ED PISKOR Finds the Big Picture For 'Auteur Comics' in X-MEN: GRAND DESIGN

Marvel Comics December 2017 solicitations
Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: Marvel Comics

Ed Piskor is more than just an Eisner-winnging cartoonist, a designer, or an editor - he's all of these things and more as a self-described auteur. It's that ethos that seeps into every page of Piskor's upcoming X-Men: Grand Design, which will recount the entire history of the X-Men in three volumes of two issues each. 

On each issue, Piskor handles all creative aspects - from writing, to penciling, inking, coloring, and even lettering and book design. The book is entirely Piskor's vision - something that's reflected in the very title of the work. 

Having read X-Men: Grand Design #1, Newsarama dug the project with Piskor ahead of its December 20 launch to find out what it takes to turn 50 years of comic book stories into a mere six issues, why X-Men is the perfect project for Piskor, and what's next for his brand of "auteur comics" at Marvel.

Newsarama: Ed, you make perfect sense as the guy to do this kind of project given your work on Hip-Hop Family Tree. How did X-Men: Grand Design come about?

Ed Piskor: First off, I appreciate you saying that. It basically came about just from me sitting around in a moment of egotistical vanity. I tweeted out that Marvel should let me make whatever kind of X-Men comic I wanted, basically verbatim to that. I was in conversation with Rob Liefeld a couple weeks before that, and he inspired me to actually think about possibly doing something for Marvel to begin with.

Credit: Fantagraphics

I could sort of make these Hip-Hop comics forever - I don’t have anything, financially, to worry about thanks to them. So I tweeted that with no scarce mindset, it’s not like I needed a job or something. And very rapidly, Axel Alonso hit me up and said “OK, so what are you going to do for us?”

Nrama: What’s on your drawing board today - right this moment?

Piskor: I’m at a stage that kind of mimics a stage I was at during Hip-Hop Family Tree where I’m working on new pages for the next part of the project, but I’m also putting the actual book together, so it’s extra hours, but that seems to be my default position.

Nrama: So you’re finishing one volume and starting on the next at the same time.

Piskor: Yeah. For Hip-Hop Family Tree, a whole book’s worth of material would take about 45 weeks, and then the rest of the year would be spent continuing the comic strip while also designing the actual book, which costs me a lot of sweat equity. I spent almost four years on those books. Now I’m repeating that process plugging in Wolverine instead of Grandmaster Flash.

Nrama: Having read X-Men: Grand Design #1, your love for and knowledge of the X-Men is readily apparent. What’s your history with the X-Men? How much research went into this condensed version of their secret origin?

Credit: Marvel Comics

Piskor: I know the X-Men like the back of my hand. The best part of the series, like “Dark Phoenix,” the John Byrne years, I’m sure I’ve read that material 50 times in my life, if not more. And everything else I’ve read at least four or five times. So it’s not hyperbole to say that this is a project that’s been in development for 35 years.

The earliest comics I had were X-Men comics. To this day I remember reading Uncanny X-Men #157. It was the first time I was really able to read on my own. And seeing the credits box - Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, Josef Rubinstein - realizing those names were associated with jobs that went into creating the comic totally put me on the path to being a cartoonist. There was never anything else I wanted to do, how I wanted to spend my time when I grew up. I thought “If this guy can write comics, I can write comics. If this guy can draw comics, why can’t I?”

So this is a dream project of sorts.

Nrama: This begs the question: Is X-Men: Grand Design meant to be viewed as canon?

Piskor: Here’s the thing, as a cartoonist, I really can’t be bothered with that kind of stuff. I’m just trying to tell my story, my definitive X-Men comics. I’m trying to make a graphic novel out of 8,000 pages of periodical storytelling.

If Grand Design is used that way later, I have no control over that, but this is really my love letter to Claremont and crew. I think it’s silly to cry about “canon.” The comics you loved as a kid, they still exist, so don’t worry about it. Let people tell the story the way they want to tell it.

Nrama: You obviously seem to have a sense of how contentious X-fans can be about continuity and minutiae, and a lot of that minutiae actually comes through on the page. How did you approach which bits and pieces of X-Men history to depict, what to tweak enough to fit the narrative, and what to add?

Piskor: It took a lot of time. Doing Hip-Hop Family Tree really gave me my 10,000 hours practice at taking a universe full of stories and characters and boiling it down to a narrative. It’s sort of like how J.J. Abrams got his 10,000 hours practice making intergalactic space movies on Star Trek, and then he got on Star Wars and knocked it out of the park. So I used the same routines I did with the Hip-Hop comics. I have a giant bulletin board, where I cleared off my Hip-Hop flowchart and started to put up an X-Men one, with a bunch of note cards and connections to make the story to make sense.

