“It’s Interesting to Know Subversive Shit”
MARC SOBEL: Can you describe Off the Hook, the radio show you listened to while working on the books with Harvey, in terms of what it was, the format of the show and how it inspired the story of Kevin Phenacle?
ED PISKOR: Yeah. It’s an hour long show on WBAI out there in Manhattan and I started listening to it while I was working on Macedonia. The show is hosted by this guy whose nom-de-plume is ‘Emmanuel Goldstein’ and he is the publisher of 2600 magazine, a hacker quarterly. He’s been publishing it since, I believe 1984, which might be why that’s his name.
MARC SOBEL: From the George Orwell book?
ED PISKOR: Yeah. So, by being this publisher, he was on the forefront of a lot of the political issues regarding computers and the general public. It was incredibly fascinating stuff to me.
The reason I started listening to this show with such prurient interest was that deep down I think we all fantasize a little bit about being a master super villain, or having that kind of knowledge. So I was like, ‘I’m going to listen to this show and develop this hacker skill set that could make me dangerous as fuck if I wanted to be.’ I’m real interested in knowing about stuff you’re not supposed to know about, for trivial reasons mostly, because all I really want to do in life is just sit around and draw comics, but it’s interesting to know subversive shit.
So, that was the initial interest, but when I started checking it out, very quickly I discovered that what I thought a hacker was is not what hackers think they are. I had been misled by mainstream media to develop this correlation between a hacker and a criminal, like it’s some sort of evil thing to know about computers, when it was actually a term of endearment for years.
So with the position that Goldstein has as publisher of 2600, he got to speak to all of the biggest names, the most interesting and skilled people within that culture.
MARC SOBEL: You just went through it chronologically from the beginning?
ED PISKOR: I did, which took a while because I think there might be over a thousand hours worth of that stuff. It was a twenty-plus year archive, maybe twenty-five years. And it’s great because there are several really big stories that play out over time, and it seems dramatic, like it was written and preconceived. For example, he might have some guests on the show one week, and the next week, those same guys might very well be fugitives from the law, hiding out or on the run. Then whenever one major piece of drama would wrap up, something else would happen. These guys just fucking got in trouble all the time and you were able to follow along as it’s happening.
There was one co-host who you kind of grow to adore. His name is ‘Phiber Optik,’ and he’s the co-host for probably a year’s worth of the show. He’s so smart and so young, and he sounds like a little boy, but he has such knowledge about all these different systems and things. Then suddenly one week, the kid can barely speak on the show, even though he’s there in studio, because of gag orders. I guess his lawyer advised him not to say anything. Then a few weeks go by and you don’t know what’s going on, then suddenly you find out that he’s in jail. So then a whole year of shows goes by and then they do this special broadcast where they go down to get him out of prison and drive him from the jail to the radio station to be a co-host again.
Then there was this one guy who was on the show all the time, his name is ‘Bernie S,’ who I actually became great friends with. He also got sent to jail, but he still managed to co-host the show from fricking jail because they figured out a legal loophole. See, if you’re in prison, you can’t call a radio show and broadcast, but they discovered that it’s perfectly legal to call a civilian’s house and if the civilian just so happens to forward the call to a radio station, that’s legal. So the dude was co-hosting the show from prison, and you would hear the little intermittent beep that meant the call was being recorded. These guys were some brash, fucking bad ass motherfuckers! So I fell in love with all that stuff.
MARC SOBEL: Somebody I was talking to at the Brooklyn Comics Festival who had read Wizzywig described Kevin as “a modern day Robin Hood.” Is that how you meant to portray him and do you see him as a kind of mythical character?
ED PISKOR: The Robin Hood thing is a little strong. I just see him, and the hackers who the character is based on, as being people who are way too curious for their own good. But I don’t see harm in that, you know? It’s almost like saying, ‘oh, you’re too smart,’ or something like that. It’s ridiculous. With Kevin, what I wanted to get across is that these guys were doing this stuff way before the government had a clue. The legislation had to catch up with what they were doing and some of these guys were doing this silly shit on computers for ten years by the time the first laws were on the books, so it was a part of their life and they just couldn’t stop because they loved it so much. So if I have to distill the character down, I just consider him to be this pranksterish, extremely curious little nerd who didn’t know when to say when.
