Return of Boingthump: Piskor Talks “Wizzywig” Vol. 2

Thu, January 8th, 2009 at 12:28pm PST | Updated: January 8th, 2009 at 12:28pm

Comic Books
Shaun Manning, Staff Writer

"Wizzywig Volume 2: Hacker" on sale now

Communication technology has not always been ubiquitous in the way it is today, yet within any group that has had access to the latest gadgets, there has always been a subset that seeks to fully fathom such tech and make it work in new and unexpected and occasionally illegal ways. Writer/artist Ed Piskor's “Wizzywig” series of graphic novels, named for a computer software acronym meaning “What You See is What You Get,” follows the origins of modern hacking from the late seventies to the present day. Volume Two, focusing on the advent of home computers, is available now through Piskor's website, and CBR News caught up with the creator to discuss the project.

“Wizzywig” is an exploration of the history of phone phreaking and computer hacking through the life of fictional character of Kevin Phenicle, who uses the nom-de-guerre Boingthump. The first volume, which Piskor self-published and distributed last year, saw our hero manipulating the monopolistic phone company, using “Blue box” technology and his own perfect-pitch whistling to make free long-distance calls. Along the way, he discovered others with similar interests, and the early hackers shared information to advance their skills. Sadly, this innocent experimentation lead Boingthump to greater and greater troubles.

As Volume Two begins, Kevin is already having run-ins with the law, and his problems are only compounded when he begins to experiment with his first home computer, a TRS-80. “We're getting into a really cool era in hacking history in this volume by entering into the computer age,” Ed Piskor told CBR News. “In this Readers Digest blurb, it may misrepresent the point of what I'm trying to accomplish with my story, but there are computer viruses, computer worms, Kevin hacks hackers, software piracy, war dialing, espionage, sabotage, etc. Out of context it will seem like I'm highlighting the crimes of the character, but upon reading the book you will see that not all of these things were the result of malicious intent.”

Pages from "Wizzywig Volume 2: Hacker"

While “Wizzywig” vol. 1 found Kevin operating largely beneath everyone's radar, this time around the authorities seem a bit more on the ball. The increased scrutiny of technology in the '80s, mirrored in this edition of “Wizzywig,” stemmed in part from a fear of the unknown. “In the early days, when the authorities started to get wise to digital intrusion, buggy flawed software exploits, telecomputing invasion, etc., they would have no idea of what sort of knowledge these kids possessed,” Piskor explained. “Computer people were considered almost wizards, and if these wizards went rogue, Draconian punishment was the only answer. You didn't know what they could accomplish.”

Piskor mocks the popular idea of an “evil hacker” with a fictional news reenactment of Kevin's arrest, which portrays the mild-mannered protagonist as an expletive-hurling hardened criminal. “Media bias has destroyed and demonized the word 'hacker.' They use that word if someone commits a crime digitally instead of using more accurate words as 'thief,' 'extortionist,' 'vandal,'” the cartoonist said. “I'm not trying to come across as some sort of activist trying to take the name back or something, but I still have people coming up to me asking me if it's a responsible thing to do a comic about hackers. My aunt, who is an executive at the Pittsburgh branch of the phone company, thinks I'm an outlaw simply by exploring this theme. That's all due to media sensationalism.”

Pages from "Wizzywig Volume 2: Hacker"

It is also important, Piskor said, to keep in mind larger cultural events unfolding at the same time. “The Cold War was in place, international espionage was at an all time high, and if they were tracking some unwanted traffic inside of N.A.S.A. networks, they would hunt you down expecting to find a commie, but in actuality they would end up at the doorstep of a single mother and a teenager with some computer prowess.

“The laws still are not perfect, but they were absolutely terrible back then,” Piskor continued. “The lawmakers, judges, and public had no accurate idea of what they were dealing with. They would always use real world logic like 'Well, if I leave my door unlocked and you walk in while I'm sleeping and take my stereo, is that ok?' That's a little naive.”

Piskor sees many of the early hackers as more interested in playing pranks than doing real damage, and Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle is very much in this vein. At one point, Kevin decides to make money by selling bootlegged copies of popular games--with an extra bit of code that will kill the software after 100 plays. “They loved to flex their knowledge in playful ways most of the time,” Piskor said of the rogue code pioneers. “I would call it a technological pissing contest that hackers would engage in. 'Look what I can do!' 'No, look what I can do!' sorts of stuff. I'm sure you can see how this could snowball every now and again.

Pages from "Wizzywig Volume 2: Hacker"

“I also think that hackers are driven by pushing the limits. Getting the maximum use out of everything, even surpassing the original intent for whatever they are using, not necessarily computers. It's this mentality that drives innovation and has given us all ubiquitous technology that we use today.”

“Wizzywig” volume 2 also takes a brief look at the beginnings of computers in school, and Kevin seems to know a bit more about the machines than does his teacher. “Most people in the early days could see that we were heading towards a future with computers,” Piskor said, but “these teachers in the late '70s early '80s weren't necessarily trained to teach programming. Some were hobbyists with passion, but most were just teaching kids straight from a book in the same way that some of my teachers didn't have a full knowledge of history but would regurgitate material from our history text. I think the goal was to spark the child's interest so that they would move forward themselves, on their own.”

Piskor said that “Wizzywig” volume 3 is at least six months away, but did give some hints as to what challenges Boingthump will encounter in that penultimate chapter. “We're dealing with the character as a fugitive, in which he uses his hacking, phreaking knowledge to stay one step ahead of the law,” he said. “It's full of factual info and concepts. For example, I spent some time researching how to create a false identity in America because of a flaw in the Social Security Death Index, and it gets into the specifics step by step. Gotta love the First Amendment.”

“Wizzywig” volumes 1 & 2 are available now from www.edpiskor.com.

TAGS:  ed piskor, wizzywig, hackers

 
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