Originally appeared at Under the Radar.
Pittsburgh’s Ed Piskor, 29, has been busy lately. You can catch his new comic, Brain Rot, over on BoingBoing; he’s also recently begun posting Deleterious Pedigree on his main site; page one is here. Piskor recently concluded work of his online 400+ page graphic novel, Wizzywig (check out page one here), which is due to get the collected treatment by Top Shelf. Top Shelf, for its part, has collected artists’ previously published works before and if, say, Alex Robinson’s collected Box Office Poison is any indication, Piskor’s collected Wizzywig will be packaged in a manner as aesthetically pleasing as the comic itself (which is to say “fantastic”).
Wizzywig is the story of Kevin Phenicle, aka “Boingthump,” a phone phreaker/hacker during the early days of high-tech computing who is sort of a pastiche of several real-life phreakers/hackers. But non-technophiles have no reason to avoid Piskor’s book—for one thing, he explains the high-tech concepts to the layperson in a simple (yet not dumbed down) fashion. For another thing, Piskor is simply a talented artist and storyteller, and the tech-culture canvas on which Wizzywig is painted displays Piskor’s bootstrapping mentality, underground sensibility, and fondness for counter culture—all with an approachable, distinct art style that can effectively make a subtle point or pack a devastating punch.
I interviewed Piskor over a string of emails in mid-September. We touched on his experiences working with Harvey Pekar, how that work led to Wizzywig, his creative process, the comics scene in Pittsburgh, what to expect from the Top Shelf collected version of the book, how an Adult Swim cartoon enabled him to work on other projects, and quite a bit more.
Ed Piskor: I became increasingly more interested in the hacker world when I was working with Harvey Pekar on this book called Macedonia. The project took me forever to complete and I found a 25-year archive of this radio show called Off the Hook that focused on that culture from a political perspective. After listening to literally more than 1,000 hours of this material I felt that I absorbed some story ideas through osmosis that no other cartoonists would be able to tell. I became more obsessed, and started reading books on the subject, which made me realize that most of the major players in the computer hacking world share a lot of the same mindsets and ideologies. Cramming all of their stories and life experiences into one character seemed like a fun exercise.So, basically you were listening to Off the Hook to pass the time while working on Macedonia?Yeah. It gets way too lonely to work in silence, and I pretty much exhausted every CD and DVD audio commentary I had. This is right around the time podcasting became popular. I saw some aggregation site that had a tag for “hacking” podcasts and I thought I’d learn some criminally rad information while working on the comic.To what extent can you concentrate on audio (music or talk) when you are drawing? Or is it only during certain parts of the process?
I’ll letter a comic page in silence just so that I don’t start writing the words I’m hearing. When I’m penciling, I have stuff playing in the background, but I’ll tend to space out and concentrate on the page. When it comes to inking though, I can allow myself to be way more engaged with what I’m listening to. Writing has to be done in silence too. I guess that might be a contributing factor to why I can’t spend large intervals writing. I have to take lots of breaks to maintain my sanity.
Do you see hacker and comics culture as kin, maybe in the sense that they both can be considered part of an underground movement of sorts?
I think I responded so strongly to the hacker world because I saw a clear similarity to cartoonists in general, and myself, in particular. They certainly are weird, loner sorts of niche passions that require a lot of alone time to master, as well as a ton of brain power. I consider both cultures to be highly logically based, problem solving endeavors. My thesis is that the brains of hackers and cartoonists are almost interchangeable in terms of the synapses that are firing. We each just expel our energy differently. The DIY aspect of both is appealing. They both give the a stronger illusion of democracy in vastly different ways. I see both cultures as being pretty freakin’ romantic too, if you can’t tell.
I know you had those collaborations with Harvey Pekar in the past; before Wizzywig, how long had it been since you’d written and drawn something? Or were you working on your own stuff to a certain extent the whole time?
