“Wizzywig” and “Footnotes in Gaza”: Showing the Truth by Making Up Pictures

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Sometime in the late ’80s, master hacker Kevin Phenicle, a.k.a. “Boingthump,” went underground. For a few years, until the law caught up with him, he drifted around the country, constantly changing his appearance, creating new identities for himself, and making money by rigging radio station call-in contests. That’s the story covered by Wizzywig, Volume 3: Fugitive, the new installment of Ed Piskor’s comics biography of Phenicle from his early phone-phreak days to his eventual incarceration. None of it is exactly true–but all of it is almost true. (It can be ordered from the artist’s site; in keeping with his subject’s information-wants-to-be-free ethos, Piskor’s also made the first two volumes available in their entirety as a free PDF, and posted the first 51 pages of the new one.)

Phenicle’s a fictional construct, but almost all the particulars of his life overlap with those of a handful of real-life hackers. (Kevin Mitnick and Kevin Poulsen, notably, were both in similar situations around the same time.) By presenting Wizzywig as fiction, Piskor doesn’t risk undermining his work by getting the facts wrong, or by drawing misleading images. He’s also given himself license to restructure the lives of the hackers into a story with a more tightly wound dramatic structure. Kevin’s technological mastery, Piskor hints, gradually became less a matter of curiosity about machines than a tool to control his social environment–but Piskor only suggests that about his Kevin.

The drawing style Piskor’s adopted for this project is odd (and oddly appropriate) enough that it’s worth pointing out: characters who often look as stylized as Mattel toys rendered with meticulous feathering, for a sort of handmade-fake-CGI effect: “realistic,” but deeply unreal. The new volume includes a witty little sequence in which we see Kevin’s various disguises; he sports the same blank expression in every one, as his hairstyles and accessories get progressively more outlandish.

Wizzywig is a portrait of a cultural moment when geeks weren’t just outside mainstream culture but terrifying to it. Piskor has some fun with the clunky, boxy look of circa-1990 electronics and fashion, and with the tall tales that circulated about the great hackers. In fact, virtually every detail here that seems like it can’t possibly be true, like the government freakout over the role-playing game GURPS Cyberpunk, is a matter of historical record–to one extent or another.

One curious thing about Wizzywig, though, is that it would be a lot less fun–and probably seem less true–if it were presented as non-fiction. Prose lets its readers fill in the visual details; photography and film document the kind of reality we can see with our own eyes. Comics, though, are always an interpretation of reality: they seem real, because they’re made of images, but every choice their artists make–from drawing techniques and individual lines to the deliberate distortions that give cartooning its emotional impact–is controlled by those artists’ personal vision.

As cartoonist Joe Sacco puts it, drawing “comes with an unavoidable measure of refraction.” That’s part of the structural genius of his extraordinary new book Footnotes in Gaza, a document of his attempts to figure out what happened in two all-but-forgotten 1956 massacres in the Gaza Strip. (There’s an excerpt here.) Appropriately for a book about the process of getting at the truth, it’s long, occasionally frustrating even as it’s fascinating, and shockingly powerful.

Sacco traveled to Gaza a few times between 2001 and 2003, interviewing dozens of people about what happened in Rafah and Khan Younis in 1956, and trying to reconstruct events from their testimony. (He renders buildings and landscapes with spectacular verisimilitude, and gives himself a bit more latitude with people; the broadest caricatures in the book are of Sacco, who gives himself an enormous nose and mouth beneath eye-concealing glasses.) A lot of the book is also about the present-day culture of Gaza, and Sacco’s experience as he tries to understand what that environment says about the stories from half a century earlier and the way they’re being told to him.

In fact, Footnotes in Gaza is a better and more powerful book in comics form than it would be in prose (or, say, as a documentary film), because it’s all about subjectivity and not-totally-reliable memories. Sacco’s project might be the last possible chance to document a moment of violence that’s still reverberating in more violence, and the only way to show it is to draw what it might have looked like. (The book’s final whammy, in fact, drives home the difference between Sacco’s research and the experience of the people who survived the killings.) The only truths he can offer are bits of old men’s and old women’s recollections of a terrible day when they were young, and what remains of streets and a schoolyard where blood was spilled long ago, stitched together with his pen and ink. But they’re true enough.