I’ve been missing for two months but I’m found again for the New Years. I’m now writing for Mass Appeal Magazine. This is my first article: an interview with Ed Piskor and his fantastic Hip Hop Family Tree.
Hey gang. I’m pretty excited to present to you an interview Estevan and I worked on about Jess Smart Smiley, whose first book, Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, released early this month of October. Also, consider this article an entry for the Halloween month. Estevan had fun creating a comic to accompany the interview I did with Jess, so we both hope you enjoy reading this piece as a whole. Big thanks to Jess Smart Smiley for doing this with us!
DW: Let’s kick this off with an easy and annoying one. What is Upside Down: A Vampire Tale all about?
JSS: It’s about 144 pages. Get it? (Insert rim shot here) Okay, seriously — Upside Down: A Vampire Tale is about a friendly boy vampire named Harold. Harold isn’t the neck-biting kind of vampire, but a chocolate-chomping, syrup-sipping, candy cane-crunching vampire. In fact, he loves candy so much that he ends up losing his teeth and running away in shame. He meets up with Vermillion, the last witch on earth, and she just happens to hate vampires. There are also bats and a mad scientist that keep the book rushing toward the exciting ending!
DW: Your style of illustrating is colorful, simple, and extremely charming, so it naturally fits with the style of the children’s comic you’re readying to publish on Top Shelf Comix this October. Were there any kind of tweaks you had to make in your style or illustrating for readying up for this project, or did you always have a children’s story planned in your head to publish all along?
JSS: Thank you! I’m always looking for new and better ways to draw things and add to my visual vocabulary. When I decided to work on Upside Down I had a three-color palette in mind that I wanted to try out. I asked myself, “What if the entire book was colored in black, white, and halloween green?” It made me look at my drawings a little differently, knowing that placing one green object next to another green object wouldn’t be as striking as placing green next to black, or black next to white would be. Each panel and page was like a little puzzle, figuring out the best way to place colors. It helped me see that comics are as much about design as they are about the drawings.
I also kept the drawings simple and playful because they seemed to fit the overall tone of the story, which is dark, but really playful. If I had drawn everything photo-realistically, it just wouldn’t have the same impact. Imagine Scott Pilgrim drawn in the style of Watchmen, or Batman drawn like Spongebob Squarepants. Bob are valid forms of drawing – but it just wouldn’t be appropriate.
DW: What is the best part about using comic books as your outlet, especially with children in mind?
JSS: Comics are a great way to tell stories, while still leaving room for the imagination to fill in what happens between panels and pages. I love the immediacy of comics – how readily a message can be communicated in a panel, and still leave plenty of room for subplots and foreshadowing.
DW: What was your personal planning process for Upside Down: A Vampire Tale? Did you have the story planned out already or did you work another way around tackling it?
My one goal for the year I made Upside Down: A Vampire Tale was to finish the book completely, as best I could, and to send it out to my dream publisher, Top Shelf Productions. I had never made a comic longer than 20 or 30 pages before, so I knew that I had to break down the book into manageable pieces in order to finish it.
In a nutshell: it all started with a drawing of a vampire in my sketchbook. I wasn’t looking to make a book or do anything with vampires – I just thought it would be funny to draw one that lost his teeth. I started coming up with more ideas and picking the ones I liked best, and connecting them in ways that built a rough story arc. I wrote out all the main action for the book, and used that as a reference for writing and drawing the rough draft for Upside Down: A Vampire Tale. Once I had worked out the action, dialog, story and composition of each panel on each page, I moved on to the final. It was one of the most daunting tasks I’ve ever taken on, but after the drawing the first page in ink with a brush, I got into the flow and drew, drew, drew. I scheduled a few hours each day to draw the book, and I drew every single day, until I had finished drawing the last page. I scanned everything into the computer and spent some time coloring everything in black, white and halloween green, and then looked over the book several times before sending it to Top Shelf, to make sure everything looked right.
