Interview: Is What You See What You Get With Ed Piskor’s “Wizzywig?”

Ed Piskor’s ’Wizzywig’ Trailer

Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle is the invention of writer and artist Ed Piskor in the sprawling hacker serial, Wizzywig. In the release, Piskor traces Kevin’s less-tan-legitimate career as a phreaker, cracker, and hacker from his earliest scams stealing long distance calls from Ma Bell, to high tech embezzlement during the consumer Internet era. The book collects Piskor’s comic which he originally released online and has curated and collected here acts as a sort of illustrated history of hacking, an amalgamation of some high-profile Internet outlaws of the last three decades. It’s thrilling/funny/hearbreaking stuff and definitely worth checking out.

Here’s the synopsis:

They say What You See Is What You Get… but Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle could always see more than most people. In the world of phone phreaks, hackers, and scammers, he’s a legend. His exploits are hotly debated: could he really get free long-distance calls by whistling into a pay phone? Did his video-game piracy scheme accidentally trigger the first computer virus? And did he really dodge the FBI by using their own wiretapping software against them? Is he even a real person? And if he’s ever caught, what would happen to a geek like him in federal prison?

With the book coming out in July, we thought we might pick Piskor’s brain about what makes his hacker tick.

MTV Geek: What was the genesis of Wizzywig?

Ed Piskor: Computer hacking is something that’s always captured my imagination, mostly because of what I’ve seen in the media on the subject. I was drawing a 150 page comic for Harvey Pekar called Macedonia, and I found a 20+ year archive of this hacking/civil libertarian radio show, “Off The Hook,” which kept me at the drawing board throughout the production of the book. The show is broadcast out of Manhattan, hosted by the enigmatic, Emmanuel Goldstein, publisher of 2600 magazine (The Hacker Quarterly). Because of his privileged position in the hacker world, Goldstein would be host to many hacker guests on his program.

Consuming each and every show in the archive, I was witness to some sprawling, epic, dramas that would peak and valley over the years. Hackers would be guests or co-hosts one day, and then end up in jail the next week. The specter of fugitive hackers would loom over the program. Hacker wars between rival crews took place. I became so addicted to the show that I began researching deeper and deeper into that world. It became apparent to me that, not only did these hackers share similar mind-frames with each other, but, I identified with where their heads were in a lot of ways too. I just apply my own obsessive energy in different ways.

After falling down this hacking rabbit hole, two things became apparent. One, Hacking as I knew it was just a misconstrued buzz word used to describe computer criminals, which isn’t what a true hacker is, I found out. 2, I’m probably the only cartoonist with this ridiculous interest/knowledge on the subject, so I should draw a comic to make all this reading and research a productive endeavor. I live in fear of being a slacker.

Geek: Have either any modern or old-school hackers reached out to comment on the veracity of the book?

Piskor: First, I self published the books through a print-on-demand service, and through the internet, the books created a certain word of mouth. Eventually there was an article in WIRED magazine, in which they shared a single image. The dialogue of that image was an homage to a hacker I really respect and I thought it would be cool to give him a shout out, so to speak.

Eventually I was invited to a computer hacking, technology conference, and, as I make my way from my hotel room to the ball room, this hacker pops into the elevator with me. I know it’s him, but, I decide just to play it cool. He notices my nametag and starts flipping out. “You made me look like such an idiot in WIRED…” “I looked so lame…like I’d need to buy something, when I was making those devices before anybody…”

My heart fell into my stomach, but, I composed myself enough to explain what I intended and he seemed to be fine with it. We’ve actually become pretty great friends and the next year at that convention, he and I split a hotel room and hung out all weekend.

The cool thing about the hacker game is that it’s not for dummies. It’s full of the smartest people I’ve ever met, and most everyone sees where I’m coming from with Wizzywig. It’s not a textbook history of hacking. It’s anachronistic, without apology. It’s a fictionalized story about a hacker, without the Hollywood hyperbole and/or bad rap that the scene has received in the past.

Geek: When researching some of these stories about real-life hackers, was there a common thread to them that you discovered?

Piskor: With all of the information that I’ve come across, I was able to build a template, psychological profile of the quintessential hacker. Hacking is a, mostly, solitary endeavor. There’s lots of trial and error. It takes an obsessive amount of energy. Puzzles are an addiction, a hacker needs to figure things out. These people can’t turn off that “problem solving” component to their brains. They will find a more efficient way to apply toothpaste to a toothbrush, if the fancy strikes them. A sense of nihilism and skepticism of authority is omnipresent. A thirst for forbidden knowledge exists. They’re never bored.

