“I Couldn’t Get Out of Bed for Like a Month”
MARC SOBEL: Just to clarify your chronology, after you finished Wizzywig, is that when you got involved with Adult Swim and the Mongo Wrestling Alliance?
ED PISKOR: Yeah. I was self-publishing those Wizzywigs for a couple of years. In between Macedonia and The Beats, I did the first volume of the self-published Wizzywig Comics. Then I did The Beats and then volumes two and three came out. After volume two, I almost had enough of volume three done to publish it but the Adult Swim guys got in touch and I had to put it on hiatus for months. I literally just needed to finish like fifteen pages, but I was putting all my time into the Adult Swim stuff.
MARC SOBEL: How did that opportunity arise?
ED PISKOR: They got in touch with me during the summer, after a San Diego Comic-Con. The show’s producer, Eric Kaplan, just sent me this very short email, and was like, ‘do you want to design characters for an Adult Swim cartoon?’ Or a ‘possible cartoon,’ he said. I was pretty skeptical at first because you get these kinds of offers from time to time and it’s always bullshit. It’s usually some kid fresh out of art school, or college who has an idea that he thinks is going to make a million dollars.
So, since I’d never heard of Eric Kaplan or anything, after I got that email I did some Google searching and I realized, ‘this guy actually has stripes. This dude exists. It’s not just some silly bullshit.’ But then I got worried that maybe these guys didn’t know what it takes and they wanted me to do a bunch of free work ‘for a percentage of the back end,’ or something.
So I started emailing with him and it turns out that he was talking with Peter Bagge, who hipped him to my name. Pete is another guy I corresponded with early on when I was sending huge packets of shit out. I thought it was so cool that Pete still remembered me after so much time because I didn’t really keep up correspondence or anything.
So after a few weeks, Kaplan was like, ‘alright man, are you ready to do this?’ Then a bunch of phone calls happened and contracts were sent, which was another thing I got very nervous about because you hear a million stories about Hollywood. I was like, ‘are these guys going to rape and pillage me?’ <laughter> Because make no mistake about it, for all of the advances with creators’ rights, the majority of contracts that are out there are still that same old Jack Kirby contract where you’re coming up with shit for other people and you get no percentage of anything.
So, in addition to Peter Bagge, I saw that Kaplan was working with Tony Millionaire, and several other cartoonists. So I consulted with all those guys with questions like, ‘is this Kaplan dude legit?’ And then, ‘can you look at this contract for me and tell me if it looks weird?’ But everybody was like, ‘it seems cool, man, if you want to create some characters. There probably won’t be anything that comes from this other than you’ll make some money and that’ll be it.’
The initial job was to design four characters, and then after that I got another contract to design four more, and then four more. After that I didn’t hear anything for months, until I was carbon copied on this email that showed the production schedule. I was like, ‘oh shit, this show actually got picked up. That’s fucking cool!’
So I sent the guys I worked with a short email like, ‘that’s so cool that you guys sold this show with those characters and everything. I can’t wait to see what that looks like,’ and they were like, ‘you didn’t get our other emails?’ I was like, ‘what other emails?’ They’re like, ‘dude, we need you to do all this other production work. We need these key frames, and you need to come up with all these little assets, which are these little objects that would be in the show. I’m like, ‘are you kidding me? This sounds like a big job.’ And it was, but it paid well, and it was very fun to work on for a year and a half.
MARC SOBEL: What was the experience of working on a cartoon like as opposed to doing your own comics? What were some of the things you did and didn’t like working in animation?
ED PISKOR: It was a lot of fun in a million different ways. I felt really respected by everybody I worked with. At first I had an inferiority complex because I would Google stalk these guys to see who I was dealing with and they all have Emmy Awards and went to Ivy League schools, and I have nothing like that. But any ideas that I had they were real respectful of and I felt like they were really fair with the ideas that I came up with.
