X-Men: Grand Design, which began at the end of last year, is a frankly superheroic attempt to compress 280 issues of X-books into a single coherent narrative by writer-artist Ed Piskor. With the first pair of issues out, we caught up with Piskor to talk about his background making comics about hip-hop and how he’s applying the lessons from that project to the X-Men.
“X-Men: Grand Design is more of a remix of the first 30 years of X-Men comics than a simple retelling,” he says. “If I was to retell the existing stuff in the space I have available, you wouldn’t know what the fuck was going on.”
Piskor is an old-school fan of the X-Men, but he’s the first to admit that, with a huge cast handed down between innumerable creators over the years — not to mention the proliferation of time travel, resurrections, secret relations and clones — it’s a series with a convoluted history. This creates a high barrier to entry, which Grand Design is hoping to bring down.
“There’s never been a point where I could really share an X-Men comic with somebody in my life who is interested in why I have all of these things,” Piskor says. I can’t give them the quintessential comic, because there’s so much backstory built into it. That’s been the impetus for doing this project.”
From DMX to Professor X?
Piskor has three audiences in mind for the book: existing X-Men readers; fans of his previous indie comics work who might not normally pick up a Marvel book; and, most important of all, people who are completely new to comics. That last one is the holy grail for comics, the fabled ‘new reader.’
Piskor’s last work, the Eisner-winning Hip Hop Family Tree, was the rare book that managed to tap into this audience, by covering a topic with appeal that reaches well beyond comics.
“Hip Hop Family Tree is quite simply the most comprehensive linear history of hip-hop and rap music that I can make,” says Piskor. “When I say hip-hop, I do mean it all, all the elements — dancing, graffiti, rapping and DJing — but I stick closer to the music side.”
Moving from the real-world history of a musical culture to the fictional history of a superhero team may not seem like the most obvious leap for a creator. But according to Piskor, the two worlds are more closely linked than you might expect.
“Hip Hop Family Tree is my thesis statement on the relationship of hip-hop, rap music and comic books, which has existed for about 40 years,” he says. “There’s been this ping-pong effect, where each culture feeds into the other in a symbiotic way.”
Piskor talks us through some of the earliest links between the two cultures — from the graffiti artists of the ’70s painting comics characters to comics artists drawing covers for rap albums. “My favorite is Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force’s Renegades Of Funk, which in a loose way is based on Giant-Size X-Men #1 — certainly the title lettering is an homage to the famous Jim Steranko X-Men logo.”
Comics written by rappers have become increasingly common, from KRS-One’s Break The Chain for Marvel in the ’90s — which came packaged with a soundtrack tape — to Run-DMC’s Darryl McDaniels recently founding his own comics publishing house, Darryl Makes Comics.
“It’s a connection that’s always been there, but you had to be versed in both cultures to really see it,” Piskor says.
From reality to alternate realities
There’s another vital difference between Hip Hop Family Tree and the X-Men, of course — they’re both comics histories, but only one deals with events that took place in the real world. How similar is Piskor’s approach?
“Not at all. With nonfiction, you’re accountable to real-life people, so I handled that in a more journalistic fashion, where I made sure I had as many sources as I could before I even put pencil to paper,” he says. “Working on this X-Men comic, a piece of fiction, as long as I keep to the spirit of who I believe those characters to be, I can do almost anything.”
This idea of staying true to the characters is vital to Piskor’s approach in Grand Design — especially because, as Piskor sees it, some of the original comics actually fail on this front. He gives the example of the resurrection of Jean Grey, who was killed in one of X-Men’s most iconic stories: 1980’s X-Men #137. After Jean’s death, her longtime love interest Scott Summers — aka Cyclops — settled down with another woman, got married and had a child.
“But then Jean Grey comes back from the dead — she bursts from this cocoon underneath the Hudson River in New York — and Cyclops just automatically leaves his wife and kid and goes with Jean,” Piskor explains. “There’s no real explanation. This guy is supposed to be a hero, and not only is that the most unheroic thing, it’s not even dealt with to any dramatic effect.
“It makes you read and reread those couple of issues to try and figure out, like, what am I missing here, man? And what you’re missing is that at the final hour the editor-in-chief, [Jim] Shooter, decided: I want to bring back the original X-Men, and that requires Jean to be alive.”
A one-man creative team
External forces — whether it’s editorial decisions, artistic disagreements or just time constraints — have played a major role in the development of the X-Men over the years.
“The creative teams that were working on these comics, especially in the early days, they were on a kind of a hamster wheel and working with kinetic speed to just get this stuff done on deadline,” Piskor says. “And when you’re working like that, you just don’t have a chance to do a second draft.”
This isn’t the case for Piskor. He’s in charge of every single part of X-Men Grand Design. Editors aside, he is the only creator credited in the book, doing work that is commonly split between a team of writer, penciller, inker, colorist and letterer. This approach is more or less unprecedented at a publisher like Marvel, but Piskor would love to see more superhero comics made in the same way.
“To be one of the first guys to do it is a cool thing, but I don’t want to be the only guy,” says Piskor. “I want to see more singular cartoonists make comics for Marvel and DC. Honestly, I want to have somebody to battle. I need real competition, because I don’t want to have to fight these creative teams with one hand behind my back. Let me just fight one other person.
“Honest to goodness, I’ve been searching for that for years, to have somebody who has my dedication and work ethic. To have that kind of ‘iron sharpens iron’ situation where we’re both trying to outdo each other. I just don’t know that person in comics.”
The downside of working as a one-man creative team is that the books take a lot longer to produce. Piskor says his output is around eight pages a month, compared to the 20-something that most monthly comics artists have to produce.
After the initial one-two punch, with the first two issues landing on either side of the new year, there hasn’t been another installment of Grand Design, and we shouldn’t expect one anytime soon. Marvel is releasing the six parts in pairs, with the next two issues due at the end of this summer — but Piskor promises it will be worth the wait.
The first two issues, which are due to be collected in April, take us up to the point where most readers’ knowledge of the X-Men really begins: Giant-Size X-Men #1, which introduces Wolverine and Storm and marks the beginning of Chris Claremont’s defining run. This means the following chapters will cover some of the X-Men’s most iconic and beloved stories, including — in X-Men: Grand Design #3 — the revered Dark Phoenix Saga.
“The third issue is my masterpiece,” says Piskor. “It’s the best comic I’ve ever made.”
Alex Spencer is a writer about comics, games, technology, pop music and his dog, based in London. You can find him wrestling Twitter’s character limit @AlexJaySpencer.