Some people pair cheese and wine. Some pair celebrities with photos of animals that sorta look like them. I pair comics with other media.
Both are about the early days of computers. Halt and Catch Fire revolves around an independent computer company in the dawn of the PC era (1983), trying to make a portable computer that can compete with IBM. WIZZYWIG is about a notorious hacker in the early 90s phone phreak era. Both have beautiful attention to detail and are worth your time.
WIZZYWIG: Portrait of a Serial Hacker by Ed Piskor, Top Shelf, 2012.
WIZZYWIG (phonetic pronunciation of WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get) follows the hacks and run-ins with the law of Kevin J. Phenicle, a.k.a. “Boingthump,” a notorious hacker of phones and computers. Phenicle is a character who Piskor based on a synthesis of various real-life hackers, most notably Kevin Mitnik (“Condor”), who was on the run from the law for years, in prison for years, and now works in IT security. Mitnik was the hacker who was said to “be able to start a nuclear war by whistling into a pay phone,” a phrase which comes up in WIZZYWIG to describe Phenicle. Phenicle is an ever-shifting character: contrary to the title, what you see is never what you get with him in this story.
- This is a gorgeous book, physically satisfying to hold in your hands. Perhaps ironically, I would pick up the hardcover a hundred times before going digital on this book in particular.
- The structure of the story is fascinating. The story is told in a patchwork fashion: it combines bits of linear plot with fake news broadcasts, vignettes that help build Phenicle’s character, retrospective interviews with hackers who knew him, lists of the people he used in his schemes, etc. In this way, the structure of the book mirrors a biopic or a documentary more than a feature film. I find it refreshing; it reads like a zine, but has more plot and character arc than a zine. This book showcases what comics can do that no other genre can.
- There are many many nods to hacker culture and the history of 90s hacking/phreaking/social engineering. If that’s familiar territory, you’ll find it delightful. If it’s unfamiliar territory, you’ll find many interesting places to jump-start your own research.
Reasons you might want to pass it up:
- If you are looking for a well-rounded, diverse comic, this is not it. This is a story about arrogant white guys. The most significant female character is Kevin’s grandma, and she never actually appears in the panels, but rather exists as a disembodied, floating voice. There are some women Kevin wants to have sex with or uses in his schemes. And a black guy beats him up in prison. That’s about it in terms of diversity. Actually, aside from his childhood friend, Winston, pretty much everyone
- If you want a very linear story with clear plot points, the patchwork story structure might annoy you, I guess?!
Halt and Catch Fire, AMC, 2014
Even though I started watching the show for superficial reasons (who doesn’t want to see Lee Pace make out with a dude?!), there’s a lot to love in the show. Lee Pace plays Joe Macmillan, a highly ambitious salesman who swoops into a small Texas computer company and recruits Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), a sad, alcoholic visionary whose last computer project failed. Joe convinces Gordon to help him to make a new machine with an OS designed by whiz kid college dropout Cameron Howe (Makenzie Davis). They’re helped at times by Gordon’s wife Donna (Kerry Bishé), who is a data recovery expert at Texas Instruments.
Reasons you might check it out:
- The chemistry–sexual and otherwise–between the actors is fantastic. All of the characters are struggling with the balance between being creators and consumers–of computers and of each other. All of the characters could be shoved into single-story stereotype boxes, and yet they all somehow manage to evade cookie-cutter roles and are instead nuanced, interesting people.
- The show is set in Dallas in 1983, and the 80s aesthetic is captured perfectly in the sets and costuming. It’s delightful. It’s a period piece, and a very well done one.
- In terms of representation, Halt and Catch Fire beat the pants off of WIZZYWIG. In the first season, there are two significant female characters, Cameron and Donna. There are a few folks of color who show up, albeit none are main characters yet. Yes, Joe is bisexual.
- Donna and Gordon’s relationship, in particular, is interesting and important. Donna is a working mother who ends up shouldering a disproportionate amount of the house and parent duties. Donna and Gordon have a tumultuous relationship, but at the same time believe really strongly in each other. Again, the characters are complex and fascinating.
Reasons you might pass it up: