Eulogy for a suicide

How many years ago was it? A lifetime, I guess.

There used to be a little hacker conference that happened once a year in Cleveland, Ohio, called Notacon.

The first time I heard about it was the second year it was held, and so I attended. I was just starting out in my IT career, and very interested in the subject matter due to a life long enjoyment of playing around with computers.

Sadly, I didn’t come away from the event impressed. It was very amateurish and low budget and seemed like something that some kids would try to pull off before they were ready, trying to imitate adults doing something for real. They had bedsheets for projection screens, none of the talks were happening at the times or in the rooms where the printed schedules had them. It was a pretty sorry event, kind of a clusterfuck.

Well, it was at that. But I shouldn’t have been so negative. I should have seen the potential.

Fast forward a few more years.

I think it was 2009. A guy I knew from the internet, who went by the name Aestetix, I enjoyed his livejournal and reading his thoughts on stuff, was coming into town and needed a ride from the airport. He was speaking at Notacon, which I think was in its 7th year (6th, I went and checked). He said he’d get anyone who helped him out into the conference as his +1. So I volunteered to do it. I wanted to meet this guy and I wasn’t necessarily all that interested in Notacon because of the impression I’d taken away form it. But I figured I’d give it another shot. After all, if they were still doing it four years later, they must have gotten better at putting it on.

I had a great time at Notacon 6. The event had grown up. I met some really interesting people. They were friendly, smart, tech geeks like me, except smarter and geekier and cooler and more friendly. They were better than me in every way, just about. I made friends, I was accepted. Aestetix took me around and introduced me to a bunch of people he was friends with, people associated with 2600, the hacker scene, the demo scene, the info sec scene. 2600 was something I’d read about and heard about for years. I got to meet some actual legendary people: Emmanuel Goldstein, Jason Scott, Dave Kennedy from TrustedSec, Dan Kaminsky, Adrian “Irongeek” Crenshaw, James Myrcurial Arlen, Jameson Lundy, Desirae Gillis, int80, Danyelle Davis, Mark W. Schumann, Joe Peacock, Sigflup, and Notacon’s organizers Froggy and Tyger.

And a young cartoonist named Ed Piskor.

Ed Piskor is dead. He committed suicide. I learned about it just a short time ago.

Apparently after some allegations emerged of some kind of sexual inappropriateness which I don’t know the details of, Ed posted a suicide note on Facebook and then took his life. I’m grateful not to know the details of that, either.

Ed’s suicide note claims that he was guilty of being stupid, innocent of the more serious things that were apparently alleged (and mostly only alluded to in the note), and that he was choosing to end his life not because he was guilty of what he’d been accused of, because of shame and because he felt that he couldn’t get his life or reputation back after what had come out.

So… I guess I didn’t know him all that well. But I knew his work. And I thought he was a bright and talented man, and I liked him. He was a familiar face on my Facebook feed and on my YouTube recommendations, and in that sense, I felt like I knew him. But I really didn’t.

I first met him when I attended his talk at Notacon 6, where he talked about drawing his first comic, Wizzywig, about a young hacker. I thought it was really well written, and a decent amalgamation based on the lives of several real-world hackers whom I’ve heard of and read about.

Ed was nervous to be talking in front of a group of people, and it showed. He was very young and new in the industry. I talked to him afterward and bought copies of his books that he had for sale. He was so reverent of the subject matter. He said he just hoped that he got it right, and he admitted that his biggest fear was that the people he was trying to tell a story about wouldn’t accept what he had done, mashing up their biographies. He was afraid that others would say that he screwed up the depiction, didn’t get it right.

I don’t know that I was ever inside the world of hackers enough to be able to say this with any genuine authority, but I told him not to worry about that, that from what I could see, he did justice to the subject, and captured the spirit of the times and the culture of hacking in the 80s and 90s very well.

Ed inked a portrait of me, in his own style, on the inside of one of the issues of Wizzywig that I bought from him. I had long hair, round glasses, and was wearing a hoodie, as was my style at the time. I followed him on Facebook, and we occasionally commented on each other’s stuff.

