Last Monday the comics rumor/journalism site Bleeding Cool linked to a few teaser images that were posted to Spanish-language comic blogs announcing a new series from Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martín, who previously collaborated on Doctor Strange: the Oath, a mini-series for Marvel in the mid 2000s. The images were intriguing, and the names involved suggested a good read – Vaughan is the fan-favorite writer of Saga and Y: the Last Man, among other other celebrated titles, and Martín is best known for his work on Daredevil, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Batgirl: Year One. I anticipated learning more about the book in the coming weeks or months, the plot points and art from first issue gradually teased out in interviews and previews, dulling the surprise but confirming that it’s worth the three or four or however many dollars. That’s how comics are marketed today.
Then it was Tuesday, and suddenly the book, titled The Private Eye #1, was available, for however much I wanted to pay, through The Panel Syndicate (a new digital publisher started by Vaughan, Martín, and friends). All the excitement about The Private Eye was generated by its mere existence, and by the distribution method. Digital-only comics are nothing new, and neither is the “tip-jar” payment model (Radiohead’s In Rainbows is probably the most famous example, but there are many more across all mediums) but the two in tandem, and employed by high-profile creators, is novel, as is the minimalist promotional “campaign.” Vaughan and Martín trusted their audience to generate their own hype, something mainstream comic readers haven’t had to do very often in the past decade or so.
It’ll be interesting to see how Vaughan and Martín’s gambit plays out over the coming months. How do the downloads compare to Comixology figures for Saga, or other similar titles (I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that The Private Eye would be at home at Image Comics), and does the “pay what you will” model generate comparable revenue? Will the creators adhere to the traditional monthly schedule, or will this platform allow for more or less frequent publication? Are new readers finding the comic?
A lot of the questions that have been swirling around digital comics for four years now still apply, but The Private Eye does add a few new kinks. Maybe the most radical feature is the creators insistence that this is a digital-only venture, with no plans for a print edition down the line.
All of that’s for later, though. How’s the comic?
Very good, it turns out. The world of The Private Eye is a near future where all of the information and communication we sent into the ether, public and private, was suddenly, cataclysmically released for everyone to see, read, or otherwise consume. Consequently, nearly everyone has adopted secret identities, along with elaborate costumes and masks, and law enforcement has fused with the media, such that pursuing “justice” is indistinct from digging into the personal lives of the population.
The story follows a private investigator who takes the case of a troubled, wealthy young woman who wants him to figure out who she is – or, rather, what the world knows about her – before she takes a high profile job. In the tradition of private eye stories, nothing goes well, and by the end of the issue someone is dead, and someone else has some privileged information.
The plot, the characters, the glimpses of a The Maltese Falcon poster in the background, even the title all point to a moody noir comic, but the tone of The Private Eye is anything but: colorful, limber, each page densely packed with designs out of Kirby and Moebius. The latter is particularly true, as artist Marcos Martín’s light, snaky line work seems to point back to the late French master. But unlike, say, Frank Quitely – another Moebius disciple – Martín’s panels are less rooted, and more (artists, forgive me) cartoony.
In the culminating page of the opening sequence, a broad panel of a busy street scene populated with people in various costumes, like a cos-play scene on steroids, the difference is clear – Moebius created plausible alien worlds, but Martín shows us how untouchable and alien our own world could be. Muntsa Vicente’s expanses of vivid color are crucial to that feeling, and particularly suited to the backlit digital reading experience. The skies buzz purple and blue, and the crime towards the end is all the more gruesome for the shock of dark red against the more electric palette.
Another artistic decision tailored to the digital reading experience is the horizontal layout scheme. Flipping the comic page 90 degrees allows Martín to play with bold close-up panels that hug the margins and fill the remaining space with smaller action panels, giving the effect of superimposed images, or a visual header for the scene. The horizontal layout also makes sense for reading on a tablet, swiping pages and reading in the same direction, instead of rearranging vertical spaces. I read my .pdf on a desktop, and so the page flip wasn’t quite the same; I imagine the tablet experience is even more fun.
Brian K. Vaughan has a reputation for stellar first issues, and The Private Eye #1 is yet more evidence for that claim. But I was more taken with the first issue of Saga, if only because that issue did more with a little less information. A scene towards the middle, as our private eye lead once again explains to his grandfather (an aged hipster) why the old technologies don’t work anymore, is a bit overt in laying out the premise. That’s unlike Vaughan, who typically builds his worlds by withholding explanation for the details and trusting the reader to put it together. Obviously some exposition is necessary, but this sequence is a bit on the nose.
The Private Eye is allegorical, but its politics aren’t particularly hidden. Vaughan, Martín, and Vicente’s future isn’t all candyfloss and fun, despite outward appearances. The hipster grandfather’s insistence that his generation “was proud of who we were. We didn’t have nothing to hide!” comes across as outmoded and misplaced pride, the kind of thinking that put the world in its present state. Maybe I’m skeptical of Vaughan’s premise because I’m of the generation who is saddled with the blame. But there’s a difference between pride and vanity, and I wonder if further issues of the series will explore it.
Even if it doesn’t, and Vaughan’s doomsaying continues to rankle, I’ll still read The Private Eye. If the future of comics looks like this, plus Kickstarter and Comixology, then maybe the prognosis isn’t so bad.
Similar comic books:Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples; Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson; The Invisbles by Grant Morrison and various artists