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The Cartoonist Behind HIP HOP FAMILY TREE Talks How Comics and Hip-Hop Are Connected

Ed Piskor, the author of the outstanding hip-hop comic series Hip Hop Family Tree, will modestly tell you that he is just a student of hip-hop, when in actuality, he is an expert. I suspect that the reason he says this is because he is still ardently curious to know even more about the history of the music that has defined his life and become an indelible part of his own identity, as a white working class Pittsburg kid living in a predominantly African American neighborhood. He grew up with, and likely as a result of, this story. It is in his blood.

Piskor’s attentions to detail is astonishing (the history of the pervasive “Apache” break sample is great) and essential to his hyper-researched, immersive storytelling–everything from yellowed pages and gritty stock of the comic paper recalls the ’70s Marvel era. And that is exactly what he is going for. The artful depictions, the technical decisions–these are HUGE books–and the vivified history all create a fully realized reading experience.

We had the privilege of speaking with Piskor about the second volume of his series-which you can grab here–and about what comics influenced his style, the intimate relationship between hip-hop and comics, and how nerd culture has become inclusive.

Nerdist: Tell me a bit about how you discovered there was cross over between your love of hip-hop and comics.

Ed Piskor: It sort of has always been there, going back to the earliest days, because Ninja Turtles was huge when I was a kid, and it’s very New York-centric. With that there would be stories that have a lot of graffiti in those turtles comics. Those specific – they were painted on the walls. They were drawing from real life, and graffiti artists back in the ’70s were also painting characters on trains. It was a very recognizable style, very recognizable characters. So it’s always been latent in the culture and in my mind. I was born in ’82, so I was really a heavy comic’s collector in ’89-’90, and there was a Marvel Comic called Break the Chain that was written by KRS-One with art work by Kyle Baker, and that was another strong example, because every single comic that came out for months advertised and highlighted that Break the Chain comic.

I think comics fall into that packet of “trash” pop culture, and they’re not trash to me, but “trash” by mainstream standards, trash by parents standards, and that excites me as well. I like nothing more than to indulge in material that makes parents nervous.

N: Whom did you emulate growing up, or what were some of the comics that compelled you to follow suit?

EP: Let’s see. I was a fan of X-Men. The writer was a guy named Chris Claremont for, like, 15 years, from when they were re-introduced in the mid- to late-’70s, issue #94, up through the late 90’s. So it was one writer, and he was a master at world building and creating these casts of hundreds, if not thousands, of characters. So that’s a direct influence on the stuff we do with Hip-Hop Family Tree, where I have so many people I have to juggle and give fair amounts of time to. And that’s a comic that I read religiously for most of my young life.

There’s so much stuff that could have had an influence. I was lucky enough to discover comic shops when I was like 12 or 13. I did have a chance to talk to some guys for like a half hour on Wednesdays now and again when I had to pick up a new issue. A lot of it was just my own kind of obsessive-compulsive bugging people for their comics, going through magazines, which was a very important thing for me to kind of build connections, and also read these interviews to see who influenced the people who were my heroes, so that I could dig deeper. It’s a very weird neurosis, I would say.

N: You’re about 10 years older than I am. I’m curious to know how it’s been to see public opinion of hip-hop change in real time?

EP: Yeah, yeah. There’s a very easy way to – like watching it proliferate. It was a very creative thing that you could witness back in the day, because – here’s an example: MTV Raps used to be the only time you would see a rap music video on MTV. The show was weekly to start, I believe, and then it became a daily show, so at least you had that one hour a day where you could see rap music videos.  And then mid-90’s comes around, and MTV Raps goes away because you can catch rap any time of day. So that was a very clear thing.

But ultimately, if I retrospectively look on like my last 30 years of culture, I almost feel like it was – not self-fulfilling prophecies, but almost like a people who called it a fad, it was almost like they were right, in a way, because there was a supernova that took place in a pretty small amount of time. But it seems like musical trends tend to go that way. Rock and roll hasn’t known – it didn’t last an incredibly long amount of time. These things kind of cascade, they become huge, and then they start to gain some sort of equilibrium.

N: I’m curious about the technical aspects of the book. How long did it take you to feel confident in your character portrayals?

EP: Yeah, I had to resign myself to the fact that I’m not Mort Drucker from Mad Magazine. I’m not a perfect caricaturist. I do what I can, and the exercise is really in making each character a distinct character, rather than using photo reference for every panel to make sure that everybody looks exactly like who they’re supposed to. My favorite – one of my favorite parts of the book are the inside front and back covers, where you see these 50 faces, and by just placing the shapes in different places, like different eyes, different noses, head shapes – you’re able to create these different characters. It’s like an exercise in cartooning for me, to create these different faces that are referenced often enough – there are rappers and people that are into the comic, and they immediately recognize who the characters are, so that’s most important.

N: What about hip-hop lends itself well to the proportions or the epic size or larger-than-life sort of ideas or characters in graphic novels or comics

EP: I think the hyperbole of hip-hop corresponds just perfectly with things like Marvel Comics. Like Grandmaster Flash and his constant need to one-up the next man in hip-hop. Just the titles of Marvel Comics – The Incredible Hulk, Amazing Spider Man, Fantastic Four – those positive adjectives are hyperbolic in the same way as Jay Z rapping about his Gucci watch and shit like that.

I think that’s a part of why the physical scale of my books is kind of huge, because it’s hip-hop – it should be bigger and more grandiose than everything else that comes out that week at the comics shop. There’s also the physicality of each object, because the books that I make, I have hip-hop in mind as being this monolith or something.

Another reason for the cool size of the book is because it corresponds with the dimensions of a very influential comic in black culture in the ’70s and early ’80s. A lot of that isn’t really talked about in this way as being a positive thing, but there was a crossover comic – it was Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, and Superman’s powers are rendered that of any normal human, so he fights Muhammad Ali with no handicap, and Mohammad Ali beats him. So the neighborhood that I’m from is predominantly black, and the only comic book that my friends had, and it was actually their parents who had it, was that Superman vs. Muhammad Ali book, and it’s a big giant comic in that way. So I liked the idea of having Hip Hop Family Tree like right alongside Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, on their bookshelves.

N: who became your favorite characters to draw in volume 2?

EP: That’s the thing–you only visit these characters very infrequently. Some of the more fun guys to draw, unfortunately, they didn’t have as much of a mark on hip-hop, so you don’t get to draw them so much. I liked Mr. Hyde from Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, just because he has that crazy unibrow and a head shaped like a yield sign – like a triangle. Obviously, Afrika Bambaataa is real fun, because you can either draw him in a big ass helmet with a weird visor, or I just make him super gigantic, big hands and stuff.

N: How does it feel knowing how pervasive “nerd” culture has become in 2014?

EP: Yeah, it’s great, man. I think about – I spent the first 20 years of my life- talking about being an intense fan of comics–being a true student of the form, and I had zero people to talk to about it, man. It was all just me digging in old crates, finding issues of The Comics Journal, and building this knowledge on my own. Then some cultural shift happens and the geeks take over in the year 2000. The culture has changed in that way where it’s all-inclusive.

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