In the 1990s, we discovered Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline, by Dawud Anyabwile and Brian McGee. This critically acclaimed comic book painted an urban landscape never seen before in comic books. The politics of the story and backdrop resonated with my life living in Oakland at that time. Brotherman was also probably the only comic at that time to have a hip-hop appeal without directly focusing on the music genre.
20+ years later, Ed Piskor drops Hip Hop Family tree. Similar to Brotherman comics’ setting, Ed captured the historical accounts of hip-hop legends' culture from the early days. For his latest project, Ed’s focus changed from the hip-hop history to history of the X-Men. This particular project is called X-Men: Grand Design and we had an exclusive opportunity to sit down with Ed to discuss this transition, his style, and what the future holds.––Iqvinder Singh
Ed Piskor, shot by Garrett Jones
Iqvinder Singh: Ed, I am a big fan of Hip-Hop Family Tree. How does one transition from legends of Hip-Hop to legends of X-Men? How did this project land with you?
Ed Piskor: Hip Hop Family Tree was a blast to create. I remember asking Boingboing, the website where I serialized Hip Hop Family Tree if they were up for a new weekly comic strip and they were into it but I honestly had no idea what the content off the strip would be. I did 12 strips before HHFT of various small success but when I posted the first Hip Hop strip the popularity was immediate and exponentially more popular than anything else I've done. In order to make a comic that dealt with hundreds of interconnected "characters" I needed to see some examples of how it was done best. That's when I reread Chris Claremont's X-Men and Larry Hama's GI Joe comics over again for the dozenth time. Doing 4 successful volumes of HHFT prompted me to see how loud my voice could resonate within the comics community. I became a New York Times bestseller. I was nominated for a few handfuls of Eisner awards and actually won one. I drew some X-Men and sent out a tweet saying something like "Marvel should just let me make whatever kind of X-Men comic I feel like making." They got in touch within an hour and it was on. The second question implies that X-Men: Grand Design was something in the ether at Marvel and would have gone to somebody else if I didn't take the helm. I assure you this was a comic that I've been building myself up 35 years to create.
It feels like Marvel can’t do anything wrong with any of their franchises. Latest Avengers and Deadpool were a huge success so the timing for this project feels right. There’s a great appetite for not only X-Men but anything comic related. I remember back in the days, I used to read Marvel Universe (Deluxe Edition), to learn more about each superhero. Grand Design takes us to the very beginning of X-Men. Tell us what’s the significance of this publication versus any previous attempts at telling the X-Men’s story.
This would be up to the reader to decide. For me, this project is an attempt to take ownership of the word "epic" back to something closer to its original meaning. I want to take 30 years of X-Men lore, that happens to be the product of hundreds of minds, and distill all of that rigor into a single, satisfying, tale with a beginning, middle, and ending. It feels crazy living in a world where regular folks are talking about the Avengers and Thanos and stuff like this. It's time that pop culture gets a reminder that the X-Men is light years cooler than the Avengers.
How much control did Marvel give you over this project? How strict were they with the X-Men’s timeline in the Grand Design?
I've basically been given all the control I need to tell my story the way I see fit. There was basically 1 artist change where I had to take a cigar out of Nick Fury's mouth because Marvel has a strict "no-smoking" policy. If they didn't allow me the freedom I needed to tell my story I simply wouldn't be working with them and would just opt to continue making comics that I completely own the rights to.
I always felt that the X-Men movie franchise never really had a true origin story and Grand Design could fill that void. Is there an opportunity to pitch a script for a reboot?
My work is designed to be comics and to utilize the medium of comics to its own unique potential. If they ended up making movies using my books as a template I wouldn't sneeze at it because that would probably mean X-Men: Grand Design would continue to have very strong sales. For my money, comics is the coolest artistic medium. If I thought flicks superseded comics then I would be a movie director instead of a cartoonist. In fact, X-Men: Grand Design is a love letter to the medium of comics as much as it is a love letter to the X-Men comics I grew up on. There's a bit of Akira in there, some Tintin, Prince Valiant, Dan Clowes. I'm sharing influence from all the comics I've internalized over the year. It would be a mistake for me to make X-Men: Grand Design see like just another corporate comic.
Bless Professor Xavier for taking in all those mutants, but who do you think is the lamest X-Men of all time? For me it’s Dazzler.
I don't really have a favorite or least favorite character. While I'm a big fan of the medium of comics I'm simply not that kind of fan. There's also not really one character who's more or less fun to draw than the others either. For me, X-Men is the thing and the characters are just cogs in the wheel. There are different aspects to many of the characters that I do like though. I find myself identifying with this character called Cyclops the most because I see him as a Type "A" obsessive who always has his mind on work which is something I strongly relate to. One of the things that I think people like most about Wolverine is his short temper. That's fun to write. The character of Storm. to me, shows off the ideal moral character that we all could aspire to be.
You have a very classic style that is uniquely yours. Correct me if I’m wrong, I see influences from legendary artists like Robert Crumb and Jack Kirby. How did you develop this style and who were some of your influences?
The way I draw just developed naturally over time. Crumb's an influence. So is Kirby. Guys like Dan Clowes, the Hernandez bros are way up there for me. The X-Men artists with the biggest influences would be Steranko, Byrne, Silvestri, and Jim Lee probably. Katushiro Otomo and Moebius have some influence on me too. Kirby codified the way most superhero comics are done. When a civilian thinks "comics" they're thinking of stuff that Kirby laid out. I like how Steranko is like a more raw, fanboyish version of Kirby as far as his old Marvel work is concerned. I'm compared to Jim Steranko a lot which made me look at his stuff closer to see what everyone meant. The mania of Crumb's ink line and the accuracy of this lighting plus his use of reference is important to me.
From what I understand, you do it all from initial roughs to inking and coloring? How do you do it all?
Yep, I'm a one-man shop, which is unique to mainstream comics, but it's the default setting of the independent comics world that I come from. Typically in mainstream comics from Marvel or DC, there are 5 hands that go into every page. Someone writes the script, someone draws it in pencil, a person will then ink the penciled drawing which then gets lettered by another hand and finally the colorist works their magic. The mainstream process is built for speed so that they can just churn out comics each month. Doing it myself is definitely time-consuming but I can stand behind every decision I make as being the best I could come up with at the time. Basically, I draw a very quick and rough version of the comic on regular typing paper to show the editor that I'm not doing anything crazy with their prized properties. Then I work on each page until it's complete from pencils to lettering to inks and finally color. Each page takes 3 days to draw.
What other projects can we see from you in the near future?
It's fun visiting the comic book mainstream just to see what it's like. Sky's the limit after this but I have a few personal ideas I need to get onto paper before I play with corporate toys again.