock bands and shit like that in Pittsburgh. And the gears, the whole machine would stop, if some guy couldn’t get the weekend off, or got a cold or something, and I remember thinking how much that would suck if you had to rely on others in the way these guys do. One of the major strengths of the form is that you can just sit down and do the thing and get across your vision.

Growing up, of course, I read Marvel, DC, like newsstand comic buyers born in 1982, but once I discovered stuff like Fantagraphics … My comics needs now are satiated by reading a comic that is a singular vision, so it really has nothing to do with my interests anymore. And by doing this work in the mainstream, it’s kind of fun to bring this energy to these corporate properties, and kind of refine this material to suit my own tastes. In a lot of ways, even participating in a Comics Journal piece, is almost like counterintuitive because I’m trying to bring this energy to people who aren’t familiar with comics made by a single person. In fact, your homeboy Matt Seneca cut promos on my X-Men comic, and I was like, “It’s not for you,” you know? This shit ain’t meant for you.

Michel: Well, there’s a part of the audience that already made up their minds about us years ago. That’s not who I’m making comics for, either. It is kind of funny how we’re just sitting here discussing this stuff in detail, in hopes that somebody gets something useful out of it.

Ed: I just appreciate the opportunity to talk to you guys whenever I get the chance, man.

Cartooning and the road

Michel: You know, I used to be in a band, too, and I can speak from experience. If one person fucks up, it throws the whole thing off, and that dynamic is very frustrating, especially coming from comics and just doing it all myself. I did not pursue that too deeply, and I’m glad I doubled down on comics. There was a time when I was juggling both.

Ed: What instrument did you play, man?

Michel: Drums.

Ed: Nice.

Michel: Lugging those things around was not fun. I was ready to go. I wanted to tour. I wanted to record, do the whole thing, and maybe do comics on the road. That was sort of a pipe dream I had as a teenager, but that was nearly impossible. I don’t know that that could be done.

Ed: You know, when Hip Hop Family Tree first came out, and I would do all this travel, it sort of made me understand how musicians, bands in particular, how their first album is so rich, and then they fall off, because they’re expected to tour, be on the road, make new music, and that’s literally burning the candle at both ends, man. You’re going to fuck yourself up. Your health is going to be compromised, and the work is going to be compromised because you’re never getting a good night’s sleep or have comfy surroundings. The subsequent Hip Hops … they were made with that kind of energy, when 10 percent was drawn in Denmark. I’m not saying it like I’m bragging. I just had an opportunity out there I had to do, but I still had to keep my deadlines and shit, and it wasn’t easy.

Tom: I went through a similar thing: pulling back on the travel to commit to the work. And the productivity went way up, but while you’re traveling, while you’re out of your comfort zone, sometimes you get amazing ideas that you would never get in familiar surroundings, and I kind of miss that.

Ed: That’s what the pocket notebook is for. Just write down those ideas, and then when you get home put it together.

Tom, we went to Canada that one time. We shared a hotel room. My process is very reliant on 90-degree angles, T squares, right angles, and Ames’ lettering guide, and I couldn’t find a straight edge in the entire fucking hotel room. Even the tables had curved sides and shit. So, I had to use the closet door — do you remember this, man? — I used the closet door to tape up my fucking pages, so I could rule out my lettering guide on the side of the door. That is not fucking ideal.

Tom: My process is a little more portable. I can kind of do it anywhere.

Going corporate

Mark: How did you guys end up doing stuff like X-Men, Transformers, G.I. Joe, Go-Bots? I feel like it’s three very different paths.

Ed: I’ll say this about the X-Men thing. It was sort of a bluff that was called. Awhile back, I said Marvel should let me make whatever X-Men comic I feel like making. Axel [Alonso] called my bluff, and that’s where Grand Design came from. I stuck with it, and I’m continuing to do it because it’s mutually good business. I’m playing to a different crowd than I otherwise would. The book is a hit, and I’m gaining retail support in the direct market, which is going to serve my future stuff. Like it or not, man, if you’re playing this game in a real way, the social media component is a part of it. And since I’ve put together the first X-Men, I’ve got about 18,000 new followers on Instagram, and some of those people are going to be Ed Piskor readers that I own for myself.

Tom: The X-Men is kind of this very specific thing, and the stuff that Ed’s talking about in his X-Men, I’m actually interested in. I feel like that is the X-men — it’s just that Marvel never had a repository for that story. For all these superhero epics, these stories that you have to find bit by bit, that were never really told properly. There was no place you could send somebody. Oh, you want to know the story of the X-Men? Here it is.

Ed: Well, how about you, Tom? How did you decide on Transformers/GI Joe, Go-Bots, all that shit?

