Ed Piskor is Pittsburgh's Hip-Hop Historian
While he can walk largely unrecognized in his hometown, comic-book artist Ed Piskor of Munhall continues to win critical acclaim and international fame with “Hip Hop Family Tree,” a series of graphic novels telling the story of hip-hop music.
PHOTOS BY DAVE DICELLO
This story had humble origins, as do a lot of New York Times Best Sellers. It began in the mind of a scared kid trying to avoid the hard streets of post-steel Homestead in the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, it wasn’t a grand idea, mind you, just a premise — that old-school hip-hop artists had a lot in common with comic-book superheroes.
They both use alter egos — think of Darryl McDaniels, aka DMC of Run-DMC fame, and Clark Kent as Superman. They rely on costumes — a lot of people can’t recognize DMC without his trademark dark glasses and Kangol hat or Clark Kent without his glasses.
They both team up with other superheroes or rappers — think of the Wu-Tang Clan as something akin to the Avengers — and engage in serious, ongoing rivalries, such as the battle between LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee or Batman versus The Joker. Most important, they both attempt to improve the world they live in with the powers they have at hand, even if those resources are just two turntables and a mic — and a pair of stolen speakers.
VIDEO BY DAVE COLE
Ed Piskor had been thinking about these similarities for much of his life.
By 2009 when he first publicly articulated the idea in an interview, he had the considerable skills to do something with it. The result was last year’s “Hip Hop Family Tree – Vol. 1, 1970s-1981,” which landed on the New York Times Best Sellers list and made him internationally known — the Japanese run of Vol. 1 sold out and now is on another printing. It also was the No. 1 comic book in Germany for more than a month.
The second installment of his planned series of “Hip Hop Family Tree” graphic novels also has received critical and artistic acclaim since its release in August. While his fame still is largely confined to the comic-book/graphic-novel crowd and he can wander largely unrecognized around his hometown, Piskor has proven himself as both a commercially viable comics artist and a worthy hip-hop historian.
Piskor, 32, spent most of his childhood refining his ability to draw comics in a highly skilled, distinctive style that would catch the attention of the comic-book world when he was barely out of his teens. At age 21, he began working with the late, well-known comic-book author (and famous curmudgeon) Harvey Pekar of “American Splendor” movie and comics fame.
Like many kids who like to draw, Piskor was weaned on superhero comics. Before reaching his teens, he became enamored with the work of independent comics artists and authors, including the Cleveland Heights-based Pekar and his longtime artistic collaborator, R. Crumb. When Piskor was just out of high school and sought feedback from some of his idols, he reached out to Pekar — taking a chance by mailing his work to an address he’d spotted on part of the artwork of an “American Splendor” cover.
“I figured it was fake, but, then I figured, why not try?” Piskor says.
The address was real. A few months later, while Piskor was still living at home with his parents, his father yelled upstairs to him, mangling the legendary author’s name: “There’s some guy, Peacock, on the phone for you.”
Pekar agreed to work with him, sending story lines for Piskor to work on at his home in Munhall. Piskor toiled night and day to illustrate issues of “American Splendor” and worked with Pekar again on the graphic novels “Macedonia” and “The Beats: A Graphic History.”
Then it was on to Piskor’s self-published work, “Wizzywig,” which, like “Hip Hop Family Tree,” allowed him to explore another personal passion. This time, he documented the history and culture of 1970s and ’80s “phone phreaks” — people who figured out how to manipulate telephone systems to make free calls — and early computer hackers. All were well received in the world of independent comics and sold modestly well, earning enough paid work for Piskor that he could quit his job at a call center and stop working at a haunted house.
Life was good for an independent comics artist.
Then last year, Piskor published “Hip Hop Family Tree – Vol. 1, 1970s-1981,” and his life changed dramatically. Using an artistic style appropriated straight from 1970s Marvel Treasury oversized comics and an archivist’s sense of the intricacies of hip-hop history, “Hip Hop Family Tree” was one of the most highly praised graphic novels of 2013.
