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Ed Piskor’s ‘Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker’ Offers Chapters of a Varied Life [Review]

The subtitle of Ed Piskor’s new Top Shelf graphic novel, Wizzywig, is a bit of a cheat.

In classic TV-movie-of-the-week style, we’re told the book is a “Portrait of a Serial Hacker,” but protagonist Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle’s story is only about computer hacking in part, though that’s certainly what he becomes infamous for. It’s also a familiar story about a bullied kid who buries himself in potentially dangerous hobbies, a look into the life of a fugitive, a tale of a public uprising, a sort of prison diary, and an advocacy piece. Every time you think you have a handle on it, the story goes in a different direction. And, for the most part, the variety what makes it a great read.

Wizzywig — a play on “WYSIWYG,” which in computing parlance means “what you see is what you get” — is really more than a portrait. It covers 30-plus years of Phenicle’s life, starting with childhood, and periodically focuses on other people in his periphery: his best friend, a radio host; his grandmother, who raised him; the TV reporter who breaks many of the stories about his exploits; victims of some of his scams; and talking heads who can’t help but comment on the controversy that surrounds him.

Piskor works all these side stories in through an episodic structure, not unlike the one pioneered by Harvey Pekar, with whom Piskar collaborated on American Splendor nearly a decade ago. Wizzywig‘s nearly 300 pages are divided up into eight chapters, but it’s got several titled subsections within those chapters, many of which are only one or two pages. Often, these sections explain situations more than resolve anything. For example, a few pages near the middle explain what daily life in solitary confinement is like and end with a note advising readers that they should re-read the section a few hundred times to get the full effect.

While I’m on the topic of American Splendor, I have to mention that the art definitely has a similar feel to that series’ grimy, warts-and-all aesthetic. It’s actually considerably grimier. Characters are meaner (prison is prison after all), they’re more sex-obsessed, and I don’t recall any instances of one particularly violent sex act depicted near the end in Pekar’s yarns.

That doesn’t mean the book is ugly, by any means. Piskor’s cartooning adds a ton of personality to the grime, from Phenicle’s poofy, near-impossible teenage haircut to his often pupil-less eyes. Watching characters age is really neat, Piskor does a nice job recreating the technology of the ’80s and ’90s, and I swear at least one character is a Stan Lee caricature (see if you can guess who).

The episodic approach infuses this decades-spanning story about a famous criminal with an incredibly personal feel. It isn’t a point-by-point look into Phenicle’s acts and relationships — the book actually skips over Phenicle meeting best friend Winston Smith, for instance, and just explains that they’re pals — it’s more like hearing a story from a friend, even though Phenicle himself isn’t the narrartor most of the time. It even includes little sections that explain how Phenicle pulled off some of his crazier crimes, told as though you’d asked, “Hey, how’d you pull that one off?”

Despite the subtitle’s true-crime feel, Phenicle couldn’t be more sympathetic as a character. In fact, one section of the book parodies TV crime reenactments that make all criminals out to be screaming psychopaths. The reasons for Phenicle’s various crimes — phone phreaking, fraud of various types, breaking into offices, spreading computer viruses, hacking databases, stealing identities — range from benign fun to panicked self preservation. Phenicle never comes off as malicious, and if anyone does it’s the cops, prison guards and reporters who vilify him. If anything, he’s almost too likeable.

And in the end, that contributes to Wizzywig‘s one major weakness. Near the end, Phenicle ceases to be a character and becomes a mouthpiece for several pages. For that to work, he has to be a character you like a lot, because it’s clear Piskor wants you to agree with him in his statements about Pfc. Bradley Manning, the U.S. Army intelligence analyst accused of providing classified materials to Wikileaks and who has been held without trial since his arrest in May 2010. (He was arraigned in Feburary and is expected to go to trial in September.)

That Piskor has something to say about the Manning situation isn’t what’s surprising — if anything, I expected a graphic novel about an infamous hacker to have more to do with Anonymous and Wikileaks than with old telephone blue boxes and BBS’s. But in the world he creates, it’s awfully jarring to suddenly switch to real-life current events after 200-some pages of semi-realistic fiction (reportedly Phenicle is a composite of a handful of famous old-school hackers). The story itself does plenty to put a human face on hackers. It doesn’t need to point a finger at us.

But I don’t want to harp on a few problematic pages in a work that’s a real accomplishment. By the end, Phenicle is right back to being the character readers have seen since page one: An odd mix of charisma and social obliviousness who does illegal things without meaning any real harm. He’s a walking contradiction.

And you probably know someone a lot like him.

Wizzywig: Portraid of a Serial Hacker is on sale this week in finer comics shops, bookstores and is also available directly from Top Shelf in print and (shortly) digital. Don’t forget to check out the trailer, featuring original music by Adam WarRock:

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