Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor, Fantagraphics, 112 pages, $24.99
If you've read Ed Piskor's sources — including Jeff Chang's and Russell Simmons' accounts of the late '70s, when underage emcees cobbled together stereo equipment to rock Bronx playgrounds and discos — then the material here is familiar. But this colorful and dynamic anecdotal history of rap music's earliest days brings it all to life. Publishing rap lyrics as poetry can make them feel flat, and make brilliant artists seem dumb. But in Piskor's comics, the same lyrics breakdance off the page, particularly in a four-page depiction of a legendary battle between Busy Bee Starski and Kool Moe Dee, in which the latter deconstructs the classic sing-song nursery rhyme style and declares rap to be a potent literary art form.
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Piskor frequently puts angry, screaming faces on Casanova Fly, the Furious Five and their colleagues as they perform, which presumably is better for a comic book than the cool-as-a-cucumber mode most rappers favored. Perhaps cool rappers resemble angry rockers here because Piskor sees rap as analogous to punk.
Though this work appeared serialized online, the print version is beautiful, with faux-yellowed pages, a muted color palette and an oversized "treasury" format recalling its subject's era. Piskor's art falls somewhere between R. Crumb's blues portraits and Joe Sacco's journalism comics. As with early hip-hop — which local labels were hesitant to record because it felt ubiquitous in the community, and thus not worth paying for — Piskor's work may feel familiar, but it's a flash of freshness.
Blobby Boys by Alex Schubert, Koyama, 52 pages, $10
Alex Schubert's collection of bold, bizarre comics is short, sharp and shocking — not unlike a quick stabbing. While ostensibly a funny book about a violent monster band and their strange encounters with rival musicians, their drug dealer, a hipster android and a rogue art critic, the comic manages to be just enough off-kilter to make goofiness seem profound and stupidity seem disconcertingly smart.
Using blocks of flat colors and diagrammatic designs, the book seems to be composed of common comic book visual tropes, but Schubert invents new ways to mark motion, impact and time. Emoticon-like smoke puffs might denote drug smoke, volcano eruptions, violence or pure power. Pointy sun shapes might mean excitement, immortality, a car crash or a plain old panel border. He embraces the page's two-dimensionality. Yet this odd, often unfamiliar approach and the comic's jittery pacing hurts neither the rhythm of the stories or the jokes. In fact, the staccato visual vibe functions as a kind of graphic deadpan, giving the punchlines more impact. It's not surprising that an absurdist book about green punk rockers sliming and killing to win a battle of the bands is funny, or that a mohawked surfer robot selling aluminum cans to pay for his motel room is entertaining. The surprise is that this silly collection is seriously good and that this amalgamation of old clichés seems genuinely futuristic.
Ant Colony by Michael DeForge, Drawn and Quarterly, 112 pages, $21.95
The canon of critically heralded, commercially successful non-superhero comics is a small one, crafted by a group of artists whose ranks were seemingly closed in the early '90s. Thus, both genuine excitement and critical brushback has bubbled up over the last two years as the prolific Michael DeForge emerged as a possible member of this tiny family. DeForge's growing popularity should seem surprising, considering the challenging, bizarre nature of his work. However, the seductive line and punchy pacing of even DeForge's strangest stories makes his seemingly outsider work accessible.(Not to mention, his mainstream gig as character designer on the cartoon "Adventure Time" means he has arguably surpassed his predecessors' popularity.
DeForge's 2013 anthology, "Very Casual," was jarring, with dreamlike tales of alternate dimension basketball, oozing beauties and death metal logo sight gags. "Ant Colony" is a more ambitious story about the gruesome last days of an ant colony and a motley crew of survivors exploring their future. Compared to earlier works, the structure of "Ant Colony" (from the linear survival narrative to the actual panel grid) feels somewhat conservative. Which is relative: Scenes of graphic queen ant sex, brutal violence and sternal gland-excretion ooze more fluids than should be allowed in anything labeled "conservative." With its striking design, strong characters and parallel references to kiddie-fare animal antics and soul-crushing adult decisions, "Ant Colony" is compelling work. That I don't consider it his strongest testifies that I'm leaning toward Team Canon.
Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine. He lives in Chicago.