My impressions: I’ve been a fan of Ed Piskor’s since I first discovered his Hip Hop Family Tree comics on BoingBoing a few years ago. But I’d never read Wizzywig, his original self-published work about a hacker named Kevin Phenicle, aka “Boingthump,” who’s a composite of some real-world hackers and phone phreaks like Kevin Mitnick, Kevin Poulsen, Robert Morris and Joybubbles. Had I not been familiar with the background of those individuals (or been at least somewhat familiar with hacking and phreaking in general), I’m not sure I would have enjoyed Wizzywig quite as much as I did because it didn’t take much time to actually explain the terminology and techniques its characters were using to infiltrate the phone company, BBSs and government offices. On the other hand, the story is to be commended for not talking down to its readers; Piskor clearly did his research and really understood what hacking and phreaking were all about. When he mentions terms like “blue box” or “wardialing,” he’s using them in the correct context and portraying them as hackers and phreakers really used them.
The story is told in an unconventional way, broken into vignettes and interspersed with talking heads offering their take on who Kevin is and radio broadcasts from Kevin’s best friend, Winston, who is working to get Kevin freed from the federal prison where he’s currently serving an indefinite sentence for computer crimes. The narrative flashes back to Kevin and Winstons’ childhoods frequently, showing how Kevin learned about lockpicking, phreaking and hacking and focused on using his skills to get into places he wasn’t supposed to be. While Kevin’s story is about a boy who’s driven to defy the rules of society for his own gain, the story also paints him as a hollow human being. For example, he carries the title, “Jr.”, but he lives with his grandmother because his parents aren’t around; he is a frequent target of bullies and brutes, but lacks any skills to fight back and simply has to endure their beatings; despite his obviously exceptional math and computer skills, he tends to be hated and feared instead of respected and admired; though he is obviously brilliant, he’s constantly taken down by G-men who portray themselves as smart, but reveal themselves to be quite stupid.
Kevin is also written as a true sociopath, a person who has no real capability for empathy and who responds to the world out of curiosity and self-interest rather than any interest in human connection. The sad relationships he has with others suggest he’s more interested in finding their exploits than anything else, and when he can take advantage of them, he often does. Even his friend Winston, who accompanies him on many of his childhood adventures, is pushed to steal and lie for Kevin’s benefit, despite the danger it puts both boys in. (To Kevin’s credit, however, he never turns his friend in; he seems to have some understanding of loyalty, even if he lacks the ability to show any empathy.)
One final note I’ll make is that Wizzywig was originally published as a serial web comic, and its storytelling sometimes feels disjointed as a result of it. This is a graphic novel collection of individual comics, not a planned graphic novel with sweeping spreads and lengthy chapters. Still, the artwork is excellent (Piskor has a comix cartoon style that favors the grotesque caricature over beautiful figures) and the story is very smart. I’d never recommend this one to anyone who didn’t have the background knowledge to understand what it’s about, but if you know anything about the hacking and phreaking scenes of the touch tone phone and computer modem days, you’ll enjoy this story. The cover alone will tell you if this is the book for you – it grabbed me immediately.