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“Wizzywig” creator Ed Piskor talks hacking, hip hop, and his fascinating new graphic novel

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With a nickname like “Boingthump,” the main character of Ed Piskor’s graphic novel Wizzywig isn’t the typical comic book hero, but he’s a guy you can’t help rooting for all the same — even if he is one of the nation’s most-wanted fugitives.

The recently published graphic novel chronicles the life of Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle, a fictional computer hacker whose story is culled from the real-life experiences of famous hackers, scammers, and digital pirates. From his early days as a kid trying to get a few extra turns on Pac-Man and his discovery that perfect pitch could mean free pay-phone calls, through the years he spent on the run from the government (including an appearance on “America’s Most Wanted”), Wizzywig is the story of a man who saw the loopholes in every system, and rarely shied away from using them.

What’s more, Wizzywig is also one of the year’s best graphic novels, combining a thrilling, dramatic tale of curiosity, risk, and consequence, with a fascinating study of what can happen when technology and the ways we use it evolve faster than the government’s understanding of it.

IFC spoke with Piskor about the new, hardcover collection of Wizzywig that presents the amalgam of real-world stories that make up Kevin Phenicle’s fascinating, fictional life.

IFC: Right at the start, I have to tell you that even though it clearly states that Wizzywig is “inspired by the incredible stories of real-life hackers,” I kept having to remind myself that it’s not actually a biography of a real person…

ED PISKOR: [Laughs] Yeah, it is a biography to a certain extent — in that it’s a biography of like nine different guys crammed into one book.

IFC: Who are some of the real-life hackers whose stories found their way into the book in one form or another?

PISKOR: Well, there’s this guy named Kevin Mitnick, and trailing just behind him is Kevin Poulsen. Both of these men were able to evade capture for years and years by the weird, verboten knowledge they had. They were able to game the system and create false identities and just stay under the radar. My thesis is that the only reason they were captured was because they simply got tired of running. The idea of disappearing and not being ble to have contact with your closest family and loved ones, that has to be kind of daunting after a few years.

There were other people the book was inspired by, too — like this blind phone-phreaker named Joe Engressia. He changed his name to “Joybubbles.” He wanted to game the White Pages because there were no one-word names, like “Madonna.” So he wanted his name to be “Joybubbles” and they still couldn’t put a one-word name into the paper, so they put it down as first name “Joy,” last name “Bubbles.” That was a big victory for him.

IFC: Where did your connection with this subject begin? How did you get interested in hacking and the lives of hackers?

PISKOR: I was working on a book with Harvey Pekar called Macedonia, and there was a lot of labor involved in that one. It took me 14 months to put the book together, and it was right when podcasting was kind of new, which was perfect, because it’s hard for me to keep myself in the drawing chair. For whatever reason, I put in the word “hacker” or “hacking” into one of those podcast aggregators, and this archive of a radio show called “Off The Hook” came up. There was a 25-year archive of this radio show which broadcasts from WBAI in Manhattan. The host of the show is also the publisher of a hacker magazine called 2600. I had some knowledge of different events — like stuff that happened with Kevin Mitnick — but the information I had on these subjects was all presented by major media outlets, so I just started listening to that audio archive from the first show, which was back in the ’80s, close to 1990.

I listened to the entire archive, and what happened is that it really built on all of these dramas that developed in the hacker community. Sometimes they would interview someone for weeks on end, and then suddenly that person isn’t there. And the host would get on to say that the person you got to know throughout the last few shows is now in jail and facing litigation. All of these dramas played out throughout the show.

IFC: That makes a lot of sense, because there’s a character in Wizzywig who’s a radio host, and he sort of leads the crusade to shed light on the main character’s treatment…

PISKOR: Yeah, the host of the real-life broadcast and the publisher of 2600, his nom de plume is Emmanuel Goldstein, which was the fictional antagonist to Big Brother in the book 1984. And because I’m not original in any way, that radio-host character in Wizzywig is named Winston smith, who’s the actual main character of 1984. The book is full of these little call-outs and geeky little tidbits that somebody who’s into this scene will get and understand and appreciate, but it doesn’t take away from the actual story if you don’t catch them. It’s just icing on the cake for people who are legitimately into this world.

IFC: So this radio show had a lot to do with your inspiration for Wizzywig, it seems…

PISKOR: Yeah, the show covered not only the history of hacking, but the history of high-tech and how the government was very slow and very draconian at first to understand and legislate against people who do weird things on the computer. There were a lot of weird cases where people were getting put in jail for years and labeled felons for very benign things that today you’d only receive a slap on the wrist for, if anything.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

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The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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