An Interview with Comics Artist & Illustrator
Comics artists are obsessive creatures. When one of these beasts latch onto an idea, they'll hang onto it like a street-fighting pit bull. They'll spend countless hours locked up alone in a room sketching, drawing, inking, tweaking and tinkering like a feral varmint. Take Ed Piskor for example. His Hip Hop Family Tree, as featured on the popular BoingBoing website, promises to be an epic illustrated history of the Hip Hop genre. This is a project that, by Piskor's own estimation, could take him ten years to finish! More recently Ed's semi-true story of quasi-fictional phone phreaker and early computer hacker, Kevin "Boingthump" Phenicle was published by Top Shelf Productions to rounds of enthusiastic accolades. Even more recently, Reglar Wiglar Magazine asked Mr. Piskor some questions about some stuff. Here are the results—Chris Auman
(read the Reglar Wiglar Wizzywig review)
What was the first comic you drew as a youth?
I used to draw redraw existing comics using my own characters. I think the first ones I drew were from the Michael Golden issues of The Nam. I remember buying those from a Vietnamese guy who owned a used bookstore. Then I started drawing my own X-Men and Power Rangers comics. When I got more serious, I started copying comics I liked wholesale, things like the first issue of Dark Knight Returns, Youngblood comics and Jim Lee X-Men comics.
This is an obligatory question included in every interview with any creator of anything: what were your early influences—comics, music or otherwise?
I was a pretty indiscriminate lover of comics when I was younger. I would adore anything I could get my hands on. I do, however, remember thinking that I could gauge my aunts' and uncles' love for me by which comics they'd buy for me as gifts. The ones who loved me most got me familiar Marvel/DC comics. My aunt who meant well, got me some off-brand First comics. Those turned out to be cooler because I remember seeing the word "tit" in an issue of American Flagg.
If Wikipedia is to be believed, you attended the Kubert School, which sounds like a dream school for aspiring comics and graphics artists. Was it?
If I would have known that SVA (School of Visual Arts) existed that would have been the way for me to go. I really mythologized the Kubert School before attending. Read every interview with former, successful students. Collected every "Kubie" comic I could find. One positive thing I can say about the school is that it really was the first time in life where I could draw all day everyday without apology.
Among many other cultural references in Wizzywig (Ramones songs and Night Court characters to name a few), Harvey Pekar makes an appearance as a pizza parlor worker. How did your real life association with Harvey Pekar come about?
It's interesting that you mention the Night Court thing with me using Harry Anderson's name in the book. He's a magician, and in the book, when my main character is on the run from the feds, every alias he uses is the real name of famous magicians.
Right before the American Splendor flick came out, I started sending Harvey Pekar comics as part of my routine. I located every cartoonist's—who I respected—address I could find, and would send them all new strips I was working on. Maybe for feedback, maybe to try and be included into some community. Remembering those times, I was still about twenty-one and didn't have any friends who drew or liked comics. That's crazy to think about now, because, here in Pittsburgh I'm surrounded by cool cartoonists and people who are enthusiastic about the medium.
Anyhow, Harvey just flat out gave me a call, months after I started sending him comics. The packages I sent never came back, so I assumed that got to him, but I literally didn't believe it when he called.
We started our working relationship with me drawing a four-page comic for him. Then a twenty-eight page comic. Then two graphic novels, Macedonia, and The Beats. We did some other smaller stuff together too.
I think I read somewhere that you are the opposite of computer savvy, so how did you become interested in the hacking world?
I like fringe subcultures. I love knowing things I'm not supposed to. I love "sticking it to the man" kinds of shenanigans. The hacking world scratches that itch for me, and by learning more and more about it, I started becoming more aware of its misrepresentation in the mainstream media.
The main character in the comics, Boingthump, is a composite of real life hackers and phreakers, were you able to talk to any of those early hacking legends that this character is based on, Kevin Mitnick or Kevin Poulsen?
I talked with almost everybody who inspired Wizzywig, including Mitnick. I didn't speak with them before doing the project, to compile notes or anything. They wouldn't have taken me seriously. In fact, what I wanted to do at first was a biography of another fairly known hacker, and I sent him some e-mails to see if he'd be interested but never got a reply. Once I decided to take the project into a fictional landscape, that nonresponsive hacker and I have become really good friends. I was just a pure schlub when I started the work. I don't blame him for not responding.
Another one of your “semi-regular on-going features” is the "Hip Hop Family Tree" that’s being published under the “Ed Piskor’s Brain Rot” banner on Boing Boing. That’s another very ambitious undertaking. Were you inspired to do that as a fan of hip hop history specifically, or are you more of a fan of cultural history in general?
I grew up surrounded by hip hop. I feel like the fact that I even learned to draw was shaped by a hip hop mentality. I'd be sitting in school drawing with a few kids at lunch or whatever and everybody would start clowning and dissing each others skills. It made me want to get better. There was no way I had the coordination to be better than anyone at basketball or any other sport. Once I was the best in school at drawing I would have to destroy all competition when anybody started questioning my position. School's really close to the way things work in prisons, socially. My friends who've been in and out of prison have told me that I'd be fine if I went upstate myself as long as I let everyone know I have some drawing talent as fast as possible. Talent and skill gets certain respect in the clink, and it was the same as high school.
That being said, I also have a lot of interest in different subcultures, counter-cultures—whatever you wanna call them. The history of skateboarding is another one that fascinates me.
At the risk of sounding ignorant, how do you get that cheap newsprint look to your Brain Rot comics. Is that some sort of digital enhancement or is it the actual paper you work on in the real world?
It's photoshop trickery. I scanned in the newsprint margins from Hawkman #9, I think. When it's printed, I'll either choose the toothiest, newsprintiest paper and will put a flat, aged, color underneath the art, or I'll have to create a different paper texture for each printed page so that you don't see all the same imperfection on each page. That will kill the illusion.
You helped design some of the characters for Adult Swim's Mongo Wrestling Alliance, how did that work and was that a good experience? Did you enjoy working in animation?
It was okay I guess. I'm not much interested in being a team player so it felt like I was compromising a lot. It was fun to work on at the time though. I worked on it all day, every day, for months and months. I think it ultimately made me a better cartoonist.
Any plans for a Hip Hop Family Tree book?
There will be a Hip Hop Family Tree book. Probably a series of books. I'm going to be at this project for the foreseeable future. Wizzywig took me about five years to do. I wouldn't be surprised if this hip hop project takes twice as long to complete.
You gonna finish that chipped ham?
Don't yinz be jagoffs!