DW: It’s noted that this is book one in the series for Upside Down. Do you already have all the future books planned out, or are you still unsure of when to end it all?
JSS: Ah! You noticed that this is book one. Ten points for the Drawn Words crew! Yes – when I was talking with Top Shelf about Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, they asked if I had more stories within the Upside World that I wanted to make. I’m not sure how much I can share about the book, so let’s just say that Upside Down: A Vampire Tale is just the beginning for Harold and his friends. (Suspenseful music!)
DW: The Tattoo Club is such an incredibly cool idea, and I’m very glad people are still keeping the spirit of temporary tattoos alive. I love the idea of different artists contributing to creating new temp tats. How did the idea first come about?
JSS: Right on! I really like Tattoo Club, too. Earlier in the year I was making some temporary tattoos for my Comics Grab Bag (collection of short comics), and illustrator Julia Green made the comment that she had always wanted to make her own temporary tattoos. I thought it was a shame that such a thing didn’t exist, and I immediately started thinking about other incredible illustrators who would undoubtedly make phenomenal drawings that could be used as temporary tattoos. Julia and I launched the project on Kickstarter, in the hopes of getting the needed funds to make it happen, but we didn’t reach our funding goal. I think a lot of people really dig the novelty of the idea, as well as how collectible the tattoos could be. We’ll see if we’re able to revive the project in the months to come.
DW: I’ve seen some talk about you seeing UFOs/aliens via your Twitter and other interviews. What’s with all the sightings?
JSS: At the risk of sounding like a complete weirdo: aliens are real. I’ve had a series of interesting experiences with them and I can verify that they are real, they are green, and they fully intend to take over our planet. Even in my own encounters I had never seen a UFO — until recently, and it was the strangest thing. I was in a parking lot, talking with my friend, and this object came out of the night sky and into the light of a street lamp. It must have been 30 or forty feet above us and it looked like a paragliding chute, but without any lights and without a passenger. It moved just slowly enough that we could see what it looked like, and then it slipped back into the night, straight on course to its unknown destination. Bizarre.
DW: Is there anything for fans to look forward to in the future of Jess Smart Smiley?
JSS: Not really. I’m ready to pursue a career in electrical engineering. Just kidding — I’m working on my first children’s book right now (to be published next year), and am developing a brand-new comics series that I’m just aching to share.
You can check out my blog to get some behind-the-panels looks at the making of Upside Down: A Vampire Tale, as well as my thoughts on other creative processes. There’s also a facebook group for Upside Down, where I’ll be posting downloads and goodies for fans of the book. Thanks!
I’m very excited and delighted to present this post with everyone. We recently shared some words with Ed Piskor, creator of Top Shelf’s newest graphic novel, Wizzywig. Piskor shared his thoughts and creative process with his newly published graphic novel, as well as some personal info and his current work with his ‘Hip Hop Family Tree,’ strips. As always, Drawn Words is very thankful to have spoke with the great man, Ed Piskor.
Drawn Words: Unfortunately, Ed Piskor does not have a Wikipedia page [Note: At the time of this interview, he really didn't. Honestly.], so I’m left out of a lot about your earlier life, where you grew up, and a ton of other comics and work you’ve done outside of working with Harvey Pekar. Do you mind giving us a brief rundown of who you are?
Ed Piskor: I had a Wikipedia page and didn’t know it disappeared until you mentioned this. I’m glad though, some of that stuff was embarrassing and really really wrong, from what I remember. I’m from, and live in, Pittsburgh, and have been doing comics, graphic novels, and even some work in animation for the past 8 years. Wizzywig is the first, solo, piece of work I’ve done on any big scale. Aside from doing some American Splendor strips for Pekar, I drew 2 graphic novels with him, Macedonia, and The Beats. In 2009-2011 I designed the characters, and did artwork for an Adult Swim cartoon called “Mongo Wrestling Alliance“.
DW: Before working on with underground comic legend Harvey Pekar on American Splendor, what exactly were you doing to break through the comics industry?
EP: I honestly just did a few comic strips before working with Harvey. I think he gave me a call after the 9th page I’ve ever fully completed.
DW: How did Pekar find you?
EP: I would send these comic strips of mine to every cartoonist who’s address I could find. This is before Myspace and Facebook, and many creators didn’t have websites or contact info online, so I would comb the letters pages, or back matter of books. A month or so after the movie came out Harvey gave me a call, which was surreal, to say the least.
DW: You’ve done a slew of comics since being published with Harvey Pekar on a handful of comics such as American Splendor, Macedonia, and The Beats: A Graphic History. Since then, you’ve stuck to self-publishing comics on the Internet. Why the choice in producing comics for websites as opposed to publishing in book format?
EP: I actually did self publish book versions of Wizzywig. 3 volumes. I really like the idea of sharing work on the internet, and I consider my online stuff to be a first draft. I’m a believer in creative commons, and giving work away, allowing people to support my stuff after digesting it and seeing if it’s for them. I would hate it if someone plunked their money down on something I did and then disliked the material. Also, with what I’m doing now, The Hip Hop Family Tree, I’m striving for accuracy, and if there’s anything wrong in the strips I’m posting, there has to be at least a few of the million Boingboing readers who’d be more than happy to blast me in the comments or send an email.
DW: I’ve been reading a ton of your older entries of Brain Rot on BoingBoing lately. I notice that while each entry of Brain Rot is different, they all seem to have a certain similarity in which they’re all products of you venting in pop culture and media of today and yesterday. It’s pretty similar to what we do at Drawn Words, by presenting certain info and articles in comic form. Do you feel like the comic method is a better way to present emotion and explain certain points than other medium? Are there certain advantages and disadvantages using this form over others?
EP: Comics is just my form of choice to express myself, pure and simple. I don’t know how effective it is in my hands, but, there certainly are great creators out there, who can generate emotion and manipulate your feelings. I feel like the stuff that I do lacks that humanity, which is kind of, indicative of where my head is at, most of the time. I like to run away from emotion and maintain that Iceberg Slim composure about everything. The major disadvantage to comics is just that it’s a highly inefficient method of telling stories, from the creators perspective. Each page requires so much labor and, if you do your job right, it can be digested in seconds. I got to be an extra in a movie for a month and a half and I can see that film making is highly inefficient as well, but, the advantages Hollywood has is the sheer manpower involved with each aspect and they obviously pay higher dividends at the end…which I guess negates the inefficiency argument, now that I think about it. They put a lot of work in, and can get a lot out, financially, at least. Fuck those guys.
DW: So where exactly did Wizzywig initially originate from?
EP: When I was working on Macedonia for Harvey, I found a 20+ year archive of a really great radio program called “Off The Hook”, that largely focused on the political implications that came with being a hacker. I consumed the entire 1000+ hour cache of content, over a 14 month period, and developed such a knowledge on the subject, that I don’t think any other cartoonist out there is/was equipped to tell such a story, so I figured that seemed like the perfect reason I should do it.
DW: I’ve read in a couple of other interviews that the main character of Wizzywig, Kevin, was inspired by several real life hackers and phone phreakers. Who are some of these hackers that Kevin is a reflection of?
EP: Kevin is to all the greatest hackers in America, as Charles Foster Kane was to William Randolph Hearst. Some of the hackers who inspired my Kevin are, Kevin Mitnick, Kevin Poulsen, Phiber Optik, Bernie S., Emmanuel Goldstein, Joybubbles, John Draper, and probably close to 10 more.
DW: You’ve been self-releasing Wizzywig for years now. Have any of your inspirations ever seen these comics? Have you gotten any attention from any other hackers with these comics?
EP: Almost everyone I mentioned has seen the comics and nobody has complained about inaccuracies, or overly anachronistic bull crap. In fact, for a while, I’ve been getting invited to different hacker conventions and technology conferences, where I’ve met a lot of these guys, which was pretty cool. I got the same feeling, meeting the hackers who inspired my project, as any Joe Schmoe would feel if they met their favorite Football player or something.
