Monday, August 3, 2009

Trespassing: WIZZYWIG Volume 2

Rob reviews the second volume of Ed Piskor's hacker epic WIZZYWIG, titled HACKER (self-published).

Ed Piskor is one of my favorite young cartoonists, in part because his subject matter is such a left turn away from his peers. He's also unusual in that he takes a lot of his inspiration directly from underground artists like Robert Crumb and Jay Lynch, as opposed to more contemporary influences. His most recent project, WIZZYWIG, is a scrupulously-researched fictionalized account of the history and culture of phone phreaking and computer hacking. The series' protagonist, Kevin "Boingthump" Phenicle, is a composite character inspired by a number of famous hackers. This volume, HACKER, moved Kevin from his phone "phreaking" (illegally accessing phone lines) to hacking after he acquired his first personal computer.

Piskor used a variety of narrative strategies to keep readers invested in Kevin's story, even if they don't have a particular interest in the subject. He managed this with time jumps (seeing Kevin in prison in the future even as we follow him as a teen), a harsh and accusatory second person narrative device, a "free Kevin" radio show hosted by his friend Winston, a series of interviews with other hackers familiar with the legend of Boingthump, a muck-raking TV investigative reporter, as well as dialogue-driven episodes. For a story that mostly involved a lot of sitting around computers, Piskor always found a way to propel his narrative forward. When his characters had conversations, Piskor often had them walking and in different poses from panel to panel--anything to keep a reader's eyes moving across the page.

My favorite aspect of Piskor's art is his character design. He revels in the grotesque, creating characters with slumping postures, unkempt hair, shaggy eyebrows, and bad skin. Kevin's frequently blank eyes reflect both his slightly sociopathic nature and a Little Orphan Annie/Harold Gray tribute. Kevin is very much a "can-do" character like Annie, using his wits and skills to outfox adults. For Kevin, skirting the law was more a matter of testing the limits of his abilities than any real desire to cause harm, whether it was ripping off software for redistribution or delving into the deepest bowels of the phone company. Unlike Annie, Kevin wound up paying for his mischief in the harshest manner imaginable.

Piskor's attention to detail is exacting in giving the reader a sort of survey of the history of hacking and the internet. With his TRS-80 computer, Kevin hooked into early bulletin board systems (BBSs) but quickly grew bored, even when screwing with a particular BBS whose members hated him (as an aside, having a member with the ID "Godwin's law" who compared Boingthump to the Nazis was a stroke of genius). This led him to copying game software for quick resale, but a virus he stuck into each game as a joke ("Boingthump owns your soul, sucka!") wound up as an augur of his eventual doom (as well as getting his ass kicked in the short term by angry gamers). When a teacher of Kevin's invites him to be part of an inaugural computer science course at his high school, Piskor inserts the narrative of a jealous classmate who rattles off some more of Kevin's hijinks. Kevin later managed to talk his way into the phone company's inner office to steal all sorts of useful information, which he used in small ways (altering bills, charging phone sex numbers to people's lines, etc) for his own amusement. That is, until he learned that the phone company was aware of his computer accessing theirs, which sent the FBI after Kevin.

The sequence where we see Kevin try to deal with life on a day-to-day basis in prisonwas harrowing, and Piskor added the extra detail of encouraging the reader to go back to his strip about prison life about 240 more times in a row to get a sense of what it was like for him. The book took on a darker tone at this point, with fewer short vignettes and gags. We simply follow Kevin around as he tried to stay employed following prison while still being able to play around on the side with various programs. When he realized that one of his programs had been tampered with and another worm released, Kevin understood that he was in real trouble. The book ends as he's on the run, a far cry from his care-free days in front of his computer.

I'm excited to see this series build to its conclusion, especially given that the next volume, FUGITIVE, will feature Kevin finding ways to skirt the system once again, this time in trying to find a way to survive without getting caught by the authorities. As a reader, we already know that he will eventually slip up again and wind up back in prison, and I'm curious to see how Piskor will resolve Kevin's case in the final volume (INMATE). The whole series has been a way of fictionalizing interesting anecdotes regarding information access, so seeing a tutorial on subjects like how to create a new identity will be interesting to read.

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