By Daniel McCloskey
Ed Piskor is one of the best-known comic artists in Pittsburgh. He worked with Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame, early in his career, and since then he’s been neck deep in a variety of comic and illustration projects. Currently, Ed is publishing a weekly comic on boingboing.net, preparing for the release of his graphic novel Wizzywig, and cranking out pages at breakneck speed for who knows what secret projects.
CBSPittsburgh.com contributor Daniel McCloskey recently chatted with Ed about his work, working with Pekar and future projects.
CBSPittsburgh.com: Brain Rot is a weekly web comic that varies in length and content, but keeps a consistent style and tone. One of the features that jumps out of the viewer is the old feel of the comics, which look as if they were printed on pulp in the 80s and were stored in a shoe box under someone’s bed. Would you like to talk about you’re inspiration for Brain Rot? What made you choose that aged look?
Ed Piskor: Brain Rot is basically my conduit to do whatever I feel like doing at the time. A one-man anthology. Lately it’s been about formative pop culture stuff that I’ve consumed over the years. I just get a weird sentimentality about that sort of thing around the holidays. Right now I’m completely obsessed with the history of Hip Hop, so I’m probably going to focus most of my energy on connecting those dots via my comics, but, when the fancy strikes, I’ll do a strip about something off the wall. That’s the beauty of having that space and formatting it the way I did. I’m not circumscribed into doing anything in particular.
Coloring my work is something I’ve been struggling with for years and I wasn’t digging the results at all. There was too much of a disconnect between the perfect, flat tones of computer coloring and my jagged, unpolished artwork. Approaching color the way I’m doing it on Brain Rot is the best solution for making my work congruent. If my art was more refined, and clean, I think I could get away with just doing paint bucket fills in Photoshop, but I’m a ways away from that now. The color also compliments the subject matter in a nice way, I feel.
CBSPittsburgh.com: How did you first get in touch with the folks at Boing Boing?
EP: Cory Doctorow and Mark Frauenfelder have both been extremely supportive for years, promoting Wizzywig from the start on Boing Boing. We’ve kept in touch to a certain degree and, post Wizzywig, Brain Rot just seemed like a good fit with the culture of their site so we made that deal.
CBSPittsburgh.com: Your comic story Wizzywig has been published in ashcan zine format, as self-published volumes, online at edpiskor.com, and now as a complete graphic novel from Top Shelf Productions. Why did you decide to publish one story in so many formats? When you make a comic how do you decide how the final product will be delivered?
EP: Before I put pen to paper with Wizzywig I knew I was going to have a strong, uphill battle, to get the work out there for a million reasons, one of them being my untested writing ability. It’s incredibly important to think of format before working on something, obviously, and the industry was in such a weird state of flux that I had to hedge my bets if I was to attract a publisher. So I designed the comic to work as 8, 32 page comics at 6 panels per page. 4, 32 page comics at 12 panels per page. 4 100+ page comics at 4 panels per page, etc. I wanted to be malleable and give publishers the option to present the material in the best way deemed by their tastes, and the mercurial current state of publishing. In the years it’s taken to get the story finished, serialized comics have nearly dried up and disappeared so the format which has won out is to do 1, 288 page volume.
CBSPittsburgh.com: You grew up in Pittsburgh. Do you think Pittsburgh has had an effect on your work or work ethic?
EP: People tell me that the Pittsburgh work ethic is pretty “nose to the grindstone” but I actually don’t see that much evidence, myself. I love the ‘burgh, so in all fairness, I see a lot of laziness EVERYWHERE. I think my hatred for authority and getting queasy at the thought of ever having a boss is my main motivating force and obsession to keep working hard and plotting schemes.
Pittsburgh definitely plays a part in my work, though. More specifically, growing up in Homestead, with Crips and Bloods and gunshots and being afraid to leave the house if I had the wrong color on. Homestead’s way better now, but the late 80s-mid 90s were pretty insane. So instead of screwing around the neighborhood, I mostly stayed indoors and had comics, movies, and videogames babysit me, which is good for the imagination, but probably bad for every other facet of life.
