Having learned the ropes alongside the great Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor had since discovered what seems to be the projet of a lifetime: the chronicle in comic form, and in great detail, of the birth and the emergence of the hip hop culture.
Xavier Guilbert : To begin at the beginning, I wanted to start off with your debuts, and especially with your very first comic, Deviant Comics, which got you to be noticed by Harvey Pekar, and led you to work with him on American Splendor, starting what you describe yourself as « a formative period. »
Ed Piskor : Yeah, the strips that appeared in this comics, they’re small strips that I made to try to get work in some of the popular American anthologies. Every publisher had an anthology where they would publish maybe two, or three, four cartoonists at one time — and I knew I wasn’t good enough to have my own book, so I tried to get some experience in these anthologies, and got universally rejected. But I didn’t want to just throw the comics away, so I started to submit the comics to the creators who I really really liked. One of those people was Harvy Pekar, and at the height of his fame, after the movie was made about him, he got in touch with me, and offered me some work in American Splendor. So — this is very atypical for an American cartoonist, but from the very first time, I had work in print. I was making a living, and it almost never happens like that, for American cartoonists. So it really created an incentive to just keep going. I always wanted to be a cartoonist, so it made sense.
Xavier Guilbert : This appeal for comics that begins at a very young age, what did it come from ? Seen from here, a large part of the American comic production has to do with super-heroes, so how did you end up doing that kind of publication, and send it to creators like Harvey Pekar who definitely belong to the alternative fringe of comics.
Ed Piskor : Yeah, the dominant comics of America certainly are the super-hero comics, and I grew up with those. I would say that, you know right now I’m 34 years old, and I’m the last vestige of children who could go into the grocery, and just see comics in abundance. I’m not quite sure how a kid discovers comics nowadays in America. So I really kinda cut my baby teeth on super-hero comics, but as I grew up, I started to discover that there was a wider landscape and there was a documentary called « Comic Book Confidential » that came out in the mid-80s, and that was playing on television. A lot of people in my age group, we all saw this documentary at the exact same time on TV, and — you know, I was clicking through the channels, and I saw Spider-man on the screen, so I stopped, because this was an era where you would never see Spider-man on TV, as crazy as that sounds. So I watched that, and Stan Lee from Marvel Comics was talking, and directly after the segment with Marvel Comics, it launched into the American underground, and Robert Crumb was the next guy to speak, and one of the panels that they showed from his work was — it was sort of the evolution of this character he had called Fritz the Cat, and the early Fritz the Cat comics were drawn on just notebook paper in pencil, and they show a panel or two of that, on the documentary, and it blew my mind. It almost created a sense of permission, for me, to not have to — almost like a clash. Like I don’t have to become a musical virtuoso, I can just start making comics right now, on notebook paper, because this guy did, and he grew into, you know, a prominent cartoonist. So that was the inspiration, and that happened at a very young age, I might add : I was maybe nine or ten years old, probably less, I might have been eight years old. The Spider-man comics, the X-men comics that I liked (you know, Chris Claremont is here, I’ll be interviewing him a little bit later), what I liked about those X-men comics, it wasn’t about — it wasn’t the fights that interested me, it was the kind of emotions and pathos of each character who lived inside the mansion and how they interacted. I liked that, so when I discovered American Splendor, Harvey Pekar was also on that documentary — when I discovered the American Splendor comics, it was like a whole comic of just that part of the X-men comic. You know what I’m saying ? So that was a major inspiration, and that put me on a certain path, to just try to become, you know, a singular creator, rather than one person who’s in the assembly-line process of Marvel Comics or DC, where you just have one specific job that you’re required to do. A true cartoonist is spinning a lot of plates, he’s a writer and a set designer and a character designer and a director and an actor. I wanted — it wasn’t enough to just draw, so I needed to become the creative force behind the entire thing. And I’m a slow learner, so the earliest strips I made, they didn’t do the job, they weren’t attractive enough to the publishers. But, you know, I was too stubborn to stop.
