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DID YOU READ

“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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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.