Nexus Spotlight – Ed Piskor

Welcome to a special Nexus Spotlight interview with a talented up-and-coming young cartoonist, Ed Piskor. The Pittsburgh native has been to the renowned Joe Kubert School and worked with none other than Harvey Pekar on a couple of stories in the American Splendor: Our Movie Year book. He is currently wrapping up his latest collaboration with Pekar, this time for a full-length graphic novel called Macedonia. The book, based on real events, follows a young female student that travels from the USA to Macedonia in order to try and understand how the country has survived the break-up of Yugoslavia without spiralling into civil war as its neighbouring nations did. You don’t just have to listen to us though, here’s Ed Piskor to explain it in his own words… and an interview… and preview pages… nice! Take it away, Ed…

ED: The book is going to be a 6×9 150 page graphic novel published by Ballantine. This is wrapping up Harvey’s 4 book deal with the company. The other books were the reprint book with Paul Giamitti on the cover, Our Movie Year, and Ego & Hubris.

Harvey met this girl named Heather Robinson while he was promoting the movie. Heather’s family owns a theatre and she found herself in a conversation with Pekar talking about her college career. She did Peace & Conflict Studies at UC Berkeley and kept getting into debates with professors who explained to her that war is inevitable but she wasn’t satisfied with their examples. She kept pointing out Macedonia which has a recipe for disaster with all of the different and disenfranchised ethnic groups trying to gain some basic and political status. She ended up going to the Balkans to prepare her thesis and she took very detailed notes for Harvey to weave her story in comic book form.

NEXUS: What sparked your initial interest in illustration way back when? Any particular influences?

ED: I remember these particular scenarios as a small child digging around in boxes where I shouldn’t have been and finding my mother’s sketchbooks. She did some beautiful stuff and I remember “enhancing” all of her awesome landscape drawings with faux-Spider-Man looking guys of my own and her great still life sketches with wobbly monster drawings. I’ve always had comics as far as I can remember and I still have every comic I’ve ever owned. I was a pretty standard mainstream comics fan because I was completely unaware of the existence of comic shops so I had to rely on the selection at the grocery store. As a kid I saw the documentary Comic Book Confidential on cable and I was completely blown away by every cartoonist who appeared in there. Most of the focus was on really cool underground/alternative people and any focus on superhero comics revolved around Jack Kirby, and I guess Frank Miller and these two guys were way more exciting than the other superhero artists of the day turning out schlock like “Cloak & Dagger” in the Marvel house style. So my influences ported over from the documentary. I’m talking about guys like Eisner, Kurtzman, Crumb, Shelton, Jaime Hernandez, and Charles Burns. Whenever a cartoonist starts to despair over their work, they should check out Comic Book Confidential to get the juices flowing again.

NEXUS: You attended the Joe Kubert School – nothing like learning from the best! What was the course like? Anybody else in your class we might have heard of?

ED: I only ended up going there for one year straight out of high school mainly because it became very apparent to me that the whole system there is a total bait and switch operation. One problem was that we didn’t learn from the best. Joe Kubert and some of the really talented guys only gave the 3rd year students the honor of their teaching wisdom. The “teachers” relegated to teaching us first year monkeys were mostly former students who really needed the extra scratch and some other former students who needed the extra scratch but also worked in comics on such glorious titles such as Archie. They also taught us very arcane, obsolete ways of preparing work for print such as pasting text to paper along with your illustrations, using amberlith overlays to do spot colors, and using do martin dyes as color guides for color separations. This was in 2000 and these practices were out-dated for around 10 years at that point. I needed to learn how to properly scan stuff into the computer for print, how to navigate Photoshop, stuff like that. And they taught that sort of thing but you had to drop tens of thousands to make it to the second year to learn current practical stuff. I was very disappointed in the program structure and decided I’d learn better on my own consulting people with talent who’d make themselves available to me. To answer your question about other talented people who were there with me, Jake Allen was a second year student. He just released a graphic novel with writer Neil Kleid called Brownsville which is pretty awesome and another guy who’s steadily working is Alex Sanchez. He’s working with Steve Niles on a new 30 Days Of Night project which is right up his alley. Those are the only guys I can think of worth mentioning.

NEXUS: So… you’re young, you’re in Pittsburgh, you’ve just finished the Joe Kubert School… now what?

