7/31/2016

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, by Ed Piskor.
By Ed Piskor.

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.

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, by Ed Piskor.

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.

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, by Ed Piskor.

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.

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, by Ed Piskor.

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.

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, by Ed Piskor.

7/24/2016

Comic-Con Album Pt 35

G.I. Joe  Baroness, Star Wars Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker cosplayer, Comic-Con International, San Diego Convention Center, Marina District, San Diego, California. Kodak 160VC color negative 35mm film.
The Baroness and Darth Vader cosplayers, Comic-Con exhibit hall

Cobra forges an alliance with the Galactic Empire. That's going to end well.

Pt  29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34,

7/22/2016

Webcomic: Cracks in the Foundation

Cracks in the Foundation, by Andy Warner
Go to: The Nib, by Andy Warner

Comic-Con Album Pt 33

Star Wars Yoda PVC Figure, Comic-Con International, San Diego Convention Center, Marina District, San Diego, California. Nikon n90s SLR Body. Fujifilm NPZ800 color negative 35mm film.
Yoda, Comic-Con exhibit hall

Remember the time when fans debated on whether Yoda was any good with a lightsaber? And then everyone found out in Attack of the Clones that his fighting style mostly consists of him hopping around like a mad bunny.

Pt  29, 30, 31, 32,

7/18/2016

New Super-Man #1

New Super-Man #1. Story: Gene Luen Yang Art: Viktor Bogdanovic Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang Inks: Richard Friend Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Dave Sharpe  Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.
Story: Gene Luen Yang
Art: Viktor Bogdanovic
Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang
Inks: Richard Friend
Colors: Hi-Fi
Letters: Dave Sharpe

Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

With the launch of New Super-Man, DC is hoping to replicate Marvel’s successful attempts to generate more diversity in their lineup through the use of legacy characters. A new Chinese Superman is being shepherded by no less than Gene Luen Yang. On the surface, this sounds like a move reminiscent of hiring Ta-Nehisi Coates to write Black Panther. Yang is an award-winning author known for his stories tackling the issue of Chinese identity. Furthermore, he’s got a much better comics pedigree than Coates. Yang was already writing for the New 52 Superman, a tenure which was negatively affected by the turmoil surrounding the DCYou initiative. With Rebirth, he's been given an opportunity to examine the larger world beyond America’s shores.

Clark Kent has been interpreted a hundred different ways, but he’s always been viewed as fundamentally a decent guy. Not so the new protagonist Kenan Kong. The reader’s first impression of him is that of a teenage bully. In an obvious subversion of reader expectations, Kenan is first shown harassing a stereotypical nerdy Asian classmate. It’s soon revealed that Kenan's reasons for picking on him aren't just because he’s a weakling. Kenan is carrying a lot of barely repressed rage over an untimely death in the family, exacerbated by a sense of helplessness caused by being a member of China’s overlooked working class. The story unfolds like an alternate timeline where Flash Thompson was bitten by the radioactive spider and got superpowers instead of Peter Parker.

New Super-Man #1. Story: Gene Luen Yang Art: Viktor Bogdanovic Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang Inks: Richard Friend Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Dave Sharpe  Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

Kenan exhibits only one sign of heroism. When a supervillain pops out of nowhere and attacks the very classmate he was just harassing, Kenan bravely but unwisely challenges him. His actions are enough to earn Kenan the attention of intrepid reporter Laney Lang. Naturally, he initially responds by hitting on her. But he’s also approached by another woman whose unsettling leer and black trench coat immediately marks her as a member of a nefarious shadow organization. She then makes an offer that apparently Kenan can’t refuse.

Yang utilizes enough classic tropes that the comic almost reads as one that could have taken place in one of the many parallel worlds of the DC Multiverse. Kenan may be a douchebag, but he’s still an underdog. His supporting cast embody several familiar archetypes. And the process that gives him his powers parallels many a dangerous procedure that was used on a Steve Rogers or a Logan. But it takes place in another country, not another Earth. Kenan lives in Shanghai, but he’s one of the people who've been left behind by China’s rapid economic growth. And while Kenan appears to be largely apolitical, his dad pontificates about the need for greater freedom.

New Super-Man #1. Story: Gene Luen Yang Art: Viktor Bogdanovic Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang Inks: Richard Friend Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Dave Sharpe  Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

Setting the comic on the mainline Earth allows Yang to engage in some meta-commentary about cultural imperialism and soft power. Most of DC’s characters live in the United States, and that bias is horribly skewed given the comparatively few characters that come out of Asia. This doesn’t reflect China’s own status as world’s most populous country and emerging world power, so the Chinese government decides to do something about this baffling metahuman gap by manufacturing their own superheroes. As befitting China’s real-world position as a manufacturing powerhouse,  their homegrown products look and sound like cheap knockoffs of their American counterparts. Even Kenan’s first costume gives the impression of an inexpensive action figure.

This is an intriguing setup from a respected creator finally working on a project tailored to his talents. But it's let down by mediocre art. DC has so far been pairing Yang with artists who don’t mesh well with his comic sensibilities. Viktor Bogdanovic gets that Kenan is meant to look like a cad, but otherwise his style is so unremarkable that the comic comes across as just another disposable superhero title. Is this effect a deliberate choice? If it is, it doesn't bode well for the New Super-Man's future.

New Super-Man #1. Story: Gene Luen Yang Art: Viktor Bogdanovic Covers: Kelsey Shannon, Bernard Chang Inks: Richard Friend Colors: Hi-Fi Letters: Dave Sharpe  Superman created by Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel.