It garnered praise from points of both high culture — positive reviews in The New York Times and the Washington Post, among others — and pop culture, with MTV praising it as an almost “biblical” retelling of the hip-hop story. Most important to Piskor, it was well received by the hip-hop community, particularly the people who were there in the beginning.
“I’m happy this book is here because it tells a truth,” says DMC, aka Darryl McDaniels, who says he plans to release his own comic book this month in which he is depicted as a superhero. “Our whole life of hip-hop was comic books and karate movies and hip-hop — it’s all connected.”
Such praise propelled Piskor’s novel onto the New York Times Best Sellers list, and the initial, small printing sold out within days. Time magazine called and assembled a video and print profile on him. Agents thinking of other media uses for the stories reached out. Comic conventions and comic stores competed for time on Piskor’s schedule. He was nominated for two Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards (the equivalent of a Grammy or an Oscar for comic-book creators).
Piskor said that ongoing demand for Vol. 1 — now on its third printing — prompted his publisher, Fantagraphics Books, to produce a much larger print run for Vol. 2, released in late August. The newest volume looks at developments during 1981 to 1983. More volumes — he’s not sure exactly how many, but he is signed to do six — are planned for release chronologically. Piskor already is more than halfway done with a third volume; it will focus mostly on 1984 because so much hip-hop history occurred that year, including Run-DMC’s debut album.
“You know when you’re on to something when multiple people come up to you and say, ‘Why didn’t someone think of doing this before?’” says Piskor during a recent interview in his home in Munhall. “And that has happened a lot in the last year.”
In retrospect, it is clear that Piskor has been preparing to make the comic-book version of the history of hip-hop for nearly all of his life.
“I don’t think there’s anyone down for it better than me,” he says confidently, like an MC offering a boast to a rival. “No one else would willingly do the homework it would take.”
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone to disagree.
Growing up in Homestead, Piskor, who has three siblings, lived primarily in two houses in Homestead that illustrate the economic calamity that would overtake much of the town; one home has been demolished, and the other might soon be. Both of his parents, Ed and Diane, worked at U.S. Steel’s Homestead Works, which closed in 1986 when Piskor was 4 years old.
With the closure of the plant, Homestead — areas of which had been in decline even before the plant began shedding employees — quickly emptied of much of its remaining middle class. The economic devastation left behind a much poorer and predominantly black population that endured the drug wars of the late 1980s and 1990s.
“I think we were the last white family on the block,” Piskor recalls of that time, before his family’s move to Munhall in 1996.
“The drawing comes from being raised in Homestead,” he says. “The neighborhood was bifurcated [by what gang you were in] and everyone was representing their gang, and I was just a skinny little white kid. And once — because I didn’t know it was a Crips’ neighborhood [and] that meant you wore blue — I went out dressed in [red] Chicago Bulls gear because Michael Jordan was big, and I got beat up.
“So my friends and I hung out and drew together — almost in hip-hop fashion with a crew — and tried to draw and impress each other, like, ‘Look at what I did, man.’ ‘Aww, dude, you’re so weak! Look at mine.’”
Piskor drew to his heart’s content in his third-floor bedroom on West 13th Avenue, where he lived from age 5 to 14. On the yellow painted walls, he drew comics of Calvin & Hobbes, superheroes and characters he invented on his own.
Of his friends in his drawing crew, Piskor is the only one who went on to draw professionally. Many of Homestead’s young people at that time could scarcely imagine their future, but Piskor says he never doubted his vision of himself as a working comic-book artist.
“There was really never a Plan B for me, man,” he says.
His art teachers in and outside of school say they knew early on that Piskor, with his skills and drive, was unlike almost any other student they’d ever seen. Alice Cottone, who taught Piskor at Steel Valley Middle School for three years, says she didn’t make him complete the range of projects, such as sculpture or collages, required of other students. She says she just let him draw in his notebooks the entire class.
“I knew in sixth grade that he was going to take this somewhere if he stayed with it,” she says.