I watched Ed’s career take off. After Wizzywig, he wrote a series called Hip Hop Family Tree, which was maybe his best work. He told the story of the hip hop music scene, and drew the book in a style that “sampled” and “remixed” the art style of Marvel Comics artists of the 70s and 80s, particularly Jack “King” Kirby, creating homages to classic comic book panels and covers, replacing them with hip hop luminaries. It was thorough and deep and really well done. It won awards and brought him fame and I guess maybe a little fortune. It was wonderful to see him taking his talents to where they could lead. His art had improved to a whole new level, and you could see the absolute love and, I’ll say it again, reverence, for the subject matter — both the music and the medium of comics.

At this point Ed had come into his own, so to speak, and had developed a public persona that was a bit bolder and more confident than the rookie artist I had met a few years prior. I suspect that he was aware that he was presenting himself to the public, and chose to make himself entertaining. He adopted a kind of standard uniform, wearing Pittsburgh Pirates jerseys and hats, nerdy horn rimmed glasses or sometimes sunglasses, and usually something paying homage to his favorite hip hop and rap act, especially Public Enemy. I’m not sure how “real” this version of Ed was, but it was the version of himself that he seemed to inhabit when he was putting himself out in public. I suspect that it was an amped up version of who he wanted to be when he wasn’t feeling shy or nervous.

Ed went on to do a re-telling of the entire history of the X-Men, called X-Men: Grand Design. This was a hugely ambitious project, intended to organize, streamline, and re-tell the convoluted history of something like 40 years of X-Men stories. It was the kind of project a kid who grew up reading X-Men comics might dream about doing. Well, he pitched it to Marvel, and they took him up on it. Rather bold. But it showed how much cachet he had earned with the accolades he had received from Hip Hop Family Tree. Ed’s career was hot.

As such it was a bigger project than I’m really capable of judging. I read some X-Men comics in my day, but the amount of material there — decades and decades of multiple ongoing books, made it a daunting project to read, let alone write and draw. Chris Claremont, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, and yeah some of the more classic books, reprints from Stan Lee’s time writing the book in the 60s. X-Men were some of the hottest comics for decades and attracted all of the top artist and writing talent. Ed took that material, consolidated and streamlined it, and re-told it, tightening the continuity, and paring it down to what he felt was its essence. It might have been a bit more ambitious than anyone could have handled. I think he was trying to do for X-Men what he’d done for Hip Hop, but I’m not sure it was quite as successful.

Next, Ed went into horror and gore comics, and produced a loving homage to them with his Red Room series. Ed had some connections to underground comics, having been something of a prodigee of Harvey Pekar, and having a kind of lineal connection to R. Crumb through him. And this pedigree gave Ed a bona fide street cred connection to non-Code adult comics which, by their very nature, were controversial and touched on adult topics, from sex to politics to drugs to racism, and were independent rather than subscribing to any particular orthodoxy or ideology. Underground comic books were not about super-powered heroes fighting crime and saving the world. They were about all kinds of things. Mainly they were a medium for the artist to express themselves and their opinions and philosophies on life.

And part of that underground comics scene was devoted to extreme gore and horror themes, stuff that the government had tried to crack down on, and whose resulting crackdown caused mainstream comics to be considered kiddie fare for decades after… until a generation of kids raised on comics grew up and started writing “dark, gritty, real” comics in the late 80s and 90s. Characters like Batman: the Dark Knight, Wolverine, and the Punisher offered a “mature audiences” take on the spandex tights superhero books that kids of the 60s and 70s grew up with. But even then, the non-code books from the independent small presses that constituted the underground were something far and away different. And Ed had an obvious, obsessive fascination with these taboo books and the topics they explored.

Now, Ed’s Red Room work one was not one that appealed to me for its subject matter — I was never into gore or horror movies when I was a kid. And these were especially, gratuitously sick books. He posted panels of his work in progress to Facebook regularly, and I was always surprised that Facebook didn’t take them down for violating Community Standards on violence, nudity, you name it. This was a story about a serial murderer who would imprison and torture victims, vivisecting them for a sick sexual thrill, with basically nothing left to the imagination.

