A Cartoonist’s Dream Job: Retelling the Story of Marvel’s X-Men


With an archivist’s eye for detail, Ed Piskor is condensing the superhero team’s canon into a few hundred concise pages.

Comics artist Ed Piskor is only in his mid-thirties but already has a New York Times–bestselling collection that is slated for exhibition at the Smithsonian. The same work, Hip Hop Family Tree, earned him an Eisner Award — the highest accolade his industry can bestow on an artist or writer. Piskor’s now taking on one of the biggest, and most rewarding, challenges the comics industry has to offer: retelling decades of X-Men lore.

His new X-Men: Grand Design condenses tens of thousands of pages of source material — spanning supervillain battles, cosmic crises, and lots of human drama — into a few hundred concise pages. (The second collected volume of the three-chapter, six-issue miniseries will be available in October.) Even for a dedicated X-Men fan like Piskor, that meant tons of research.

In his work, Piskor is as much a historian as he is an artist. His Pittsburgh home, which he refers to as a “comic-book-making factory,” is filled with comic archives. When researching Hip Hop Family Tree, he supplemented his own deep knowledge of hip-hop history with old radio interviews on YouTube and decades-old articles.

Turning independent comic street cred into a prestige gig writing the definitive account of Marvel’s iconic superhero team is an unexpected career path, but it’s one that Piskor made happen the traditional way, using traditional tools of the trade: pencils, ink, and paper.

The comic-book-making factory

The cool thing about Pittsburgh is that the rent right now is pretty cheap. It’s easy to live here and be an artist. You worry about creative problems, rather than how you’re going to keep a roof over your head. I work from home, and my house is the studio. There isn’t much leisure. It’s a comic-book-making factory. There are a dozen bookshelves. There are three big utility… I don’t even know what you call them. They are things that can hold 25 long boxes apiece. There are four drawing tables — one in every single room, so that I can just plop down and start drawing wherever I feel like.

Kill your mentors

I don’t have too many mentors, really. The sad thing I’ve learned now that I’ve met most of my heroes is that people can tend to be their own barriers toward success. It’s scary. I basically just sit around all day looking through tons of stuff; the comics that you see as a result are just me testing my theories.

Courtesy Ed Piskor

Researching “Hip Hop Family Tree”

I certainly have a near-encyclopedic knowledge about the records, but I have so much curiosity about them. You know, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg kind of thing about how these records were even possible. Things like who inspired the first ones, how the deals got made, things like that. For these gaps in my knowledge, I relied on so many books and so many articles — any kind of magazine I could find. YouTube is rife with radio interviews of all these hip-hop pioneers. The first volume of Hip Hop Family Tree was largely from found source material; I had access to nobody. The book comes out, and it became a New York Times bestseller.

Time-saving templates

I know, organically and in an analog fashion, how to put my T-square and triangles to the test. For X-Men: Grand Design, in ink, I kind of lettered an entire page of lettering guides [used for near-uniform characters in comic captions] and panel borders, so I could just scan that in turn with those lines with non-repro blue. Now I have a template that I can just print out and use. On every page, that saves me an extra 15 minutes to half an hour. It’s a constant process of streamlining to focus on the fun stuff.

Switching between tasks

Because I’m the only person making these comics, I am in charge of every component and piece. In order to keep it fun, I never allow myself to stick with one discipline for too long. So I’ll write a few pages, then draw a few pages, then ink a few pages and I’ll then color pages. By that point, I’m excited to get back to writing. It’s a cyclical habit that has served me well.

Tackling the X-Men canon

When Marvel expressed interest, I reread the entire canon. We signed the contracts. I reread the entire canon again. And then it was time to figure out how to split up all of this material across six issues of comics. So I did that. Now I know that X amount of issues will go into each issue.

Then I’ll reread all of the original issues that will go into, say, issue 1. Then I’ll read the synopses for the rest of the canon to know what comes later and know what’s come before. Then it becomes a process of editing.

Because I have 40 pages per issue, I make a Word document with 40 bullet-pointed lines and write a couple of sentences as to what’s going to appear on each page. Then I send that off to the editor.

A page from X-Men: Grand Design. Courtesy Marvel

In living color

One thing that I sort of never thought would be possible for me was the ability to work in color. There are many cartoonists I love and adore who basically spent the bulk of their career just drawing black-and-white comics; it was prohibitively expensive to do color. Whatever kind of trade negotiations or whatever happened on the back end to make it possible for American publishers to use printers in China in the past, like, 20 years has cut costs in a big way.

But something I’ve realized lately is that the colors that I see on my monitor are now very, very close to the colors on the printed page. This is different because, early on, you’re coloring a blonde person’s hair. Then when that stuff would hit print, they would have kind of like neon-green hair.

The organic feel of drawing

I’m one of the dinosaurs: I still draw on paper, and I letter my comics by hand. I do as little work on the computer as possible because I just like the organic feel of drawing and how handwriting looks.

I teach workshops every now and then, and there is a whole generation that grew up not even really drawing on paper! You know, they grew up drawing on Wacom tablets and stuff, and that’s probably going to be the case going forward.

I mean, why wouldn’t it? But that’s not me.

Magenta is a publication of Huge.


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