WIZZYWIG: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL HACKER (Top Shelf, 2012 $19.95 hardcover 296 pages, black & white) Written and illustrated by Ed Piskor
What began as a serialized web comic has been revised (and in some cases, redrawn) and re-packaged in a new 2012 hardcover edition of the high quality that we’ve come to expect from the folks at Top Shelf Comix. It also earns my vote for a 2012 PGHHEAD PICK as “Best Indie Book” of the year.
During his years of collaboration with Clevelander Harvey Pekar on AMERICAN SPLENDOR comics and THE BEATS and MACEDONIA graphic novels, Pittsburgh cartoonist Ed Piskor developed an interest in phone phreaking and computer hacking. Based on his extensive research, he created a character, Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle, who was a composite of several hackers that Piskor learned about or interviewed. He chronicled his adventures and faux biography in the original mini-comic called The WYSIWYG Technical Pamphlet, with the acronym standing for “What You See Is What You Get.” WIZZYWIG the graphic novel follows the early days when a combination of curiosity and an innate sense of how computer-driven systems work lead to Kevin’s tinkering with bus transfers first and then digital tones associated with pay phones. He progresses from this to developing hacking skills right after he gets his first computer. If a reader did not know that Kevin was not a real character, he or she might believe they were reading an actual biography. However, as Kevin’s skills progress and the situations become more and more outrageous it becomes harder to imagine all this happening to the same person. Things begin to border on the fantastic when Kevin becomes a fugitive, makes deals with criminals, and the FBI and various law enforcement agencies pursue him across the country.
WIZZWIG is divided into eight chapters, each chronicling a different stage in his development and eventual decline. As depicted by Piskor, Kevin Phenicle is a sympathetic character, somewhat insecure and shy at school and living with his grandmother. He’s frequently picked on and taunted by bigger and crueler schoolmates The art is “underground” in nature and admittedly influenced by both Robert Crumb and Wally Wood. Each page follows a six-panel format with a few deviations. The narrative switches back and forth between Kevin’s confessional tones and commentary by his best friend Winston Smith, providing two similar but separate points of view and done in a sharp enough fashion that doesn’t confuse the reader.
This is a fascinating read. Kevin learns and adapts quickly and the reader is given a tour of various hacks, scams and schemes perpetrated against the big corporate “man” and viewed unkindly by law enforcement. Some of the prosecution seems cruel as depicted here, but hackers were treated as hardened criminals (same as they are today). While we can see how Kevin went astray and got deeper and further into the underground economy/civilization it’s not hard to empathize with his situation. WIZZYWIG is at times very funny and also at times very sad.
Piskor is currently finishing another book called DELETERIOUS PEDIGREE which can be sampled at http://www.wizzywigcomics.com/ He also posts a weekly comic strip online (“Brain Rot”) at the “notorious hacker-friendly” website http://boingboing.net/2013/01/15/brain-rot-hip-hop-family-tree-42.html