In this issue, the more things change the more they stay the same.
Written by Brian K. Vaughn
Illustrated by Marcos Martin
Colored by Muntsa Vicente
Years after the digital cloud “bursts” and exposes all of our most confidential hopes and fears, THE PRIVATE EYE is set in the inevitable future where everyone will have a secret identity.
Following an unlicensed P.I as he’s thrust into the most important case of his life, this sci-fi mystery explores the nature of privacy with frightening prescience.
What continues to draw me to “The Private Eye,” created by writer Brian K. Vaughn with artists Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente, was the multiple levels of novelty it offers. Though it was eventually published as a hardcover through Image Comics, in 2013 “Private Eye” started as the first offering from the Panel Syndicate, a pay what you want digital publisher by Vaughn and anyone else he could convince to use it. Panel Syndicate was, and still is, an interesting island in the digital comics market place that has stratified between near price parity with physical and free – with crowdfunding sitting in an awkward middle area. “Private Eye” was also the first webcomic that felt like an actually digital native experience, with Marcos Martin presenting everything in a landscape format. This choice of presentation offered up new ways of reading and composing pages that has made new visits and enjoyable experience. These qualities make the content of “The Private Eye” perhaps the least novel aspect, a social satire shot through a detective fiction lens that has increasingly less satiric.
When following the monthly comics game as a college student, there is an ever-present inclination that major publishers are often second only to AAA video game publishers in attempts to nickel and dime, and otherwise ring, every last ounce of capital from their customers. $3.99 for a 20-22 page floppy doesn’t feel like much of a good deal. Which is why the pay what you want model feels so inviting. I’ve purchased this series multiple times from initial singles at $2 to their eventual collections at $10 apiece. (Note: Panel Syndicate does allow you to re-download past purchases.) I double dipped, and didn’t even feel bad about it. That low barrier to entry is why I’ve given every Panel Syndicate book a chance.
With these being DRM-free files, it also has made “Private Eye” an easy share and suggestion to anyone interested in comics or digital comics specifically. It also means that you can “bind” and make your own omnibus with basic photo editing skills.
Having looked over a printed copy of “Private Eye,” there is something that feels slightly off about the experience compared to reading it digitally. It was the spine of the book and being presented with two pages at once. In the digital realm, everything is isolated it’s one page/image at a time which creates its own considerations for dramatic pacing and composition. It has been the only comic reading experience that felt good on a Amazon Fire 7 inch tablet, for general reading I’d go with the 10 inch Amazon Fire tablet. The height of the 7 inch tablet is too narrow for most vertically oriented comics but for “Private Eye” everything fit without the need to adjust the image size. It is also one of the few comics that is easily read on a wide screen computer monitor, the landscape layout makes for minimal letterboxing and the imagery seems to pop more with the overall larger screen.
“Private Eye” landscape presentation opens up new avenues for Marcos Martin to lay out a page and tell this story on a visual level. On some level, “Private Eye” is a piece of detective fiction which means fists are bound to be thrown from time to time. Fist fights are not the primary mode of action in this series, action tends to take the form of chase sequences that take full advantage of the large page width. As our titular private eye, or paparazzo in the worlds mashed up lingo, surveils an apartment he is eventually found out by the local police and a chase begins. While the spread of P.I. leaping from the building is well composed and impactful, the ensuing pages as Martin uses skinny vertical panels to emphasize verticality juxtaposed with wider horizontal ones create an satisfying sense of movement. In another chase sequence, Martin shows how the landscape presentation can efficiently condenses two, maybe three, pages of chase action into one. As P.I. and Raveena chase after someone, Martin zooms out and shows us the entire environment and with overlaid panels guides the readers eyes as the duo pull a pincer move and capture him.Continued below
Outside of the action department the width afforded to Martin allows him to establish environments quickly and build the pages around them. After out running the cops, P.I. drops the work off to his client in a public park. The sequence begins with a big panorama of the park that shows a large crowd of people using its facilities and otherwise being happy, with two other panels inset that also help to establish the scenes. This gives the reader all they need so that when turn the page and find P.I. on a bench with the client we can instantly imaging where they are in that park. In this more interpersonal scene, Martin is able to highlight the awkward space between them on that bench as well as find ways to frame them without showing them in a full wide shot. Martin’s visual storytelling helps to highlight the lack of trust through spatial relations which further fuels the sarcastic barbs Vaughn gives P.I.
In laying a book out this way, it does take some time to attune to this specific reading orientation. Due to their panels comics can be a bit of a puzzle at time, but they generally read left to right in the West. Martin’s layouts are rarely a series of three horizontal strips stacked atop one another. By flipping things on their side, Martin finds more space to insert and overlay little panels to highlight minute actions or character acting such as when a character enters a room through a highly ritualized security system. He will also find ways to contrast the default horizontal position with verticality such as when a garage goes through a futuristic parking structure. At times, reading “Private Eye” can be a bit like deciphering a Chutes and Ladders board, but seeing how those pages work and inform other pages has made revisiting this book enjoyable.
Set in 2076, years after the Cloud – as in the Internet – burst and four 40 days and nights everyone’s personal data was being revealed. The flood reorganized society, culture, and personal interactions. A generation latter, society has brought the assumed anonymous nature of the internet into meat space as everyone goes masked in furry-esque costumes and go by nicknames. Martin’s design work gives everything a retro futurist but with a pass through a sleek Apple filter. The state of the world is supposed to be dystopia, but with Muntsa Vicente high value color pallet it’s the brightest, cheeriest, dystopia you’ve ever seen.
“Private Eye” was first published in 2013, it was clearly a satire of the potential ill effects my generation had in helping spawn Big Data. In 2019, some of the outcomes feel prophetic. Sure nothing on the scale of the Cloud Burst and Flood have occurred. You still have the rise of revenge porn on a micro scale and Fappening on the macro. A solid two years’ worth of constant reportage on Facebook’s misuse, ineffectual policies, or blind disinterest, of our data. As well as near constant data breeches. Our Cloud may not have burst but it sure leaks a lot. A TV engineer questions why they are now putting cameras on top of microphones in their sets, a common occurrence in the American home in the present.
Revisiting the “Private Eye” within that historical context is why the core narrative of the book is both the least interesting and still evergreen. The case that P.I. is on hits the beats you’d expect and does them well. With its satiric edge and noir leanings, the book is reminiscent of The Big Lebowski where the noir aesthetic is used to satirize a subject but the core mystery isn’t the most enticing element. The central mystery may not be the most original, but how the creative team use the unique technical aspects of “Private Eye” to explore and solve it more than makes up for it.