Staff Pick: Ed Piskor to talk hip-hop, comics at the Columbus Museum of Art

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From the March 21, 2013 edition

Cartoonist Ed Piskor’s colorful high-top sneakers are lined up neatly by the creaky door that opens to the Thurber House’s small third-floor apartment. The coffee table is littered with reference books for rap music. The photos inside “Def Jam Recordings: The First 25 Years of the Last Great Record Label” are a refreshing contrast to the apartment’s pristine white walls and decor.

Pittsburgh-based Piskor is here for the Thurber House and Columbus Museum of Art’s three-week Graphic Novel Residency. This is Piskor’s first residency. He didn’t apply for it; a team of illustration-art experts and cartoonists sought him out for the honor.

In exchange for a show at the CMA and a space to work on his graphic novel free of charge, Piskor will speak at the CMA this weekend and to young writers at Thurber House.

Piskor suspects there might be a catch.

“Evolution, man,” the 30-year-old Piskor said, laughing. “My ancestors have instilled a strong bulls--- detector.”

There’s no catch, though. CMA’s creative producer Jeff Sims said the residency panel wanted an artist who had both visual and literary appeal, an artist they all admired who also had a big project in the works.

Who is Piskor? He’s illustrated for comic-art hero Harvey Pekar and is the artist behind the “Hip-Hop Family Tree” comic series on boingboing.net that chronicles the history of hip-hop and rap from the 1970s to early 1990s in a style that mimics that old-school comic aesthetic. In fact, finishing the first book that serializes those rap stories is what he’s working on while in Columbus.

Piskor has other ways of describing himself: an “unrefined nerdy dude who grew up in a s----- ass neighborhood,” “a fan of the underdog,” “a huge brat” who takes “everything so freaking serious.”

“I’m real nervous about the fine art world and comics,” Piskor admitted. “They’ll rape and pillage different mediums of work, and when they’re through with it, they’ll leave it a husk. … I don’t think about it. I’m not going to get caught up in coke and whores because I got into galleries. It’s the work that matters.”

In fact, the thesis of Piskor’s work is rooted in the similarities of street culture music from that era and the comic book world — disrespected forms of art that are made for the people who enjoy them. But things have changed for both mediums. Piskor plans to close his anthology with “Yo! MTV Raps.”

Despite Piskor’s self-effacing nature (his New Year’s resolution was to stop talking badly about his art) and despite the fact that he gets tested regularly by hip-hop heads about his knowledge, Piskor said he is the best voice and eye for a comic about hip-hop history.

Someone else who agrees: Biz Markie.

The “Just a Friend” singer tracked down Piskor’s cell phone number after he started writing the “Hip-Hop Family Tree” comics to talk old-school music and tell Piskor how much he liked the strip.

“He goes, ‘Yo, call me every two days, man.’ Biz Markie calls me because he loves the fact that I know who the Cash Crew is,” Piskor said.

Wherever comic-as-high-art leads, even if left a husk, Piskor promised to be a steady purveyor of his beloved art form.

“The purity of intent is something that’s important to me with anything I come across,” he said.

Photo by Meghan Ralston