Ed Piskor has created some of the most amazing comics of the last few years, including Wizzywig, Hip Hop Family Tree and X-Men: Grand Design. Now, his new book Red Room takes the Dark Web, slasher movies, snuff urban legend and so much more to create a book that is ready to tear a big bloody swath through the boredom of current comics.
We were lucky enough to talk to Piskor this week and found him checking out the comp copies of the first issue. Our rambling discussion covered everything from where Red Room came from, but also the influence of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, where comic book movies get it wrong, the change in media with the New Hollywood, snuff movies for real and, inevitably, Glenn Danzig.
B&S ABOUT MOVIES: I heard an interesting theory today that while in comic books, you can do anything you want without a budget, when you turn that comic book into a movie, it’s like you’re immediately doing the remake.
ED PISKOR: Right. It’s like a second pass and a chance to tighten things up in the second draft.
B&S: It’s hard to read trades these days, because you can tell they’re trying to stretch things out to six issues every time so they just pad stuff.
PISKOR: That’s exactly why I’m doing Red Room the way I’m doing it. I’m so tired of that nonsense.
B&S: I guess you see it in the old collections, too. Like the 70s Marvel books have that Jim Shooter rule that every comic is someone’s first comic, so you have that recap.
PISKOR: That’s how the Frank Miller Daredevil issues are. Just skip the first page of every issue where we recap his origin and the rest works as a novel.
B&S: Doesn’t it seem weird that every comic movie needs to retell the origin? Don’t we just get it?
PISKOR: Morrison’s All-Star Superman did it right. One page, they got through it quick.
The problem is always whenever people try to make things too legit. It’s just stupid sometimes and that’s fine. Like Batman 1966 with Adam West and Burt Ward is a better Batman movie than any of these other ones, man. It’s just like, that movie knows what it is. Batman cannot work in any real world context, so let’s just go for it. Just be cornball. l
B&S: The Tim Burton stuff works, though.
B&S: But then in Batman Returns, he just whips his mask off in front of the main bad guys.
PISKOR: They always do that shit!
B&S: Are you old enough to remember the worry about Michael Keaton playing Batman?
PISKOR: I never had any trouble with it because I was young. And I definitely drank the Kool-Aid. I was fully on board and so was every football player in my school. They had the Bat Signal shaved into their heads. And my parents took us, because we were so fucking relentlessly on them to take us to see that movie. So eventually, we hit the Greater Pittsburgh 5 in North Versailles.
That’s where we would see all our flicks. And it was huge to us, man. It was like a couple years, there was the year of Batman, then it was Rocketeer, then it was Dick Tracy…
B&S: Isn’t it weird how Dick Tracy has kind of been forgotten now?
PISKOR: What’s crazy is it’s totally not forgotten by me. I have two shelves dedicated to the entire bibliography of Chester Gould from 1931 to 1977 in like thirty volumes. It’s my favorite comic strip and it’s impossible for me to be critical of it at all. I just totally buy everything he’s selling. And it’s like the only comic that I enjoy where I can have that suspension of just like, “Chester, whatever you say goes man. Like I’m not even going to harsh on you, dude.”
I even love when the moon stuff happened, which is a period that everybody hates but I love it so much. It speaks to his mania and neurosis. The whole moon period happens after America has already been to the moon. You know, we’re reasonably sure there were no moon people and stuff but Chester Gould didn’t get the memo, dude.
So there are civilizations on the moon and there are whole governments being set up. There e these kinds of like, cars and species and shit like that. It’s one of my favorite periods of his work actually.
And then in the Sunday episodes, he would have the Crimestoppers Textbook. And at its height, it would be this great forensic stuff about fingerprints and how every bullet leaves a signature behind.
But then in the 60s, when he was doing the moon stuff, he was just such a crotchety old fuck, so he was anti-rock and roll and there’s a Crime Stoppers textbook about not crowding your boyfriend when driving in a car and there’s an American Graffiti-looking girl hugging up on some dude in a Cadillac. “The only fuzzy dice that should be on a vehicle,” and it’s the rearview mirror on a stroller, which is just so cranky. It gets so weird. Total Midwestern values.
