Artist Spotlight on the works of Ed Piskor
Years ago, I flipped through American Splendor by Harvey Pekar with its wide array of well-known comic artists, but saw an unfamiliar name: Ed Piskor. A year later, in 2009, I saw this name again for a collaborative work with Pekar—The Beats: A Graphic History. Having studied the beatnik generation in college, I decided to pick up the book. I devoured the content in a single afternoon. One of the most striking images from The Beats was the uncanny illustration of William S. Burroughs’ sunken, bloodshot eyes, long narrow pock-marked nose, and his wrinkled forehead. At the moment I saw this portrait, I recognized an artist I couldn’t ignore. Piskor’s ability to take an iconic American figure and make them more vivid through illustration than through the photographic image solidified his talent. A few years later, in Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, which was a comic book series turned into a book, Piskor wrote and drew the fictitious character Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle into existence. The protagonist’s affinity towards hacking and phone phreaking takes the viewer through an imaginative cast of characters that give the reader glimpses of Phenicle’s clever nature, both as a child and an elusive hacker in his adult years.
Fast forward, yet again, to the 2014 Alternative Press Expo at San Francisco’s Fort Mason center where I serendipitously stumble upon Fantagraphics Books’ table. I noticed Piskor’s latest anthology Hip Hop Family Tree (HHFT) lined the table. HHFT is a comic strip published on the popular site Boing Boing, which was subsequently picked up by Fantagraphics Books and became a New York Times Best Seller. To my surprise, the cartoonist himself was standing before me signing copies, transforming me into a fangirl for a split second. But I quickly regained composure and kindly requested that he sign my copies of HHFT. Within a few weeks, I was able to solidify an interview with the famed comic book artist to delve into his creative process.
Admittedly, prior to speaking with Piskor, I had never heard of Homestead, Pennsylvania. I knew and still know little about the small town known for its steel mills and predominantly blue-collar community. But it served as fertile ground for the wild imagination of a young Piskor who seemed to know early on that he would be a cartoonist. With a style reminiscent of cartoonist Robert Crumb, Piskor has proven to be in a class all of his own, choosing marginalized and fringe topics that don’t always get media attention. Meticulous research and genuine care for his subject matter imbue his works. One of the striking aspects of Piskor’s artistic practice entails narratives told in a crisp, journalistic manner that offers the reader a rich visual experience. Piskor employs a type of storytelling that makes certain the reader is given enough to move from frame to frame and linger when necessary. Although he works with traditional tropes of comics and cartooning, such as scale, height, and form, the overall breadth of his work enables the story to move seamlessly between the white liminal space of the frames. When asked about the intent of his work and its relation to his creative process, Piskor claimed that the foundation of his work is based on human stories and stated, “before we had the written word, we had the pictogram so I think, as a cartoonist, I’m tapped into an ancestral pre-programming that came 20 generations before me. I had an ancestor painting on walls. Comics taps into that primitive, human impulse.”
The aesthetics of comics play an integral role in how the narrative will be read and understood within a historic and social context. The newsprint quality of the HHFT pages bring the reader back to a time in American history that experienced the dawn of hip hop legends such as DJ Hollywood and his sets at the Apollo to the emerging venue Harlem World that once served fans of disco. The physicality of the oversized books gives it a storybook quality that almost requires the reader to handle with care. Piskor has taken the cultural movement of hip hop by pictorializing, historicizing, and garnering support not only from devoted hip hop fans, but those not too familiar with the genre.
As a cartoonist, it is not only imperative to be creative and innovative in your approach, but also specific in the narrative you’ve set out to tell. After following the comics of Robert Crumb, Will Eisner, Marjane Satrapi, Chris Ware, Charles Burns, Alison Bechdel, and Daniel Clowes, to name some of the iconic comic book artists, I believe Piskor has easily carved a place for himself that deserves to be among these legendary names. The old adage of “Show, don’t tell” does not apply squarely for someone like Piskor. He does something much more challenging than the average writer and artist, he must show and tell. In our hour-long conversation, I learned his desire and intention to ask interesting and necessary questions, but to address his findings in the form of the comic. He writes, reads, and constantly conducts extensive research on pop culture, hip hop, counter culture movements, surveillance technologies, hacking, and the internet. While he strives to provide markers of time and historical and cultural context, he inadvertently becomes a risk taker himself.
While we might like to think that artists possess an unlimited amount of creativity, much of this creativity is inspired by stories that have yet to be revealed and made accessible to the public. Or extensive research on what may not be necessarily in plain sight to the public. Piskor is knowledgeable about the subjects he researches and noted his willingness to put in the work to discover the things that he doesn’t know. He continued, “I think I ask the right questions. I ask interesting questions of these cultures that lead me down a path to discover interesting things.” He reads articles and essays, and listens to many interviews to gain a sense of what was happening at the time hip hop was burgeoning in New York. But related to the ideation and creative process, he mentioned, “almost every time I read these interviews, something extremely visually exciting is espoused in the words of the interviewee.”
Despite his work being highly respected alongside other comic book greats, Piskor has stayed humble throughout his journey. He emphasized during our talk, “I think it’s very important to get the point across that I am no expert. HHFT is just me being a student and sharing things I discover. It’s important to set that framework because our culture gives a lot of stock to people who make books and sees them as experts in their subject. I’m an enthusiastic fan who can’t do any of the organic elements of hip-hop culture, but I can draw comics. So, this is the way I contribute to hip-hop culture by making a kind of love letter to show my enthusiasm about the subject.”