Tom: I pitched a bunch of stuff, and they [IDW] asked, “Do you want to do Transformers/GI Joe?” It wasn’t something even in my head because I couldn’t imagine a world where I’d be able to do something like that. They don’t ask people like me to do that. If you look at the history of Transformers comics, they haven’t looked like what I do since the ‘80s. But when I was offered that, I knew it was an opportunity to make something amazing, something that played directly to my strengths. So, I went for it. I’m not too proud to work on a toy license. I feel a good story is where you find it. And so much of the history and the things I love came out of these unlikely places, came out of these disrespected places you wouldn’t expect a masterpiece to come from. Not until, maybe, the ‘80s did masterpieces start coming from similar intellectual spaces, like where a great movie or novel would come from.

Ed: How about you, Michel?

Michel: Well, I’m glad Tom referred to his work as a masterpiece. [Piskor laughs] Hey, it’s the same way I see his work! I’ve got to say, Tom, if it wasn’t for you and that project, I don’t know if I would’ve had the GI Joe project. You really paved the way. It really took the combined efforts of you, John Barber, and David Hedgecock to make this happen, don’t you think?

Tom: I mean, I’m very happy to hear that. That’s kind of my biggest hope, that you can carve out a new space or a new category in comics, a new way of doing things. That’s real exciting to me. The possibility to do that, that’s real exciting.

Michel: One thing I absolutely fucking hate is when styles that are off-model, say, our styles, they’re treated kind of as a novelty. I think that’s the worst thing. You know, like Strange Tales or Bizarro Stories. Those are sort of, not really the godfathers of where we’re coming from, because they were seen as oddities, but in the negative sense.

Ed: Yeah, you got my blood pressure up even mentioning the Strange Tales and Bizarro stuff. It was such a hopeful thing, and it could have been an opportunity to just make the coolest Spider-Man comic ever, and then it became this hipster fucking, “Let me try to out-obscure the next cartoonist by bringing in this stupid character or that stupid character.” And everything was done with a sense of irony, and that has been corny to me for 1000 years at this point. The whole, “It’s so bad, it’s good.” That’s what all of those comics reeked of, and it was pathetic. I even have friends who participated in that, and I don’t give a fuck. It’s like, “You guys all fucked up.”

Typical superhero bullshit

Tom: The way a typical superhero comic is drawn, if you show it to anybody outside the faithful, it’s incredibly unattractive, unreadable, where our stuff is inviting and accessible and interesting and attractive. I would say, you could demonstrate it in a laboratory with diodes hooked up to somebody’s head to see which areas of the brain fire. I feel like that cartooning approach is so much more attractive than this kind of baroque approach that’s grown out of the very specific, petri dish of mainstream comics.

Ed: You know what it seems like mainstream comics has become, compared to the space we come from as youngsters? It’s definitely a more writer-driven medium, where there’s no more Marvel Method, so the writers … they put together full scripts. They explain everything. There’s no real storytelling for the artist to do beyond make sure that everything is clear when they put it on the page, but it’s all being given to them for the most part, and people who are the jobbers, the rank and file of the mainstream, they’re really just illustrators. They went to Rhode Island School of Design or whatever, and they learned to draw very well. And maybe they like comics, and maybe they love comics, but they’re not really storytellers in the way even Alex Saviuk was a storyteller. So, that’s a big piece that’s missing.

Tom: It reads like radio scripts. The words have nothing to do with the pictures. There’s like this massive illustration of Captain America beating up a bunch of Hydra goons, and then you have boxes of an essay about friendship and patriotism and not letting people down. There’s no connection at all between the art and the writing.

Michel: You guys are clearly not reading DC Comics [Laughs] because I think those are exceptional, and they have a high standard for storytelling.

Ed: You got me, man. I certainly haven’t seen any of that stuff. I mean, I have, but I haven’t, you know what I mean? I look with half an eye. Whenever people tell me that this writer is the writer du jour, I’m like, “Ok, let me check this out.” I go to Baltimore Comicon, and the same stuff gets nominated for all the Ringos. It’s like, “Ok, this is where the zeitgeist is right now, let me check it out,” and I check it out, and I’m like, “Oh, I just try too hard.” I should relax because the audience isn’t really that demanding.

Michel: Actually, I was talking about DC Comics from 1988.

Ed: I could hug you, man.

Michel: I’ve got to say one thing about style before we move on, which is very important to me. I’m drawing and writing and doing my whole thing on G.I. Joe, and my approach to that book specifically is a direct response to my previous work on Bloodstrike, which was for Rob Liefeld. I drew the fuck out of every single page, and the story was mired in its own history, and that’s exactly the project I set out to do. With Sierra Muerte, I wanted it to be super clear, super direct, super meat and potatoes, right? But it’s been described by readers — who like it — as the weirdest thing ever. I’m trying to be the least weird ever.