B&S: So much of the pop culture law enforcement of that time is Dragnet and Dick Tracy and they’re the heroes. The square guys without any humor at all.
PISKOR: For sure. Because that would have been like, you know, mom and dad’s entertainment. You know, it’s totally that Mad Men era where there’s a paradigm shift happening. And people stopped responding to that square authority. Fucking Eisenhower and Perry Como bullshit. So then they had to start switching things up, man. Ain’t too much longer where you’re going to get Carroll O’Connor and shit like that. You know what I’m saying?
B&S: And in comics, it would be Hard Traveling Heroes, Green Lantern and Green Arrow?
PISKOR: Yeah, that’s the first thing that comes to mind. And then you think about the film analog and that’s like, Easy Riders and Raging Bulls, right? Like the era of New Hollywood when you know this old Hollywood era of Cecil B. DeMille, Warner Brothers — like the actual Warner Brothers — are completely out of touch with the youth. Fully disengaged beyond belief. And then you have to have that young energy come in, man.
B&S: But then it falls apart. Easy Rider was big. They made all this money and they’re like, let’s make another Easy Rider was like trying to find another Nirvana.
PISKOR: Right? Do you remember the Captain America show where they took that Easy Rider reference from the movie and we end up with Cap on a motorcycle with a helmet and all that shit? How ridiculous.
B&S: I heard a kid walk out of the second Guardians of the Galaxy upset with it and I thought, “You should have grown up with 70s Marvel movies.”
PISKOR: But you know what, I love that shit. I have this one wall of my VHS tapes. And I just kept enough to kind of fill up this shelf. And one set of tapes is the Mighty Marvel Marathon and it would be on SyFy where they would just play every Marvel property for like a whole day. It would be that old Dr. Strange, all the Ferrigno Hulks, the Spider-Man series, the old Ralph Bakshi cartoons.
B&S: All of those old Marvel movies have actors who went on to do Italian movies, like Ferrigno is in the Cozzi Hercules, Peter Hooten from Dr. Strange is in a ton of them, Reb Brown too.
PISKOR: That’s funny, man. Who pops up in that stuff? Because you watch like Cannibal Apocalypse and John Saxon is in there. There was a line between TV and movie actors back then.
B&S: And then the Marvel movies and lots of TV movies got put together and released in Europe as actual movies.
PISKOR: Right, like Spielberg’s Duel. You can see he already had a vision in that movie. It’s one of those great examples. It’s something we talk about on Cartoonist Kayfabe a lot where a guy’s given a shot and it’s a throwaway piece. Something a lot of other people just hack out. But then you see this person who’s just got a real vision, who put something together and that transcends. And in the medium of TV movies, which were schlock at best, and, you know, they can turn the lemons to lemonade.
B&S: There’s such a thin line between exploitation movies and TV movies, which is why I love them.
PISKOR: Yeah, that’s a good point, man. That’s something I’ve never really thought about. But you know, when you have these kinds of actors, you get a stage play delivery which adds to the camp of it. And that’s also how those old exploitation flicks feel.
B&S: Which is part of why I liked Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood.
PISKOR: Whenever the new Tarantino comes out, I gotta go see it. Day one, all that kind of stuff. After the flick in the bathroom, there were kids in there and had no idea about Charlie Manson. Zero. That’s the world we live in.
B&S: Meanwhile, they just saw a movie that had period-perfect Italian movies and art…
PISKOR: People got paid good money to make kayfabe Jack Davis TV Guide covers.
B&S: Was TV Guide important to you?
PISKOR: It’s a bit before my time, but now, I grab some of those. Sanford and Son covers. But when I was a kid, we used the Sunday newspaper TV listings, that was a big deal. You had to plan out your week. If Real Sex was going to be on, you have to plan a sleepover at a friend’s house who had HBO (laughs).
B&S: So after reading the first few issues of Red Room, I have a theory. You were really influenced by the video store experience.