Xavier Guilbert : The collaboration with Harvey Pekar starts with American Splendor, and then there’s a big project called Macedonia based on an academic thesis, and finally The Beats, dealing with the Beat Generation. All these works belong to the documentary genre, and looking at what you’ve done since, you found your way there, and it seems you’re less interested in fiction.
Ed Piskor : I’m really fascinated by just the stories of actual human beings, who do amazing and interesting things. That excites me. It’s kinda hard to stay in the drawing chair all day, grinding away, making these pages, so I’m a constant junkie for inspiration : I need it, every day, I need to see that there are people out there doing really, really cool things. These works that I made with Harvey Pekar, I would consider those to be some kind of informal art school, or comic-book-making school that I went through. In fact, Macedonia, I would call that like a « army book camp », because after — I did some American Splendor stuff, and Harvey asked me if I wanted to do a bigger work. I said « absolutely, » then he kinda explained that it was Macedonia, and I thought it was going to be about like Alexander the Great conquering the world, or whatever. And he’s like : « no, it’s about the geopolitical destabilization of the Balkan region, and its relationship with the ethnic minorities, etc. » So I was just like : « Okay, I’ll draw that. Sure. » I learned a lot from the way that he paces his stories, the way that he structures the stories, and I do not see him as infallible, and I saw flaws in the structure, so I wanted to — very often, you could learn what not to do from somebody as well, you know. But he is certainly the basis for the underlying storytelling structure of a lot of my work, certainly Hip hop Family Tree. The idea of one panel telling place in almost one time zone, and the next panel could happen five years later — choosing the exact right moments to cover to then create a bigger story, is something that Harvey Pekar is really good at, and that I absorbed throughout my few years working with him.
As for The Beats, that project was written by Harvey Pekar, and… I’ll be honest : I was a young cartoonist trying to make his way in the world, and those two books that I made with Harvey Pekar, Macedonia and The Beats, were purely commercially-driven projects on my part. I don’t care about the Beats, personally : it was a job, for me. I like Jack Kerouac, I like his work, I like Burroughs. But I grew up in a time where there are many, many people who are just derivative, Burroughs wannabes, Jack Kerouac wannabes, people who put themselves in harm’s way on purpose, just so that they can potentially have a story of which they never get around to writing. So the Beats, to me, is almost like… you know, the Beats loses its impact in the same way that the movie Psycho has lost its impact, than if you were there, at the very first moment, and you didn’t know that it was Anthony Perkins dressed up in his mom’s wig and… you know, if you first saw Psycho, you thought that maybe the cop that’s following the lady is the psycho, but it’s not, it’s the guy at the hotel. But enough time has passed that we know everything that happens in that movie. That’s what the Beats is to me : it’s like — it’s done. It was just a commercial job, and frankly I can’t even look at the book anymore, because I was so young and… unintelligent about my craft that it makes my eyes bleed to look at.
Xavier Guilbert : You then move to what is your first, personal work, with Wizzywig — I’m not sure if you finished it before you started Hip hop Family Tree or not. What is interesting in Wizzywig, is that it shows an approach at the exact opposite of Hip hop Family Tree : it’s also a documentary, but while Hip hop Family Tree goes into the minute details, Wizzywig is more of a synthesis. The main character is inspired by famous hacker Kevin Mitnick, but with elements borrowed from other hackers. So it’s a story about hackers, but not the story of one hacker in particular.
Ed Piskor : Right, for Wizzywig — if I had complete say in what that comic would have been, it would have been a very direct biography of the most notorious American computer hackers. I couldn’t get access to these guys. At this time, I had no name in comics to speak of, like I couldn’t wield any power or attract anybody enough to, you know, give me a good interview or anything like this. So my thoughts became — because I wanted to tell something within this computer hacker universe. As a kid from the 80s, I was very fascinated with — I have a lot of outside interests beyond comics, and computer hacking and technology is one of those. I decided that, rather than just do a biography, using old found material that could be specious — some of the stuff is incorrect, that’s printed about these guys. I wanted to explore further into that world. When I was working with Harvey Pekar, I listened to a radio archive, 25-year long radio archive of a radio show from New York City called « Off the hook », that was devoted to computer hacking. And I discovered what it really means to be in that universe and it’s completely different from what mass media sort of feeds the public. A lot of people, when you think of computer hacking, will think of criminals, almost automatically : some guys in Russia trying to get to a PayPal account or something. But they actually have a more subdued definition, as per the people who created the definition. I wanted to explore that, kind of almost take the name back, for the computer hackers. So it is a composite character, I have to call it fiction because I didn’t have access to all information required. Like I couldn’t corroborate a lot of sources, so it’s just like : okay, to bypass the non-fiction part of it, I’ll just add some phony elements and just not even sell it — it’s just a fictional story.
