TWO DECADES ago, Ed Piskor was just another kid in Pittsburgh, albeit one who was geeking out to hip-hop culture and comics history. In his young mind, life pulsated at his own mental intersection of Public Enemy and Jack Kirby, and the result, in recent years, has been inspiration rendered into revelation.
Piskor is the creator of the Eisner-winning “Hip Hop Family Tree” comics series, which tells the half-century history of the music and the culture through panels that beautifully nod to the ’70s Marvel aesthetic.
Ahead of his Graphic Novel Night appearance this evening at the Library of Congress’s National Book Festival — the cartoonist will be in conversation with Chicago-based musician and visual artist Damon Locks — Comic Riffs caught up with Piskor to talk about the roots of his own creativity, as well as the fruits of his “Hip Hop” success:
Michael Cavna: You said something especially interesting last weekend, Ed, at Small Press Expo. You said that basically, from a young age, nearly every major decision you made was filtered through the prism of your determination to become a cartoonist. Could you talk about how early that began, how that played out in your young life — and why comics as an art form for expression was such a personal true north so early?
Ed Piskor: I think when I started getting significant birthday/Christmas money to spend is when I started thinking hard about how that cash could be invested in my career as a cartoonist. The money would go to comics, and not [to] little bags of weed or cigarettes like normal kids. It was really mind-blowing to see the credits on the splash pages of comics, because it let me know that actual human beings created them, and not just some computer program or something.
The cheapness of pencils and paper made them constantly accessible to me. I didn’t have health insurance, so I wasn’t allowed on the football team. My folks didn’t have cash to invest in a trumpet for school band, so I really took to drawing. I think I was on track to be a penciler for Marvel until I was about 20.
MC: You attended the Kubert School, and worked with Harvey Pekar, and have cited talents like [Jack] Kirby and [Robert] Crumb as among your influences, and you certainly know your [Harvey] Kurtzman. Is there is one artist you’ve most returned to for inspiration while creating “Hip Hop Family Tree” — or has your style so firmly formed beyond any synthesized influences that you don’t turn to Thor or MAD or Zap, say, for inspiration?
EP: Lots of Kirby for “Hip Hop Family Tree” — the reason being, I wanted this project to have a ’70s vibe to it. I wanted the work to look similarly to the artists who were most influenced by Kirby, who learned to draw from Kirby, whatever. The closer to a rank-and-file ’70s Marvel cartoonist, the better, for “HHFT.”
MC: You are more than a comics maker and more than a music head. In your utter commitment to telling the full story of hip-hop through comics, you have also been a scholar and historian and journalist. What has been the single most rewarding aspect of creating “HHFT.” And what about the series has perhaps exceeded your expectations?
EP: First, I’ll say that nothing exceeded my expectations. I dream big and will probably never hit the marks I want, but I’ll still accomplish a lot. My collaboration with Public Enemy on their action figures is probably my favorite experience on “HHFT.” I also travel the world thanks to the comic. That’s fun, too.
MC: From which hip-hop artists has it meant the most to get their praise or affirmation or respect for “HHFT,” and from which comics artists has it meant the most to receive those plaudits?
EP: Any and every rapper who co-signs the comic is important to me. It adds legitimacy to their audience. I almost wrote the comic for Biz Markie, just because I knew he was such a historian of the culture, so it meant a lot to hear from him. Many other current, ultra-famous rappers have gotten in touch, which impresses my sisters, but I don’t have much connection to their material.
MC: No one else in Fantagraphics’ illustrious 40-year history had ever prompted the publisher to issue monthly comics — but you did. On many fronts, “HHFT” feels pioneering. What do you think a few of “HHFT’s” greatest milestones are so far?
EP: The greatest milestone of all: It got me out of poverty.
Note: Comic Riffs will emcee Graphic Novel Night (5 to 10 p.m.) as part of the National Book Festival, which runs throughout Saturday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The Washington Post is a charter sponsor of the festival.
Read more National Book Festival coverage: