The history of hip-hop gets comic book treatment


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Cartoonist Ed Piskor has all the makings of a future MacArthur "Genius Grant" winner. The lanky 31-year-old Munhall native has been an exhaustive chronicler of various subcultures for more than a decade with no plans to stop his obsessive illustrated histories anytime soon.

In his early 20s, Mr. Piskor teamed up with the late "American Splendor" writer Harvey Pekar to explore the lives of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other subversive literary titans from the 1950s in "The Beats: A Graphic History."

Mr. Piskor simultaneously worked with Pekar, who was his mentor, and writer Heather Roberson on a graphic novel about her life in the war-torn Balkans called "Macedonia."

But it was Mr. Piskor's solo work "Wizzywig," a multi-volume series that explored the birth of computer hacker and "phone phreak" culture in the early 1970s that launched him to massive cult stardom.

Mr. Piskor's irreverent depiction of Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak as two iconoclastic bumblers straight out of "Waiting for Godot" before they founded their company gained him instant street cred with the nation's high-tech cognoscenti who marveled at his intimate knowledge of their obscure and labyrinthine history.

Everyone from veterans of '70s "phreak culture" to mainstream programmers at Palo Alto's elite Internet companies flooded the cartoonist's website with orders for the books. No one had ever told their story in comic book form before, though it seems like a no-brainer in retrospect.

Meanwhile, Mr. Piskor's fellow strivers in the independent comic book community marveled at his mastery of the form and his ability to stay focused on a single project for years, raising his profile even higher.

In recent years, Mr. Piskor has been hard at work on what is probably his most anticipated and ambitious project yet -- a five-volume history of hip-hop culture and music that will do for hip-hop what "Wizzywig" did for hacker culture.

The first volume, "Hip Hop Family Tree 1970s -1981" (Fantagraphics Books), is a beautiful, visually arresting chronicle of hip-hop's earliest days from DJ Kool Herc's illegal street parties in the Bronx to Kurtis Blow's massive hit "The Breaks" a few years later and everything in between.

"Hip Hop Family Tree" was created in the same oversized comic book format as the big "Marvel Treasury Editions" that the world's largest comic book company published in the 1970s. Mr. Piskor even uses a computer coloring technique to mimic the washed-out look of the comics from that period, giving the project a double jolt of aesthetic authenticity.

"As a cartoonist, I'm an unapologetic comic book guy -- as opposed to a graphic novel guy," Mr. Piskor said. "That's another reason I decided to go with this format. I want to serve my audience a big cool object."

Several big publishers wanted a crack at "Hip Hop Family Tree," but Mr. Piskor chose to go with independent comic book publishing powerhouse Fantagraphics because it was more interested in serving his vision of the book and not in imposing its own.

"I could've made 10 times more money going with a New York publisher, but I wouldn't have been able to do it my way," he said.

"I think of it as a straight narrative that's building toward one phone book-size edition in about six years," Mr. Piskor said, describing the first installment as "a sweeping epic that begins in the Bronx."

Given that so many of the genre's greatest performers are also comic book fans and former graffiti artists, it is astounding that hip-hop's rich and complex history hasn't been systematically chronicled in comic book form until now. Mr. Piskor lost interest in much of hip-hop beyond 1993, so his history will truly be a celebration of "old school" rap and hip-hop.

So far, the book has been warmly received by such seminal figures as Fab Five Freddy and Biz Markie. Rappers from every generation appear to like it, too. Fans who have been following the comic since it was originally serialized online at "Boing Boing" show up at gallery shows and book signings to meet the artist responsible for such an insightful blast of cultural anthropology.

"I'm 12 pages from having volume II done," he said with a smile. That edition will debut next year.

Ed Piskor will be signing copies of "Hip Hop Family Tree" from 7 to 10 p.m. today at The Copacetic Comics Co., 3138 Dobson St., Polish Hill (third floor). For information: 412-251-5451.

Correction (posted on Nov. 9, 2013): An earlier version of this story stated an incorrect date for when Mr. Piskor lost interest in hip-hop.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.

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