by Ed Piskor
(Top Shelf Productions)
One of the unexpected side delights of the recent return to protest culture in our country was the lauding of the hacker underground and its role in the dissent. At the forefront of this attention is Anonymous, the hacker collective which takes direct action against all the best supervillains, from middle eastern dictatorships to online bullies to the Westboro Baptist Church. It's a particularly shady subculture - and I mean that in the best possible terms - that is as much a mystery because of its actual comings and goings as it is for the kind of work that unites it. A huge number of people barely understand some of the basic actions to be done on a computer, so the intricacies of hacking are like quantum physics.
Like the Mafia and Hollywood, the inside world of hackers has a mystique that fascinates people, and with the explosion of hacker culture in the popular imagination comes a number of works revealing that world to those of us who want to enter it without the technical know-how.
One surprisingly successful entry in that genre is the graphic novel "Wizzywig," a fictionalized account of the life of a notorious hacker that stands as a conglomerate of the biographies of several different real life hackers, brought together for one harrowing tale of tech adventure.
Known by his hacker name Boingthump, Kevin Phenicle is a genius of sorts, just in an era that didn't necessarily recognize his sort. Starting off with phone hacks as a kid and moving onto computer as more becomes available, Phenicle morphs into a friendly con man and daredevil, whose undoing comes from letting the adrenaline get the best of him and taking his thrills to a physical level, allowing others to identify him physically.
Piskor follows Phenicle through his early years phone-jacking and well through his underground years as a feared and pursued hacker on the run from the law, and then as a prisoner of the state, uncharged and lumped in with violent criminals. With this structure, Piskor traces not only the mystique of computers, but the wrong-headed approach we've had nationally to not only computer crime, but the application of some of the talented weirdos who infect the form. These guys are wizards, rock stars and hot shot pilots combined in one, but mainstream culture has seldom known quite what to do with them.
Current efforts against hackers are mirrored in Piskor's story, and his unraveling of a process unknown to so many of us that actually does affect our lives in the form of digital rights is perfect for the graphic novel form - clear, informative, exciting and demystifying to the degree that hackers seem less alien afterwards.