As far as comics artists go, Ed Piskor might not seem like a superhero kind of guy.
The Munhall native got his first big break 14 years ago, drawing pages for legendary comics writer Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical (and decidedly non-superheroic) American Splendor. Piskor followed up with Wizzywig, his cult-favorite comics series about a fictional computer hacker. Piskor’s biggest success to date is Hip Hop Family Tree, a painstakingly researched, multi-volume graphic history about the history of hip-hop music and culture that became a best-seller and has been translated into eight languages.
But Piskor’s latest venture does indeed involve superpowered beings in form-fitting clothes. Last year, in the wake of HHFT’s critical and commercial success, he rather audaciously tweeted that Marvel Comics should let him make any kind of comic he wanted of the X-Men, one of the company’s signature franchises (boosted in recent years by a multi-billion-dollar-grossing series of films). Marvel agreed, and this month marks the release of the first volume of X-Men: Grand Design, which compiles the first two comics of a planned six-issue retelling of the saga of mutant teenagers out to save a world that rejects them.
But for Piskor, a prototypical indie-comics guy, the Marvel venture is less a departure than a coming-full-circle: As a kid, long before he met Pekar or drew Wizzywig, his favorite comic was X-Men. It was also one of his favorites to draw, a history he honors with samples of his juvenilia reprinted in Grand Design, with kid-rendered incarnations of Professor X, Wolverine and Cyclops.
“X-men was consistently one of the best comics that was put out in the mainstream during the 1980s,” Piskor, who’s 35, said in a recent interview. “It was easy to be attracted to it just visually. And then once I read the stories kind of fell in love with the characters as a boy.” Another attraction is the complicated storyline, which Piskor compares to that of a long-running soap opera, albeit one where characters can fly, turn into ice-men or move heavy objects with their minds.
There’s a story behind his reprinted amateur pages, too.
“They were drawn during the blizzard of like ’92, ’93, and we were stuck in the house,” he said, speaking of him and his siblings. “I think we had 11 days off of school. So I spent all my time in Homestead just making those comics, getting through the winter, the winter doldrums.”
And in fact, the superhero-comics influence could come as no surprise to fans of HHFT, which frequently recast hip-hop icons from The Cold Crush Brothers to Run-DMC in the poses of Marvel superheroes.
Piskor’s idea for Grand Design was to take the first 280 original issues or so of X-Men– covering from the series’ inception in 1963 to the early ’90s -- and recast them as if they’d always been intended as a single story, rather than the loosely linked run of individual 22-pagers they really were. Instead of countless teams of artists and writers who contributed to X-Men over the years, Grand Design would reflect the singular vision of Piskor – writing, penciling, inking, coloring and lettering, all solo – while remaining true to the series’ themes and characters.
The end-pointing of the reboot in the early '90s or so isn’t arbitrary – that’s about when the adolescent Piskor stopped reading X-Men.
Piskor himself, who still lives and works in Munhall, labors under no such pressure.
“They work with me,” he said of Marvel. “They allow me the time that I need.”
Piskor’s auteur approach to Grand Design is singular in Marvel’s history.
“Generally speaking, the way corporate mainstream comics work their there are usually five hands that go into each page of comics: a person who writes it, a person who illustrates it in pencil, a person who then goes over the pencils with ink, a person puts the lettering on, a person who colors it,” he said. “It's a very speedy kind of pit-crew process because the idea is ‘we need to get 22 pages out a month.’ I don't have those restrictions."
He views this revisitation less as an homage to the characters as to the writers and artists who for decades put out quality comics under intense deadline pressure.
“Working on this project really made me think about the creators and their situation and how I can't believe that they did generally speaking such good quality work in terms of the art or the writing month in month out at such high volume,” he said.
He also likes the opportunity to further his craft by telling the X-Men epic in about one-twentieth of the original number of pages.
“Every comic is an exercise,” he said. “I like the idea of taking a 22-page issue of X-Men and trying to distill it down into one page, into 10 images.”
Though he’s personally the ultimate comics fan as well as a creator, Piskor seems to take all of the attention in stride. He’s no more than a mild fan of the X-Men movies, but that’s in part because he simply prefers comics, which he calls “the coolest medium ever."