Xavier Guilbert : Would you say this need to verify the facts comes from your having worked with Harvey Pekar ? Or does it stems from an aspect of your personality ?
Ed Piskor : Well, I do come from hip hop culture as well, and the hip hop culture is about being authentic, and is about being real. So that’s very important to me. And I — it was with the hip hop stuff that people started to use the term « journalist » — « journalistic », to explain the story-telling, the mechanics of how I was putting that together. And I just didn’t even know what that meant, but once I started to investigate, what does it mean to be a journalist ? I discovered that, intuitively, I was using all the proper techniques that a regular reporter would use in telling a story. Trying to get multiple sources for specific moments, trying to get first-hand accounts, any kind of documentation to go along with that… So the need for this stuff to be authentic, it totally comes from just my lifestyle within hip hop, because to be fake is to be exiled. You can’t come out of your house any more if you’re corny, and you’re trying to fake the funk, as it were.
Xavier Guilbert : So being something of an obsessional fan is not really far away from the journalistic approach…
Ed Piskor : Obsessive is a perfect way to describe your average cartoonist. The entire enterprise of making comics really is a reward for people who have neurotic, obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Everybody that you see sits in their house or studio, toiling away every day for ten hours, twelve hours per day. That is not normal : as human creatures we are build to be around people, and you are proactively not participating in that by hanging out and drawing all day. I don’t know that that kind of behavior can be turned on and off at the drawing board, so it definitely — my obsessive qualities certainly manifest in many other ways. If you knew me. It can be very exhausting — not to me, but to everybody else.
Xavier Guilbert : We’re now going to get to the main course of this discussion with Hip hop Family Tree, of which four volumes of roughly 96 pages each have been published by Fantagraphics. Where did this project originate — and especially such a huge endeavor, considering that with four volumes, you’re still very far from being done : the first volume starts with the very early days of hip hop, at the end of the 70s/early 80s, and by the fourth volume we’ve only reached 1985 — and you intend to go until the mid-90s with the death of the Notorious B.I.G., which marks for you the moment when hip hop stopped being relevant for you.
Ed Piskor : For a very, very long time, I’ve been wanting to make some kind of comic that was at least within the trappings of hip hop culture. Maybe it would have been a crime story told in the Bronx, during the times when all the buildings where bombed out, graffiti was on trains, the fashion was really cool — because those, visually, interest me a lot, and I wanted an excuse to draw that stuff, a lot of that stuff. There’s evidence in interviews that I’ve done from 2008 where I describe wanting to do something within a hip hop kind of universe. And it was exactly on New Year’s day 2012 that I just woke up with the idea to just do a very linear history of hip hop, rap music in particular, because that’s the most documented part of the culture that isn’t completely reliant on word of mouth. It’s very complicated to tell the story about the history of breakdancing, it’s very complicated to tell the graffiti origins, because everybody takes ownership — that’s how hip hop works. When you speak to the pioneers, everybody invented everything. Now, as a cartoonist, I can very comfortably say I know more about rap records and rap music than almost any American cartoonist, like, without a doubt. And I don’t consider, you know, DMC a cartoonist — he’s a rapper who made a comic book, that’s different. So then I just woke up that day, New Year’s day, and I was like : I will just — I know a lot about the records, there’s a lot of gaps that I have in my knowledge, and I’m interested, just as a fan, in filling in those gaps. So if I make a comic about the history of rap music, then I can indulge in reading and listening to interviews — basically, spending a lot of time away from drawing, as a fan, just reading a bunch about hip hop, and then if I make a comic book out of what I’ve discovered, then I won’t feel like a loser.
