The Ed Piskor Interview

MARC SOBEL: Would you describe your book as your personal version of the history of hip hop, or are you working from some generally accepted history of the music and the scene?

ED PISKOR: I guess that it’s a generally accepted view because I put this material out there on Boing Boing and it’s seen by the people who matter and nobody is calling shenanigans on any of it. I’m certainly not taking any controversial stances or anything like that. I’ve done very few interviews personally; I’m pulling from existing material, so I guess it is a generally accepted thing.

MARC SOBEL: So then what sets your book apart from the others?

ED PISKOR: I think the value that my book has and will have over time as I keep moving forward is that it really does stand a chance of being one of the most comprehensive histories of hip hop culture. There really isn’t one resource that includes all of this minutiae and stuff that I’m focusing on.

One of my favorite strips… There are maybe two that took literally days worth of research to yield the strip, but they’re all the better for it. First is the sequence where Kurtis Blow is on a world tour and, in the strip I have four different locations around the world, which I pulled from four different resources. For example, I found this interview where he was talking about being in France, and a different one where Russell Simmons is talking about when they were in Amsterdam, etc. So it’s pretty detailed, and I had to dig up that material in a bunch of different places to be able to put that strip together, but there’s a lot of pleasure in that for me.

Then there was another strip where there was a pretty important event in hip hop culture, but also in the fine art world, called the “Times Square show” that happened on the infamous “Forty Deuce,” and this is where Fab Five Freddy first hooked up with the director Charlie Ahern to start the ball rolling on making the Wild Style movie. It’s also before Keith Haring ever did a major public show so he’s still in SVA, but he’s there getting juiced with everybody, and that show also happened to be Jean Michel Basquiat’s first public exhibition of his artwork. So I pulled all that material from a bunch of different resources and was able to marry it together in the comic strip. All of those connections aren’t made anywhere else, as far as I know.

MARC SOBEL: How do you keep from getting lost in the details?

ED PISKOR: That’s where this weekly deadline comes in. That’s what’s keeping me on track. I realize that these pages take a certain amount of time to do and I have a certain allotment of research that I can do, and then I have to start putting pencil to paper. So that’s my mechanism for keeping me from literally falling in too deep.

MARC SOBEL: How deep into hip hop history do you plan to go?

ED PISKOR: I really want to go for a while. I hope my health holds up because my interest goes up to when Tupac and Biggie Smalls died. I’d love to take it up to their deaths because a lot of people who I respect, writers and journalists, they all pretty much agree that those two guys were the last of the MCs, so it would be cool to try to encapsulate everything up until then.

Hopefully I’m able to keep on this track with Fantagraphics and do these regular 112 page books. This first book covers ’75 to a nice portion of 1981, but there might be one whole book that only covers 1987, depending on how much stuff I uncover. So who knows? I’m just going to keep it going for as long as it’s fun, but ideally I would love to go up through a decade and a half or so. But each book is formatted so it can be its own thing, in case a fucking anvil falls on my head or something. Each book should be a full experience and if that’s a period of time that resonated with you, that’s all you’ll need.

MARC SOBEL: What inspired the family tree structure?

ED PISKOR: Have you watched The Wire?

MARC SOBEL: I finished the first season, but haven’t gone onto season two yet.

ED PISKOR: OK. Still in the first season, in the police office, they have that huge flowchart that connects all… like Wee-Bey’s connected to Stinkum?


ED PISKOR: That was the inspiration. Because of my interest in hip hop and digging deeper to see how everybody was connected, I had this mental flowchart in my brain of how hip hop worked. If you take a look at the strips on boing boing, at the end there is this ever growing flowchart that connects each new hip hop dude who’s introduced in the book with the guys who are already established. So that was inspired by The Wire, after looking at that flowchart of organized crime in the Avon Barksdale family. I was like, ‘I’m going to put this flowchart together and let it grow to Chris Ware-ian proportions.’ <laughter>

MARC SOBEL: Is Fantagraphics going to do a big foldout of that?

