Before open source and malware and before BitTorrent and unlocked cell phones, there existed technological tinkerers who sought to uncover the inner workings of common communications devices. Sometimes, then as now, this was done for profit or malice, but more often these experiments were motivated by curiosity or simple mischief. Ed Piskor's ("American Splendor") new self-published graphic novel, "Wizzywig," tells a fictionalized account of the early days of hacking, when enterprising "phone phreaks" pushed the limits of telephonic applications. CBR News spoke with Piskor about the history of "Wizzywig" and the personalities and events that inspired it.
The story begins with Kevin "Boingthump" Phenicle already in police custody, and his friend Winston advocating for him on a radio program. This has the effect of adding a touch of "legend" to Boingthump's exploits even before we see him perform his first hack. From here, "Wizziwig" flashes back to Kevin's childhood, a picture of struggle and loneliness that would come to serve his technological obsession well. Beginning with such classic tricks as the quarter-on-a-string to get free plays at the arcade, over the course of this volume Kevin develops his skill in manipulating the "Ma Bell" phone system of the American 1960s and '70s before finally receiving his first personal computer as a birthday gift.
"This first volume focuses a lot on his knowledge of the phone system and his amazing ability to social engineer people to do his bidding," Ed Piskor told CBR News. "The next volume is going to be packed with crazy schemes because we'll be getting heavy into the computer era. I really am excited to blab about what's going to happen but I should probably bite my tongue. I'll say this: some of the stuff that is going down in this second volume is hard to believe; that an actual person was able to accomplish these tasks. It goes to show how naive major corporations and the authorities were at those early years of the internet."
The title "Wizzywig" is a phonetic spelling of the acronym WYSIWYG-short for "What You See Is What You Get"-a term used to describe early computer programs that sought to display material on screen as close as possible to what would come out of the printer. This term would go on to describe other programs with graphical user interfaces, including software such as Dreamweaver that can create and edit web pages visually rather than requiring extensive knowledge of code. But what does all this have to do with Kevin "Boingthump" Phenicle?
"I really felt that I needed 'What You See Is What You Get' as the title of the story because the hacker lifestyle is so misrepresented in most forms of media," Piskor said. He mentioned that had originally called this comic "The W.Y.S.I.W.Y.G. Technical Pamphlet" but that this title confused readers. The more human-readable (and more whimsical) "Wizzywig" satisfied Piskor's desire to use the term to comment on the popular perception of hackers. "When people think of a hacker they think of criminals first. The idea of people just playing around with stuff out of curiosity probably doesn't even enter the normal person's thoughts and that's pretty much the bulk of what a hacker is guilty of. So I need people to reserve judgment on what they think a hacker is when they start reading my story. Criminal things may go down in the book but the crime isn't hacking per se. I started the story off with misguided people spouting off phrases that were pretty fantastical so I tried to make Kevin seem like a wizard in these peoples' minds. But as we get into the nuts and bolts of the story, what you see is what you get."
"Wizziwig" came about through Piskor's discovery of a fascinating story about hackers. "I was working on drawing a book for Harvey Pekar called 'Macedonia,' and while slaving over the drawing board I was in need of some compelling stuff to listen to, which would keep me in my seat working," Piskor explained. "I found twenty years of archives of this radio show called 'Off The Hook,' and I listened to the entire run of the show, up to the present day shows that they do." The host of "Off the Hook" is Emmanuel Goldstein, publisher of the hacker quarterly "2600" magazine, which is named after the frequency once used to exploit the phone system to make free long-distance phone calls. "He was in a very unique position to follow the dramas that these amazing hackers have gone through because he was friends with them," Piskor said. "They'd appear on the show in one year, the next year they might be in jail calling the show from prison. It was very compelling stuff indeed. The show also gave me a solid foundation to do some research into parts of the culture that interest me. The story is flowing pretty naturally now because I have endless amounts of resource material to pull from."
Inspired by "Off the Hook" and bolstered by further research into the various methods and personalities in the early hacking and "phone phreaking" community, Piskor developed the character of Kevin Phenicle, who takes on the nom-de-guerre "Boingthump" when he joins with other like-minded tinkerers. "Kevin is an amalgam of multiple different hackers as well as huge bits of myself and my closest friends thrown in there," Piskor said. "I noticed through my research that there are many similar psychological traits between all of the best hackers so I decided to cram them all into one character and see what it would be like as this uber-hacker played out some of these real life guys' best schemes. While I was thinking about the way that I wanted to tell the story, I think I came up with a plausible way to fit all these guys' personal histories together."
The most prominent aspects of "Boingthump's" personality and history come from Kevin Mitnick, Kevin Poulsen, Phiber Optik, and Bernie S. "Just check these dudes out on Wikipedia and I bet that you'll lose hours as these guys' life stories fascinate the pants off of you," he said.
"Wizzywig" is available only through Piskor's website, rather than traditional distribution methods like Diamond. Piskor's has found that this approach has brought difficulties but also compelling benefits. "There have been challenges, yes. I'm relying completely on word-of-mouth and I have to make people aware of [the book] myself, so I had to bone up on my pimping skills a bit," Piskor said. "I would so much rather just spend all my time on the creative aspect but I'm starting to find out that while I promote this book I'm actually able to make money to live on because people will see a review and buy the book. Since I'm keeping this distribution and publishing to myself I don't have to cut anybody in on the deal and it's actually profitable."
Piskor also noted that the appeal of his story has played a large part in his success, tackling subject matter that is perhaps underserved in fiction. "I'm focusing a lot of my energy with promoting the book through channels other than solely comics-related ones," he said. "I'm dealing with a lot of shows and websites coming out of Silicon Valley, popular technology related podcasts, hacking forums, etc. I'm getting a lot of orders from enthusiastic people who have never read comics just because this subject matter is right up their alleys. I think the best audience for this book is the tech savvy, geek culture kind of a guy, and these dudes know their way around the net."
Piskor's not been totally neglecting traditional avenues, either, such as bookstores and comic shops. "'Wizziwig' is in stores around the country and in a few places in Canada. I have bulk discount PayPal buttons on my page for stores interested in carrying the title and loads of books are moving that way as well. I find that word-of-mouth from people who read the book is getting to their local retailers and then the store will assess the pricing structure on my site and take a chance on making money by carrying the book."
Volume 1 of "Wizziwig" is available now at www.edpiskor.com.
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