Whenever I started the series, I put the comics online, two pages a week, and that is how I think of the material. Meaning, that I’m not projecting far forward into how long the series is going to be. I don’t even necessarily, while producing each book, I don’t exactly know where that book will end. I just think about the next week’s strip — because I would put them out every Tuesday on, so I’m just thinking about these two-page installments, and then you know, put a fresh one out every Tuesday, and then think about the next two pages. After 45 weeks, there’s enough comics to make an actual book. After about 30 weeks, I go back and read through all the material that I have, and a very clear story-arc would develop amongst that material, and then the last, say, ten strips (which would be 20 pages), I would use that part of the book to tie everything together to give a satisfying finish to each volume.
It’s a big story, you know. That first volume covers the 1970s to 1981, and then as time goes by, like in the subsequent volumes, there’s less and less time that each book covers, and I think that eventually, it’ll get to a point where a single volume will cover just one year, or maybe just a piece of one year because the proliferation of the culture becomes so big that, you have to really dig deep and talk about it all. So I just let the story just develop as it will. Hip hop has a big jump on me : it started way before I started the comic. So, you know, in order to get to the 90s or something, that might take another ten volumes to just get to 1991 or something. I can do one book a year, so that’s far enough into the future that, you know, a lot can happen within that time frame.
Xavier Guilbert : So as you were saying, it’s published online on a site called Boing Boing. It’s published as a large page, that’s broken down into two pages in book form. To be honest, when I started reading the book, I was a little caught off-balance, because this two-page structure is not really obvious at the beginning. You’ve got two pages dealing each time with a specific topic, and which constitute something of a concise chunk, but it’s easy to confuse it as a on-going narrative, with impending information overload. Maybe it’s just me getting used to that, but I have the impression that’s an aspect that you manage better as we progress throughout the different books. As you described, there are some overarching narratives, but also some longer sequences, like in volume 4 with all the things revolving around the movie Beat Street.
Ed Piskor : Yeah, I appreciate you saying that, because I’m actually going to take that into consideration moving forward, because there is a lot of information, and I think it is manageable in these two-page installments, but I can see how it can be daunting within the overall narrative of the entire book. But my original thinking of the books was that — think of hip hop as the main character, and each person that we’re talking about is almost like an microorganism that helps make up the overall subject of hip hop. So it’s weird, I almost don’t think of the individuals that I describe as people in a way, so much as like small pieces that make up this bigger culture, and that’s the spirit that I — you know, how I interpreted these stories. So thinking of the bigger picture the whole time, and I can understand how it can become confusing for the reader — that said, I think one of the reasons why I’ll be interviewing Chris Claremont a little bit later is because of the massive inspiration his work on X-men gave to me, whenever I start putting this together. Because I was using some techniques — I’m not placing blame on him, but you know, he had to deal with, sometimes, a hundred characters at once, within 22 pages, sometimes. And early on I did not have a subscription to these X-men comics, so I would have to rely on the grocery store carrying each volume, one after the other, which would never happen. So when you pick up one of those comics, after say, maybe two or three months of missing out, you’re completely lost to begin with. But then you start to pick up the pieces as you move forward, and I was okay with that. I think novels can work that way sometimes. That’s sort of how I try to justify my storytelling approach. Is it successful ? I don’t know if it’s completely successful. Certainly, if people are not completely willing to like, kinda go along with the ride, there’s probably some challenge there. It was in volume 2, I believe, where I did ten pages on Wild Style, and my interest in that movie was an inspiration to just make the book as well, because I knew and I’ve heard of this movie Wild Style, that everybody says is like that really important moment in hip hop history. And there was like a Wild Style black-out for the first like fifteen, twenty years of my life, where you could not get ahold of the movie. It was impossible, there were distribution issues. And then it was available, and I saw it and I grabbed it and I watched it, and I didn’t know anybody in the flick except Fab Five Freddy, who was the host of Yo ! MTV Raps when I was a kid. So I was wondering like, you know : if this is so important, who are these people ? why is it important ? what’s the significance ? So then, once you know the rap records, and then you hear the sampling that the Beastie Boys did for the movie, or A Tribe Called Quest or NAS… that movie needed to have some space to be dissected a little bit, to let everybody know the true significance of the movie. Because usually, when you hear about Wild Style, there’s like a blanket statement, like a rubber stamp that people put on the flick, like : « oh yes, the first rap movie, it’s highly influential, » but they don’t get into it. And I wanted to just dissect that a little bit. I want Hip Hop Family Tree to be very comprehensive. That’s very important to me.