ED PISKOR: I don’t know. We have to figure something out. I don’t know if they would be interested in doing something like that. Design-wise, I need to speak with somebody because right now that’s a conundrum. I need to figure out how to get the flowchart to work with the book somehow. I’m not sure how to do it.  Maybe we can do a dust jacket or something and have it printed on the inside of that. I don’t want to do it on the endpapers because I have an idea of what I want those to look like. So I don’t know, but that’s definitely the latest creative challenge that I’ve got in the back of my mind.

MARC SOBEL: How did working with Harvey help you in terms of writing this book?

ED PISKOR: The Beats book was a great template for this project. I paid a lot of attention to the way he formatted the stories in that book. There’s very little linear, panel-to-panel, second-to-second storytelling. It’s a lot of captured moments, using captions and things like that, where a year’s worth of time can take place within the gutters between one panel and the next. So, I really paid a lot of attention to the specifics of the moments that he was capturing with the little bit of knowledge that I had about the beat generation, to see what he omitted and what he kept in to keep the reader’s interest. So that book in particular was a real big inspiration to help me format each page with the panel-to-panel transitions and stuff like that.

MARC SOBEL: Has the fact that you’re a white cartoonist drawing the history of a predominately black art form ever come up as an issue?

ED PISKOR: There have been times where guys fricking test me, at conventions and stuff, but I always rise to the occasion. I’ve done six or seven shows this year and at every one, people will come up and discover that I’m just a little white dude, and they’ll test me, but they can’t step to it. I invite challenge because I really do feel like my trivial knowledge is a little bit ridiculous when it comes to this stuff. So I’ve been proving myself with whoever’s come up and they seem satisfied with it.

MARC SOBEL: People just come up with obscure questions, or how exactly are they testing you?

ED PISKOR: It’s always older guys, mostly black dudes, and they’re like, ‘man, what do you know about the Cold Crush Brothers?’ So I’ll let them know what I know and then we start talking about, ‘well, who’s your favorite group?’ and it just develops naturally. I feel like, because it’s a conversation, you can’t fake that kind of shit. You have to have some knowledge. So I think that everybody I’ve talked to that’s come up to me has been satisfied that this comic is in good hands.

Also, everybody who has read it online… There’s been very little criticism, and there’s been absolutely zero criticism from anybody who counts in my opinion, like anybody in the hip hop world. Everybody digs it, and it’s people with stripes, like the Furious Five. Fab Five Freddy is down with it. I’m going to have this pull quote on the back cover… He shared one of my strips on his Facebook page, and he said, ‘being in an Ed Piskor comic is cool enough to freeze hot water,’ or something like that. <laughter> Also, Chuck D. tweeted this stuff, and people within hip hop who actually matter to me, they all dig it, so it’s very cool.

MARC SOBEL: Did you happen to go to the New York Comic-Con this year (2012)?

ED PISKOR: I didn’t, but I was invited to participate on that panel.

MARC SOBEL: Right, I was going to ask you about that. They had a panel called “Hip Hop and Comics: Cultures Combining.” What do you think of that? Do you feel like there’s this broad convergence between comics and hip hop?

ED PISKOR: I don’t know so much about a convergence, but… I don’t know if you ever saw that strip I did on boing boing that drew comparisons between rap music and comic books, but they have always felt synonymous to me. Comics, hip hop, and pro wrestling, for some reason, all seem like sister pieces of trash pop culture. You’re dealing with a lot of the same elements. Maybe it’s the ephemeral cheapness of the way it used to be back in the day. You know, comics were cheap, and ‘anybody can rap.’ That kind of lo-fi aspect. I’m not sure, but it seems like a no-brainer to have a panel like that. Also, in South Carolina they had Cola-Con last year, which married rap music and comics. Phife Dog was the guest of honor and they had a bunch of cool cartoonists come down, too.

They also both lend themselves well to obsessive trivia and collecting. Like, looking for all those old records and stuff, it was no different than rifling through comic book long boxes. Spending all this time in record stores digging through all this old crap for such and such’s first appearance is really no different than trying to find New Mutants #87 to see what it was like when Cable first popped on the scene.