7/09/2016

Superman: American Alien

Superman: American Alien: Story: Max Landis Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge Letters: John Workman  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Story: Max Landis
Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock
Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge
Letters: John Workman

Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The seven-issue series Superman: American Alien is the best Superman story published in the last several years. That isn’t necessarily saying much. While I hesitate to describe it as a great story, it easily surpasses the Superman comics being published within the current DC Universe, not to mention the character’s more morose onscreen version. It’s a prime example of how something competently written can work when not strapped to the tight stylistic constraints of a shared universe. Screenwriter Max Landis makes an impressive comics debut by simply making his Superman act and talk like a real person. This doesn’t sound particularly extraordinary until a cursory glance at the pages of a typical mainstream comic from DC and Marvel reveals how everyone likes to communicate in exposition-heavy dialogue.

Given his approach, American Alien is less like a superhero comic and closer to a YA television series featuring adolescents struggling with how to use their superhuman abilities, along the lines of the late Smallville. Landis treats each of the seven issues as individual vignettes - A peak into a day in the life of Clark Kent. Each day marks an important turning point: the first time Clark learns to fly, his first attempt to fight crime, the first time he leaves Smallville, his first meeting with Lois Lane and Lex Luthor, etc. It basically amounts to a retelling of Superman’s origin story. The novelty of American Alien is that it allows for an even more intimate look as the story charts the course of Clark’s life from childhood to young adult. The reader gets easily pulled into the arc of his personal growth as a hero by Landis’ sympathetic representation of youthful indiscretion.

Superman: American Alien: Story: Max Landis Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge Letters: John Workman  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The narrative effect is further enforced by having each issue be visually distinguished with a different artist at the helm. Needless to say, Clark never looks the same with each issue. But they’re all excellent at conveying the relatively grounded quality Landis is trying to express in the story. Actually, the story is light on testosterone-filled violence and heavy on goofy behavior as Clark bumbles his way through life, gradually getting a handle on his abilities and figuring out his place in the world. Though events give way to the fantastic in the later issues. There is one gruesome scene where Clark unintentionally burns off the arms of one bad guy with his heat vision that serves as a reminder that DC Comics is still being run by Geoff Johns. Thankfully, the effect is far less graphic than if this were a comic drawn in the usual house style. And the scene is mercifully short.

Landis avoids portraying Clark as the lonely outsider found in the DC Cinematic incarnation. He’s not the classic paragon of heroism. He’s not a nerd. And he’s not the activist fighting for the underdog Grant Morrison yearned for during the inception of the New 52. Apparently, this is a Superman for today’s youth. So he leans a little heavily on the bro archetype, and this means that sometimes he nudges close to the image of millennials as being too self-absorbed. Clark is full of good intentions. He wants to use his abilities for good, but is not quite sure what that means.

Superman: American Alien: Story: Max Landis Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge Letters: John Workman  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The title’s comic might suggest that Landis is interested in exploring the immigrant experience. Sadly, that’s so not the case. Clark’s got a whole host of freaky powers that make him feel different. And he’s carrying all the insecurities of an adopted child still searching for his biological parents. But he’s not coping with dual identities. He’s not traumatized by memories of the destruction of his native home. He’s not dealing with racial prejudice. In fact, he passes quite effortlessly for a caucasian Kansas-born American. In case none of this is clear, the last issue’s set piece is a knock-down-drag-out fight with Lobo. The Czarnian is the antithesis of Superman, and their fight only underscores Clark’s very American loyalties.

Ultimately, Landis’ iteration of the Superman origin story feels somewhat diminished. Clark’s altruism is still his defining character trait in an otherwise average personality. The comic’s facsimile of its American setting is largely inoffensive, even leaning towards nostalgia. Smallville and Metropolis appear somewhat generic in nature. The only person-of-color of any significance is Jimmy Olsen, and he shows up only briefly. No real-world politics intrude into the proceedings. Clark goes through a process of self-actualization, but doesn’t develop any accompanying robust sense of social justice. He’s a disconnected hero for a more self-indulgent age.

Superman: American Alien: Story: Max Landis Art: Nick Dragotta, Ryan Sook, Tommy Lee Edwards, Joëlle Jones, Jae Lee, Francis Manapul, Jonathan Case, Jock Colors: Alex Guimarães, Rico Renzi, June Chung, Lee Loughridge Letters: John Workman  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

7/06/2016

More NonSense: Hail Hydra!

Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. Writer: Nick Spencer  Penciller: Jesus Saiz  Cover Artist: Jesus Saiz. Captain America created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

A recent reminder of the disconnect between the comic book industry and the wider world is the firestorm over the revelation that the Captain America of the comics is now a Hydra agent in Captain America: Steve Rogers #1. Many veteran readers, including myself, were inclined to treat this as just another plot point that wouldn't actually change anything in the long run. But Marvel completely failed to anticipate how offensive this could be to those people still facing anti-semitism and other kinds of prejudice, or their newly acquired mainstream audience. Then there's the risk that these arguments might get conflated with traditional fan rage.

Sean T. Collins on the moral binary found in the Game of Thrones episode The Broken Man.

Ed Brubaker remembers when Alan Moore's Watchmen was treated as a victory for creators rights.

Ronald Wimberly on why publishers should pay artists for sample pages.  Seems obvious enough on the surface. But I forget that comic books are such a marginal part of the publishing business.

With Star Trek celebrating its 50th Anniversary, it's especially terrible to hear that actor Anton Yelchin has died from what sounds like a freak automobile accident.

Ben Judkins on Chinese martial arts as a vehicle of female empowerment, and how a young Captain America cosplayer was introduced to kickboxing.

7/02/2016