CBSPittsburgh.com: What do you think about Pittsburgh’s comic community?
EP: I love that there is a community in town that is active in comic making. I went to the Joe Kubert school hoping to find some camaraderie, but, all I found were people who were more interested in being a part of the corporate assembly line of mainstream comics. Who knew I’d find good people in my own hometown? The really cool thing about the posse that we’ve amassed in town, is that everybody is an expert at specific, unique things. This makes information sharing extremely valuable and if there is an answer to a question, someone here will know it. There are generations of experience to pull from too, which is a great asset. Nobody shares the same disciplines and we all come from different headspaces when approaching the page. I can go on…
CBSPittsburgh.com: You started working with Harvey Pekar shortly after the American Splendor feature film came out. How did it come to be that a little known comic artist would get a call from one of the biggest names in underground comics? What was it like working with him?
EP: I ask myself that question regularly, and I never had the courage to ask Pekar why he decided to give me a shot. That man literally is the most important person I ever had in my life for giving me my first opportunities.
When I really decided to start doing comics seriously, I sent strips to everybody I could find. Every strip I would do, I’d make tons of Xeroxes and send out packages to publisher and cartoonists, maybe every week or 2. After 6 months of doing that, Pekar called. Then a year after that, we were doing our first comics together.
It was great working with Pekar. Once I got him comfortable with what I was doing, meaning I didn’t draw him with a cape and mask, he was cool with me riffing and doing whatever I wanted.
I always loved when a new project would come out, especially in the winter (when he wouldn’t go to the library), he’d call me up to do some Google blasts to see what people were saying about our work.
CBSPittsburgh.com: You are an intensely productive artist, but I know that the job isn’t all drawing. You have a large online presence, I imagine you spend some time submitting to publishers, and you attend a fair number of comic conventions. Would you talk a little about the part of your job that isn’t at the drawing board?
EP: In a perfect world I’d do nothing but draw comics all the time, but, my ego isn’t so out of wack that I can automatically assume people will just find me. That’s a flaw that a lot of great, unknown artists I’ve been meeting don’t recognize. Getting the work done is like 60% of the battle. Then you gotta figure out ways to make people at least know that your hard work exists. There is some virtue in obscurity, if you’re just a dabbler trying to figure things out, but, I’m of the mind to just put it all out there and let people gravitate toward whatever they want…or nothing at all. Having an online presence is valuable. It can let you know you’re on the right track with certain things. Instant feedback.
I don’t spend that much time submitting to publishers or anything like that, simply because it takes forever to put a piece of work together. My scheme is to build audiences for whatever I’m working on. Then the publishers get on board. I don’t think I’m talented enough to go into hiding and emerge with a completed work, then have a publisher automatically sink tens of thousands of dollars into it. I need to bring more to the table to make the deal as attractive as possible.
CBSPittsburgh.com: You did the character design for the Adult Swim show Mongo Wrestling Alliance. How did you like working with the folks at Adult Swim? Is there something bittersweet about doing character design for other people instead of for your own stories?
EP: I really threw myself into that project, wholeheartedly. I’m happy with my contribution. I worked hard on it and it gave me the capital to concoct my own projects. Other than that, I’m contractually precluded from saying much more.
CBSPittsburgh.com: I hear you have a brother that does some semi-professional wrestling. Did you draw and inspiration from him when you worked on the Mongo characters?
EP: Sort of. For instance, if you were one of the 6 people to check the show out, you’ll notice that there isn’t one attractive character in the bunch.
CBSPittsburgh.com: Do you have any other projects that you’d like to talk about, new or old?
EP: I think I’m going to spend more and more time on this “Hip Hop Family Tree” history concept that I’ve started doing as a Brain Rot feature at Boing Boing. It’s a subject that I’ve been wanting to cover for years and it’s only now that I’ve figured out how to present the material. The idea is to create a comic strip detailing certain people and stories and slowly build an ever-morphing chart linking all the individuals from rap music past and present. It’s going to take forever, but there is so much interesting stuff involved that I think it will stay interesting. We’ll see.