Frankly, if I were to die in the making of this flowchart, and my parents came into my house and found this bulletin board full of these notecards covered in cryptic sentences like “Xavier transmits Shadow King to Legion upon birth.” [Laughs]

Imagine my parents came in, and I’m laying there dead, and they just see hundred of these notecards with all of this stuff, they’d think I’m the guy from Seven or something. They have no idea about stuff like that.

I think the most important skill of a successful cartoonist is not an apparent one. Being an editor is the most crucial part of making any creative work. You have to have a certain level of taste to make something great, so that’s what I’m trying to bring to X-Men: Grand Design.

As much as I love the X-Men, there’s a lot of early stuff that just does not work. So I had to make my own amendments to that stuff.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: You use the term “cartoonist” a lot, which I like and recognize, but I think a lot of people aren’t familiar with the term in the context of someone who is both writer and artist on their own work. How does that perspective of creating every part of the work by yourself guide your process? Are you doing this one step at a time p\[ script, pencils, inks, and so on - or is it more fluid than that? Do you envision it as something fully formed and work backwards?

Piskor: The beauty of being a cartoonist and having full command of every visual element of the story is that this comic gets to be a living document up until it’s ripped from my arms and sent off to the printers. I’m constantly making changes and refining this thing.

It would be a mistake to think that you put on your writing hat and write a script, then put on your penciling hat and draw the pages. No, I’m juggling every discipline at once. So even if I’ve finished the script and I’m penciling or inking or coloring, I might look back and be hard enough on myself where I realize I used a couple corny adverbs or something, so I’ll go back and change the syntax. I’ll redraw some panels after a while. Just try to make it as bulletproof and as tight as possible.

It’s sort of the direct opposite of being fully formed. It’s almost never fully formed until it’s done. I’m a big subscriber of this philosophy that Jim Woodring and Daniel Clowes have both shared in interviews, that great work happens in the last five percent of the creative process where you have the tenacity to go back and be objective, and be hard on yourself, and try to fix everything that doesn’t work. If there’s a different approach, you try that and see if it works better.

Thankfully I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I can create a Marvel Comic and take my time and go “OK, let’s see what that looks like,” at the end. I’m not on a monthly hamster wheel.

Nrama: There are some obvious influences on your visual take on the X-Men. You’ve got panels in here that reflect the art of guys like Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Werner Roth - the early X-Men artists - but you’ve also got some sequences that clearly take a lot from broader sources like Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and 70s underground comix. How did you develop this style for the X-Men? How much are you consciously drawing on those sources while recounting this history?

Piskor: I’m a student of comics - period. I want to see what a Marvel Comic looks like with some Hal Foster built into it. Otomo is a big influence. I am forever a student of comics, and I’m unapologetic about bringing all kinds of influences into my work. If I think Carl Barks could do a thing better than I could come up with on my own, I’m gonna do that.

There’s a sequence in that first issue where Quicksilver saves Scarlet Witch from being tied up, which is like a Warner Bros. cartoon or something. I’m pulling in all sorts of inspirations just because that’s where my head is at. I’m already facing the uphill battle of creating this work in the shadow of giants, so it’s like a level of self-awareness where I know I’m in this position that I’m remaking this thing that a lot of other great artists made, but there are even greater artists out there. So I’m gonna do a Winsor McKay page - that’s in issue #2, you’ll see that -I’m gonna do a Herge ligne claire thing. And it all works together, I don’t think it will take a reader out of the experience for one second, but if you’re a deep diver into the history of comics, you’ll see certain homages.

I’m standing here in my studio right now and there are 50 longboxes of comics on racks, and there are thousands of hardbound collections on bookshelves. When I invite people into my space, I describe myself as a DJ, and these are my records. So if Gene Colan can draw a better hand opening a door handle or something, I’m gonna look at that for sure, and I won’t apologize for drawing on a master.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: While working your way through X-Men history, what narratives have emerged as the core stories of the X-Men? Did you find any subplots or themes that you hadn’t seen before?

Piskor: For every issue, I’ve gone back and read a whole slew of comics, generally the comics that will be the inspiration for that issue. And with each of these, there tends to be a thing you can extrapolate from the issue that I honestly don’t think was necessarily intended by the original creators.