PISKOR: Yeah, for sure, man. But the starting point is definitely comics. Also, the culture is very weak right now. People are really afraid to get roasted. They’re afraid to to get slammed on Twitter. So the comments are very placid. So I’m just trying to do the opposite of everything that I think is wack about comics. So it’s like, do something that’s a little hardcore. Everybody’s trying to pander for the young adult dollar. And what that really means has nothing to do with young adult readers and has everything to do with young adult librarians who buy these things and stock these books in the libraries. So fuck that, you know, I’m going to do some hardcore shit.
Dude, you go out to a comic shop. You go digging in the bins. And why is Red Room getting big orders and the best-selling Fantagraphics comic in a long time? Because people want to see some fly shit. People want to see some hardcore stuff now that we’ve all been sitting around for a while.
Let’s bring back some of that Faust energy. Let’s bring back some of that Deadworld energy. That James O’Barr The Crow kind of stuff.
B&S: I mean this as a compliment: it feels like an Aircel comic from 1985.
PISKOR: I’m down with that. It’s astonishing how much Aircel published. I thought that I had seen it all, then I found two or three series I didn’t even know existed.
That’s the stuff I buy. I buy the old black and black and whites from the 80s. The stuff that might only have one issue, the stuff might that might even be kind of region-based, because the creator never went beyond their local comic con.
And somehow, you know, the comic changed enough hands, so eventually, it comes to your local comic book store. I scoop up basically anything that’s odd that I never saw before. Usually, you know, it’s pretty crude, but I find so much charm in that artwork. And then I think I start to fantasize about the creator and the way like, why didn’t they just keep going? I feel like they were probably trying to measure themselves against George Perez or Barry Windsor Smith. And they didn’t realize that they kind of created their own kind of vernacular, but they didn’t respect it. You know, they were just like, I fell short. But you know, I love that stuff.
B&S: And there are movies a lot like that too.
PISKOR: Yeah. There’s a great YouTube channel called Power Comics that is into the very same thing I am. They get hold of, like weird black and white comics, exact stuff that we dig and do readings and track down the artists and interview them. It’s wild stuff.
B&S: Like Fat Ninja.
PISKOR: He was part of the Grips universe and I ended up liking him more than the main character. Gary Amaro is a great cartoonist. But then, you know, Faust comes along and blows away Grips.
You go from one claw to two claws and Tim Vigil changed his own career.
B&S: Can you imagine if they did a movie that went full-on Italian insanity with that story?
PISKOR: Yeah, I wish! Did you ever see Vigil’s Zero Tolerance? It’s Vigil, Tim Tyler and Amaro, such an outlaw comics team, drawing for First Comics in color. But it’s kind of like, once they did something in color that was more higher budget, it took away everything I loved about their work.
B&S: He’s like the Lucio Fulci of comics. You can’t be a casual fan of his stuff.
PISKOR: You can’t find his stuff in the wild. People hold on to it.
B&S: Who else is one of those guys that made it? Sam Keith?
PISKOR: James O’Barr. Guy Davis. Kevin O’Neill, whose artwork was not approved by the Comics Code. Not anything he did, but the vibe of his artwork. That seems like potentially BS, but if not, what a great sell job. It’s like William Castle. This movie might give you a heart attack!
Poltergeist is full of those stories and Heather O’Rourke dying helped that urban legend. But you know, I just watched the first episode of Freddy’s Nightmares where Tobe Hooper did the origin and hated it. Freddy just stands there while they burn him and there’s no storytelling or better way of presenting the imagery. It reminded me of how bad TV used to be.
B&S: I think Tobe Hooper just got beat up and was exhausted by then. Then again, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is great, even if people at the time didn’t like it.
PISKOR: It’s the Pittsburgh one, because Savini did the effects. He used to wear the Leatherface mask he did when they did the haunted house at Century III Mall. Chop Top is an amazing character and I like that Stretch has a dutch boy haircut. So that one is also near and dear to my heart.
B&S: Is it your Chainsaw?
PISKOR: The first one was mine. We had it on VHS, but I know that I was conceived at a double feature of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. I’d like to think it was during the second movie, because it’s so boring.
B&S: Pittsburgh was a huge drive-in town.