Xavier Guilbert : About this idea of a « hip hop family tree, » you were talking earlier about putting together a linear history. With a family tree, there’s an origin, and the first installments on Boing Boing came with a real family tree. That’s something that disappeared later on, for instance when you start mentioning what’s happening on the West Coast (the begining of the series is very much focused on the East Coast). Things appear at the same time, without necessarily being linked to each other, and then the book evolves more towards a gallery of portraits rather than a linear narrative. And indeed, the later volumes tend to include some flashbacks, because history is rarely linear.
Ed Piskor : The image that you showed — it gets even more complicated than that. And I would say that it gets so complicated that nobody but myself can tell what’s going on in there. What you’re seeing here, each week, whenever I would put together a new strip, I would then — any characters that I introduced in a new strip, I would put a little square with their face, and kinda show how they connect to the earlier roots of which would be, you know, DJ Kool Herc or whatever, he would be at the top. Bambaataa would be at the top.
I started to introduce so many people that — I think that what the family tree became is a visual interpretation of how my mind works. Like it almost became — it made me shy and self-conscious, to like let people see that in a way. Because my mind is racing and I’m always drawing these weird connections and stuff, and it’s like I’m showing everybody inside, it’s like showing you the inside of my brain. And I didn’t quite like that.
Also, there was a time-management issue, where earlier I described that there’s a certain obsession involved in being a cartoonist, so I was spending way too much time on this part of the thing, trying to figure out : « oh, who should I put here ? who should I put there ? who should I orient, next to this person ? » The only payoff that this little flowchart would have would be for me, personally. So — I decided to forego continuing this thing, to just really focus on the comic. Like : what do I wanna be when I grow up ? Do I wanna be some kind of like, psycho making flowcharts inside their appartement, like you know, that guy in the movie Se7en ? Or do I wanna be a cartoonist, and make cool comic books ? So, in a time-management sense, I wanted to just focus on the actual comic narrative.
Xavier Guilbert : Similarly, the serialization on Boing Boing has on top this banner, sporting the logo of the series (Hip hop Family Tree), but there’s also this tagline : « a look into the viral propagation of a culture. » I think that’s a very interesting tagline, as it encapsulate a lot of the aspects that we just talked about, but it’s curiously absent from the covers of Fantagraphics‘ books. Especially since it raises the question of how do you deal with an history, and especially, as it is in the case of hip hop, an history that almost immediately becomes a myth. There’s immediately this question of ownership, and everybody owns a piece of history. So many years after the fact, how do you manage to go digging, to unearth the truth, or at least make sure to feature the different versions of a same event ?