It seems like it’s never been more obvious that everyone has very conflicting senses of values. We’re all seeing different things, and it’s never been more evident than in this G.I. Joe project, which is super interesting to me.

Ed: I give you guys a lot of credit and respect for playing with that set of toys. I did one variant cover for Tom back on the Transformers/GI stuff. I did a variant cover for issue #2, and whenever the cover was released, it was released alongside, thankfully, a Rob Liefeld variant cover for Tom’s comic. It happened to be Easter Day, and I got a Google alert telling me there was a forum where our covers were being addressed, and by the time the Google alert hit my inbox, there were already nine pages of people destroying us.

And it was really the first fanboy invective I ever received. For my own comics, my readers are fucking really cool people, man. The Wizzywig shit, the computer hacker crowd is this really specific, interesting crowd. And of course, the Hip Hop readers. I definitely brought people into the game of comics, and they will come to conventions just to get their stuff signed by me. And they are really cool and fly people. But when I did that thing for Tom, and I got to see that direct market energy, it was actually like an inoculation because I was able to get a little of that poison and strengthen my constitution. So, when I do my own X-Men comic, all the mark talk, it doesn’t affect me like it would’ve if I had gone in cold turkey without receiving my inoculations and shit.

Tom: A rookie mistake would be to hear all that outcry and be like, “Oh shit, I’m doing something wrong. I’ve got to adjust. I’ve got to fix it.” But no, if somebody has a strong opinion about how Bazooka is supposed to be portrayed, there’s not enough [similar] people to support your career as an artist. You’ve got to just disregard that.

Michel: Yeah, totally. I got a little bit of that when I started writing for Marvel and working on Rob Liefeld’s characters, but for the GI Joe people … my work is polarizing.

Tom: Welcome to my world.

Ed: Yeah, that seems to be how stuff goes, man. You know, it’s super funny. I totally love what you did on Bloodstrike, but when I was like a 13-year-old kid, Extreme Studios mark, if ever there would be anything off model from the Rob Liefeld/Jim Lee model — anything that deviated from that  — I would cut promos on that shit. So, those guys reacting to your shit in that way, man. They’re still of that energy. They desperately want Steven Platt to get busy.

Michel: That’s so funny. It’s just as a reader, as a little kid even, I was never like that. I liked the deviations.

Ed: The flip side is Jae Lee. Because that stuff’s not on model, but that shit is amazing.

Michel: He almost upstaged that whole comic by being the most different from the Rob Liefeld model.

Ed: Yeah. Well said.

Balancing your own thing and the corporate thing

Mark: How do you balance the parameters of the projects, demands of the corporate properties, and doing your own thing? What’s the process been like?

Tom: For me, I just do what I’m going to do. I don’t put a lot of thought into what the company’s going to think or whatever. I do what I’m going to do, and I tell my editors, if I do something that’s really off the rails or whatever, let me know. I’d prefer not to run it past you before I start drawing. I just need to harness this energy, get on it, and do it. If I get a couple of pages in, and it’s just utter, unreleasable garbage, tell me, and I’ll redo it. But I can’t step-by-step check and get permission. So, I just do it like I’m going to do it until someone tells me to stop, and so far, no one’s told me to stop.

The most I’ve gotten is tiny little comments, like change this phrasing here, or do something different for this panel. But 99.9 percent of my vision is coming across.

When I worked at DC, it didn’t work there. I hit some roadblocks there. But everything else I’ve done for other publishers, that way of working, has worked.

Ed: The thing about soliciting our services is it’s almost like a version of the old studio system, like Simon-Kirby or Eisner-Iger. Here’s this company coming to this shop to have comics made, and it just so happens that the writer, penciler, inker, colorist is inside of one body. At least for me, that’s the respect level that I’ve been given. You’re the comic maker. We see what you do, we know what you do, so make us some freaking comics.

Now with this X-Men thing I’m doing, it’s not controversial, so everything that I want is coming across. The exception being that Marvel has a no-smoking policy, so I can’t have Nick Fury with a cigar in his mouth. But other than that, I’m just refashioning existing canon to fit my tastes, so they got me on board for that. I told them that’s what I want to do, and they said ok. It’s like its own thing, so nobody’s whooping and hollering and crying about why did I make it this way or that way. They’re totally just letting me do my thing, but that wouldn’t be the case if I was doing Uncanny X-men #542 or something like that.

Tom: I wonder if Marvel has a no vaping policy [Laughs].

