Homestead artist traces history of hip-hop in comic book
Comic books and hip-hop have a lot in common, if Homestead comics writer-artist Ed Piskor is to be believed. They're both distinctively American art forms, born in the urban jungles of New York City. They both revolve around elaborate transformations, alter-egos, symbolic costumes, team-ups, rivalries, legendary battles, mysterious origins and so on.
Who are rappers, if not self-mythologizing superheroes — crossed with, perhaps, a bit of super-villains' overblown bravado?
Piskor's “Hip Hop Family Tree” web comics have been collected in an anthology by Fantagraphics Books ($24.99), one of the world's pre-eminent publishers of graphic novels and comics. There will be a release party Nov. 9 at Copacetic Comics in Polish Hill.
Piskor has long been interested in origin stories and obscure histories. He illustrated “The Beats: A Graphic History,” about the Beat Generation writers, written by comics legend Harvey Pekar (“American Splendor”). Piskor's previous project was a comic called “Wizzywig,” which told the little-understood beginnings of computer hacking. It got a lot of attention from the influential tech-culture blog Boing Boing (boingboing.net).
“After ‘Wizzywig,' I floated the idea of doing a weekly comic to Boing Boing,” Piskor says. “I asked them because I'm shameless. They said yes, to my surprise. I can't believe they called my bluff.
“For four or five months, I was doing these strips about how pop culture has informed me and my work over the years. I did this strip about comparing hip-hop and comic books, and that inspired me to keep on going. If I wanted to be more popular, I wouldn't be doing this hip-hop comic — it's so niche and weird.”
As a kid, Piskor's first encounters with hip-hop culture left vivid memories. The early days, when the music and culture were still taking shape, remain his favorite.
“I was born in '82. At that point, (hip-hop) was considered a fad but was everywhere,” Piskor says. “I'm in Homestead. It's still an urban-type environment. My house is in between a couple of playgrounds, where hip-hop things were being done in general. People would get in a circle and rap at each other and make fun of each other at the basketball court.”
Though hip-hop has usually rejected the past in favor of what's new, there's a growing interest in its “old-school” practitioners, its pantheon of early giants and unsung innovators. That's where Piskor focused his research.
“It's such a consumable thing, and its all about the biggest and latest,” Piskor says. “I was all about digging deeper and deeper. If you listen to something that's six months old, it's ‘played out.' But, when you're a kid into comics culture, you're into the characters rather than the creators. When you get more sophisticated, you're into the creators. That's how I was with records. I wanted to hear what Dr. Dre's first record sounds like.”
“Hip Hop Family Tree” starts in the crumbling South Bronx of the mid-'70s, where people such as DJ Kool Herc kept parties rocking by taking two copies of a record and looping the instrumental “breaks” — the rhythmic breakdowns that dancers seemed to enjoy most — so they could play indefinitely. He started mixing the break of one song into another. He asked a friend to emcee and handle the microphone so he could concentrate on the turntables.
“Hip Hop Family Tree” covers the years from 1975-81 in exhausting detail. Some of the characters became superstars: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Kurtis Blow, Afrika Bambaataa, The Sugarhill Gang, Russell Simmons. Other early innovators have been virtually forgotten.
“I think what I like most about it is the proletarian nature of those early days,” Piskor says. “It's just normal people, disenfranchised even.
“Comics take so long to produce, and it's such hard work — I needed to know that if you work hard, there could be some fruit when it's all said and done. That's the same way these people took this sound work and started making hip-hop. It has this pop-art aesthetic, like (Andy) Warhol, appropriating this old stuff (existing records) and making something new.”
It didn't hurt hip-hop to have the world's capital of art and media next door, of course.
“One thing that I really sort of discovered was the importance of the downtown Manhattan art movement, in terms of the popularizing and future propagation of hip-hop culture,” Piskor says. “Debbie Harry (of Blondie), Keith Haring and Fab 5 Freddy brought hip-hop to Manhattan, so a whole new batch of people could discover and write about it and do TV spots and extoll its virtues on a national scale.”
The visual style of “Hip Hop Family Tree” is deliberately reminiscent of 1970s comics, down to the color palette and paper stock.
“I wanted it to look like a comic ripped from that time,” Piskor says. “I'm trying to mimic the technology used to put together those old comics.”
Piskor has been a bit nervous about how the hip-hop community would react. So far, the reaction to the web comics on Boing Boing has all been positive, though.
“Lots of rappers will tweet and retweet the comics and share them on their (Web) pages,” Piskor says. “The cover (of the book) has quotes from Biz Markie, Fab 5 Freddy, Bill Adler, the publicist who helped first get (hip-hop) into suburbia.”
At the very least, “Hip Hop Family Tree” should have no problem catching an eye at the bookstore with its over-sized shape.
“It should stick out like a sore thumb,” Piskor says. “You can't shelve it like a normal book.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.