I admit I kindof started to wonder about Ed around this time, and considered reaching out to him and asking him what could possess him to create that stuff, but I didn’t know how to, and not have him just outright reject my attempt at outreach, and tell me to fuck off. After all, he was already committed to the project, and it wasn’t like he could turn back from it by the time I had heard about it. But man the shit he was drawing was twisted, almost inspired in how extreme it was. He was really pushing extreme gore to a level I’d never seen before, and despite not liking the genre, I had seen my share of it. I think, though, that Ed was drawing on a rich history of material from the underground comics that I’d occasionally seen at shops and conventions, as well as slasher films, true crime books, real life serial killers, and that sort of thing. I knew kids in my school days who were into slasher movies, and I figured this was just one of those things that some people were into, but not me, and so I left it at that.

Ed did a YouTube channel with another comics artist, Jim Rugg, called Cartoonist Kayfabe. Wherein they would talk about comics and promote the medium by looking back at its history. They discussed their favorite books and influences, and reviewed newly published material, and occasionally they would have on guests from the industry, names such as Sergio Aragon├ęs and Rob Liefeld. They were always so respectful of the craft of drawing comics, but they could also point out examples of where an artist swung and missed, too. It was usually a 20 to 30 minute video podcast, sometimes going up to an hour or more, just depending on what they had to talk about and how much they got into it. I liked seeing what they were up to each week, and appreciated that what they were doing was helping to promote the art and the industry they were in, it seemed like such a positive thing.

So “shocked” doesn’t begin to describe how I felt when I read the news that Ed had died. I am still processing this news, and writing this is part of that process. I do not have any insider knowledge about what happened, or what lead up to his decision to commit suicide. It’s been many years, well over a decade since I spoke to Ed in person. I am nonetheless terribly saddened to learn that his light has left the world. And I haven’t yet come to grips with what darkness must have hastened its departure.

To read what little he put into the suicide note about it, it sounds like from his perspective he was misunderstood and misrepresented by his accusers. I am not privy to what it was that they perceived, exactly, but I can well appreciate how they might have received him if he was trying to be flirtatious with someone and said things that came off as creepy. From what I’ve read about it, what Ed was accused of was inappropriately attempting to groom a fan and aspiring artist was 17 at the time — Ed would have been in his late 30s when this happened. So, yeah, that’s legitimately creepy, I’d say. Sure, age of consent laws wouldn’t make it a crime, and in another century it would have been pretty “normal” for age differences like this, but this is now, and just because it’s not criminal doesn’t make it inappropriate. Apparently Ed had used his fame/success and connections to big names in his industry to try to add to his allure to these women. And, I guess there’s more to it than that. But a lot of i is starting to get taken down as I write this, so I’m not sure I can find out all the details.

Maybe that’s for the best; maybe it’s none of my business. But at least for a short time this was all coming out in public.

But be that as it may, some women (at least two, but it sounds like maybe there were more) came out and shared their stories, and it blew up. Ed’s career imploded. He lost a book deal, an art show deal, and his partnership with Jim Rugg, all in quick succession. And for a guy who probably loved comics for his entire life going back to his earliest memories, and had devoted his entire life to becoming the artist he had become, to see that all fall apart in a matter of days or weeks, I’m sure was too much for him. It must have felt like his life had already ended. And so with nothing else left, he must have felt that there was nothing left for him.

Sometimes guys can be creepy, and they have no bad intentions behind their botched or unwelcome attempts at approaching someone for a little romance or a sexy fling. And then, some guys are genuinely bad people who end up being womanizers or even rapists or serial killers.

I don’t know the other side of it, and I probably won’t ever unless I go digging for it, and I don’t think that it’s something I want to do. I really hope that wasn’t who Ed was. I really hope no one is really like that. But I know that in this world, there are people who are like that. Ed drew some sick shit in his Red Room comics, and he could be prone to some pretty juvenile humor, and a lot of it could be inappropriate. So I find it plausible he could be a creep, or at the very least come off as creepy.

So I can imagine… I just don’t know what to imagine.

Anyway, my imagination isn’t really relevant in this story. The facts are what matter. I don’t have them.

I am here to record a sense of loss for the man I met when I was still young, whose work I knew, and whose career I followed, and counted myself a fan of.

I’m not here to defend what Ed may have done. And I’m not here to pass judgement on him; I will leave that to those who know what he did, as they are entitled to do.

For them, I am sorry for whatever happened to them, for whatever Ed might have done. It is terrible and disturbing to think about, especially not knowing exactly what it was.

And for Ed, I am sorry that it was something that he felt merited taking his own life.

Updated: 2024-Apr-01 — 11:30 pm

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