Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker
The cover for the graphic novel Wizzywig is slightly deceptive. The title is a play on the acronym WYSIWYG, which stands for the “What You See Is What You Get” feature of the modern graphic user interphase. The cover design for the Top Shelf edition (the comic originated as a serialized webcomic before being self-published in 3 volumes) evokes the case of an early model Apple Macintosh running MacPaint. But creator Ed Piskor is less interested in the birth of desktop publishing than in the world of phone phreaking, war dialing, and other activities associated with old-school computer hackers. Piskor’s art style descends from the line of satirical cartooning that began with the Underground Comix movement of the 60s and continued with the alt cartoonists of succeeding decades. So it’s well suited to drawing a clear parallel between the outsider status of cartoonists and hackers while pillorying those who persecute them.
Given its almost 300 pages of densely composed panels and scope of subject matter, the comic is not a quick read. Piskor channels the first 20-odd years of computer hacking through his main protagonist Kevin Phenicle, a composite of several famous real world hackers (namely Kevin Mitnick, Mark Abene and Kevin Poulsen, with a dash of Josef Carl Engressia, Jr). Going by the internet handle “Boingthump”, he occasionally runs into tech legends like Robert Morris or the pre-Apple Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The comic begins with a series of talking heads giving contradictory opinions about Kevin. As people either vilify or idolize him, an overall picture emerges of a near-mythical figure who’s nonetheless deeply misunderstood by the public. The scene quickly shifts to a radio show hosted by Kevin’s childhood friend Winston Smith (a reference to Off the Hook, a radio show hosted by Emmanuel Goldstein). Winston informs his audience that Kevin is currently being imprisoned without trial and agitates for the government giving him his proper due process. The scene shifts again to reveal a much younger Kevin being bullied by two kids while waiting for the school bus.
Piskor uses these vignettes as the basic building blocks of his narrative. While Kevin’s formative years enfold in a mostly episodic manner, the comic regularly flash forwards to adult Kevin’s incarceration. Mixed in are excerpts of Winston’s radio show, more interviews with random people on the street, television news reports, and scenes involving other more relevant characters. This structure affords Piskor the ability to easily shift forwards and backwards in time. But it’s also calculated to make the esoteric subject of computer hacking more comprehensible to the layperson. Certain sections inevitably go into detail about Kevin’s exploits, whether that be discovering a security flaw in the punch card system used by bus lines, scamming a delivery place to score some free pizza, pirating computer games, pranking members of a local BBS, or undermining the monopolistic power of Ma Bell, the act that would finally earn Kevin the unwelcome scrutiny of the Powers-that-be. Piskor’s explanations are short, not too complicated to follow, and easily digestible to the non-technical reader.
Wizzywig is a pretty good showcase of how a cartoonist maintains narrative momentum even when the characters are engaged in fairly mundane tasks. Like Chester Brown in Louis Riel, Piskor mostly sticks to the highly readable 6-panel grid layout. Characters in conversation or deep in thought are often shown walking from place to place. Or drawn in different poses and shifting perspectives if they’re merely sitting. Piskor’s eye for gritty detail is quite efficient in conveying setting and mood, but it’s his gift for caricature that stands out. No one's physical features are flattered, no matter however attractive. People often seem to possess odd proportions or carry themselves with terrible body posture. Most of them have big noses, sallow skin, shaggy hair, beady eyes. In contrast, Kevin’s impossibly poofy hair and pupiless eyes (again recalling Riel and Little Orphan Annie) suggests a potent mixture of innocence and craftiness.
At first glance, Kevin would appear to be the stereotypical nerdy kid who’s a whiz with computers, but has no friends or can’t get laid. But he’s an orphan living with a grandmother who’s incapable of providing him with enough adult supervision, or dole out the kind of practical advice on how to deal with school bullies. Kevin’s hacking doesn’t just arise from boredom or intellectual curiosity, but also from an impulse to strike back at his oppressors. Hacking becomes a non-physical form of asymmetrical warfare. The irony is that for all his social awkwardness, Kevin becomes particularly adept at what the industry calls “social engineering,” manipulating the behavior of other people to obtain information and get them to do what he wants. But his cunning also belies a deep naivete that leads to his eventual undoing. An early sign of things to come is when Kevin illegally resells gaming software, but as a joke inserts a bit of extra code into the program which will display the message “Boingthump owns your soul, sucka!” after 100 plays. Unfortunately this renders the game unplayable, and Kevin earns the ire of local gamers. More ominously, the code’s ability to infect whatever system the game’s installed into also gains media attention, and the name Boingthump becomes associated with computer viruses.
Kevin becomes a fugitive from the law around the halfway point, living a day-to-day nomadic existence. It turns out that the resourcefulness he’s displayed are particularly useful to life on the run. Much of this part of the book is still spent on educating the reader about various hacks: how to assume a false identity, find temp work, and not draw attention to oneself. Kevin runs a number of hustles just to stay alive. One particular scheme involves rigging numerous radio contests and recruiting women to claim the prize, usually taking the cash items for himself. His social engineering takes on an even more mercenary overtone, and Kevin’s portrayal becomes somewhat dehumanized as a result.
This part of the comic is where Piskor’s satire is at full force. The mainstream media’s treatment of hackers is embodied by a muckraking television journalist whose thick mustache and ludicrous combover makes him look like an older, evil version of Kevin. His reports on Kevin’s alleged crimes become increasingly sensationalized, with both the FBI and the Ma Bell only too happy to participate in the vilification process. Winston becomes the sole voice of reason in this climate of media-induced paranoia.
A side effect of this shift in tone is that Kevin becomes more a symbol of systematic injustice than a fully fleshed out individual. The earlier part of the book helped establish him as a sympathetic, if flawed human being. But his character development stalls as he becomes a fugitive, and later a prisoner. It becomes less about Kevin himself than his mistreatment at the hands of his captors. This saps the story’s intended emotional impact when Kevin’s grim experiences are connected to the wider world and latter day whistleblowers, such as Pfc. Bradley Manning and Wikileaks. It’s the most glaring weakness in a highly ambitious work which actually has something relevant to say about the present-day terrifying state of American politics.