In my experience so far, I’ve noticed that every hacker I meet is really enthusiastic, and excited to teach and share knowledge. This is what freaks certain the skittish parts of our population out.

Kevin, the pro/antagonist of Wizzywig, is a mixture of all the greatest hackers of the past 30 years. It would be silly to compare the quality of Citizen Kane and Wizzywig, but, what Charles Foster Kane was to William Randolph Hearst, Kevin is to, about, 5 of the most notorious hackers from the U.S.

Geek: Did you find any of yourself in Kevin at all?

Piskor: I just got an advance copy of the book and I reread the book after completing it a year and a half ago. There definitely are parts of myself that ended up on the page, in unconscious ways. One thing I noticed, and some friends proactively mentioned this to me, is that the anxious, neurotic part of Kevin’s personality isn’t much different from my own.

Kevin would rather tinker with things than interact with others in any meaningful way. I’m like a foul mouthed, perverted, ascetic monk, meditating and drawing comics on a near continuous basis, all the while, avoiding social obligations unless some cool and/or sexy person gives me a compelling reason to come out of my cave.

Geek: Have you ever personally been a victim of cybercrime?

Piskor: Yeah, but, it wasn’t some cool, unknown, hacker who chose me as a target. Most cyber intrusions are perpetrated by people you know, who look over your shoulder while you’re typing your password. What’s that phrase the kids use these days? “Haters gonna hate”…

Geek: There’s a TIME blurb about your book, essentially saying that we’re in an age when (and I’m paraphrasing here) mainstream culture is “terrified” of tech-geek culture. Does that assertion hold water with you?

Piskor: The quote you mention is actually using the past tense when describing the “terrified” mainstream culture, and that is absolutely accurate. As soon as they started hooking home phone lines up to computers, kids started to tinker. And the kids had way more time to devote to button mashing than the adults who needed to use the computers for specific applications. It got to a certain point were people in authority had less knowledge than many home users. The internet has always been kind of democratic in that way.

So when kids would eventually get caught doing something seen as potentially nebulous, the general public’s lack of knowledge would be exploited, ultimately invoking draconian law. It’s an old trick. This is how you had hackers getting put in solitary confinement, because the prosecutor convinced a jury, who never touch a computer, that the perp could whistle into a phone to trigger NORAD modems and set off nuclear missiles. A man and woman shared porn on their BBS (Bulletin Board System) located in California, the pics were knowingly downloaded in Kansas by some douchebag who pressed charges and used the pics as evidence of interstate smuggling of obscene materials, the Cali couple went to jail and became felons. A kid shared a proprietary 911 document (which was also publicly available upon request) on his online magazine and it sparked a nation-wide raid. The Electronic Frontier Foundation formed after these examples, and it’s a direct answer to the hysteria that existed, and in some ways continues to exist.

Laws take a long time to play catch-up, it turns out.

Geek: In recent years, you’ve got stories like that of Albert Gonzalez and his “gang” (Rolling Stone piece) which are taking on the air of the sort of Goodfellas or Scarface trajectory of “little guy becomes drugged-out, paranoid criminal.” To what extent do you think cyber-security might start taking on shades of the so-called “war on drugs?”

Piskor: I hate to give them ideas, but, they’re probably working on this as we speak, anyhow. As soon as they find a way to brand “Anonymous” as terrorists, things are going to get 10 times more fucked up. In this post 9-11 era, I could imagine them starting to flag people who buy those V for Vendetta masks, once they figure out a good enough excuse they can sell to bovine America.

That prison industrial complex is no joke.

I don’t want to see it happen, and I get extremely sad whenever I hear another /b/rother getting arrested and raided for doing something stupid, like participating in DDOS attacks from home and making weird threats online. 9 times out of 10, you know the kid is just being a knucklehead, and it’s sad that they essentially become felons by hitting a single button on the Low Orbit Ion Cannon. We could compare that indiscretion with a kid who gets caught with a little too much weed and ends up getting tossed in the hoosegow. But, hey, pretty soon, the powers-that-be will probably make it possible to send bullies up the river too, so…

Geek: Let’s talk about the design and layout of the book. For maybe the first third or even half, you use a 2×3 panel layout, before really opening up to more panels, broken borders, etc. To what extent was this organic to the growth of the story and to what extent was it you becoming more comfortable telling it?

Piskor: I feel like you have me figured out, in a way. Initially, I was using Wizzywig as a vessel to reteach myself how to do my own comics, because I was drawing for others for so long. So I started just thinking of telling the story in terms of one panel at a time. No fuss, no muss. Compose this one panel effectively, then move on to the next, and so on. It took about the first half of the book to get comfortable enough to think about the effective timing attributes of panel composition.

