Ed Piskor’s X-Men: The Grand Design, which will be published by Marvel in April, is an undertaking that is every bit as massive as its name implies. It is also an exercise in epic pithiness: Piskor distills four decades of X-Men story lines into a six-issue miniseries—now collected into a book.
It’s the first superhero title for Piskor, a lifelong Pittsburgh resident who spent the past decade and a half climbing through the ranks of independent comics, first through self-published floppies, then at the alternative comics house Fantagraphics. In October 2015, as the artist wrapped up work on Hip-Hop Family Tree, his comics recap of the history of hip-hop, he fired a tweet off into the world: “It would take 300 pages, but I have a way to combine the first 300 issues of X-Men into a complete, satisfying tale.”
It was a social media exercise in wishful thinking and a bit of braggadocio—one that Piskor was not particularly confident would register on Marvel’s radar. He has a soft spot for the merry mutants, like many 30-somethings weaned on comics and Saturday-morning cartoons. “I drew hundreds of X-Men pages as a kid,” he says. “I’m a kid from the ’80s and ’90s. I still have all of the action figures and everything.”
In more recent decades, however, Piskor’s work turned toward the auteurs of the underground cartooning world, including the likes of such acclaimed indie comics artists as Dan Clowes and the Hernandez brothers. After spending a year attending the Kubert School, a New Jersey technical school for comics and graphic arts founded by the great Sgt. Rock cartoonist Joe Kubert, Piskor began releasing his own darkly comic self-published work, including titles such as Deviant Funnies and the autobiographical Isolation Chamber.
Soon after he graduated from the Kurbert School, Piskor landed the first of many dream jobs, teaming with autobiographical-comics pioneer Harvey Pekar. Together, they produced selected stories for an American Splendor collection inspired by the movie of the same name and collaborated on the nonfiction graphic novels Macedonia (2007) and, with Paul Buhle, The Beats (2010).
Piskor was steadily chipping away at Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker. The book explored the early days of the hacking and home-computer revolutions through the eyes of fictional protagonist Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle. The series began as pair of self-published books and was later released as a single-volume collection in 2012 by indie publisher Top Shelf and named a PW Best Book.
Early that same year, Piskor began serializing Hip-Hop Family Tree on the pop-culture site Boing Boing. Piskor set out to tell the tale of rap music’s development from the 1970s through the mid-’80s, drawing in the genre’s biggest figures and moments in the process.
The comic ultimately spanned hundreds of pages, collected in four bestselling oversize volumes by Fantagraphics and winning Piskor an Eisner in 2013. But Piskor says that by the time he collected comics’ most prestigious award, he was already ready to move on to the next big thing: “With Hip-Hop, the last 10 pages of the last book were excruciating for me to get through. It was almost like there’s nothing more I can do with this. The only thing you can do is win more Eisner Awards. You can’t buy a cup of coffee with an Eisner.”
An X-Men book is a strange next step for an artist who cut his teeth with the likes of Pekar and Top Shelf. But thanks to a deluge of enthusiasm on social media, the idea made its way to the desk of Axel Alonso, who was then Marvel’s editor-in-chief and who called Piskor’s bluff. Alonso let the cartoonist retell one of the most beloved and longest-lived superhero series, through the filter of alternative comics.
“My comics needs can only be satisfied by comics done by singular cartoonists,” Piskor says. “There’s never been a situation where a Fantagraphics guy at the top of his game used whatever cachet he’s built to parlay it to make a Marvel comic. I would like to see a Gilbert Hernandez [the cocreator of Fantagraphics’ Love and Rockets series] do a Wonder Woman comic. I always wanted to see what a Dan Clowes Spider-Man comic would be.”
Piskor readily admits that he hadn’t followed X-Men comics in nearly a quarter century, falling off not too long after Chris Claremont ended his run writing Uncanny X-Men. He blames repetitious story lines, uncreative choices, and slow plotting decisions for the end of his romance with mainstream superhero books.
“The later X-Men seem to be a retooling of existing ideas,” Piskor says. “Don’t put me on the hook for months and months and months—just give me a story. Get in and get out. Be done with it.”
The pithy distillation of pop culture and frenetic pace of Hip-Hop Family Tree helped Piskor create The Grand Design. “I did Hip-Hop Family Tree for four and a half years,” he says. “Every Tuesday, there would be a new strip. One could say that I got my Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours of practice in this giant ensemble-cast narrative, so I can employ that education on this X-Men project.”
Like Hip-Hop Family Tree, Piskor’s X-Men book was designed as a finite project—a six-issue miniseries. Piskor’s challenge wouldn’t be to explore territory with the characters. Rather, he tasked himself with piecing together a cohesive narrative from a series created by dozens of artists and writers over the course of decades. “I figured, why not just lean in and for real do a retelling?” he says. “It’s a retelling; it’s an adaptation; it’s a remix.”
The first two pages of The Grand Design recount the trials and tribulations of mutants throughout history, then the book turns its focus to an epic New York–leveling battle between pre–Marvel Comics stars Namor the Submariner and the (original) Human Torch. The backbone of the series, however, is Claremont’s 16-year run on Uncanny X-Men, which gave the series many of its all-time classic story lines, including the Dark Phoenix Saga, Days of the Future Past, and God Loves, Man Kills, each of which has also served as the basis of a film adaptation. It’s a rich vein to mine, and the source material sets a high bar. “I’m using the existing comics as elaborate notes,” Piskor says, adding, modestly, “There’s no way I’m going to be able to stand up to those dudes.”
Piskor was wary of online blowback from fans. While The Grand Design is, in many ways, loyal to its source material, Piskor takes certain liberties in his efforts to distill thousands of pages into a narrative that reads as a single, self-contained story. Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, even among the most devoted X-Men readers. The book has, thus far, been a breath of fresh air in an industry often beholden to tradition.
“The release of the first two issues created another jolt,” Piskor says. “I really feel like I’m working on something great here. I feel like I’m working on something that people want to read.”
Brian Heater writes regularly about comics for PW.