I started working on Wizzywig after drawing Macedonia and finished the first two chapters (the first self-published book) right before I started drawing The Beats with Harvey. Before hooking up with Pekar, I did stuff on my own, but, nothing serious. I never focused much on writing when I was younger and I grew a lot while putting Wizzywig together…which is why, when I was three-quarters of the way finished with the story, I went back and rewrote everything before drawing the final two chapters.
How’d the title come about? Just riffing on WYSIWYG?
The original mini comics I “published” were called The WYSIWYG Technical Pamphlet. I wanted a silly long title like Acme Novelty Library. I settled with the phonetic spelling so that people wouldn’t be too hassled by the acronym. I felt really committed to the idea of “what you see is what you get” the entire time I was fleshing out the character of Boingthump, the main hacker of my story. The term “hacker” is really misrepresented in a lot of ways in mainstream media and I wanted to explore the culture without pretense. The characters in my strip do some wrong, no question, but they aren’t so much interested in depriving anyone of anything. They’re more in it to see how things work, by any means they can achieve that.
What can you tell me about the sort of self-conscious narration you did (which I found funny and effective)—like noting that certain dialogue was straight from your real life, or commenting about the “disappearing” techniques, like the Social Security trick, when on the run from the law?
That one thing you mention, about the Social Security trick, I confirmed as being legit. Throughout researching hacking and specifically the way that a few of the more famous guys maintained their fugitive status, I would read little bits of info in one place that had some elements as to how they forged fake identities. Then, in other places I would read different information that would leave certain things out, which I already read previously. Then I just pieced the whole scheme together, and at a hacker convention I was invited to I had that whole plot confirmed as the exact way it’s done.
How much of yourself would you say is in Kevin? Winston? Or is more of your identity/sensibility wrapped up in the story as a whole?
There are elements of myself in the characters of the story. Probably more than I’d care to admit. For instance, a lot of the characters’ thoughts and feelings when on the run I felt myself, after some hackers contacted me with certain stories and I ended up reading about their arrests later. I thought that I’d have some weird guilt by association or something. So all that paranoid stuff comes from my own neurosis. The character/mouthpiece of Winston certainly reflects my political feelings about hacking culture. I got a chance to go to Denmark last year for a comic festival that three other Americans attended, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Charles Burns. I attended every talk they gave and one of the many things they all had in common was that they would say something about real life influences creeping into their work, even autobiographical things, but, they would twist and pervert the situations as needed for their stories. That trip was almost a religious pilgrimage for me. I knew I had to go back and rewrite most of the book and think things out more after that festival. I started retooling everything on the flight back to the U.S.
I’ve read that you went to Kubert School for a year after high school. Did you always want to be a writer/illustrator? Was it always comics that interested you most?
I did go to the Kubert School. I suppose if I knew that SVA existed I probably would have had a better time there. My style was always moving towards what we call the “independent” comics landscape. I only went there for one year. I always knew I was going to be a cartoonist. I’d guarantee if you asked any kid who knew me throughout my K-12 life they would say the same thing. My whole identity has always been wrapped up in cartooning, for better or worse. I first, really just enjoyed drawing, but, when I was probably 19 or 20 I realized that nobody will be able to write the exact stories I’d want to ultimately tell.
So, when you were drawing during your K-12 years, was it mostly splash page/full page pieces, or were you actually doing sequential art back then?
I was doing everything. I was reading interviews with guys I loved and they always stressed to draw everything so that’s what I did. My one friend would only draw guys doing jump kicks and he would make such fun of me drawing buildings and chairs and crap like that. The stories I did were really silly rip-offs. I loved Mike Golden’sThe Nam and would just still chunks from those stories for my own comics:
And I was a huge X-Men fan so I’d do whole issues of that stuff:
At a certain point I moved onto undergrounds and things like that. The stories I would do would just reflect what I was interested in at the time. There were stories inspired by The Spirit, Stray Bullets, Golden Age Batman, Crumb, all sorts of whacked out knock-off crap.
Who would you say were (or continue to be?) your influences?
