Like most art forms, cartooning is a loner's enterprise. But in mitigating the solitude of the job, Ed Piskor found (at least virtually) both some fellow antisocial types and his new project.
In 2005-06, Piskor was inking Macedonia, a graphic novel co-written by Harvey Pekar, of American Splendor fame. It would prove a big career break for the young Munhall artist, but it was a grind: 14 months of ceaseless work. And while laboring on it, he exhausted his audio stash.
The remedy was "Off the Hook," a legendary radio show on New York's WBAI. Piskor listened to the whole quarter-century-long online archive of this program about phone phreakers, computer hackers and others whose technological explorations often traversed legal gray zones.
More research followed, including books about famed hackers Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulsen. And in January, Piskor, now 25, self-published the first installment of a planned four-part graphic novel called Wizzywig. It's the story of fledgling adolescent hacker Kevin "Boingthump" Phenicle, a fictional composite of the world's Mitnicks and Poulsens. Volume one, "Phreak," follows Kevin through the early '80s, as he games city bus drivers and "Pong" consoles before moving on to phreaking -- stealing phone service.
Along with considerable detail about young Kevin's exploits, the story is disarming, and often funny, as our hero is beset by bullies, befriended by a fellow outcast named Winston, and fails spectacularly to relate to girls. It also sometimes suggests a superhero-origin tale.
But Piskor also wants Wizzywig (the title is the artist's rendering of the personal-computing byword "what you see is what you get") to correct misunderstandings about hackers -- mainly, the idea that hacking is criminal. While some hackers do cross that line, the point of hacking, Piskor says, is simply to feed an insatiable curiosity about how stuff works. That stuff includes social interactions (witness Kevin scamming a pizza), but especially complex electronic systems their operators want to keep a profitable mystery.
"I thought it was very important in my own way to kind of take the name back," says Piskor, wearing a black Misfits T-shirt in his tiny studio in his parents' home. "These people are hackers, but they really are pretty innocent. ... It's just a game."
In emotional terms, too, Piskor empathized: He sees a lot of hacker in cartoonists. "Their mind is always working," he says. "They don't necessarily need other people to fill up their time. .... They're kind of antisocial."
Piskor's own name, nonetheless, has traveled well beyond the drawing table where he works with the traditional tools of India ink and Speedball pens on bristol board. While 2007's Macedonia got mixed reviews -- some critics found its story of a young American parsing Balkan conflict too talky and impersonal -- Piskor's artwork was well received; Blogcritics.org, for instance, called the book "forcefully illustrated." That project led to freelance illustration gigs with weekly newspapers including City Paper and publications in Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta. Another full-length project with Pekar, a history of the Beat generation, is forthcoming.
Meanwhile, Wizzywig was among eight publications short-listed by comics icon and "Cerebus the Aardvark" creator Dave Sim for the prestigious Day Prize. And for a comic Piskor is distributing himself -- traditional distributors offer high volume but limited returns -- sales have been good. Piskor says he's moved "several hundred" copies, thanks largely to word-of-mouth. One sales venue was the Small Press and Comic Expo, where the Day Prize was announced. Piskor also sold 100 copies in the week following positive notice on the popular podcast The Totally Rad Show. ("This is awesome!" said co-host Dan Trachtenberg of Wizzywig.)
Playing to the book's themes, Piskor is promoting the book to the Silicon Valley crowd. After a mention on a blog or Web site, he says, "I'll get rid of 10 to 15 copies that night, then a few more the next day." During a recent interview, Piskor was preparing a mailing for a fan at a virtual-desktop company in Burlington, Ontario. He adds, "There's a big hacking community in Norway, and a bunch of people there bought the book."
Part two of Wizzywig takes Kevin into the world of computers and the early Internet. It's due out this summer, and finds Piskor's antihero moving from innocent pranks into morally questionable terrain. "In the future volumes," say Piskor, "it's definitely going to get murky."