Initially, all the scripts were really top notch and I really dug it, but the final shows that came out were nothing like any of the scripts that I read, and… See, this is the part where I’m literally contractually precluded from saying anything bad about the show. But ultimately it just wasn’t what I initially read. I should have known, too, because after a certain point, I was locked out of the little system where we would upload the assets and new materials. Once I was locked out, I was like, ‘alright, cool. I guess my bit is done. I’m just going to go ahead and work on my comics.’
At that point, I had sold Wizzywig to Top Shelf and I was just fine-tuning the book, getting it all together, and coincidentally just when I sent it off, that’s when the first show aired. And with the combination of those two things, I just got so depressed, because a lot of people in my life were very excited about it.
See, I never talk about this stuff while it’s still in a production stage, or anything like that. There are just too many factors that could make you a liar or a bullshit artist if it doesn’t see the light of day. So I never talked about the show until the commercials were out. Then I was like, ‘dudes, look, the reason I haven’t been able to hang out is because I’ve been working on this cartoon and it’s coming out soon, and I’m stoked and it’s awesome.’ So I had everybody in my life rooting for me, and then after everybody checked it out, which was also the first time I’d seen it myself, I couldn’t get out of bed for like a month. It was just so different from what we initially put together.
MARC SOBEL: It’s so hard to maintain real personal vision in a product that has so many people’s imprint on it. That’s why comics are such a pure art form.
ED PISKOR: Absolutely. I would say that it’s impossible to get across a solitary vision. I mean, there are certain auteurs in film and things like that, but I bet you if you sit down and speak with them, they just take what they can get in certain instances. I felt really lucky to have Wizzywig at that time, where I could just have my own world and do my own thing without any sort of committee.
But some people are really into collaborating. At last year’s San Diego Comic-Con, I spoke with the producer. We had lunch and I asked him, ‘do you have some creative thing that’s all your own apart from all this team effort shit, because I don’t know.’ He’s like, ‘No, man. I love working with people. It’s really fun. I love the communal aspect of a lot of mental energy coming together to create a big project.’ So, it’s not quite where I would envision myself being throughout my career, but some people are into it.
“I’m Like Rain Man When It Comes to This Shit”
MARC SOBEL: Can you talk about what initially sparked your interest in doing such a comprehensive history of hip hop?
ED PISKOR: For years, since high school, I wanted to tell a story within an old school ecosystem where I could indulge in drawing graffiti on the walls, track suits and all the fashion of the time, but I just couldn’t think of a MacGuffin to make it happen. I was like, ‘should it be a crime story, or…’ And then, doing Wizzywig, I wanted… Like, Wizzywig would have been just a biography of Kevin Mitnick if Kevin would have taken me seriously when I started it, but I was nobody at the time, so I had to do this fictional thing. Also there’s just limited material out there about those initial hackers, but with hip hop, there’s tons of stuff out there. You just have to dig into it and find everything, but it already exists. So ultimately, I just said, ‘I’m going to do a hip hop history book, that’s perfect.’
You see, I’m like “Rain Man” when it comes to this hip hop shit. <laughter> So I figured that to make it at least a productive thing, I’d take all that obscure knowledge and make a comic book. That way I wouldn’t feel like a complete slacker spending all this time obsessing over fucking trivia about old school rap. So, that was the impetus. I was like, ‘I already have the knowledge of the hip hop records and stuff, so I’ll just fill all the gaps in my historical knowledge by researching everything.’
So I put that first strip up on boing boing and at first it was going to be very intermittent, just whenever I felt like doing one, because I’m not obligated to do a two or three-page story every week. I could do a strip that’s one drawing and still get the same pay. But I just started digging it too much. I did that first one, and then that led me right into another strip that I wanted to do, and then it just kept growing.
To be honest, I wasn’t initially thinking about this as a book. I had some vague idea that maybe there would be a 32-page comic or something, but over time it became apparent that there’s way too much story to be told and it is too much fun to draw.