I also benefit from having hindsight - both hindsight and foresight, actually. So for instance, the early X-Men comics, they were very “bad guy of the week” kind of fare. There was an element of the extra-terrestrial built in there, through the Stranger and the Mutant Master, stuff like that. So I figured this would be a great opportunity to build in some hints of the Phoenix very, very early. Mastermind plays a pivotal role in Jean Grey’s story arc, and they meet for the first time in Uncanny X-Men #4, so I wanted to pay homage to that.

Knowing what happens later in the story, I wanted to set it up in a more elegant way than it was done in the monthly comics. There’s a lot of deus ex machina that goes into the story of monthly comics, and I want to kind of strip a lot of that out to create a story that flows more organically, that frankly not just make sense, but where the story beats don’t come off as contrived.

Nrama: The small connections between characters and their history that you build through this first issue should be familiar to X-Men fans. How do those connections reflect the title “Grand Design?” Where did the title come from?

Piskor: The title came fairly early. To me it has a lot of implications. To me it sounds almost like “intelligent design,” like as a creator I’m playing god with these characters. I’m like Uatu the Watcher where I know everything that’s going to happen, I know what takes place before the characters do. And the entire project is about taking all of this flotsam and jetsam and putting it into a cohesive order, like it was intentionally all set up this way.

It frankly wasn’t; it was by a bunch of kids who lived in New York City, paying New York City rent, and they had to grind out these comics. As soon as you finish one, your money’s used up and you’ve gotta get out another 22 pages. Maybe you take a weekend off, but you’ve gotta get back on the horse. The creators just had no room to breathe, they had a very kinetic work pace. Now I come in and I try to view those stories almost as millions of dollars of research and development for my comic. I’m trying to create a grand story using all of that stuff and putting everything into a kind of order.

Also, there’s just the aesthetic idea of design. I’m paying a certain amount of attention to the visual language and design of the book. Certainly the design will make a lot more sense when you see the physical comics and the trade paperbacks.

Credit: Asphodel

Nrama: Hip-Hop Family Tree had a lot of X-Men references in it, and the connection there makes sense. Do you see a lot of crossover between the X-Men and hip-hop?

Piskor: Sure, definitely. On the spot I couldn’t tick off any rhymes, but they’re referenced a bunch. There was a DJ crew called the X-Cutioners, and they all had names like Mr. Sinister, stuff like that.

But spiritually, there is a lot of similarity. It’s been said a million times about the racial metaphors of X-Men and how it relates to American culture. That stuff certainly exists, of course.

Credit: Marvel Comics

If you look at my body of work now, and certainly over time, I think you’re gonna be able to build the exact psychological profile of a boy who was born in 1982. My first thing was about computer hacking, then I did Hip-Hop Family Tree, and X-Men was the most culturally relevant comic book of the 80s. As I build my career, you might be able to zoom in psychologically and be able to tell exactly what month I was born.

Nrama: Is that an intentional aspect of your work?

Piskor: I think compulsive behavior and OCD attracts a certain kind of person. A cartoonist is rewarded by compulsive behavior. When I’m a fan of something, I go all in, you know? I just know a bunch about hip-hop. I’m willing to do all this homework on the X-Men. I do all this “research,” but it’s really just me reading for pleasure or indulging my hobbies. I’d consider it a big insult if I was ever considered to be a slacker by somebody. So my comics are a result of this procrastination, just chilling out, this indulgence in pop culture.

It’s not intentional, you’re just gonna be able to figure out who the heck I am as a guy because I only have to do what I want to do. I won’t take a job. I’m not gonna draw the next issue of Speedball or something like that. I only work on things I care about.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Nrama: This first issue takes us right up to the emergence of the Phoenix Force, basically covering Xavier’s origin as Professor X and the earliest years of the X-Men. What era will the second part of this first arc cover? And after that, what will parts two and three of your X-Men history look like?

Piskor: Every two issues is like a mini-arc, and every two issues becomes a book. These issues will come out in December and January, with a trade in April. Wash-rinse-repeat for three years. It takes me about six months to do an issue, doing two pages a week. And that’s a seven-day-a-week schedule. This is bigger than a standard monthly comic. It’s a more intense project. You’re not gonna wanna miss it, but good comics take time. I don’t have to let anything pass my desk that I don’t completely approve of or that I’m not happy with. I’m creating this with intense specification on my part.

Nrama: When you’re working like that, do you have to be careful not to go full Pet Sounds? To not let perfect be the enemy of good, as the saying goes?