Ed Piskor : I wouldn’t necessarily say that I focus on — well, let me put it this way : in the first volume of Hip hop Family Tree, I make sure to have no less than three or perhaps four individuals claim ownership on being the creator of the term « hip hop. » It’s an illustration of the way it is in New York, a lot of people take ownership of that, and it’s also — it’s also a way for me to show the reader what I’m dealing with when trying to get to the heart of everything that really happened. A lot of what I have in the comic is, I would say, the commonly accepted course of events that took place to make the thing happen. Of course, there are gonna be people who dispute that, but — if you and I were out doing something, we would each have our own interpretation of whatever events transpired. Now, I’m very happy to say that I got nearly unanimous praise from pioneers on the book. Very few people — the people who had trouble with it, were people who I drew smoking crack, and they were more embarrassed than, you know, saying that I did something wrong. But there is a lot of information to wade through. Trying to be as authentic as possible is very important to me. The beauty of the era that the first volume encompassed, you know, from the 1970s to 1981, most of the people involved are part of a big group. So you can read interviews with five people about one specific moment, so you get five different interpretations. And upon researching all of that material, almost always, there would be one moment that just was so beautifully visual, that would lend itself beautifully to comics, and that’s what I would focus on when I was talking about a certain moment in time. For instance, in the first volume, there’s a group called Disco Dave and the Crash Crew, and they had a specific break that they used, called the Freedom Break. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five used that same break. Crash Crew became part of Sugar Hill Records, along with the Furious Five, so they had a battle to see who gets to use that break, and they decided who gets to use that music by playing a football game, American football. So you draw that, you know ? You visualize that part of it, and then that becomes sort of the nucleus of how you talk about Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five just making that particular record. It’s like : « we’ve got to cover that record, but what’s the most interesting thing revolving around that record ? this football game. » It’s personal stories, it’s — I would say that the books… like if you have a knee-jerk reaction and you say : « I don’t like rap music so I won’t read that, » there’s nothing I can do about that. But I don’t consider this a story about rap music per se, it’s a story about a bunch of people who came together, even through sheer accident, and they created this culture that became worldwide. Without the use of the Internet, within you know, five or ten years of its inception, and I think that’s a pretty exceptional story, and that is the spirit in which I’m putting these stories together.
Someone in the audience : I wanted to ask you about the place of women within this history. When you look at some of the major prominent artists of today (Beyoncé, Rihanna, or Nicki Minaj), who are very much putting forward their sexuality, was that something to be expected based on the beginnings, where women were very much positionning themselves opposite the men’s claims of virility.
Ed Piskor : I think that of course, there will become more and more female involvement. This is — hip hop is a culture, and a culture requires everybody, basically. Early on, the way hip hop worked, it was very very battle-centric. It was machismo inasmuch everybody was kind of aggressive towards one another, and it was a more volatile situation. As the years go by, we start to meet and discover females who rise to that occasion, you know ? They are ready to battle. And then that’s how you get a girl like Roxane Shanté who is one of my favority battle MCs, period. And notice I didn’t say « female battle MC », I didn’t qualify her : she is a legitimate hardcore battle MC. But you listen to tapes of her battles, and the battles always begin the same way it does between men and men, and then lyrically she starts to take the upper hand. And you can tell that the guy that she’s battling is getting frustrated, so then he’ll say — call her a bitch or a whore or you know, tell her to perform oral sex, and this is something that she has heard a thousand times, two thousand times before, so you can bet that she has an answer. She has fifty answers for when people bring that kind of invective against her. And then she gives one of her responses to, you know, a whore insult or something, and then she just destroys the guy, takes his manhood away, and the entire crowd is completely on her side. She’s unique, I don’t know that every girl is aggressive in that way, I think that everybody would want to be. But she’s an outlier.
And then things changed overtime, and there’d become more and more female MCs. And then you get to a point — I don’t know that you mentioned Nicki Minaj, who — she did a guest verse on a Kanye West song called « Monster », in which Jay Z had some lyrics, Rick Ross, Kanye… and she gave the best performance, you know ? She gave the best performance out of all of them, she beat them. So, of course it was gonna happen : hip hop is a culture which requires inclusion from as many participants as possible. It’s gonna be harder for others than it is for some, but that is life. Life is not an utopia in that way, so…
I’m excited to get more and more involved in female MCs. In the fourth volume, I get to introduce Salt ‘N’ Pepa, and they have such a brief — they’re such a brief component of 1985, but it was important — it was important enough that I should just — I put them on the cover, because we need to show some oestrogen in the mix here.