DW: The entirety of Wizzywig is releasing in July one collection, thanks to Top Shelf Comix. While reading my advanced copy of the comic, I flipped back and forth between your web archives of the comics and the collection releasing in July and noticed some differences in panels and dialogue. Why the changes? What all has been changed in this new edition?
EP: What’s even funnier, and more ridiculous, is that the stuff you’ve seen on the web is a second iteration of the work, in terms of the prose. The first self-published books are so overly verbose, and poorly written, that I had to amend so much, that I basically took a whole year off from producing new work, to tweak everything that was already drawn. When it came time to get all the material together for the book, I reread the story and anything that made me have a negative reaction I decided to change. It’s better to do that, then let something slide and hate myself when it’s published. Lots of the verbiage is changed, and some panels are redrawn too. Oh yeah, and a lot ofspelling errors, hopefully all of them, were fixed.
DW: Your new entries of Brain Rot are now compiled of something you call the ‘Hip Hop Family Tree,’ explaining the origins of hip-hop and starring folks such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Eddie Cheba. Do you find yourself listening to old school hip-hop a lot more now since starting these comics?
EP: I’ve always listened to old school Hip Hop as my major genre of choice. It’s the foundational knowledge that provided the initial basis for the project. I’ve got a playlist of every major rap single from 1979-1998 and I play it on shuffle a lot, then, the jams that I really gravitate toward, I start focusing on those particular artists until I exhaust their library. With both the Hip Hop Family Tree and Wizzywig comics, you pull a ton of facts together to show wonderful tales and stories revolving around real people, so naturally, a ton of research is put into what you present.
DW: What kind of resources do you use when writing factual comics? Have you even spoke to anyone you’ve written about or took inspiration from with your work?
EP: I use everything I can, from Documentaries, Audio Commentary tracks, interviews, books, and anything else that might provide a cool moment for a strip. With Wizzywig, I spoke to many of the men who inspired the work. With the Hip Hop Family Tree, there’s been a trickle of correspondence with various guys. One thing that I do love is that Chuck D and Fab Five Freddy shared my comics with their followers on Twitter a few times. Actually, so did a few other emcees and DJ’s, but, I don’t wanna do too much name dropping. I feel as though while your illustrations and storytelling are so incredibly gripping, you still are relatively unknown in the comics industry.
DW: Sadly, there are a large number of artists and writers who are unknown or undiscovered, due to the fact it’s so difficult to break through the industry if you don’t have connections or ties already. How do you do it? What do you think is important when presenting yourself to others and getting the word out of your comics and illustrations?
EP: I’m not too sure on this at all. I’m not worried about it either, to be honest. I feel like you should just do work that’s as pure of intent as possible and everything should be okay. It also goes back to the inefficiency of the medium. I’ve spent 5 years on Wizzywig. Half of my 20′s. And I technically call it my first book. I feel like the stuff I did for Harvey was like my art school, where I was still feeling things out, and trying to learn this medium a bit.
DW: What’s on the horizon for Ed Piskor and the future of comics?
EP: Future of comics? Who knows? I’ll always be doing them for print though. That I can promise. Right now, the Hip Hop Family Tree has taken over my life, and will be my main focus for a few years, at least. There’s interest from a bunch of the indy comics publishers, and some NYC book publishers, but, I’m terrible with commitment, so someones gonna have to make me an offer I can’t refuse so that I can finally decide on who’s logo will grace the cover. It’s such a fun project to produce too. Maybe I’ll do a kickstarter to put it together? I don’t know. The print component is still up in the air, but, it’s a definite part of the plan.
