Ed Piskor Talks About Bringing The X-Men Together In ‘X-Men: Grand Design’

Ed Piskor has had an amazing career so far in comics, but it’s had little to do with superheroes. An award-winning cartoonist, his work includes Hip-Hop Family Tree, The Beats: A Graphic History, and collaborations with indie comics giants like Harvey Pekar of American Splendor fame. Piskor’s blazed his own trail, so it surprised quite a few people that Piskor took on the monumental task of turning decades worth of X-Men comics into a unified theory of superheroes with X-Men: Grand Design. Piskor was kind enough to sit with us and talk about the project and what went into distilling so much art and plot into a graphic history.

What inspired Grand Design?

I’m a big X-Men fan from way back. It’s a pretty convoluted series of comics. It gets very complicated, and if your girlfriend wanted to kind of bond with you, and was curious, there isn’t really a comic you can give to somebody from the outside that isn’t heaped with baggage. I always wanted there to be a thing like that. So instead of waiting for them to make it, I made it myself. I jacked out of the Matrix when I was 14 or 15, but the series was a constant in my life throughout childhood. There’s a lot of good stuff there but it’s in these long, sprawling series. You’re a very privileged person if you have the time, expense, and the access to all those comics. It would cost a fortune to get your hands on all that stuff!

Were there any moments you hit across, reading all those comics, that surprised you?

There were. But some of them were not in the good way. That’s kind of how this project works as well, it’s less a retelling than a remix. In the earlier days, the pre-Claremont days, the creators, they were on a hamster wheel of sorts. By the time they finished one month’s of comics, they’d spent the money on rent, so they had to churn another out fast. There’s a lot that’s cheesy, not in a good way, that I’ve taken on myself to change, and reformat so it fits. I have the benefit of hindsight and foresight, so I can build to those ends in a more elegant way than the deus ex machina way the original comics unfolded.

How much remixing did you have to do?

To the bulk of the audience, it wouldn’t be controversial choice-making. In X-Men #3, Xavier already established this is a school for gifted youngsters, these are kids. And in the very last panel, when they’re home, there’s a thought bubble above his head about how he could never tell Jean how much he loves her.

Oh wow. I’d totally blocked that out!

[Laughs.] It was never spoken of again, in the Stan and Jack comics. Even Stan Lee rethought that!

How do you even organize something like this? We’re talking hundreds of issues, one-shots, original graphic novels…

For this project, I bought the biggest bulletin/corkboard thing money could buy, the size of an elementary school blackboard. I have hundreds of post-it notes with strings going from one to the other, it’s scary to look at out of context. If I die in a car wreck and my folks see this, they might think they dodged a bullet! [Laughs.]

But I know what’s happening with this thing, and it helps me put this story together. There’s one other plot thing off the top of my head that everyone agrees is crappy. There’s this introduction of Erik the Red, and he’s this ominous figure. And then a new creative team comes on for the next issue, and the best they can come up with is Erik is Cyclops in disguise, but he doesn’t have his visor! These comics are like a narrative exquisite corpse. “OK, I’m going to put together this part of the tale, and now you’re tasked with picking up and continuing it.”

Did you consider this a sort of reboot for the whole franchise?

I didn’t think about it in those terms at all. The kind of mindset that I put myself into is, almost treating all of that work as extremely expensive and elaborate notes for me to try to make the best X-Men comic that I can. I do think of new readers whenever I do any of the comics that I do, and I want to also put a lot in there that the traditional comics fan will really dig. But that was the spirit I had to hypnotize myself with.

You have some tough acts to follow. X-Men’s seen a lot of Marvel’s greats over the years.

For most of the series run, Marvel solicited the services of the best artistic talent of the day, it’s a kind of heavy burden, because I consider myself more of a student of comics than a master by any stretch, so this is all an exercise. The tradition I see myself being a part of is the newspaper strip cartoonist, who may have had some assistance doing some ghost work here and there, but the bulk of what the reader is seeing is one point of view.

More often than not, there are five people who work on your average mainstream comic. I always wanted to see a comic done by just one person. The last time Marvel did this was Marvel Team-Up #96, from 1980, teaming up Spider-Man and Howard the Duck. But the comics that I read are all done by a single person, like Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly. Each page is kind of a comic strip unto itself. I associate each page with the broadsheet Sunday funnies, where an entire strip would take up an entire page of the section, and there would be 32 pages of funnies every week

So in some ways, you’re taking it back to when Eisner, Milton Caniff, those artists were defining the work.

That was something that was kind of important to me because I like to merge a lot of worlds with my work. The hip-hop stuff, comics fans showed up and learned. And some people who were interested in hip-hop were introduced. I’m interested in bringing new people to X-Men, but I also don’t want to wallow in the Jack Kirby idiom of storytelling. His language of comics is the Marvel language of comics. I want to make a Marvel comic imbued with the spirit of, perhaps, a Will Eisner. There’s a flat-out Winsor McCay homage. I’m a student of comics in its broadest sense. I like manga as much as Carl Barks. With all these inspirations, they get mixed into a pot and they become my style. If you see the comic, you can see the influence, but it doesn’t draw away from the story.

What did it feel like, having to unify artists as diverse as Kirby, Dave Cockrum, John Bryne…?

It was is and always will be a tough bar to measure myself up against. Art Adams, Jim Lee, all of those guys, Marvel got the best guys in the industry to put their stamp on this. It is intimidating, but looking at it sideways, I think I can make just as great a contribution, but it’ll be different. Everybody we just mentioned, they merely handled the artistic choices, but the matrix of what it takes to make a comic has many chores: writing, inking, color, layout, design. They were full-on artists. What was on their mind most was storytelling through pictures, but certainly they wanted to stand out. Being the entire creative force, I’m not competing, I’m not trying to outshine my creative team because they’re all warehoused inside my own brain. [Laughs.]

What was your day-to-day approach on this book?

It’s a really fun process. As a cartoonist, I can never do any one of these disciplines for too long at once before it gets boring. Fortunately, there are plenty of spinning plates to keep busy with. I went back to read a bunch of the comics and figured out which comics would be encapsulated in this particular issue. Each page is about 50 issues. I wander aimlessly for about a week and let it all swirl in my head. They weren’t planned that way, as an arc, but I can extrapolate with a few handfuls. So I know I have 40 pages, so I take 40 note cards and I’ll write a sentence or two. I’ll send those to the editor. Then I make the comic in a quick and dirty fashion on 8×10 paper. The dialogue and art are raw, there’s a first draft that nobody gets to see but me and my editor. When I have that kind of workable prototype, I can see what works and what doesn’t. Then I do two pages per week. Wash, rinse, repeat for 20 weeks. That entire time is a constant state of editing and re-editing. I put those pages on my iPad and wake up with them, and anything that doesn’t work gets changed. Each page is a living document until the day Chris Robinson, my editor, hits the button to send this book to press. That’s an advantage I have that the Big Two cartoonists don’t, once it’s done, it’s done. He’s onto the next thing. With me, I have these pages here and they will constantly be polished until the last minute.

If you could talk to somebody picking this book up to finally learn what this X-Men thing is all about, what’s the one thing you’d want them to take away from it?

It’s almost a thesis statement for people to see what makes the X-Men so cool. I’m not the guy you could ask “What do these characters mean on a metaphorical or spiritual level?” I simply grew up with these characters and they’re extremely freaking cool. That people talk more about the Avengers more than the X-Men now is criminal to me. The Avengers are the navy, and the X-Men are pirates. Following rules isn’t very cool. [Laughs.]

X-Men: Grand Design #1 is out today from Marvel Comics, and available in local comics shops and on Comixology.