Wizzywig is the debut graphic novel by Ed Piskor which tells the story of hacker Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle and his rise to becoming a notorious computer hacking “criminal.”
The artwork is well done, a simple black and white style that, to me, gives it an “independent” and late-70s / early-80s feel to it, which is appropriate because this is when this tale takes place.
Each chapter in Wizzywig focuses on a different part of Kevin’s life. When we first meet him he’s a young boy full of curiousity and innocence, and by the end we see a tired, weathered, and worn-out adult.
Kevin’s nefarious road to hacking begins rather innocent. Technology is something of a puzzle to Kevin, and he’s really good at figuring it out. Kevin first learns how to phreak — and, no, that’s not some sort of dance move. Phreaking is to telephones and telecommunication, what hacking is to computers. He reverse-engineers telephones and the early technology behind them, to figure out how they work. He then uses that knowledge to make free local and long distance calls. The cost in damages is negligible until he makes all long distance phone calls on Mother’s Day free, and immediately becomes a prime target.
Kevin isn’t a bad kid, he’s just like any normal, bored city kid. He yearns for things to do to occupy his time, and because he lives with his grandmother who doesn’t watch him carefully, he inadvertently gets himself in trouble with his interest in technology and computers.
Kevin assumes the online pseudonym “boingthump” which he adopts after overhearing a discussion between two men at a bus stop about one’s sexual adventures the night before. After acquiring a computer and access to Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), Boingthump is truly born and begins to pirate and sell copies of software, and even goes as far to leave his mark on the software (which also renders it unplayable after 100 plays) by injecting his pseudonym into the game’s code.
Everybody is a target for Boingthump: the telephone company, computer software, the DMV, the government, and even other tech enthusiasts and hackers feel the wrath of a wronged Kevin Phenicle. Because of this Kevin makes a lot of enemies.
Ed Piskor masterfully keeps the story flowing and if almost feels like you’re watching a documentary. There are “interviews” from the various people in his life. Radio talk show rants from Winston, his cohort and childhood friend, about his wrongful imprisonment for his federal crimes, which include mail fraud, wire and computer fraud, possession of illegal access devices, money laundering, and obstruction of justice. There are even sitcom-episode-like narratives all of which give the story a unique charm.
The writing was well done and witty. I even appreciated the little quips and quotes that author/illustrator Ed Piskor throws in from time to time to inject a little personality and “don’t try this at home” types of advice. There was even a particularly funny series of what could only be inside jokes hidden in the headline scroll during a television interview with Kevin.
While there is a lot of anti-govenment themes throughout the story, where Kevin is portrayed as the victim, both sides of the story receive a healthy dose of positive and negative illustrative propaganda, where both government and hacker are portrayed as monsters and heroes.
There’s an excellent panel about halfway through the story where a talk show host is discussing a government raid on computer hackers, the panel shows a stereotypical all-in-black government agent is taking a microwave away from a family whose son is implied to be a computer hacker. The family is standing together, sad expressions on their face while the agent states, “Your microwave is digital, sir. It is coming with us!”
The fact of the matter is while I really enjoyed the comic, I never really liked Kevin. Kevin is an addict. His addiction of choice was computers and technology instead of drugs or alcohol. He used his brilliant gift to do some pretty bad things, and while it all started as an innocent quest for knowledge, his addiction controlled and eventually ruined his life. Rather than stand up and face responsibility of his actions right away, Kevin went into hiding, assumed a new identity, and lived a rather bleak and depressing life for years, and became something of a martyr.
Old-school computer geeks, like me, who can remember back to (and well before) the days of Bulletin Board Systems and excruciating slow dial-up connections, will appreciate the trip down memory lane in Wizzwig. Things like rotary phones, old-model computers, and tales of yet another boring underground BBS featuring nothing more exciting than the Anarchist’s Cookbook.
Wizzywig is intended for mature audiences and contains a lot of harsh language. It is published by Top Shelf Productions and retails for about $19.99. It is just under 300 pages long, and can be easily read in a weekend. Ed Piskor obviously put a lot of thought and hard work into this, and appropriately, delivers a great story that old-school tech enthusiasts will likely appreciate. I definitely recommend checking out Wizzywig if you have any interest in computers and technology, especially the old-school underground days!