Written by Kevin Cortez
Illustrated by Estevan Sanchez
Estevan and I had the amazing opportunity recently to share some words with a big inspiration of ours: Jeffrey Brown. Brown is known for his autobiographical stories and humorous parodies, as showcased in titles such as Clumsy, Unlikely, Bighead, and Cats Are Weird. Brown was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and currently resides in Chicago with his wife and child. He also won an Ignatz Award in 2003, which is kinda like a big deal. Here’s our interview with him below:
DW: After growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, you moved to Chicago when you were 25 to pursue an MFA at the School of the Art Institute. What was going on between high school and college?
JB: I went to undergrad right after high school actually – a small Christian, liberal arts college in Michigan – so basically I had a summer which I undoubtedly spent wondering if I’d ever have sex. I had three years between graduating from there and moving to Chicago for graduate school.
JB: I supported myself by keeping my college day job of decorating wooden shoes, and spent my nights and weekends drawing and painting and wondering if I’d ever have sex, until I had sex, after which I spent that time wondering if I’d ever have sex again. This wondering is all painfully obvious if you read my first few books, I think.
DW: When you finished college, you decided to stop painting and pursue comics seriously. Why did you abandon painting? Have you ever decided to ever use paint for a comic of yours?
JB: I still love painting but I never felt like it clicked for me the way comics has – I never felt like I was really expressing any feelings or ideas in my paintings, whereas drawing comics was not only immediately enjoyable but also felt like I was actually communicating with an audience. I’ve painted a few times since I started doing comics, but haven’t ever had a project that needed to be painted, or wouldn’t be just as good/better if it was drawn. Which isn’t to say the projects wouldn’t be better if someone else painted them instead of me drawing them.
DW: I know that you worked at Barnes & Noble after art school to give you some income and health insurance, but I’m also guessing this helped give you the funds to self-publish your first comic book. How much of a sacrifice did you have to make to publish your first book? Did you still attempt to submit your comic to bigger publishers before self-publishing?
JB: I did pitch my first book (Clumsy) to the alternative comics publishers, including Top Shelf who ended up publishing my work, although at first they and everyone else passed because they thought at best they’d lose at least a little bit of money. I actually overdrew my bank account by publishing the book, so there was something like $100 of fees I sacrificed. Although, in actuality it was one of those things where the bank cleared a check I’d written but placed a hold on a check I’d deposited so that when that check cleared I was already overdrawn. I was fortunate in that I was able to sell enough books soon enough after publishing to not have it be too much of a financial burden for long, and it also helped that I was living with friends, and saving a bit on rent.
DW: Most of your comic books are autobiographical, with the story being centered on yourself and past life. Have you changed any names for these tales, or is everything raw and straightforward?
JB: I’ve changed names, and occasionally inconsequential details, but for the most part the books are as true and accurate and honest as I can remember. I swear that I very rarely have conveniently forgotten anything to include or exclude. I’m interested in exploring the idea of how our minds organize our memories and experience, knowing that how things really happened can be different from how we remember them happening. So even though everything is as true as my mind can make it, ultimately the fact that I’m not using notes or reference or other people’s accounts leaves the door open for inaccuracies. The most important things for me is to get at the emotional accuracy, and hopefully people appreciate that. I have a rule that I’m never using the comics for other motives – never out of revenge, or trying to win someone back, things like that.
DW: How have ex girlfriends reacted to their history being revealed in comics like Unlikely and Every Girl is the End of the World for Me? What about family and friends being featured in the comics?
JB: I’m not really in touch with any of my ex-girlfriends, which could be seen as a message about what they think, but probably has more to do with my own inability to stay friends with exes. My family don’t talk to me much either – it’s probably a bit weird to read a comic about a relative’s intimate life, let alone discuss it with them. All in all I try to be fair to the people who are in my books, and try to make the books less about specific people and more about situations we go through in life, feelings or ideas and thoughts about the things we go through rather than the people going through them.
DW: I’m a huge fan of Bighead and its humor. The comic book and hero are clearly written by someone who grew up with comic books. Growing up, what helped form your creativity in comics? What did you read, mainly? What type of comics did you read when you were older to help inspire the style you use today?