As a youngster, Piskor drew in block letters on the door to his bedroom: “FANATICAL Studio” with an 8-ball as the “o” in
“Studio”— a graphic device he had stolen straight from the iconic “Homestead” graffiti sign emblazoned on the side of a well-frequented basketball court a couple of blocks from his home.
It was at that court that Piskor remembers seeing how hip-hop had infused the African-American culture that dominated Homestead then.
“You’d see guys with boom boxes walking down the street playing their favorite hip-hop tunes, and guys waiting to play a game at the court would stand around rappin’ together,” Piskor recalls. “Hip-hop and rap music was just in the atmosphere. I didn’t have to go looking for it.”
While he was soaking up hip-hop — adopting the Kangol hats he still wears — Piskor was permitting his self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive tendencies to drive his drawing. “The best description I’ve ever heard of why people who draw comics do it is: ‘It’s a medium you do because you can’t not do it.’ That’s me, man,” he says.
That behavior has served him well in his attention to the most miniscule details that people have noticed and praised in “Hip Hop Family Tree” — from printing it on paper that mimic 1970s comics, to using slightly faded colors. In an era when everyone else turns to a computer, he spends hours hand-lettering dialogue himself, using retro Leroy Lettering equipment.
The traits he now channels so well into his work, however, almost killed him when he was an overwhelmed teenager. When he was 15 and a sophomore at Steel Valley he began passing out. His mother took him to see a doctor who drew his blood and let him go home but called him back almost immediately: Piskor was suffering from severe gastrointestinal bleeding from colitis, an inflammation of his intestines.
“[The doctor] said it was the worst case he had ever seen,” Piskor recalls.
He required three days of transfusions at the beginning of what became a month-long stay at Jefferson Regional Medical Center that included several surgeries to repair the damage. The doctor made a stab at a diagnosis — an environmental cause, maybe something in the air or water. Piskor says he knew better, even then.
“I’m quite sure it was just myself and my own anxiety” that caused the stress that triggered the bleeding, he says. Ready to be on his own path, he asked his parents for permission to home-school himself. The hospitalization “is the only time I saw my Pops cry,” he says.
After that, his father “fully relaxed . . . he just made peace and said, ‘I trust you. Do your thing,’” Piskor recalls.
He began living the life of an artist, staying up late with other illustrators or with members of bands he met in clubs in Oakland, sleeping till after noon, putting in four hours of school work, and then drawing till it was time to go out again and meet more artists.
“Focusing on comics helps [to] keep me healthy,” he says.
It’s a life that he largely follows today in his Munhall apartment. He lives alone but shares his home with a “bullpen” of fellow professional comics artists who come over almost daily, among them Tom Scioli and Jim Rugg. At night, he often is joined by gatherings of college students; he ventures out on Thursdays to watch a break-dancing crew in Lawrenceville — all to keep up the creative energy he can’t and doesn’t want to turn off.
Drawing “Hip Hop Family Tree” “is always on my mind, even when I’m with friends. That’s why I exhaust my friends sometimes,” Piskor says. “It’s the reason why I hang out with a lot of different, creative people — hip-hop artists, break dancers, DJs — because they’re on the same grind.”
And all of that, he says, led to “Hip Hop Family Tree” — and whatever comes next.
“I’m thinking maybe six volumes of ‘Hip Hop Family Tree.’ I’d like to maybe get to the  death of [MC] Scott LaRock of Boogie Down Productions,” he says.
Reminded that he’s previously said he wants to continue working on the series until it reaches 1993 and the beginning of the hip-hop collective the Wu-Tang Clan, Piskor now laughs: “I’m just letting things play out as they will. I can do that now.
“As long as [‘Hip Hop Family Tree’] keeps selling, I think I can keep going,” he says. “But I don’t want to do it forever. There’s a bunch of stuff I’d like to tackle. I have another story about the computer culture in mind, revolving around Edward Snowden. I want to get to that before too long.”
Comics fans can’t wait.