June : I wanted to know — at some point, it seems that you start referencing some mythic scenes of comic history, like from the X-men or the works of Jack Kirby, and there are entire panels and pages that pay hommage to this iconography, through composition or attitudes. Is this your way to establish a connection between comics and hip hop, or an attempt to share some kind of private joke with other comic readers ? Meshing something that is intrisically comics-related in a book about hip hop…
Ed Piskor : I would say that you’re correct. What Hip hop Family Tree is to me, a component of what Hip hop Family Tree is to me, it’s almost like a thesis statement about the marriage between hip hop and comics. So the whole aesthetic, the whole look of Hip hop Family Tree is designed to look like a comic from America, from the 1970s, and like this page here, there are moments where there’ll be a flashforward, a projection forward in time, where there would be a modern sequence that I need to talk about. So with these specific panels, like the ones that kind of pop out from the page here, I tried to use a different aesthetic : a different set of color, those panels are lettered using computer, which is, you know, obviously it wasn’t available in 1977. But it’s also like self-referential stuff to comics that I don’t necessarily know that somebody involved in hip hop would even understand. In fact, I know they wouldn’t, because I received many tweets, you know, like people who got to this page in the book and they were like : « I’ve got a defective copy, because there are like two panels that look so weird. » But my hope is that — you know, this is no exactly an isolated incident, it happens throughout the series, and I hope that, you know, you can draw — yeah, the bottom panel here, even the aesthetic of the drawing is designed to look like a specific 1990s style drawn by a guy like Rob Liefeld or Jim Lee, who I absolutely love, but they have like a very notorious sort of popularity, to put it nicely. But yeah, it’s all — I need this stuff to be fun for me, and by playing around these different styles, and being self-referential to kind of just the history of comics and print technology, that’s of interest to me. And I’m sure it’s of interest to like, five other people in the universe, but — you know, I’m compelled to do that, and to continue that. All of that said, I don’t think as I move forward in the 1980s, that I’m going to start to kind of use that kind of technology, because that was a real bleeding edge for production, and a lot of that 1980s aesthetic in America is very crappy. So I’m not gonna purposely make my work crappy, just because I can.
Xavier Guilbert : If I’m correct, you were born in 1982. So basically, that’s a whole culture that you discovered after the fact, like by watching Wild Style…
Ed Piskor : Well, I saw Wild Style way later, but I already had an interest in rap music.
Xavier Guilbert : How do you get any kind of legitimacy when you’re young, you’re white, and you dig into this culture many years after its eclosion ? There might be some parallel with Stretch Armstrong, who’s also a white dude, and who through the radio show Stretch and Bobbito, is going to become a key activist and promoter of it.
Ed Piskor : Yeah, I wouldn’t say that hip hop is a black culture. First, it comes from the Bronx. There’s a lot of Hispanics involved in it, and there was some white people early on. I’m not defending myself : when it comes to the legitimacy that I portray, all that I can say is that I’m trying to do my best and make it as authentic as possible. One of the major tools that I had, because I am one person, and, you know, as human beings we are prone to making mistakes, so one of the — I created a crowdsourced editing mechanism, just by posting the damn comics online. You know as well as I do, as well as everybody here knows that, people are very happy to tell other people that they fucked up in an anonymous way online in comment sections and things like that.
Boing Boing, the site where I post these strips had a readership of five to six million people each month, depending on the month. So a lot of eyeballs, that’s a lot of brainpower, who happen to be looking through these strips. I’m happy to say that nobody ever picked up on anything wrong. I made sure that every panel that I draw in the comic has a lot of information to back up that image.
Yeah, I can’t defend myself saying that I arrived into the game late. I was born in 1982, I wasn’t there. But if that’s gonna stop people from telling stories, then we wouldn’t know about a lot of history periods. So I’m certainly just — you know, I’m doing my best, I believe in the philosophy of apologizing later than asking for permission right now. I’ll be honest : whenever I started making the comic, I didn’t even know if what I was doing was legal or illegal. Because there are real people involved, and — you know, is there an issue with likeness rights and other legal stuff like that ? And I just didn’t care — people can write articles about anybody, as long as the information presented is factual. So I continued the comic in that spirit. That website Boing Boing that has a readership of five to six million eyeballs, it’s a lucrative business that the editors would not want to just throw away in some sort of litigation, so once they started to publish the strips online, that gave me some idea that : « okay, maybe this is legal. » I still didn’t feel comfortable, completely. All of the publishers wanted the comic, and I eventually agreed with Fantagraphics, so then it’s gonna become a book, so I guess maybe it is even — you know, it is legal, but to this day I still don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll just wake up one day, and be sued and then have to go live in a one-room apartment until I die or something.