MARC SOBEL: You had a character all the way back in Deviant Funnies #1 called ‘Boingthump.’ Has that character been with you all that time, or was it just the same name?
ED PISKOR: So a big part of my interest in hacking comes from a friend of mine whose name is very similar to Kevin Phenacle’s, and his hacker name is Boingthump. If you search online for Boingthump and you see something that doesn’t have to do with comics, that’s my homeboy.
That dude is definitely pretty nuts. He’s pulled off some hacking capers in his day and he told me those stories which sparked my initial interest in learning more about the culture. So my character’s kind of a nod to him for giving me that germ of an idea to go down this route.
MARC SOBEL: Have you ever done any hacking yourself?
ED PISKOR: You know what’s crazy is listening to the entire 25-year archive of the radio show, you fricking learn some shit. It’s such a piecemeal operation but if you’re paying enough attention and you listen to enough of this stuff, you can start to put these little pieces together. There were times where I would lay in bed and think, ‘oh my goodness. I think I can get a free long distance phone call using a pay phone.’
So, the last real job I had was working at a call center when I was twenty years old and I sort of knew how their internal system worked, so I decided to see if I could use a pay phone to get into their system and make long distance phone calls. And I was able to do it. It’s highly inefficient, but I accomplished it. Of course, it makes zero sense now, especially in a day when cell phones are so cheap. But I did it, and it was free and it was probably illegal. So that’s one example, but mostly my interest is purely informational.
“Alternative Cartoonists Today Are a Bunch of Pussies.”
MARC SOBEL: Was it while you were working on Wizzywig or after that you started contributing to Mineshaft?
ED PISKOR: That’s a good question. I was definitely still working on Wizzywig, but some of the stuff, like the stuff I did with Jay Lynch, I did that in that interim period before I really started working with Harvey. So, thinking about it… Harvey was the first call I got and Jay Lynch was the second. Jay’s work is in that Comix book by Les Daniels, too, so I was aware of him, but his work was always so elusive because you would have to pay like seven dollars to get an old Bijou Funnies comic, or something that would have some ‘Nard and Pat strips. But I always loved his work. It’s so meticulous and detailed and perfect-looking.
MARC SOBEL: Did he invite you to contribute to Mineshaft? Is that how you got hooked up with them?
ED PISKOR: That came up after. First, we were just working on these strips and it was going to be a 32-page comic. His whole thesis was that ‘these alternative cartoonists today are a bunch of pussies. They’re all crybabies,’ like all the kids in the generation after him, or maybe two generations after. ‘They’re all a bunch of wusses. Back in our day we used to have sex, do drugs, fight, and live in hardcore neighborhoods, shit like that.’
So we were working on this thing and it was going to be like ‘Two-Fisted Cartoonist Tales,’ just short strips about some crazy stories that those guys were involved in. So we did maybe 17 pages worth of material, five stories, and we submitted that and the guys at Top Shelf were like, ‘absolutely, we will publish a book of this.’ But the times were different back then, and… I mean, I was fully aware that we weren’t going to make a lot of money on this, but I guess those older cartoonists, the underground guys, they had a sort of a union in a way back then. They got a page rate for everything even though the rate was kind of nominal. But that certainly doesn’t exist now, and I think Jay was just a little put-off by the royalties aspect of it, which I understand. It is kind of crazy and you have to hope that the publishers are doing the right thing. I don’t think they would continue to be in the game if they weren’t, but it is possible that some scummy guy could fudge numbers and say that he sold a thousand less books. Who’s to say? I’m sure they don’t, but you just have to put a lot of faith in people.
So we didn’t pursue the full 32-page comic. Then over time, Mineshaft, which is one of the few ‘zines that comes out on a consistent basis, they would get a lot of material from some of the old underground guys. That’s sort of the wheelhouse of what they publish, so we ended up submitting to those guys so at least those strips could see the light of day.