Writer/Artist: Ed Piskor
Release Date: December 4, 2013
If you spent a large part of the 1990s in Tower Records, you probably used to pick up the store’s excellent (and thick!) magazine, Pulse!, which regularly featured not only page after page of album reviews in all genres, but also comics by Adrian Tomine, Jessica Abel, and other noteworthy contributors. Elsewhere in its pages, the magazine included Justin Green’s Musical Legends, a self-contained one-page strip that related important happenings in music. Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree is a very similar thing. Its range doesn’t stretch as wide, and it proceeds in chronological order with essentially one cast of characters, but it takes roughly the same approach.
Piskor’s comic runs weekly on Boing Boing, presenting a page at a time of his narrative, which begins in the mid-1970s with DJ Kool Herc’s parties and covers the birth of hip hop. His style is deliberately crafted with an eye to print, paying tribute to the look of comics of the era. In fact, Piskor even explores the links between comics and hip hop in a brief afterword, a topic that could benefit from more investigation. Visually, Family Tree somewhat resembles Brian Maruca and Jim Rugg’s Afrodisiac (Adhouse, 2010). Piskor’s visuals are less action-packed (lots of dudes spinning records or talking in clubs and on streets), but his panels are richer in detail. Considering the general dearth of punching (although it’s not completely lacking), Piskor manages to create an immediate, thrilling feeling with dramatically-cropped close ups, intelligent visual parallels, and a bright color palette. The art also has a weakness for Ben-Day dots, and even Piskor’s choice to color the narrative word boxes yellow is era-specific.
There is a wealth of material here, and the title is well-chosen. Connections among various important figures seem to be the largest point of emphasis, but there are so many that an actual family tree or diagram might have really helped. The strict emphasis on chronology, too, can lead to the nagging feeling of being shown one baseball card after another by someone who is deeply in love with the material. “There was this guy. And he was awesome. And then this guy. He was awesome, too….” It’s a collector’s or cataloguer’s mentality at work here, not the kind of narratological strength you see in Jonathan Lethem’s novel The Fortress of Solitude, which covers the same material, comics included, as background. On the other hand, Piskor’s desire to create a complete picture is admirable, and the portraits he paints of the figures involved in hip hop’s early evolution are vivid.
The packaging, no surprise, is nice, with a great little collection of pin-ups of some of the characters covered, plus a few more by other artists including Jeffrey Brown, Nate Powell, and Farel Dalrymple.