With X-Men: Grand Design, Ed Piskor pulls off a feat very few cartoonists ever manage: He takes his unique aesthetic from the scruffy fringe of alternative comics to the world of mass-market superhero publishing. In this, the first of a planned three volumes, Piskor offers his own interpretation of the famous mutants' origins and adventures.
It's not a gig anyone would have seen coming, even if Piskor did spend a year at the Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art (Kubert as in Joe Kubert, the artist behind DC Comics' Sgt. Rock and Hawkman). Piskor collaborated with alt-comics legend Harvey Pekar on stories for American Splendor as well as 2007's Macedonia and 2010's The Beats. Then came the series that would make his name: Hip Hop Family Tree. Beginning as an online serial, Piskor's passionate tribute to the early days of hip hop grew to hundreds of pages in four oversized volumes. The books became bestsellers and garnered much acclaim, leading to an Eisner Award in 2015. And as Piskor tells me, that award provided an unusual stimulus for his current project.
You're known for Hip Hop Family Tree and for working with Harvey Pekar. How did you convince Marvel that you were the guy to tell a mainstream superhero story?
I did a series of hip hop-inspired covers for Marvel in 2015. That same year I won an Eisner Award for Hip Hop Family Tree. I was ... kind of chasing a feeling of satisfaction or happiness, [and] when I got that Eisner Award, I simply did not feel that. Even walking up to the stage to pick it up, I'm like, 'Oh man. It didn't do it for me. Let me do something else.' And I tweeted that Marvel should let me make whatever X-Man comic I wanted to. I had that connection to Marvel [from creating] those hip hop covers, and the former editor in chief, Axel Alonso, hit me up and told me to pitch something.
What did you try to bring to the book that an artist who focused exclusively on superheroes might not bring?
I get to control every aspect of the page. A single person making a thing is completely [different] from a team of people. The collaborative teams [who create superhero comics] have to figure out a way to work harmoniously. Since I'm the only one putting pencil to paper, my harmonious creative team is sitting here right inside my brain at this very moment.
How does your book differ from mainstream superhero comics?
There are clear differences. Many ... are because of this divide [between superhero comics and alternative comics]. Artists who work on corporate comics — or whatever you want to call them — are doing a job, and generally speaking, they're people who just like to draw. Sometimes the art competes with the writing. And my work is a little bit more raw. I don't need to have the most perfect sense of anatomy or something. There's also a pop art or retro feel that just doesn't exist in any Marvel or DC comics right now.
Do you think that the divide between mainstream comics and what you might call alternative comics is as firm as it ever was?
[As] we're conducting this interview right now, I'm at a comic book convention, and I do think that the divide is there. There are very few people in mainstream comics who even know who the heck I am. Or for that matter, they don't know who Robert Crumb is, or Dan Clowes, [or] Lynda Barry. And I don't know who they are. ... My ideal reader knows both sets of materials. Part of the reason why I'm doing this project is to introduce myself to the reader of superhero comics. But the divide is pretty clear.
Do you have favorite creators who have bridged the divide?
The most interesting person that comes to mind at this specific moment is Stuart Immonen, who has drawn basically every superhero under the sun. Every now and again he and his wife will put out these really ... sincere comics that they do on their own. A huge influence on me is David Mazzucchelli, who did Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again with Frank Miller. He did some amazing self-published comics, like Rubber Blanket. But part of the attraction for me [in] doing this [book] was that there aren't very many people who have bridged the gap in a very elegant way.
A big part of the book involves stories by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Roy Thomas, Chris Claremont and others. Why did you decide to revamp the work of such prominent masters in the field?
I have all those comics, but when people ... ask, 'What's a good X-Man comic to read?' I didn't have an answer to give them. There's all this built-in minutiae, history and legend already in place by the time you get to [any single] issue. My goal is to take all that great material and try to make a solid, very rich story with a beginning, middle, and ending that can be a satisfying "one and done" for the reader.
Did working on it make you nervous?
It did. I promise you, I'm still very nervous. I understand that I am in the shadow of giants. There's not one day where I don't feel some element of imposter syndrome or "Who the heck do I think I am?" But I also have to push that part of my mind to the back burner, because I have to feel like I am worthy of doing this or else the comic will just fall flat. So, I am kind of wrestling with myself in several different ways to get this idea on paper.