ED: So after that year of school in New Jersey I come back home and realized I needed to start paying back all of this debt from school since I had no plans of going back there. It takes me 2 years of working with a bunch of drones, misfits and automatons in a call center to get the bills down to a manageable amount that I could take care of with the illustration work I was getting at the time. Eventually I quit the monkey job with a few autobio strips under my belt and decided to shop them around. Of course they were pretty bad and I was rejected by every publishing game in town. I then decided to send these strips to every cartoonist of merit who influenced me for some critiques and maybe a lead as to where I can begin getting stuff in print. I received so much encouragement from really awesome people that I didn’t expect to be so cool and more than one person told me to get in touch with Harvey Pekar.

NEXUS: How did you first meet him?

ED: I got Harvey’s address off of a cover to an American Splendor book from Dark Horse. The cover was a kind-of mock up magazine cover and his information was on the front cover. I kept sending stories to that address but I didn’t hear anything from Harvey so for all that I knew the address was fake but it just became part of a desperate routine to include this address along with all of the other submissions I’d send out whenever I’d finish something new. To put it in context this is after the American Splendor movie came out. I had to drag some friends to see the flick with me and after watching the movie my buddy was able to do a spot-on Pekar impersonation. One day my dad wakes me up early in the morning and I hear this raspy voice on the line saying that he’s Harvey Pekar and he wants to work with me. I called bullcrap on it because I really thought it was my homeboy playing some kind of prank on my dad or something but it did end up being the man. It took months for the first job to come to fruition but he ended up giving me a lot of work with some extremely tight deadlines on the book American Splendor: Our Movie Year. And thankfully since I’m willing to work for slave wages he and I are wrapping up a 150 page graphic novel called Macedonia for Ballantine, probably for a fall release.

NEXUS: You two have collaborated quite a bit, do you have any particular method to your working relationship?

ED: When I worked on the Movie Year book I didn’t pace his scripts any differently than he had written them. I didn’t want to step on any toes. I also needed to submit the pencils before committing the work to ink so that he can see that I wouldn’t put a cape and cowl on him or something like that. It’s a good thing we worked that way too because man you should have seen the way I drew poor Joyce Brabner. The end result wasn’t even that good due to my lack of skill but the pencil drawings looked mean. She said that I drew her like a used Q-tip and I apologized to her a bunch. I don’t think she hates me anymore. On this Macedonia book though, I’m re-pacing Harv’s script completely. Some of his panels were so dense that it required some skilful reworking. He now has total confidence in my ability so he’s basically giving me carte blanche to turn out a good, clear comic book. It’s a great way to work because it really creates the illusion of not having a boss and that’s just fine to me. I have trouble with authority.

NEXUS: So we probably shouldn’t be looking for Ed Piskor working on a mainstream superhero book in the future then?

ED: Lets just say it’s not a goal to draw X-Men or Spider-Man in the near future. Now that graphic novels are hip there’s a lot of room to play around in this territory and the assembly line companies are doing everything they can to look like movies on paper which isn’t interesting to me. There is certainly going to be a time when I’m going to need to make some real cash to subsidize my own comics and if a commercial art career doesn’t blossom for me, then I guess inking Captain Atom isn’t heavy lifting. It is a goal to do my own comics until I’m completely blind and/or I can no longer hold a pencil. Even if I only make enough cash to live in a one room jail cell of an apartment then that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make to keep doing what I’m doing.

NEXUS: Generally speaking, is it trickier to draw from someone else’s scripts than from your own?

ED: It is in some ways. For instance Harvey doesn’t necessarily know that I really hate drawing this or that so he just slogs along and completes the script then I have to sit down and really figure out how to execute some work that I would never do on my own. Having to solve these problems makes a guy a way better artist but it definitely can be tough at times. The only reason to collaborate with somebody is to create a story that you’d never be able to do on your own and with this new book that’s exactly what was achieved.

NEXUS: Other than Mr Pekar, who would be your ideal collaborator?

ED: It would never happen but I’d really love to illustrate a substantial Frank Miller script, or an Alan Moore piece but that’s a crazy idea. Other than that I’m really interested in trying to figure out how to do good comics on my own. My writing needs major work.

NEXUS: That’s okay, so does Frank Miller’s these days. Ahem. Anyway, when does inspiration strike for a strip? Do you start drawing and then add a story to it, or do you come up with a topic to write about first?

ED: I’ve written stories as I went along before but they really didn’t turn out great. Most of the time I will completely write the story out, thumbnail it and it usually makes enough sense to draw. Then when I put together the final pages I read over the stuff and can do nothing but cringe. Glaring drawing errors, Holes in stories, forced dialogue. I’m going to figure this stuff out someday but I don’t see producing my masterpiece anytime soon. I get a lot of inspiration from people I meet. Being a cartoonist I can’t be accused of having a world of life experience, but I will say that I experience way more than most comic drawing boys. So I meet people and I have friends that do things I would never ever consider doing and they are terribly interesting. I love to just sit and listen to these people tell me stories about things they’ve participated in and my imagination takes it from there. I guess my muse is deviance and debauchery.