MARC SOBEL: Do you see the concepts of sampling and mixing flowing into comic books at all?

ED PISKOR: I do in a lot of ways, and definitely within my own work. I was listening to Sammy Harkham’s panel at SPX where he was talking about, ‘in comics, if a certain scene comes up, let’s say you’re drawing a comic one way and then a car crash happens and you just have it in you to draw the most Geoff Darrow car crash, but that’s totally different from the rest of the story, even if you have that urge, you can’t do that.’ That’s a good description of what I have and what I need to get over because, I’ll read Akira, for example, and then the very next time there’s a part in the comic where I have to draw a speeding car, I’m going to reference some Akira stuff, like the way Otomo would draw a chase sequence or something like that.

So I definitely do see a lot of sampling in comics, and a lot of swiping, too. Like Bernie Wrightson who’s the child of Frank Frazetta and “Ghastly” Graham Ingels, or Kelly Jones who samples Wrightson, and, I mean this is something we could talk about forever.

MARC SOBEL: I guess there’s a fine line between being inspired by somebody and sampling their work, if you know what I mean. Like, take Dave Stevens, for example. I think everybody would agree that he was inspired by Frazetta, but did he actually swipe his work? That’s debatable.

ED PISKOR: Right, yeah. But then even Frazetta swiped Hal Foster multiple times. But I don’t see a problem with it so much. I do when its wholesale tracing, but there is room for homage and things like that.

MARC SOBEL: I guess what I’m driving at, though, is in hip hop, it’s common to literally take a segment of music from another song and merge it into your own song to create something new.


MARC SOBEL: But in comics, that would be a little less… or would it be less acceptable?

ED PISKOR: Well, it’s a weird fine line, and even in hip hop, there are guys who do it wrong and. I think purity of intent is the important factor. You can find any number of b-list Marvel guys who, in the ‘80s, were drawing like John Buscema and then in the ‘90s were trying to be like Jim Lee. And those guys are just fucking hack dorks. They were just trying to cash in on someone else’s style. But then there are guys who, like Art Adams, coming after Michael Golden, where he takes this initial thing and builds upon it, and that’s a cool thing.

In hip hop, there are dudes who basically did the same thing. Like Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh put out this record called “The Show and La Di Da Di,” and suddenly afterward all these records came out - and even Will Smith is guilty of doing a La Di Da Di-wannabe record - where it was like all you need to be successful is to have a guy beat boxing and then rhyme a story over the top of it and you’ll make a million dollars. There are a million examples, but you never hear of any of those records now because of that purity of intent. It was just people copying what was successful in pursuit of the almighty dollar and everyone saw through it. It didn’t have that spark, or whatever that x-factor is that gets people initially interested.

MARC SOBEL: That an interesting way to frame it.

ED PISKOR: You go to these comic conventions and you can just tell in two seconds… I just size people up and I feel like my gut instinct bats a very high average. You can see what people are about in how they carry themselves, or just by looking at their tables. There’s always a section of people who, they have maybe $100 worth of vinyl banners and signage and they have one hack comic on their table, and it’s like you will never see those people again. They won’t be there next year. They don’t have a clue and they’re going to be very disappointed that they’re not making a million dollars. There’s a scuzziness to it that’s just kind of gross.

“I Never Thought About That”

MARC SOBEL: One of the things I love about The Hip Hop Family Tree is the old school texture of the pages, and the overall feel of the art, with the yellowed newsprint effect, and that whole ‘70s aesthetic. I wondered how you create that?

ED PISKOR: I don’t know if he would be uncomfortable with me saying it, but a big mentor to me was my friend, Jim Rugg. He mastered that aesthetic of antiquing old comic pages and creating those visuals. In fact, ideally I would want Jim to draw this thing, but he’s not going to do it so I have to.

The other thing is the aesthetic of the coloring. I feel like my artwork is kind of rough. It doesn’t work with regular computer coloring, like the perfect paint bucket fill look; it’s incongruent with my artwork. My art is rough and not academically sound, so 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. So …was your question how or why?


