Even on the internet, it is nearly impossible to stay anonymous forever – especially if some of your behaviors are less than legal. For Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle, the hero of cartoonist Ed Piskor’s “Wizzywig” series of graphic novels, graduating up through several levels of phone and computer hacking in the early days of PCs has finally landed him in real trouble, as his pranks gone wrong and “social engineering” are viewed as the work of a malicious technological terrorist by the FBI and a fearful public. Piskor has just released the third and penultimate volume of “Wizzywig,” which he self-publishes and distributes through his web site, edpiskor.com. The first and second volumes remain available for purchase or can be downloaded from the site as a PDF for free. CBR News spoke with Piskor about “Wizzywig: Fugitive” and life on the run.
“Wizzywig” is a phonetic spelling of the acronym for “What You See is What You Get” (WYSIWYG), a phrase which describes a type of user interface (i.e., a visual HTML editor like Dreamweaver rather than a text-only program like BBEdit). Throughout the first two volumes, teenager Kevin Phenicle comes of age in the era of phone “phreaking,” the practice of exploiting phone company technology to make free long distance calls, and the early days of computer hacking. Taking the screen name of Boingthump, Kevin uses his skills primarily just to play pranks, such as selling bootleg copies of video games modified to expire after 100 plays. But even such innocuous fun sometimes spirals out of control. Further, he occasionally sets his mischievous experiments on larger targets, including the phone company itself, and this brings him to the attention of the FBI. By the end of “Wizzwig” vol. 2, the Feds are at Kevin’s door and Boingthump is on the run.
Piskor said that the third volume opens with Kevin having been on the lam for some time already. “Based on his systematic lifestyle we see he established for himself, there is an impression that he’s been a fugitive for a while, maybe more than a year. He accepts that being on the run is now a normal concern and part of his routine and acts accordingly.”
One of the things that seems to get Boingthump into trouble is his urge to help people – this volume of “Wizzywig” spotlights a few of the folks, many of them in prison, for whom Kevin has performed favors. Piskor suggests, though, that Kevin’s motives are more scientific than altruistic. “Kevin, like many hackers, is just an enthusiastic, obsessive, sage-like, knowledgeable character who is eager to explain how things work and is always looking for an opportunity to drop science on you,” Piskor explained. “Another quality that many hackers share is that they can’t keep their mouths shut once they discover something cool, which sometimes does lead them into trouble.”
One potential source of trouble Kevin seems to avoid is romance, which has been absent from “Wizzywig’s” first two volumes and somewhat more explicitly removed from the latest edition, when our hero fails to exploit his skill and charm. “I tried to set Kevin up as this almost Vulcan-like character of logic and intelligence. Relationships don’t factor into logic for very long, which [causes them to become] uninteresting to him,” Piskor said. “Also, being on the run, the last thought on our guy’s mind is chicks, though I did try to establish that despite his inability to connect with women in any deep way, he can turn on the charm when he approaches females like he’s hacking or ‘social engineering.’ Almost like he’s not himself, but playing a character, There is a crucial part of the story where this skill becomes useful for Kevin’s livelihood for a time.”
Set during the ’90s, volume three takes us well into the computer age, but contains less of the intricate details of hi-tech hackery and shifts the focus toward Kevin’s struggle to remain a free man. “In the first two volumes , Kevin establishes his interest and obsession with technology and subversive information in tandem. Where volume 3 is concerned, he uses these elements for keeping ahead of the authorities who are on his trail,” Piskor told CBR. “Hacking is more a means for survival than just a fun hobby at this point, and when it’s seen in this book, it really counts.
“The main character, Boingthump, is a composite of a few more famous hackers of the past few decades, two of them being Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulsen, who are probably the most well known, were both also fugitives from the law and both used their smarts to evade capture for years,” he continued. “I strongly believe that they only were caught because they sort of let themselves be. Being a fugitive is a hard job, with no off time.
“Their real life adventures were fairly well documented and it seemed like a logical place to explore for my story. I really wanted to focus more on the character’s emotional state, or lack thereof, while on the run. I can’t imagine how lonely it must have been, cutting ties from everyone they knew as they were consumed by the instinct of self-preservation to keep from being caught.”
When readers do see Kevin with a computer or a video game system, it seems he has, in fact, upgraded to the latest gear. “The most important function of seeing the computers in ‘Wizzywig’ is mainly to give some sense of time in which the story takes place,” Piskor said. “I very specifically left particular dates and years out of the entire story. We don’t know the character’s exact age at any point. By paying attention to the scenery and background pieces of technology, like payphones, video game/ arcade consoles, and computers, the informed reader can pinpoint a specific timeframe. A more casual reader can make a ballpark hypothesis of the era in which the story is told.”
In the course of showing how Boingthump evades the law, Piskor’s latest book contains some pretty specific instructions on setting up a false identity-methods which, to the best of the author’s knowledge, are still viable despite 21st century paranoia about identity theft and terrorism. “I’m not 100% sure if this method I describe still works today, because I don’t have the balls to mess around. I do have it on good authority that it isn’t a hard thing to pull off, though,” Piskor said. “Putting this book together, I’ve been invited to hacker conventions and I’ve met a lot of people deeply involved in this culture. Off the bat, I keep thinking of these two guys, one a private eye the other a journalist, playing a game of Cat and Mouse together seeing if the journalist could stay hidden. This game took them around the world. We’re talking fake passports, fake drivers licenses, the whole nine.
“I remember reading [Dr. Frederic] Wertham’s ‘Seduction of the Innocent,’ and there was a particular statement that was described where somebody was able to use a comic book as a guide to steal and fly a plane, giving the criminal some comprehension on which knobs to turn and how much to pull back on the throttle, etc.,” he continued. “I just wanted a small element of the verboten in my comic as well, even though the missive from Freddy Wertham’s book was probably dubious.
“If you’re ever in over your head and need to disappear I encourage you to use my comic as a template for creating a false identity (at your own risk, of course) and let me know if it works out for you. It couldn’t hurt to try if you’re desperate.”