NEXUS: Macedonia sounds like a very unique project. Did you have to do a lot of research for it?

ED: Thankfully the chick who’s the protagonist of our story supplied me with a bunch of pictures. She also explained most of the setting using actual name of buildings and things like that so Google image search pulled up decent pictures of everything that I needed. Unlike a sacco story, this Macedonia book is a very conversational piece so Heather, the main character, is indoors a lot of the time simply talking with locals in these various places. That helps a lot because the interior of a Macedonian eatery, coffee shop, office etc. looks like any run-of-the-mill American counterpart basically. There are subtle differences here and there though.

NEXUS: So was it challenging to try and present lengthy conversations graphically?

ED: It was challenging at times. I’ll let the reader decide if I did an okay job on it. One main problem was that Heather took very detailed notes that Harvey created the script from and there were a lot of things included that really aren’t ideal for comics. Maps are lame to look at in comics, charts and graphs… In the wrong hands this book seriously could have turned into a textbook of sorts. Harvey also edited out a lot of stuff regarding croutons in their salads and the preparation of obscure foods which would have been a pain to illustrate.

NEXUS: Am I seeing things, or was that Jim Rugg’s Street Angel on page 4, panel 1?

ED: Nice eye. I don’t know if it’s Street Angel, but I can tell you that I meet with Rugg often since we’re both Pittsburgh guys. Actually I have a pretty awesome circle of cartoonists to commiserate with here which is very helpful. There’re a few awesome mini comics creators named Paulette Poullet and Pat Lewis. Pat was nominated for an Ignatz Award and a Day Prize. There’s Tom Scioli who is blowing everyone’s mind away with his work on Godland for image in his amazing Kirbyesque fashion. Mark Zingarelli is a top commercial illustrator who has loads of strips under his belt… he’s going to be appearing in the next blab! Don’t tell them I said this but I really look up to these people and I know I’d be 3 years behind where I am now if I didn’t know this circle of artists.

NEXUS: In keeping with the Macedonian theme, it’s Loaded Question Time! Is war inevitable?

ED: I’m not a student of peace and conflict studies like the protagonist, Heather Roberson, from our book so I probably am not educated enough to answer the question in a very eloquent way. Cynically I will say that we’re nothing but hairless baboons as much as we all hate to admit it and humans are as territorial as any other animal except we have the brain power to do real damage. So I guess I may not completely agree with Heather but I didn’t let my thoughts interfere with any points she was making. She’s a brilliant person and I just have no faith in humanity.

NEXUS: Would you like to visit Macedonia someday? Understand that’s not a personal invitation or anything… not on these wages…

ED: I’m real nervous to see how the book is reacted to in that area. I don’t know about going there. There are so many parts where Heather had to overcome some adversity dealing with other people and I think my philosophy of avoiding conflict will leave me broke and lost if I went there.

NEXUS: What’s a typical working day like for Ed Piskor?

ED: Well, my sleep schedule is non-existent. I pay almost no attention to a 24 hour structure like normal people so I work until I’m tired. Which means one night I crash at 4am, the next maybe not until 9am. Periodically eating, checking e-mails, and barely socializing. I’m 23 years old so I think that I’m going to be able to pull this off until I’m 30 at least. The only thing that sucks is that I’ve recently been involved in a lot of physical exercise and I have come to find that I have the stamina of a 50 year old fat man thanks to drawing the Macedonia book constantly for a year, and that is an eye opener.

NEXUS: Where would you like to be in ten years time?

ED: I want nothing more than to have a body of work that people consider to be amazing. And I hope I’m completely healthy at age 33. As a kid I had romantic visions of croaking before thirty. Live fast-die young sort of scenarios and now that 30 isn’t so far away I recant those old feelings. I also plan on selling out to the first person who’s willing to buy what I’m hustling.

NEXUS: What advice can you offer any budding cartoonists reading this?

ED: If there’s anything that I would have done differently it would have been to just produce comics constantly. For too long I just would sketch without creating strips because I didn’t think I was ready. And now we’re in a place where the art can be an acceptable secondary element if it’s behind a great story. Just produce comics constantly and let your work mature through that process.

NEXUS: And that’s a wrap… nearly! Ed was also kind enough to provide us with some preview pages from Macedonia, more of which are available at his website, so check them out, check these out, and check the book out when it is released later this year! Trust us, it comes thoroughly recommended by the Nexus crew!