PISKOR: We just went to the Dependable the other night. My girlfriend is from Hollywood and with Los Angeles real estate, they couldn’t have the big space that Dependable takes up out there. It was great.
B&S: As much as we love video stores, they kind of killed drive-ins.
PISKOR: And I can see that happening eventually with comic book stores. I try to promote them as much as I can.
B&S: So what was your video store?
PISKOR: I actually worked at Hollywood Home Entertainment. And then another one was called Best Video on Eighth Avenue in Homestead. But then we went to weird places like PharMor.
B&S: When did you go from just reading comics to knowing who made them?
PISKOR: I had this book about the fifty-year history of Marvel Comics. It talked about fandom and it had this letter sent in from a little boy, you know about his favorite comics. And when he was talking about fandom, it was describing how, you know, the discerning fan is able to look at an image and tell who drew it and sometimes could tell who penciled in and who inked it. And I couldn’t believe that.
It seemed insane to me that you could do that. But it was really that post-Jim Shooter era, when it’s the people with very, very distinct styles. Like when it sort of went anti-house style. When we had Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee. I became fans of specific artists and followed them around, like I was reading incredible McFarlane Spider-Man stuff, then anything Liefeld would do and then Jim Mee’s Punisher was sick as fuck.
So that’s when I really started paying attention to artists.
B&S: You had a big eureka moment when you came up with Hip Hop Family Tree. Was there one for Red Room?
PISKOR: This comic was swirling in my head for a long time. I had sold it right before I did X-Men Grand Design, which kind of popped up and it was an opportunity and my trajectory was diverted for three years. That gave me more time to ruminate on this comic and then get busy.
It was inspired in a big way by Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, which taught me that the best of horror is part of the zeitgeist from which that material is created. It’s exploiting things that are really happening at that exact time. So what would a good modern day horror story that couldn’t have been made a decade ago? And playing with the Dark Net seemed perfect. It’s so mysterious to people and snuff has been an urban legend for a while. So let’s play around with it.
How I work is find this subject that interests me, then I watched a documentary about it, then I found Snuff, then I found Hardcore and I got inspired by all of it.
My conceit in the comic is that red rooms give agency to the 1% over life and death, the power to see atrocities as they wish. Like Caligula. This is an entertainment vocation for the men and women who have everything. I could see Epstein putting down some bitcoin to see this.
B&S: I liked how much of Wizzywig tied into this.
PISKOR: Wizzywig is playing it straight. Red Room is pure fiction, but that was many real-life stories all put into one character. I’ve always kept up with technology and been fascinated with the freaky nature of the Dark Web. One of the great compliments I get when someone reads this is when they ask, “Are Red Rooms real?”
B&S: So how deep did your research go?
PISKOR: Mostly reading cases of people that have been arrested, reading their indictments and VICE articles, which helps with the character stuff. It’s not that easy to get a motivation for them to be killers. It can’t be money every time. If you want to create some rich characters, I have to make some way that makes you want to see them become murders. I also used the bibliography of John Douglas and Mark Olshaker in their book that became Mindhunter. Yet real serial killers are almost always the same white guy in the profile.
B&S: So how much of an influence are slasher movies?
PISKOR: Huge. It’s also Mortal Kombat fatalities. Dude, we live in the town of Tom Savini. You know, I’ve learned a lot about anatomy, putting this comic together, and I remember Savini talking about his combat photography,and using some of the photos he took in Vietnam as reference material for some of his gore. I definitely I know what a pancreas looks like now.
B&S: Everyone else will after they read that issue!
PISKOR: That was one of my favorite pieces to draw. Let’s see what’s in that chest cavity. That actually was inspired by somebody that sent me some cartel footage. And these guys are vicious. They cut up this dude’s chest, cut open some holes in the ribs and then reached in, grabbed his heart and showed it to him before he died. That’s a real snuff movie and they film this shit as propaganda. They strike fear into their rivals and their own guys with them. I can’t unsee it, you know? It’s a direct inspiration and somehow, not the worst one I’ve seen.
B&S: Did you do tape trading? Like VHS mixtapes? Kind of like what people would post on the internet today, but way more underground.