Xavier Guilbert : So it seems that you’re more concerned about the legality of it, rather than legitimacy. I was also wondering about how much time it took for the strip to be noticed — there’s also some kind of virality at stakes here.
Ed Piskor : Because that website Boing Boing has such a big readership, the popularity was instantaneous. Right off the bat. I was doing some strips on that website before I did Hip hop Family Tree, for about two or three months. And I would post these strips on Tuesday, as routine, and then there were ways to check on Facebook to see who was trading it and sharing it ; there were ways — there’s a site called Topsy [which shut down in December 2015] where you could see how many people were tweeting a link. And, you know, I never had much success with those earlier strips before Hip hop Family Tree. When I put together the first Hip hop Family Tree strip, it was so much fun to make, I was really excited by it, I was really inspired by the process — when I posted the strip, I purposely ignored the computer. Because I just — I would be heartbroken if people didn’t like it. I left the house, I went to hang out with some friends, got lunch. I procrastinated, I stayed away from the computer for hours and hours, because I just didn’t want to be tempted to look on Facebook and see how many people were trading it or whatever, sharing it on their Facebook page. When I eventually came home and checked it out, there was like 30,000 people who traded it, you know, three or four hours after I posted it on Facebook. There were thousands and thousands of tweets and retweets. And that’s the first strip. So I knew that people were excited about the idea of this comic. In subsequent weeks, after posting it, I can’t remember who the first people were to really start to share it — but it would be like every early hip hop impresario, like Fab Five Freddy, Michael Holman who owned some of the earliers hip hop nightclubs. A lot of the nightclub New York — like the cool people, the people who took people out of the Bronx and brought it down to Manhattan, those kind of people. Because this is basically their era. But then, later, as things would go on, you know, Ice Cube would share some stuff on his page, and Ice-T and Biz Markie, lots and lots of people, and they — everytime that happens — Rakim — everytime that happens, that creates more and more legitimacy to the strip. You know, a little bit more street cred.
Xavier Guilbert : Didn’t that also bring some pressure ? Because Stretch & Bobbito were activists, trying to promote an emerging scene, while you came after the fact on an existing culture, with a lot of invested people. So it’s great to get this kind of legitimacy and see your work shared widely, but it can also be a little frightening to know there’s a lot of expectations now, and that you have to make sure you don’t disappoint…
Ed Piskor : There was certainly a big pressure. I personally am very very hard on myself. Having this readership, in an almost instantaneous fashion, it made my own personality — it made me even harder on myself. Because I felt a responsability. You know, I’m dealing with and interpreting real people’s lives here. And you know, you don’t wanna do the wrong thing. As the strip became more and more popular, I started to realize that — when I started making the comic, I was about 29 maybe, maybe 30, and that was the perfect age to begin that kind of project. Because I get phone calls from rappers, fairly routinely. And if I was 21 years old, they would have manipulated me so easy, man. Because the stuff that I get told on a regular basis doesn’t, to my suspicions, have anything to do with a shared reality beyond their own mindset. You know, like — and that’s the way hip hop kind of works : you’re supposed to pump yourself up, and you’re supposed to destroy your enemies, verbally or otherwise, so that’s what I would get. « Oh, you don’t know, I invented scratching, and I did this » — and I’m like, « you know, we live on a big planet, almost seven billion people, is there anybody else on this globe that would go along with you on what you’re telling me ? » And very often, no. But I do feel a big responsibility to my readers. All it would take is like one good rapper to talk shit on the comic, and then it all goes away. It’s not happened, it hasn’t happened yet, I don’t expect it to. Because in that event, I have artillery which would simply be all the resources that I pulled information from, and I would just present that. Like : « oh, this isn’t true ? well, you said it here, you know ? you said that you did it in The Source magazine, in 1983, so what about that ? » You know ? But I do have responsibility, I want it to be as good as possible, as authentic as possible, if I presented something as fact and it turns out I’m completely wrong, it all goes away.
[Interview conducted in public on January 28th, 2017, during the Angoulême Festival]