ED PISKOR was born just after most of his current book takes place. And yet his latest graphic novel booms and resounds with such a sense of textured observation, you’d swear the young Pittsburgh cartoonist must have been alive and around and tuned in during the infancy of hip hop.
“Hip Hop Family Tree” (Fantagraphics), Piskor’s first book about the ‘70s New York rise of a music and a culture, positively pops — if not pop-locks — off the page with its energy and movement. And those pages themselves even bear the yellowed aesthetic of nostalgia.
Through his painstaking study of the period — with references that range from gritty ‘70s films (like, say, “The French Connection”) to Bob Camp album covers — Piskor is able to render a world that resonates as truth. And his encyclopedic knowledge of early hip hop allows him to blend smart narrative lines with his bold pen lines.
As Piskor works on the next volume in this hip-hop series, Comic Riffs caught up with the cartoonist to talk about journalistic storytelling, Pittsburgh art — and his commitment to depicting hip hop’s origin story.
MICHAEL CAVNA: One of my favorite short comics [in recent years] is your take on the similarities between comics and old-school hip hop. Maybe it's just the sight of the Yellow Kid wearing a Grandmaster Flash lyric, but the pairing just works. ... Can you open the window some into what that comic represents to you — because it seems right on the intersection of two streets where you really "live"?
ED PISKOR: Sitting around drawing comics all the time gives you plenty of time to think and unfortunately, sometimes my mind wanders. The premise of hip hop and comics being related is one subject that I would keep coming back to. It's not just comics and hip hop that go together. There are other things too like pro wrestling, and Garbage Pail Kids. These were/are all forms of trash pop culture that makes parents nervous, so I naturally gravitated toward them. I've always had problems with authority, and it was right up my alley early on to go around with comics in my back pocket while uttering profane a-- rap lyrics just to be a brat.
Those bratty impulses subsided over the years, and my increasing analysis of comics took over, but I still have these outside interests that I want to explore. Comics and hip hop go together like chocolate and peanut butter.
MC: In looking at “Hip Hop Family Tree” more broadly, [it seems you’re] hitting a new aesthetic peak, visually. There is so much going on there, with achieving a yellowed-nostalgia look and delivering a style that feels gritty-yet-sorta-pretty — there's beauty in roughed-up surfaces, when the only thing "slick" is Rick.
EP: Thanks. It's sort of cliche at this point when you hear a cartoonist in an interview say that they're just trying to make a comic that they'd want to read — and the phrase applies to every aspect of the “Hip Hop Family Tree.” I'm 31 years old. I've been doing comics for like nine years, and it's only now that I'm slowly starting to get closer to where I want to be creatively. There's still a ways to go. I'm a slow learner.
I think it was important for this project to simply be a cool comic. Everybody's getting their heads wrapped up in this idea of being “graphic novelists” or being “fine artists who dabble in comics,” and I've been into this stuff for too long to desecrate where I've come from. This isn't supposed to be some grand literary work. It's a big f---ing comic. That's why the dimensions are huge. That's why the paper looks yellow. That's why you see four different color dots that make up the entire color palette of the narrative. I never want the reader to forget that it's a comic book. A cool comic book.
MC: Like a fellow Pittsburgher who found a creative mother lode in what arises artistically in New York — that naturally being Warhol [and the ties to Basquiat and '80s art/music shows feel utterly organic here], you deftly render New York boroughs in “Hip Hop Family Tree” that feel as though they're own real worlds. Beyond the real-life characters, what do you do to capture and re-create these retro-scenes?
EP: There are some great films that capture the vibe of that crazy time in the Bronx and New York City. Hip hop films like “Wildstyle” and “Style Wars.” Troves of gritty New York City movies like the works of Scorsese. “French Connection.” “Pelham 1-2-3.” Martha Cooper's photography. Henry Chalfant's photography. It's a well-documented era and as far as the comics component goes along with it, whether they knew it or not, these old Marvel cartoonists were drawing 1970s New York City until [Todd] McFarlane came onto the scene.
MC: Good "based on real life" comics writing, many forget, is rooted first in good reporting. How did you approach the journalism for “Hip Hop Family Tree,” because you obviously follow your fascination to some pretty deep and interconnected places — like, not just down the rabbit hole, but down to where the subterranean tunnels connect up to other pop-cultural tunnels.
EP: It's so daunting that people use the term “journalism” describing my method, but I can't think of a better term — and the approach legally allows me to explore the subject matter without getting into trouble as long as I employ the proper, common sense, journalistic ethics.
First and foremost, I strive for accuracy. I'm fully immersing myself in everything I can about the subject. Zooming in on specific scenarios, I spend a week on each scene to make sure I get things as close to “right” as possible.
If there is some question about an event or situation, if there's a popular idea about what happened but some people say things happened another way, I will specifically put the words in the characters mouths to absolve myself personally of being considered wrong by somebody who matters. A good example of this would be, throughout the book, you will find no less than three ... people taking credit for coining the term “hip hop.” I found four plausible etymological origins of the phrase credited to various people who were all there at the inception. I also made note not to take sides on the issue.
MC: Pittsburgh feels like one heckuva great comics scene right now — and the city [was] sure well-represented at this year's SPX. Does it feel like creatively fertile environs to you now, and does that seem like quite a contrast to your sorta-isolated Homestead childhood?
EP: I like that you brought Warhol up earlier. I wonder if his Pop Art expertise contaminated the water in Pittsburgh or something. There's definitely a connection between what he constructed and where we're at now. I think it's pretty great that several of us started getting published right around that same time and we naturally became friends. I'm talking about Jim Rugg and Tom Scioli. ...
I spent the first 21 years of my life obsessed with comics, and literally the only time I would be able to talk about it was for maybe 20 minutes on Wednesdays to the clerk at the comic shop. It's great to absorb and share information with close peers. In fact, I can say it put my work maybe five years ahead of where it'd otherwise be if I didn't have good people around me.
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