My influences in cartooning are probably the usual suspects: Crumb, Clowes, Ware, etc. The really cool thing, though, is that I live in Pittsburgh, with some of my favorite guys in the younger generation after them: Tom Scioli, Jim Rugg, and Frank Santoro. I look up to those dudes as big brothers in this game and I hang on their every word when it comes to art and comics. Thinking about it, I went to the Kubert School under the romantic ideal of meeting my own version of “The Flying Dutchmen” (Steve Bissette, Totleben, Veitch, Truman) and I was sorely disappointed that most of the other kids had only superficial interests in comics, not more into the nuts and bolts aspects. I never thought in a million years that I’d find what I was looking for in my own hometown.
I didn’t know all those guys were from the Pittsburgh area. Do you guys have get-togethers and in-person contact or anything like that?
We all bump into each other semi regularly. We used to do an every Wednesday get-together but then we all became busy as heck, so we don’t do such a structured thing. There are always cool events going on in town that we all end up hanging out at. For instance, we just had Anders Nilsen and Marc Bell do a reading/signing at this great shop called Copacetic Comics. Everyone is available, practically at anytime when there are creative questions that need answered. It’s an extremely valuable resource that I appreciate.
I’ve become familiar with Santoro primarily through his The Comics Journal stuff, andComicsComics before that. Which sort of brings up a difference between now and the classic era of Underground Comix—the Net really allows artists to get their names and work out there across a variety of easily accessed channels. As a guy whose sensibilities are formed from Crumb, Clowes, Ware, and such, as you said above, what’s your take on the Internet and its effect on comics in general? Yours in particular?
The effect of the Internet on comics, like almost everything else, encompasses a million categories. For instance, there’s a huge democratization/sharing aspect of acquiring scans of impossible to find, long out of print, or extremely “valuable” books, via BitTorrent, or just sharing jpegs on websites. (You can reread all of Alan Moore’s run on Miracle Man!!!). I eat that up and it helps with my semi-scholarly interests in comics. Easy access to creators is a beautiful thing. It feels good getting emails from people who dug something and took the time out of their day to let me know. Makes me feel like I’m operating in less of a vacuum. Another democratizing aspect of the ‘net is that any random person can put a webcomic together, and they sure do. There are comics about every weird niche out there thanks to the web, and it has nothing to do with making a living, so they’re all pure of intention, free of editing, and sometimes batshit crazy. That’s awesome.
For me, Wizzywig would probably have only been considered for print by publishers because of the Internet. I’ve sold thousands of books on my own through word of mouth, reviews on podcasts, and blogs, which command huge audiences that made it all possible. The subject matter of Wizzywig was key for any “success” from the Internet, big time. The people who dig my comic most live on the Internet. Of all the copies I’ve sold, I’d guarantee that maybe 20% would call themselves fans and regular readers of comics. I’ve sent books to Apple’s HQ, Microsoft, Google. I felt a strong responsibility to do the best work possible as I started retooling the story for the Web and final book. Knowing that this story will be the first real comic for a certain number of people, I better make the experience smooth, clear, and as fun as possible. The most rewarding messages I get are the ones from people who tell me they never read comics, but, dig Wizzywig.
With the rewrites/retooling on the book—was there much redrawing as well?
I did redraw some panels that were really whack to me. Not too many, though. It’s not that I’m in love with the stuff that I settled on. It’s just that I can deal with the panels that you see online and in the final book. They don’t completely make my skin crawl.
Speaking of which—will the Top Shelf version have some edits beyond what’s online now, or is “what we see what we will get” from the Top Shelf version?
There are some superficial edits. Certainly the spelling mistakes are fixed and there are a few drawings that I decided to tweak. I have to thank Rob Venditti (from Top Shelf) big time for helping me with this copy editing part of the process. The longer I’m sitting and waiting for this thing to go to press though, I’m really tempted to add more strips to the book. I think there are some areas that could be fun to
explore. We’ll see.