Piskor: It’s funny you say that - I don’t know if you got that from an old interview I did. But I absolutely believe in that philosophy and I use it all the time. But I also believe that good is the enemy of the best. I’m in that space where I’m very compulsive, my day is very much a routine. After this, I’m gonna go to the café, and everyone is gonna know exactly what I want. I’m not gonna have to ask. My seat will be there. I go through the same thing.

I can’t say that I’m not there, but here’s the rub: I care a lot about comics, and I care about the culture of comics. I have great respect for Marvel for what they’re allowing me to do with X-Men: Grand Design. This is the first Marvel comic done entirely by a single person, and they’ve already invested a ton of money in me to let me make this thing. I feel an immense responsibility to make sure that they recoup their investment in me, in a way that maybe allows other auteur creators to come in and do their perfect version of, say, Spider-Man. Or their perfect Fantastic Four comic.

Credit: Marvel Comics

So the way the pages leave my table is with that in mind. I don’t want them to reconsider working with auteur creators, so I have that resting on my shoulders in a big way. And that’s not personal – Axel never came to me and said “If you mess this up, we’ll never do a project like this again.” But I do know how the business works, and if I make this thing rad, if it really works, then maybe we’ll see like Michel Fiffe do his quintessential Guardians of the Galaxy or something like that.

And as a fan of comics, I want to see that. I always want to see single creators do their take on these comics. I’m sort of doing this because Dan Clowes never made a Fantastic Four comic. The Hernandez Brothers never did the Incredible Hulk. So let me see if there’s a way to do that, if there’s value in that kind of perspective on these characters.

Nrama: X-Men: Grand Design is being released at a time when Marvel is moving into its “Legacy” initiative. Obviously Grand Design isn’t specifically tied to that, but the timing adds up given that you’re looking back at the long history of the X-Men, and “Legacy” is about digging into Marvel’s past. Is that something you were conscious of while creating Grand Design?

Piskor: I’ll be honest, because of the daily grind of working on this stuff, I haven’t followed a lot of those developments. No one ever hipped me to making the story part of “Legacy” or anything like that, so it’s not connected. But “Legacy” sounds pretty cool. I hope they bring back a lot of the classic costumes and stuff. I’m not into Avengers that look like a SWAT team or anything like that.

Comics should be fun.

Nrama: Definitely. And that feeling comes through in X-Men: Grand Design, even with some of the heavy stuff the X-Men have gone through. Which leads me to this: is there a main theme to the entirety of Grand Design? How would you sum that up?

Piskor: That’s a good question. This first book, and this first arc, is about the accumulation of experience. There was no textbook, for example, for Professor X creating a school for mutants. What do you do with a handful of the world’s most powerful beings? There are gonna be a lot of missteps along the way. So this is like pure adolescence in a way, where the characters are sort of figuring themselves out and they’re not infallible by any means. The funny thing is about the X-Men, when you read it all and try to sum it all up, they’re not very successful at most of the things they do. They’re kind of punching bags, and I think that lends a lot to connecting our humanity to them on a more subconscious level.

Nrama: Is there any chance of you giving this treatment to any other Marvel properties? Do you have any plans for after X-Men: Grand Design?

Piskor: I do have some ideas of where to go after this if Marvel is into it. I think they made a smart move by letting me make this comic. An even smarter move is kind of indulging in my creative whimsy, because what they’re doing really is seeing if the idea of having these kind of titles created by a single cartoonist is viable through me, because I can never blame editorial for anything. I’m doing everything right down to the lettering and design, my name is the only name in the credits, so it completely rests on me.

And if I do this right, it’ll become a very exciting idea for them. I haven’t had any experience with them as the gatekeepers of these billion dollar properties. Maybe they would be if I was doing anything controversial with these comics, but the reputation of Marvel in my world, of totally independent comics, is as this place where editorial mandate ties your hands. Maybe because I’ve shown I can make hit comics, with Hip-Hop Family Tree, maybe that’s earned me more slack than someone without that background. But maybe not. Maybe the average creator just doesn’t know they can ask for things like this.

My relationship with Marvel right now is great, and if it continues to be as awesome by the end, I’d be happy to do something else for them. And I have the exact idea of what I want to do, if we get to that point.

Nrama: Is there anything else you want to tell readers about X-Men: Grand Design?

Piskor: Mainly this: if fans want to see more auteur creators get to tell their versions of these stories, to take on characters from the Big Two, please support the project. Money talks when it comes to these big companies, and if X-Men: Grand Design is a hit, it will hopefully lead to more cartoonists getting this kind of opportunity.

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