Review – Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker

Ed Piskor’s first solo graphic novel is ambitious, socially relevant, a joy to read, and periodically kind of a mess.

Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle is a legend in his own time… for all the wrong reasons.  Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker follows Kevin – an archetypical hacker whose exploits here are culled from the lives of a number of infamous real life people – through decades of his life, from his youth as a bullied, ingenious young manipulator to his adulthood as a fugitive, prisoner, and, finally, reformer.  Ed Piskor has crafted an incredibly ambitious story that is both meticulous in some particularly fascinating details (how to give yourself a new, fake identity, for example) and broad-enough in its strokes that Kevin feels enough like an everyman to resonate.

Like many of the works of cartoonist Daniel Clowes, Wizzywig is a book that is comprised of a vast number of brief vignettes (1-3 pages) that all add up to a bigger picture as you progress.  These are some of the book’s strongest segments, as we get brief, two-page interviews with jealous former classmates, potential lovers, fellow hackers, and media personalities desperate to extend their 15 minutes of fame.  Piskor gives us brief segments on old-school BBS’s, on phone phreaking, on hacking radio contests to win whatever you’d like, and much, much more, all of which lends the book an incredible amount of flavor.

Piskor’s art is cartoonish but expressive, and there’s a particular charm to the way Piskor’s design for Kevin flawlessly illustrates the way he loses innocence and vitality as he stays on the run.  The art in general is a highlight throughout the book, in fact, whether Piskor is showing Kevin’s joy at scamming his first free pizza or showing Kevin receive a particularly brutal beating in prison.  Piskor’s characters and locations are distinctly designed, recognizable, and full of personality, though his dialogue could use a bit more work.

The book’s final chapter is simultaneously its weakest and its most relevant, as Piskor delves into the confusing mess of crime in the information age, takes some jabs at prison reform, and delivers a stern, on-the-nose lecture about Bradley Manning and the Wikileaks scandal.  This final chapter – which ties up all the book’s loose ends, including killing off the closest thing the book has to a villain – changes the tone of the book dramatically from an ambitious character study of the evolution of a hacker to a preachy revenge fantasy against a reactionary world that crucifies anything it doesn’t understand.  There are charms in these last pages (Kevin’s prison hacks are at once funny and sad), but it’s something of a let down to see a book that was this good for this long end in such a different, lesser place than it began.

Despite that, however, Wizzywig has an immense amount of charm, and anyone interested in that fascinating time when the world was inexplicably terrified of nerds and people were only beginning to realize all the wonderful things computers could do owes it to themselves to check the book out.  It’s an uncommonly smart, funny, thoughtful book (gorgeously designed) that periodically bites off more than it can chew.  Piskor found a way to make a story about hackers both realistic and interesting by taking the story seriously, making the characters likeable, and realizing that real-world science can be so much stranger than its fictional counterparts.

– Cal C.


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