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What We’re Reading: Wizzywig

2014 March 6
by Aaron King

What We're Reading

img266Wizzywig by Ed Piskor (Top Shelf, 2012)

Wizzywig is Ed Piskor’s fictional biography of pioneering hacker Kevin Phenicle, and the first two pages concisely foreshadow the nature of Kevin’s fame (or infamy) and the storytelling techniques Piskor uses to set Kevin’s life down on paper.


From there, we’re led through a variety of points of view. Kevin’s childhood friend Winston Smith is now an AM radio DJ, and he devotes his airtime to advocating for Kevin’s freedom. Select scenes from Kevin’s childhood are shown, with Piskor drawing the young hacker-to-be in a style reminiscent of Harold Gray’s orphan Annie. A moralizing anchorman, Ron Shumway, decries Kevin’s actions in any platform available to him. A sensationalized television reenactment in the style of Unsolved Mysteries shows Kevin as a slavering, dangerous megalomaniac.

Through all these visions of Kevin, Piskor occasionally cuts to what is ostensibly the “true” story behind the man. First person narration floats outside of panels as Kevin discovers how to rig radio call-in contests or runs from life to life in order to evade law enforcement. These glimpses are short and carefully cropped—purposefully chosen “signals” to slot in amidst all the “noise” and preserve the same high-crime, life-on-the-run narrative created by Winston Smith and Ron Shumway.

In all of it, we learn how to steal a dead person’s social security number and how to cook your own food in prison, but we never learn much about Kevin. The exact reason he pursues hacking is never stated outright. He never makes broad or pointed statements about politics or justice. All throughout, I found myself asking, “Who is Kevin? Where is he?”

The many faces of Kevin Phenicle

The many faces of Kevin Phenicle

The question is not a criticism, at least not in the negative sense of the word. Kevin’s life and personality is obscured by the same things everyone’s sense of self gets eroded by: fame, rumor, internet anonymity, and the grinding systems of education and work. The arc of Kevin’s life is subsumed into a thriller movie. He’s too busy running to stop and think about anything else, and too many words are being said about him for him to combat with his own point of view.

In the end, it takes an inhuman act of violence to shock Kevin from the path he’d been on. It was only in the wordless aftermath of great loss that I found myself wanting to know what Kevin was thinking. Does a fast-paced story detract from characterization or empathy? When is a plot too slick? And how can we remind ourselves to slow down and think about the people involved?

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