PISKOR: Yeah, like the Heaven’s Gate Cult and GG Allin tapes. Bumfights and Banned from TV were big, but you could get those at Best Buy.
B&S: The best compliment I can give Red Room is that it feels like something that would have come out from Italy in 1977.
PISKOR: Thanks. That’s super cool. I think the rawness of the art style lends to it, because it has like, I wouldn’t say an amateurish finish to it, but it’s not Marvel or DC. Perfect anatomy. Like there are things that I can’t unlearn so it doesn’t have quite the psychotic look of some of the some of that stuff that I dig a lot. Like, I just can’t unlearn how to ride a bike. The rawness of the style, I think, lends to the aesthetic, which was kind of important to me.
B&S: I don’t know if anyone could draw like Fletcher Hanks today.
PISKOR: Well, you know, I think you could, but you can never go to art school because art school would fuck you up. Yeah, like art school would take all of that character out of your style and just like make you homogenous.
Then you have Paul Karasik, who uncovered Hanks’ real story and you realize that’s his id on the page. He was a real maniac and the term outsider art really is for someone like Fletcher Hanks. The guys from RAW found him and you wonder, are they laughing at him? But they uncovered a gem.
B&S: It feels like you always come back to 70s Marvel, with the copyright and last issue block.
PISKOR: Each issue is its own story and everything. But I’m following the Jim Shooter mandate dude. Yeah, every comic is somebody’s first comic so like, let me give you that little piece so that you know what this world is about if you’re just picking up this issue randomly.
I agree with that part of Jim Shooter. Like fuck, that idea of every comic is somebody’s first comic becausewhy not try to create new readership? Why push people away?
B&S: It’s so funny because we went from the Marvel guys that hated Shooter to people realizing that he may have had a point.
PISKOR: I actually don’t think that people disagreed with shit like that. I think it was just that his approach was bad. You know? Like he wasn’t a magnanimous character. And people have bad feelings about him because he was maybe too harsh or whatever. Artists are fucking sensitive people. So like, he might have told them some like hard truths. But you know, they’re salty.
B&S: It’s like when a wrestler becomes the booker and he’s no longer one of the boys.
PISKOR: He’s office now. He’s big ponytail daddy now who sold out.
B&S: And man, after he left, people went after him.
PISKOR: John Byrne did The Pitt and destroyed Pittsburgh and wiped out Star Brand just because Jim Shooter was from here! They blew up our hometown!
B&S: Is there a great comic book movie?
PISKOR: I don’t see the movies.
PISKOR: Yeah, a lot of times in like, I just have no interest in comic book movies. Like I think comics are so fucking rad. Fuck the movie. Like that’s just for like, my cousins or something. It doesn’t generate new readership. So they’re really irrelevant to me.
B&S: But for posterity, how messed up was it that Bob the Goon died immediately in Batman?
PISKOR: You think he’s going to be a major character because there are three toys: Batman, The Joker and Bob the Goon. It’s so funny because we all know his name is Bob the Goon. You had him for two seconds and he’s dead!
B&S: Isn’t it weird that other than a few movies, there’s more of a cross-over between metal and horror than hip hop and horror?
PISKOR: I’m happy with the metal thing. I’m a Danzig fan. He’s a big dork. There’s a Pushead interview and he turns the camera around in Glenn’s room and he’s living with his mom in Lodi, New Jersey and the entire room is packed with comics and Godaikin robots.
Even in his first home video, he’s reading an issue of Wolverine. when he’s reading that. First off, it’s his own video. He’s producing it. So the guy’s asking you what are you doing? And he’s pretending like he’s annoyed. And he’s like, I’m reading. What are you reading? “A Wolverine comic. It’s heavy.”
Like I have that shit memorized. Because you never saw comics on TV.
B&S: The comic looks huge in his hands.
PISKOR: Glenn is short, so regular size comics are Treasury editions in his hands.
Red Room is out today, so make sure to grab your copy. You can get order it from Fantagraphics or at your local comic book store. Thanks to Ed for spending so much time with us.