How did the book end up there for production? What kind of decisions do you have to make (hardcover, softcover,cover design, etc?) and which are the publisher handling?
Brett Warnock dug the self-published volumes and said way back when, that Top Shelf would be happy to publish the full story, though, he hated the initial, square, format that I chose with the books I put out. When I was three-quarters of the way finished with the whole thing, I printed up galleys that I used as submissions to see what the response was from various publishers. Top Shelf had the most to say about it, and had some interesting ideas about it in terms of getting it out there. It just felt right, with them, and this is not a political answer.
We did have some talk about format. When first constructing the story I designed it so that the format could be malleable. It could have worked as eight 32-page floppy issues at six panels per page; four 32-page magazine format books at 12 panels per page—I chose to do the four-panel page route, collecting two chapters apiece to create multiple 100+ page books [ed. note: when self-publishing].
With this being my first solo project, I wanted to be accommodating to whichever publishers were cool enough to give Wizzywig a shot. I feel a lot of responsibility to not lose money for these people, and whichever format that they think would be best for retail and whatnot, we’d be able to make it work. So, together, we decided on the six-panel per page format. The book will clock in at 288 pages. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a hardcover volume. That is kind of important to me. It took me years to complete; I want it to look its best. Right now, I’m hassling some great friends I made within the hacking culture to write forwards and afterwards for the print version. We’ll see how that goes. These fellows are busy people.
I designed a cover that I drew that we’re happy with, but, we’re calling upon a heavy hitter to mock up something for us to consider. We’ll see what happens. It’s all still a few months away though. We really want to do this right.
Can you tell me a bit about how the opportunity to design characters for the show Mongo Wrestling Alliance came about?
I got a cold email one day, out of the blue, asking me if I wanted to design this universe of characters for an Adult Swim cartoon show. I’m not the most popular guy in comics, but, I do get weirdo emails like this once a month at least so I sort of took with with a grain of salt at first. Then I started googling the parties involved and it became a bit more real. Then, they told me that Peter Bagge recommended me, and after I confirmed this, I felt good about moving forward with them. I still owe Bagge a fence painting for this.
How is your mindset was different (if at all) when approaching cartoon character design versus sequential art?
My mindset was the same as it is with anything I work on. “Put in 100% and tell your friends you’ll see them in a few months.” I’m not condemning the project in anyway, but, one thing I need to realize is that when putting a ton of energy into something that is corporate and not mine, I have no say in ANYTHING beyond my contribution. You can’t be a whore and decide to get your heart caught up in your client. Live and learn.
Has your association with the show continued beyond that initial project?
I haven’t talked with them in a while. The job was finished after about one and three-fourths years. They paid great, and it’s helping to facilitate these other wacky, unpopular ideas I’m putting down on paper now, so I’m very thankful for the opportunity.
I understand that there’s more work to do with Wizzywig (the publishing-related stuff we discussed above), but have you decided on what might come next comics-wise? Actively working on anything else?
I’m about 140 pages (out of 180) into my next comic, Deleterious Pedigree. I’m going to serialize it, three pages a week, over at Wizzywigcomics.com. It’s about a white kid, who grows up in a predominantly black neighborhood, who feels ostracized, starts drawing a lot, becomes crazy/obsessed with art and schoolwork, gets himself ulcerated and sick from neurosis. A purely fictional tale I assure you. I’m approaching this story differently by drawing it at a smaller format in a sketchbook. The subject matter is a little heavy for me, so I didn’t want to labor on each page, each moment that much. I have some previews and examples at my Tumblr page: http://edpiskor.tumblr.com/
I don’t know whether it’s better to recommend you immediately go to Wizzywigcomics.com and devour the comics, or just put it on your radar for when the pending book comes out from Top Shelf. On the one hand, it’s great, and you can’t miss it. On the other hand, if you wait and buy the book, Piskor’s chances for getting another book published probably increase (not to mention you’re helping an artist live).
Whichever you decide, Wizzywig is worth a look. Heck, do both.