The Truth About Hacking: An Interview With Ed Piskor

Cover"Hacking" – the term evokes images of supernerds in shadowy rooms breaking into systems and stealing vital information, or launching unstoppable computer viruses throughout the Internet. But while this image may dominate mass media coverage of hacking, the truth is very often quite different.

Comic creator Ed Piskor takes this subject on in Wizzywig, published by Top Shelf Productions (978-1-60309-097-1, $19.95, July release), his fictional biography of computer hacker Kevin Phenicle, a.k.a. Boingthump. Beginning as a highly intelligent outsider kid who learns how to make free long distance calls on payphones, Kevin grows up to be a well-versed hacker, then federal fugitive, then folk hero.

Piskor was inspired to create Wizzywig while listening to the entire run of the radio program Off the Hook, hosted by Emmanual Goldstein, creator of the hacker 'zine 2600. Wizzywig offers a view into the history of hacking through Kevin's story, offering a view into the hacker world not often seen in mainstream media. Originally self-published in a series of volumes, the new hardcover release from Top Shelf Productions features Piskor's complete story.

BookShelf spoke with Piskor about Wizzywig, the creation of the book, and his take on the reality of hacking.  

You'd been working on Wizzywig for a number of years, from the self-published chapters to this volume. How does it feel to see it completed and released?

There's definitely a sense of relief. It's weird, working on a big project like this. I've become a hypochondriac, babying myself, because I had a fear that I would potentially die before finishing the work, or seeing the final, printed, volume. I received my first copy of the book of Free Comic Book Day 2012, so it was perfect.

You started making Wizzywig while you were working on books with Harvey Pekar. What was it like creating your own book while working on Harvey's material?

I first worked on Macedonia, with Harvey, and there was, maybe, a year lull until we did The Beats together. In that period of time I released the first self-published Wizzywig chapter. I felt such a surge of adrenaline when I finished Macedonia, that I just had to get busy on my own thing, and I jumped right in. I don't think I took a week off, after working 14 months solid on that first book with Harvey.

You've mentioned that you wanted to do something with all the knowledge you’d accumulated by listening to Off the Hook. What made you decide to make the book a biography?

I wanted to incorporate all the crazy stuff I learned from the show. It's actually pretty amazing, if you listen to all 25 years worth, you figure out hacks that you can apply, maybe even still to this day.

I remember laying in bed one night, not being able to sleep, because I figured out a concept that I was excited to try out. And it worked, by the way. I was able to call long distance, from a payphone, for no charge. It was highly inefficient, but, I felt like a badass.

Anyhow, the logical way for me to incorporate all of this wacky information, I felt, was to cram the life experiences of all these famous hackers into one character. The story pretty much wrote itself after that.

PanelsWhat have been your experiences with technology? Were you a casual user, or more in- depth like Kevin?

I was invited to hacking conferences early on and I made it a point to tell everyone that I was not a hacker. I think I might have seen my first iPhone at a hacking conference.

I always fantasized about being some kind of technophile, but, that's an expensive hobby to get into. I could afford pencils and paper.

Part of the story is told from the point of view of a TV news reporter, which is often contrasted against the facts and Winston’s radio show. What do you think of the mainstream media’s coverage of hacking/cyber-security issues?

A big part of why I really started getting into hacking was to learn evil, nefarious, information. To become a criminal mastermind. As I became more and more involved, I learned that my perceptions were skewed because all I knew about this world was what was presented to me via mainstream media.

The media, and the authorities, at large, had such a little understanding of the culture that they gave hackers the benefit of the doubt that they could accomplish anything, which can lead to some pretty nebulous territory.

And, by the way, it really hasn't changed, all these years later. From "Anonymous" DDoSsing websites, to the Wikileaks controversy, there's a lot of wordplay and hyperbole associated with computer "crime", which ultimately makes me sad, to be honest. Some of the kids participating in Denial of Service attacks are just knuckleheads, but, they're getting in serious trouble for hitting a few buttons on a publicly available piece of software that you can easily find.

Now that "geek culture" has become the new buzz term in mainstream media, do you think it's getting any easier for comic/technophiles? Does there seem to be more acceptance now that the "nerds" are the ones getting headlines (for example Steve Jobs, the massive success of the Avengers movie).

It's getting so easy that we're hitting the point of geek culture just being passé. For instance, one of my best friends has a girlfriend who's a stripper (don't hate). Every night starting at 3-4 am at his place, there are different sets of very beautiful chicks there, and they're all also big nerds, anime fans, comic fans, horror movie fans, and sci-fi dorks. Geek chic has been "in" for as long as I've been doing comics.

Noted comic rapper Adam WarRock created a song about the book. Did you have anything to do with that? What did you think of it?

The Top Shelf PR guy, Leigh Walton, came up with that idea when we were chatting early on. I was talking about who I wanted to send books to and I mentioned someone who's involved with Nerdcore, and Leigh exclaimed "Adam WarRock! He's my friend! What if he did a song for us, in exchange for you doing a comic for him". I was down for it, immediately, and am so excited for what Adam turned in to us.

My folks have seen the trailer and love it. They'd never read the comic, so my pops got a real kick out of hearing the "Ed Piskor" shout out at the beginning of the video.

Having immersed yourself so deeply in hacker history, has it changed the way you look at things? When dealing with something (computer, phone, etc.), do you try to figure out how it can be hacked or made better?

Top ShelfSure. I've fallen into a head-space where I'm comfortable accepting that I have a hacking mentality, and actually always have. Its reach is far beyond just the hi technology landscape, but, if you can figure out a way to paint a house in a more efficient manner, that's a form of hacking.

I'm constantly trying to solve problems with the tools I have in reach and its lead to a pretty streamlined way of life. Life-hacking. I have to apply hacking concepts to my work life too.

For instance, they say that your brain has to shift focus every 1.5 hours. It's just a natural thing that occurs, and there's nothing you can do about that. When you have a tight deadline, it's not like you can get up and do something else every hour and a half, so I found that if I switch what I'm listening to, while working, that seems to make all the difference. I'm able to maintain focus, and comfort for hours and hours, listening to a blend of podcasts, Howard Stern, Audio Books, and Lectures, throughout the day.

That's the true spirit of hacking.