To me, the first half of the book reads a little bit like a collected, serialized, daily, adventure comic strip of yore. There are a lot of staccato, 4-6 panel beats, which is fine. It was inevitable. I was reading a lot of Dick Tracy at the time.

I wonder if my increased comfort levels are apparent as the story moves forward? It certainly was the case.

Geek: You originally released installments of the Wizzywig digitally—you can see how that would have been aided by the concise chapters. How did it affect the story from an art/production standpoint?

Piskor: Originally I self published, and serialized 3 books. Each book had 2 chapters a piece and they were doled out in weird intervals, because I was drawing Wizzywig in between other, commercial projects. It was always supposed to be 4 books, with each book capturing a particular, important moment in the characters life (Phone Phreak, Computer Hacker, Fugitive, and Prison Inmate).

Once I finished the third book, I realized that the writing had dramatically improved from the first book. Not saying it’s great, but, it’s way better than it was that when I did the first volume.

I decided to go back and re-edit the entire project and serialize the pages online before I finished the final 2 chapters. I spent maybe 3-4 months rewriting and in some cases, redrawing the comic. So, the online iteration is effectively a second draft of Wizzywig. Putting it out there to the public also made for a great source of feedback, which helped locate mistakes and errors to amend for the final, printed volume.

Geek: What was behind the decision to go black and white?

Piskor: The book is told using black, white, and gray. Maybe more gray than the other two. If I wanted to get pretentious on you, I would say that this choice is indicative of the main characters interaction with the law, which is full of gray area to wade through, with few true black and white concepts.

The more pragmatic answer is that this book is my first, solo, major, untested effort with a publisher. Color printing is several more times expensive than black and white and I’ve never borrowed a dime from a person, so I don’t want to lose money for Top Shelf. I thought of it in movie business terms. “Let the newbie direct a 3 million dollar picture, if it goes gangbusters, then make a 60 million dollar movie next time.”
Time was another factor. It would probably take me an extra year to color those pages..

I really like the aesthetic with these gray tones. There’s a weird, artificiality to the imagery that reminds me of old movies that were acted in front of huge matte paintings, or something. It might add a level of uneasiness to the piece too.

Geek: How long was the process of getting the book out of your head and onto the page?

Piskor: Five freakin’ long years, man. I started the book in between projects with Harvey Pekar. I had that down time and didn’t want to quit working on stuff, so I almost immediately jumped into it after I finished drawing Macedonia. I got the first two chapters finished, and then was commissioned to draw a graphic novel about the Beat Generation with Pekar writing. After that book I did almost 4 more chapters, and was afforded the opportunity to design characters and art for an Adult Swim cartoon called Mongo Wrestling Alliance.

During the animation gig I got the chance to be a guest at a book festival in Copenhagen Denmark along with my three favorite American cartoonists, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, and Charles Burns. That trip was a religious pilgrimage for me. Attending all of the lectures and panels that the aforementioned cartoonists participated in, they stressed the need to imbue as much of yourself into the work as possible and to really put 100% effort into every detail. Clowes is famous for talking about the most important part of the work is the final 5%.

The last day of that festival I decided, in a jet lagged daze and stupor, that I was going to go back and fix everything I hated about the self published books. That took a few months of work and then I finished the rest of the story. I put the final pen strokes on Wizzywig in January 2011.

It took a while to decide on a publisher, but, Top Shelf made me feel like they’d give the book it’s own dignity with design and printing, which is important to me. There’s this weird vibe in the air, where it seems like books are an endangered species and, if I’m going to make them, I want them to look and feel kind of cool. I’ve gotten my advance copy a week ago and it hasn’t left my side.

Enough time has past since doing it that I almost was able to read it with fresh eyes.

Geek: What are you up to next?

Piskor: Nowadays I’m doing a weekly strip on the extremely cool website, Boingboing.net. “Brain Rot” is the umbrella name of my strip and the major story I’m serializing there now, about the history of rap music, called, The Hip Hop Family Tree.

I decided to deconstruct this gargantuan culture, and I’m slowly rebuilding it, in comics form, from the very beginnings with DJ Kool Herc and the South Bronx. Each week the comic also features an ever-growing flowchart, where new people are added and connected with the other established players.

I’m excited by the project and am having a ball telling these stories. I’ve been doing it for most of 2012, and new strips turn up pretty much every Tuesday, on Boingboing.

Wizzywig will be available this July from Top Shelf.

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