JB: Growing up, I mostly read Marvel comics – especially Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine. In addition to comics the Star Wars films were a big creative inspiration, as well as role playing games. As I got older I discovered and fell in love with the comics of Moebius, and from there found my way to both European comics and North American alternative comics – Dan Clowes, Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, Eddie Campbell. I try to absorb from everything I read, and find a lot of inspiration from film, music, prose and art in general in addition to comics.
DW: Is there any superhero or comic title you could imagine taking over and writing/drawing for? Maybe any character from Marvel or DC?
JB: I’d still like to do an X-Men graphic novel, and wouldn’t mind doing something with Thor, or The Beyonder. Or Batman, maybe. In any case it’d have to be a special, limited series or standalone book, I don’t think I have the ambition to take over a series for any extended period. Unless, I suppose, it paid incredibly well but still left me with enough time to work on my own projects.
DW: I’ve read in a couple of interviews that you actually now teach in the same art institute you graduated from in Chicago, School of the Art Institute. How do you enjoy teaching?
JB: I like it – I feel like I learn a lot in the process, though it’s harder for me to adjust to doing things in new and different ways than it is for my students. Teaching college students does make me feel old sometimes. It can be inspiring, though, seeing how they work and what solutions they come up with, things that I might not think of myself. There’s a certain freedom that comes with being young.
DW: Sundance 2012 saw the screening of a movie you co-wrote with Egan Reich and director Michael Mohan to called Save the Date. How did this project first spring about? When can we expect to see the movie
outside of Sundance?
JB: This spring the film will be playing at various film festivals around the US, and hopefully it will get wider distribution soon. The project started six years ago when producer Jordan Horowitz emailed me out of the blue, saying he liked my comics and asking if I’d ever thought about writing for film. I figured I’d give it a try, and rather than adapt one of my books, I wanted to create something new, although the story I came up with was still inspired by my real life. Egan came on to help, since the way I write my comics doesn’t necessarily translate to film, and then Michael refined our script into a final draft that really felt like one of my comics. It was a much different experience than making comics – instead of working alone, I was essentially collaborating with a ton of other people – but somehow the final film really hit the emotional notes I originally envisioned, and all the humor and feeling I try to get across in my comics is there. I’m fortunate that not only did the film get made, I’m really happy with how it turned out.
DW: Your blog notes that you just finished a comic called Darth Vader and Son, but you’re also working on a book called A Matter of Life. Explain!
JB: Darth Vader and son is all finished up now, and will be out in stores this May. It’s basically a collection of one page gag comics about Darth Vader raising a four year old Luke Skywalker, and was a ton of fun to draw. I’ve spent more than the past year working on A Matter Of Life – I worked on artwork for Save The Date and the Star Wars book while I’ve been drawing this new book. It’s autobiographical stories about fatherhood, both my son and I, and then my father, who was a minister, so it also deals with religion and faith and church. It’s full color, and the pages use a base of a twelve panel grid, so it’s a little different from any other autobiographical book I’ve done so far. I’ve got about twenty pages to finish, plus the covers, and hopefully that’ll be published this fall, from Top Shelf. I usually try to have multiple projects going on at the same time, so that if I don’t feel like working on one thing I can work on something else, instead of wasting days when I’m not particularly inspired. I also try to vary the nature of the projects – so while A Matter Of Life is a little more serious or meaningful, Darth Vader and son is just fun and humorous.
DW: Jeffrey Brown is a father and married man. We haven’t seen much of this reflected in your autobiographical comic books. Will we ever?
JB: While fatherhood will be covered by A Matter Of Life, I’m less motivated to write about my marriage. I have to admit it’s pretty domestic and boring. My wife works full time, and since I work from home I end up doing the laundry and the dishes and watching our son weekdays when he doesn’t have pre-school. So maybe that’ll work its way into some comics… writing about someone you’re married to is apparently much different than writing about an ex-girlfriend you dated for a few months.
Writing by Kevin Cortez
Illustrations by Estevan Sanchez