Wizzywig: Potrait of a Serial Hacker is compelling comics fiction from Ed Piskor, who tells the story of a hacker who moves from the early thrill of discovery to serious trouble with the law. Kevin Phenicle is a nerdy, picked-on kid who likes figuring out–and exploiting–systems, whether it’s buying the right punch to make his own bus-transfer passes or whistling the perfect tones for free long-distance calls.
His grandma gets him an early computer for his birthday one year, and he’s soon exploring BBSs and making money pirating games. Eventually he’s breaking into Ma Bell headquarters, inadvertently distributing massive worms and turning to life on the lam and eventually in prison.
Kevin’s an interesting character. He’s mistreated, sure, but he’s a schemer too, unafraid of boundaries he doesn’t respect, which is most of them. He’s not above working on the margins of the law, especially when he’s on the run, but he never seems eager to steal or hurt anyone who hasn’t hurt him first.
Piskor covers a lot of ground here, from teenage hijinks to the desperation of staying one step ahead of the feds and finally a brutal life in prison. He does it skillfully, with a cartoon-realism style. (He started by doing work with Harvey Pekar.) He likes big hair and weird faces and makes good use of single-shot “talking heads” to open chapters and offer commentary on the story.
Ultimately, the book suffers from a lack of subtlety. It’s openly on Kevin’s side, but it would benefit from giving more serious consideration to the people who are alarmed and afraid of what he’s doing. The media coverage is embodied in a cartoonishly monstrous buffoon of a local news anchor, and those scenes are the weakest in the book. You understand the author’s point with the character, but he could make it better with less, not more.
But Wizzywig is an imaginative exploration of a culture that pushed boundaries and broke the law. It also highlights the official overreaction to its existence, leading us to wonder what a just punishment, if any, would be for Kevin’s exploits.