Kirby Q&A: Ed Piskor

The ‘X-Men: Grand Design’ and ‘Hip Hop Family Tree’ creator reflects on the work of comics legend Jack Kirby.

All this week we’re celebrating the life and influence of comics legend Jack Kirby, who would have turned 100 on Aug. 28. You can find other Kirby-related articles here.

Ed Piskor was already well known for comics like Wizzywig, Macedonia and other work, but it was Hip Hop Family Tree that really brought his work to a new audience and won him an Eisner Award. Right now Piskor is working on X-Men: Grand Design, a series from Marvel that he’s writing, drawing, coloring and lettering that launches at the end of the year. Piskor has talked about his love for Kirby in the past and we reached out to talk about his thoughts about the man and his work.

What was your first exposure to Jack Kirby?

Do you remember when Marvel put out those facsimile first edition comics that had the silver border on the cover? It was the X-Men issue with The Avengers. I thought it was really cool. I would have been 10 or 11. To this day Chic Stone is in my top three Kirby inkers of all time pretty much because of that issue. From there I had an Avengers comic that reprinted the issue where Captain America gets unfrozen. Those two comics made me absolutely adore the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby tandem. Around the same time I would see the Image guys doing their thing at Marvel, and I saw a lot of similar energy.

“I think about Kirby everyday and sometimes I share those thoughts publicly.”

Was the energy the main thing that attracted you to it?

Let me put it this way: Kirby’s cartooning felt attainable – and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. The art was very visceral, very organic, clearly hand drawn. It had a punk rock component to it. The Ramones became the Ramones because Led Zeppelin was virtuoso music that required training to create. Kirby is like three chord punk rock music. I’m always about digging deep and finding the originators and sloughing off the derivative people and the buck stops at Kirby in a lot of ways. He created the language of superhero comics. Every era of Kirby is an era that I adore. From the Simon and Kirby days to the Mike Thibodeaux days.

Kirby drew the first run of X-Men and as you’re working on Grand Design, have you been rethinking what he did with those issues?

Reading those earliest X-Men comics, you really get the impression that to Kirby and Lee, X-Men was an also ran. Kirby was able to carve a couple extra minutes out of each day to put together this X-Men package. I find it to be really fascinating stuff. You read those first couple of issues and the X-Men are kind of copies of the Fantastic Four. Beast is not the scientifically minded genius he turned into; he’s a brute just like Ben Grimm. If you ask me where does the Kirby X-Men stack up against his body of work, I don’t put it high, but even his stuff that’s on the lowest rung is still pretty cool. Chris Claremont did his best to get that early stuff to make sense in the bigger landscape of the series and my whole project is created to try to make all of that stuff work. It was a pretty typical monster of the month book. I did everything I could to get it to work with the stuff that comes later. Kirby did the breakdowns or maybe the complete art for a very early story involving the Sentinels that was pretty cool.

Has spending all this time in the Marvel universe made you rethink Kirby?

Do you mean him putting himself into the characters? I don’t have much to say about that because frankly I just don’t know Kirby. I do have plenty to say about his work ethic, and I have some theories about that. One, he was a Depression-era boy and two, he was in WWII as a young man. There’s a great video online where he’s talking about his war experience and you can see this is a wounded man. He did shit that you and I would go crazy if we were required to do. I find it fascinating that his output is so voluminous, but it almost makes sense. He grew up having to eat turnips for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so he doesn’t want to do that anymore. They called it shellshock, but like all our grandpas he was fucked up in the head from the war. Why not stay at your drawing board and be in the safest place you could possibly imagine and draw pictures all day? I can sort of get inside his head when I think about it in those terms.

You mentioned you love every era of Kirby, but do you have a favorite?

Aesthetically, his ’70s work and beyond. Certainly with Mike Royer inking. I just look at every single panel as a perfectly composed piece of pop art. Beautifully balanced blacks. Beautiful shapes. He really figured a lot of stuff out. We talk about 10,000 hours practice. At that point he’s got probably 75,000 hours. My favorite stuff to look at is ’70s and beyond. The Fourth World and Eternals and even Black Panther.

Are you doing anything for the Kirby Centennial or are you spending it like he would have, at the drawing table?

Here’s the thing, I think about Jack Kirby every single day. He’s constantly in my thoughts. I look at his work every single day. To celebrate Kirby, to me that’s like amateur cartoonists who celebrate Inktober. Every day is Inktober. [laughs] That said, Tom Scioli is going to give a talk in Pittsburgh, and I’m going to that. I’ll go out to that, and we’ll pour a 40 out in the street for Kirby after, and then we’ll go do what we’re supposed to do, carry on.

Kirby character renditions by a young Ed Piskor

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