Committed: Ed Piskor’s “Wizzywig”, and when it is prudent to judge a book by the cover
Wizzywig was originally published online, and this long term view to the creation of this massive undertaking is obvious. This is a book about a fictionalized (though chillingly well researched) hacker, from a childhood playing with lock picking, through to teens phone phreaking, down to full-on hacking for fun (and eventually some kind of depressing profit-out-of-necessity as he lives on the run.) Throughout the story we get flashbacks to the current day, where our hero Kevin “Boingthump” Phenicle’s childhood (and only) friend campaigns for his release from jail, where he is held for years without trial. I don’t want to spoil anything, but eventually we catch up to this present and we begin to see how his incarceration plays out and affects the rest of our protagonist’s life. There’s a lot of context, with plenty of attention played to the few people who Phenicle interacts with and how they affect his life (and them, his.) It is filled with unspoken commentary about the way the media affects Phenicle’s life, and the attitudes to him and his actions. There are no aggressively overt moral judgements, we’re allowed to see the gray areas of everyone involved, but simultaneously there are some key, satisfying moments of retribution and lesson’s learned. Nothing is sacred, everything is up for us to witness.
If you want to get a taste of the story, you can look online at his site, where it was originally serialized.That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t buy it, in fact I actively recommend that you do, and I’m not saying that because I prefer reading comic books on paper which I can hold in my hand. The book is beautiful, a lovely experience to read, made with much love and attention to detail. After the online comic, it was originally published as three small volumes, then Piskor apparently went back and did some polishing and finishing to the order and the story, which I think is very apparent in the quality of the book. Like so many books published by Top Shelf it is on ridiculously heavy paper with a fantastic heavy, embossed cover, created to look like an old Apple Macintosh Plus (I learned BASIC on a computer like this when I was in school as a little girl, playing with computers in the lunch hour as a way to get into the cafeteria early. Unlike Kevin Phenicle though, it came to nothing and now I’m firmly on the visual side of the geeky divide.) I wasn’t planning to buy it, if you read my San Diego Comic Con rundown you know that the only reason I stopped to look at it was to straighten the book on the shelf, and then I ended up talking to the author about sublimating our obsessive compulsive tendencies into our work. So I bought the book, and from what I gathered I think he thought I bought it to be polite. I should have explained that I’m not that nice. I’ve come home with too many books in the past and they are heavy. Having just moved I was twice as gun shy about my purchasing at SDCC this year. Nope, I bought the book because of something he said about it…
The cover reminded me of another book I enjoyed; Level Up (from First Second Publishing), which I asked him about (in retrospect this was probably pretty blunt of me, but I was curious as to why he’d let that happen.) Piskor said that yes, he’d noticed it, but that he’d spent too long on his book to compromise on the design of it just because something else looked similar. As you can imagine, as a graphic designer-for-hire, I’m used to making a lot of compromises on jobs. Often they’re good compromises, and they’re always designed to make the client happier, but sometimes they just tear me apart. I could absolutely sympathize with how important it would be to make his own project look exactly like his own version of it and that made me curious about his singular vision which he had clearly worked so intensely on. And he was right, the cover, which vaguely similar in that it mimics a now antiquated object of technology, is the only thing that the books have in common. Yes, they’re both touching and well written, but I read Level Up in an afternoon. It was a simple sort of parable, lovely and sweet with some truly heart-rending moments. Piskor’s Wizzywig took me weeks to read, partly because it is so much longer, but also because the density of art and information demands a slower reading of it. His work reminds me a little of Robert Crumb’s, not in content, though some of their characters do share a disturbing quality, but in attention to detail. I expect Piskor doesn’t work with an old rapidograph pen, but it has that feel of the drawings in those weird old 70’s “head” comic books I used to sneak out of my dad’s collection as a kid.
Apart from the book itself, being that I was at SDCC I could meet the author and I’ll be honest here, his personality sold it to me. I didn’t just judge the book by it’s cover, but the author. There were obvious hip hop influences, the guy was wearing a Public Enemy hat and shirt with big headphones. Piskor was obviously into hip hop, and I’ve never read a bad comic book by anyone who loves classic hip hop (see Kagan McCloud for more details.) There’s something about the culture, these are people who get good comic books. When I was living in London and no one I knew read comic books, (let alone American ones), the only guy I knew who did, was a hip hop musician. We’d sit around, endlessly watching grainy, black and white bootleg video tapes (remember those) of the Lone Wolf & Cub movies (the baby cart assassin movies I guess they were called), and talking about how the hell to get hold of the horribly sprawling Secret Wars II back issues (one of the first and worst crossover marketing event comic books), and whether it was worth it. I always voted “no”, but like a lot of people who work with vinyl, he felt compelled to try and track them all down. And that’s the thing, if there are no comic book fans around to hang out with (and this is pre-internet, so I didn’t have that option) you can’t go wrong by hanging out with hip hop fans. Those vinyl freaks understand about collecting, about superheroes, about sequential storytelling, about finding a costume that expresses a brand, because those things are just as synonymous with hip hop as they are with the comic book scene. For all I know, all niche music fans are like this, but I really couldn’t say because my friends in music were all in hip hop back then. I’m showing my age here, and maybe things are different now, but I felt like I could trust Piskor not to sell a crappy book.
So I bought Wizzyig, but only on the condition that Piskor never expect a review from me. The fall out from a comic book convention can mean that a lot of great books just sit on the shelf for ages, waiting for a spare moment to be read. Instead I got sick when I came home from SDCC, and this book sat on my coffee table as a sort of mental refuge from feeling ill. For a month I read it in tiny doses, spreading it out to prolong the experience, like saving a really rich chocolate bar to eat very slowly. It worked for me, this book which is so detailed, heartfelt and authentic. The potent combination of love and attention-to-detail reveal a strong talent and it has made a fan out of me.