MARC SOBEL: Was there a particular moment or song that really crystallized your connection to hip hop?
ED PISKOR: I don’t know. I was born in 1982, so the fad of hip hop was at its apex with shit like that Fruity Pebbles commercial <laughter> with Fred and Barney rapping. So it was just a normal part of my life as a kid, and over time, as the costumes became gaudier and the character of each rapper became more outrageous, I just got totally into it. It was extraordinary; it wasn’t real world stuff.
Also, that was the music that everybody listened to in town so I heard a ton of it. But even then, I still fucked up because if you would listen to the shit that was even six months old, you were considered played out, or kind of whack, but I just couldn’t help it because I would get obsessed with trying to find every rappers’ first songs. I would hear songs with little bits of other songs sampled, and I would have to find out where that sample came from. And then I would listen to that song and it would have samples of older things, so I felt like this detective, or something. I would just fall down this rabbit hole where I was digging into deeper and deeper old hip hop tracks that had nothing to do with the original song. And everybody would be like, ‘you listen to some tired ass bullshit that my dad listens to,’ <laughter> but I couldn’t help it. I just loved it so much.
MARC SOBEL: Is there a particular era of hip hop that you favor?
ED PISKOR: The earliest stuff is the stuff that I most love and adore. I kind of equate those old records with standup comedy. A lot of the first hip hop records are the result of so much test marketing, I guess is the best way to put it, where these people created routines and they put them out there in front of a very hardcore audience of people who might only have ten extra dollars to spend a week for entertainment. So you’re putting on a performance to a hostile crowd. You fine tune it, and you figure out every little piece that works, and every little thing that people respond to positively, and you keep building and adding and making it better.
Then the first rap records happened, so you got these fifteen minute records of all their best material put on wax right there, and it’s all this perfectly tried and true stuff. So it’s great; it has all this heart and soul and a lot of feeling. I listen to those old rap records and literally get tears in my eyes just thinking about the situation that these people were in. You’ve got to understand what the climate was like in New York back in the ‘70s, and how all this funding was being cut from schools and there were no music departments, yet music was such a part of everybody’s lives. So what did they do? They just got together whatever they could, whatever could make some noise, and they figured out how to use that to be creative in their own ways. It’s remarkable.
And if you listen closely to those old records, you can tell that they’re absolutely taking their best shot, like they may never have this opportunity again, so they’re busting their asses. And that’s like a standup comic who goes around to the Chuckle Hut or the Funny Bone and they’re testing material out for their HBO show, or their record, or their appearance on David Letterman.
I identify with a lot of those folks because I also come from very humble means and was able to do some creative stuff. I see doing comics as similar in that it’s taking paper and pencil and making something new. At the end of the day, a page of comics develops that wasn’t there before, and that’s not that different from taking a drum beat from a James Brown record and then rapping over the top of it to create a completely new piece of material.
Then, my other interest is… I’m really fascinated with the viral aspects of how hip hop grew so huge in such a short amount of time, without any internet.
MARC SOBEL: I know in the most recent strips over the last couple of weeks you were talking about how the rise of MTV played a role.
ED PISKOR: Right. Yeah, and the strip I’m working on now, what it’s about is in 1981, there was this segment on 20/20, you know that show with Hugh Downs?
MARC SOBEL: Sure.
ED PISKOR: It talked about how ‘you hear this music all around, but what is it?’ They did this really fair, really insightful ten minute piece about hip hop and its origins, and they did such a good job for like 98% of the thing, but it’s hysterical because at the very end, when Steve Fox, the 20/20 correspondent, is summarizing everything, he makes some statement about the beauty of rap and how quaint it is. He’s like ‘not everybody can sing, but anybody can rap.’ <laughter> And that was the final word on it, which I thought was just so hysterical because they did this really nice job of building it up only to essentially say that ‘even a caveman can do it.’