Primordial predecessors to corporate auteurs

Mark: For the kind of comics you’re doing, do you think it’s something totally different, or of a piece with things like Frank Miller’s Batman or Walter Simonson’s Thor? Do you feel a kinship with work like that? Or Kirby’s?

Ed: I feel a kinship with work like Tom’s and Michel’s. It’s just our own thing. Those guys, they were all locked into the system that was thrust upon them, and we have choices. We are opting to do this thing. The creator-owned world has been established, and we’re deciding to take a deviation from doing our other work. I’m taking a major pay cut to do this thing just for fun. I’m just having a gas. You know what I’m saying? Kirby, Simonson, even Miller, I don’t saddle myself up with those guys at all. I like their work —

Michel: The earliest comics I ever recognized were from guys like Frank Miller and John Byrne, where I noticed they did more than just draw. They would write and ink themselves, and that was really, really appealing to me. I connected to what they did with what I did. And it’s almost like I was in lockstep with the history of comics: those were writer/artists. That’s about as far as complete control you could get within that system. And then I discovered the independents, and I saw that guys like Daniel Clowes and the Hernandez brothers were doing the same thing but with different types of comics, which opened a world of variety to me. Also, the Image guys were just going off and doing their own thing. That was pivotal for so many reasons. I had all these options, all these examples of people I liked and respected that influenced me, showing that it was possible. You could have a career. You can express yourself and be faithful to that vision and survive. And that was super important to me.

Ed: Yeah, no, I absolutely adore their work myself. In fact, when Miller started Sin City, and it’s like, “Ok, he’s lettering his stuff, too, and there doesn’t need to be a colorist,” it showed you don’t need to just do navel-gazing independent comics. You could do complete, singular work with some pulp. And have fun that way, so of course, Miller was important that way, but to me it’s still kind of different because that’s Frank Miller’s end goal. I’m playing a very, very long game, and you’ll see what I mean as the years go by.

Michel: All the people we mentioned —

Tom: They were a different generation —

Michel: Yeah, completely.

Tom: They came into a world, and then pushed it into territory that’s closer to where we are, and we’re coming into a different world where those battles have already been fought and won. So, it’s kind of our job to see how far we can push it.

The future of singular creators on corporate IP

Mark: Do you envision doing more of your own takes on corporate properties? Do you hope other creators do similar things?

Michel: My future includes my own characters, full steam ahead. It’s always going to be fun working on these side projects, but right now I have to concentrate on my own thing. That’s the only thing that’s really important to me at the moment. That’s my long game.

Tom: I’ve only been allowed to touch these icons recently. It’s only been since 2015 or so that I’ve been able to do this sort of thing, so I’ve still got a lot I need to get out of my system. There’s a couple more properties that I’d like to do before I leave this stage behind and, like these guys, move on to my own properties. I’ve probably got two or three more things like this. I’m currently working on one of them, which hasn’t been announced yet, and I can’t say what it is. It’s like these, where it’s this labor of love, working on this existing corporate property that I have a lot of love and respect for.

Ed: I chose X-Men because it’s an evergreen property Marvel has let languish, for whatever reason. But I knew that to take it back to the classic stuff that made X-Men awesome, revisit that and that energy, I thought it would be a good seller. As long as I hit the marks, they could see that they could put all their trust into a singular creator. So, I’m sort of playing it as a fan.

I read comics that are made by a single person. I would read a Marvel Comic that a single person made. That was sort of my interest in the whole thing, man. I have zero interest in doing any more of the mainstream stuff. It’s an experiment. I had my very successful Fantagraphics book, and none of the very successful Fantagraphics guys ever deigned to waste their energy with a Marvel or DC thing in any major way. You know, Jamie [Hernandez] will do a Transmetropolitan cover, or Daniel Clowes will do a rejected Bizarro Stories cover, but nobody ever decided to take that pay cut and do work they didn’t own.

I just wanted to see, as an experiment, what would happen, and now the experiment has concluded. My work has been introduced to a whole new kind of audience, and we’ll see how many of those people are just curious X-Men fans, and how many of those people will be Ed Piskor readers. I can say that my earlier body of work has been selling really well with the release of these mainstream things, so there’s at least a percentage of those people who are curious about my work and will continue to be, and that’s the game for me, man.

I’m not jerking off to have a chance to make a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic or some shit like that. Let me do this. Let me take that pay cut because that’s what it is. You’re giving all this shit away. I’m definitely not going to create some new character or create a new wing in that way, but something tells me the Grand Design idea is interesting to the Big Two now, so we’ll see what happens with that. In order for there to be future “Grand Things,” it has to be done by a single person who loves this shit. If it doesn’t have both of those things, it won’t hold onto me as a reader.