Ed Piskor's graphic novel creates sensation among genre's fans

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Cartoonist Ed Piskor is not a "phreak."

The Homestead native was a toddler when the original phreaker, John Draper, was sentenced to prison for teaching thousands of fellow computer hackers to jerry-build low-end devices that enabled them to make unlimited domestic and international phone calls for free.

"To be honest, I'm a luddite," Piskor, 26, of the South Side, said, showing his beat-up cell phone, the kind with an external antennae, as proof. "I don't have an iPhone, but I know plenty about it. I'm interested in technology for political reasons."

Sitting in a South Side cafe last month, Piskor looked like he could have been the fourth member of the 1980s hip-hop trio Run-DMC. He may be a white boy from the Mon Valley, but he wears his black hat, leather coat, black shirt and dookie rope like he'd be ready to step into the late Jam Master Jay's shoes without breaking a sweat. Alas, Piskor is not a musician. He's a cartoonist -- arguably one of the best in the country.

Piskor has just released "Wizzywig Volume 2: Hacker," the second of a four-part graphic novel series about computer hacking and phone phreaking in the 1980s. When finished, the story will run 400 pages.

"Wizzywig's" central character is Kevin "Boingthump" Phenicle, a brilliant but socially maladjusted young man who obsesses over code writing, phone technology and outsmarting the authorities.

The story so far takes the reader from Kevin Phenicle's early days as a victim of high school bullies in "Wizzywig Volume 1: Phreak" to the young hacker's decision to become a fugitive from justice after he creates a devastating computer worm in volume 2. Kevin Phenicle is a composite of notorious computer hackers Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulsen among others.

Recently, Wired magazine featured a gushing review of "Wizzywig" that managed to put Piskor's self-published comic book on the map in Silicon Valley, where phreak culture continues to inspire happy nostalgia.

Within days, the story generated enough orders to sell out the hundreds of copies Piskor had on hand. At $15 a copy, both volumes had to go back to print to meet increased demand that has yet to slow down.

"Every time I took a batch down to the post office, there would be a dozen more orders waiting for me [at edpiskor.com] when I got home," he said. Soon, other positive reviews of the books were appearing on various geek culture and comic book Web sites. "Wizzywig" has yet to be reviewed in a mainstream newspaper, so it still retains a patina of cool and underground cachet.

As artist, writer, distributor and sole creator/owner of the book, Piskor finally finds himself making "reasonable" money from his art. For years, he has freelanced as part of a tiny stable of artists who regularly illustrate the true-life adventures of cantankerous Cleveland-based writer Harvey Pekar in the long-running "American Splendor" series.

Along with dozens of independent comics and mini-comics, Piskor illustrated Pekar and Heather Roberson's mammoth "Macedonia" graphic novel and the recently published "The Beats: A Graphic History" for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Piskor's cartooning style combines the clean lines of cartoonist Jay Lynch with the expressiveness and cross-hatching of Robert Crumb. He's a fabulous background artist who puts lots of details in his panels when necessary. His books are labor-intensive as a result.

It was while working on "Macedonia" a few years ago that Piskor first stumbled upon phreak culture. "I got tired of listening to [indie and alternative] music while chained to my drawing desk all day," he said.

While bopping around the Internet, Piskor discovered the audio archives for the "Off the Hook" talk show broadcast on the legendary public radio station WBAI in New York City. "It immediately grabbed me," he said.

Piskor listened to hundreds of hours of audio feed going back to the mid 1980s. He found the political ideas espoused by the various "kooks and anarchists" engrossing -- more freedom, less government and less corporate domination was their mantra.

"[Host] Emmanuel Goldstein would talk to these hacker kids and have them on his show. They would be on one day and in federal prison the next. I can identify with them on a Type A personality level," he said.

Asked whether he had become a libertarian listening to the show, Piskor hunched his shoulders. "I don't know enough about any of those specific political philosophies to be honest about it," he said. "But I tell you what -- I ain't no Republican."

In recent years, Piskor has become a magnet for other independent publishers, writers and artists at regional comic book conventions. He'll be taking "Wizzywig" to the 2009 San Diego Comic Con, the biggest gathering of comics fans and creators in the world. Piskor is one of the few young comic creators who attends cons for the fun of it. He isn't interested in movie deals, although his literary agent wouldn't sneer at it if it happened.

"I want to comfortably do my comics without worrying about finances," he said summarizing his aspirations. "I have zero debt. Ninety percent of the reason to have a car is to drive to work. I don't have to drive downstairs."

While working on "Wizzywig," Piskor listens to old school hip-hop music for inspiration. When "Wizzywig" wraps, his next big project will be a history of hip-hop that focuses on the Boogie-Down Bronx and DJ Scott La Rock. He promises it will be exhaustive.

"I'm a student of whatever I'm listening to at the time," he said.

Ed Piskor's "Wizzywig Volume 1: Phreak" includes characters depicting Apple founders Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, the original "phreaks."

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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