ED PISKOR: OK. So, what I do is, a while back I found this color chart that was indicative of the 64 colors that were used in old print comics for the four-color process, and I made a digital PSD file that people can use. And people did use it in good health to approximate digitally all the old colors of comics printing. Then I decided to take that a step further and create a 64 color swatch using these dot patterns, and what I would do was I’d grab a big swatch of yellow, grab a big swatch of cyan or blue, grab a big swatch of red or magenta, and mixing the different values, I created 64 swatches. It’s like eight Gigs worth of these color samples that you can just copy and paste underneath the line art. The way I got there was I just grabbed the Spider-Man vs. Superman Treasury comic and found a big swatch of yellow and scanned that in, and then made a big file of that. The red is Superman’s cape and the paper texture is from Hawkman #9.

Also, if you remember those old DC books, they would have huge margins where you’d just see a lot of newsprint, so I scanned in a couple chunks of that, hit it with the clone tool, and made a big file of newsprint page. But now that I’m putting the book together, I’m going to have to make maybe twenty or thirty different newsprint pages because the illusion gets ruined when you see the same little imperfections on every single page.

MARC SOBEL: What you’re describing to me, that’s sampling. That’s a straight-up example of the concept.

ED PISKOR: Yeah, you know, I never thought about that, but I like that a lot. I’m going to use that in interviews.

MARC SOBEL: <laughter> Cool.

ED PISKOR: Yeah. For sure.

MARC SOBEL: So, you’re going to create twenty or thirty more templates for the background?

ED PISKOR: Yeah. It’s going to have to be twenty or thirty, and then I can flip them, so I can probably get four pages out of each file, or at least two. So there’s still a lot of work to do.

MARC SOBEL: How much do you rely on photos and visual reference for the art?

ED PISKOR: I’m going to start getting into that more because now I’m getting into the music video era. But for the early days it sucked because for some guys, there just weren’t a lot of photos so I had to fake it. For a couple of guys, there’s no published photos that I could find so I literally had to check the Facebook accounts of associated rappers and look through all their shit and just be like, ‘oh, so that’s what Rocky Ford looks like.’ But that photo that I might have pulled from could be very hazy so I’m not sure if I got it 100% right. So for this first book, I used very little photo reference because there isn’t that much material but in the subsequent volumes, everybody’s going to look more like who they’re supposed to be.

MARC SOBEL: What about in terms of the fashion and the clothing?

ED PISKOR: Oh yeah, sure. I definitely use a lot of reference for that stuff. And that’s pleasurable, too, because I just love that old hip hop fashion.

MARC SOBEL: Last question, and this is kind of a silly one, but when I Google your name, the first result I get is this picture of you sitting there naked at your drawing table. What is that all about?

ED PISKOR: <laughter> Yeah. I fucking love that that’s the first thing that pop’s up. <laughter> And the really cool thing about that is that whenever I meet a girl who likes me and knows who I am before I know who she is, I’ll bring that up in the first conversation and if she turns red, I can tell she really likes me, you know what I mean? Like, she’s down, because she got a little flustered in my presence. So that photo has served a great function in my dating life.

But, you know what that is from? Do you ever listen to Inkstuds, the Robin McConnell podcasts?

MARC SOBEL: Oh yeah. Of course.

ED PISKOR: That’s what that was from. The title “Inkstuds” cracks me up, and at the time, they were putting up examples of each artist’s work to go along with their interview, and, although I’m the only frigging douche bag who would do what I did, I was just like, ‘you know what? Fuck this, man. It’s called ‘Inkstuds’ so I’m just going to put this naked picture of me up there.’ It’s not like you can see anything. It was just funny to me.

See, the only thing I really take seriously in life is comics. Comics are so intensely important to me, but everything that goes along with comics, and pretty much life in general, it’s just silly. So doing a show called “Inkstuds,” I figured he should have a ridiculous photo to go along with it. Honestly I didn’t think the guy would even put it up, but he did and I couldn’t be happier.