Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker by Ed Piskor

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker is the story of Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle, an intelligent nerd who becomes America’s most wanted computer hacker. Written and drawn by Ed Piskor, the story is told in a series of vignettes that jump around in time to give a complete picture of Kevin’s rise and fall. I really like Piskor’s art style, and the story is pretty compelling, with some unexpected twists along the way.

The rise of “hacker culture” in the 80s is something of interest to me, as I grew up on the fringes of it. I was never much of a hacker myself, but I had friends who were into it. (I did do a “how-to” oral report in school on how to make long-distance calls using MCI codes and I got in trouble for getting into Tulane’s mainframe unauthorized, where I mostly just dicked around.) I knew of the non-malicious hacker culture in southern California and saw the transition to the term as it is commonly used. So I know some about what Piskor is talking about here. That’s part of the draw, and also part of what hurts the story for me.

It’s not that Piskor hasn’t done his homework; he has. There are some anachronisms that bug me, but they’re no big deal. Piskor constructed Kevin out of a number of different notorious hackers (most obviously Kevin Mitnick). This is a pretty good way to go about it, but the problem was that Piskor didn’t know when to stop. Boingthump is not just a pastiche of hacker history, he is hacker history. He has perfect pitch for phone phreaking, he invents “social engineering”, a bit of code he puts into his pirated videogames is the first virus, he invents wardialing, it’s his code that causes the Morris worm, and it’s claimed that he’s the inspiration for Matthew Broderick’s character in WarGames. I’m kind of surprised he wasn’t caught by Cliff Stoll or a consultant on GURPS: Cyberpunk. It’s as though you decided you wanted to tell the story of the invention of the telephone, elevator, typewriter, and machine gun in one story by having one fictional guy invent them all, but the only thing notable about him is the fact that he invented all these things. There’s no way that story can be as interesting and effective as simply telling the actual different stories.

Since in this world one person is responsible for nearly every computer related crime ever, I suppose it makes sense for this to happen:

Yes, that’s Newsweek pushing the L.A. Riots off its cover in favor of a story about a computer hacker. In addition we hear about normal Joes and Janes on the street who are terrified of computers because Boingthump will mess with them. And I get it, I know why Piskor does this, but it’s so over the top that it ends up draining the impact of the book instead of increasing it. Similarly, there’s an investigative reporter for whom Kevin is the white whale, who is presented as increasingly unhinged and exploitative. The “dramatic re-enactments” of Kevin’s supposed exploits are ridiculous exaggerations featuring an unrealistic caricature, but this is underminded by the fact that the person producing them is himself a ridiculous caricature.

As a result, any possible discussion about whether or not Kevin deserves to be hunted by the FBI or put in jail is shut down right out of the gate. Anyone who suggests he’s anything other than a misunderstood genius is immediately portrayed as either a drooling moron or slavering villain out to just capitalize on Kevin’s notoriety (with the sole exception of his best friend, who gets away with merely and unfortunately being named “Winston Smith”.) Towards the end of the book, when Kevin’s story is loosely and awkwardly tied in with Anonymous and Wikileaks, this becomes even more apparent. Kevin, having experienced extended imprisonment, is sympathetic towards Bradley Manning, but at no point does anyone say, “Yes, but you were imprisoned, for, like, actual real crimes.” It’s suggested that Manning acted on his deep beliefs, but Kevin is too busy Forrest Gumping into every single computer-crime-related incident to ever express any beliefs or motivation for why he does what he does. There’s the usual, “because it’s there” thing, but mostly he seems to do things because, historically, they were done, and as the hacker avatar, it falls to him to do them here.

I’m coming off pretty harsh because while this isn’t bad, it could have been so much more with just a little restraint. The story being told is fascinating, and Piskor has the chops to tell it, but like Kevin, he goes ahead full throttle when he should maybe consider taking a step back. (It also doesn’t help for me personally that this comics device, which I was griping about as cliche’d back in 2006, is used heavily throughout the book, and I almost always hate seeing it used.) I like Piskor’s art style, and liked his work with Harvey Pekar (The Beats, Macedonia), even when the text didn’t interest me that much. I just think that in this case a potentially excellent project was marred by some poor narrative decisions.

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