Before even turning (swiping? scrolling?) the first page of Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's new series The Private Eye, there's a lot to like. Vaughan is well known for his work on about a million good series, including Ex Machina, Y: the Last Man, and most recently, Saga. You may also know him from his work writing episodes of Lost during that weird period of the show when it had stopped being bad but still wasn't as good as it should've been. Martin brings back the same unique style he's had since working on books like Amazing Spider-Man and the critically acclaimed Daredevil. The series is offered exclusively digitally, via panelsyndicate.com, but not in the same manner as Marvel's Infinite Comics or even Mark Waid's Thrillbent. In this way, there's not much emphasis on the "digital" here, beyond the distribution method. Basically, these are just static widescreen half pages, similar to what DC Comics offers through Comixology in form of digital-first books like Smallville: Season 11.
Oh, and you can pay whatever you want.
Certainly not the first DRM-free creative adventure of its kind, you may remember Radiohead did this sort of thing with their album In Rainbows back in 2007, but everyone knows about that so we're going to talk about something different. Panera Bread has a similar line of Panera Cares restaurants; offering suggested pricing options and allowing customers to pay whatever they want. This certainly sparks disparaging comments from parents like, "Why would I ever spend money if I didn't have to?? Capitalism is supposed to rule the world! Nothing makes sense anymoreee…" On average, Panera earns about 75% of their suggested prices (enough to meet operating costs), with one customer paying less, one paying more, and three paying the suggested price.
But comic books aren't sandwiches. Maybe they are. Like paper ones of words and pictures. I guess that's not the same at all.
We'll see how well this works out for Vaughan and Martin, considering they're staking the continuation of the series on how much people pay. Their suggested price is 99 cents, which is pretty fair considering that a 22-page digital installment goes for $0.99 on Comixology and this particular issue of The Private Eye is 32 pages. And most comics on the shelves today are like $3.99. I decided to pay $0.77 because I didn't want to pay nothing. If it tells you anything about how much I liked this issue, I wish I would've paid more.
The Private Eye is set in the future (because where else would it be set?) and is poised to act as a sort of meditation on the concept of secret identities. Though they've been around since before Superman, but it's oft been said that Clark Kent was the jewel in the Superman crown. There were strongmen like Paul Bunyan or Odysseus throughout history, but it was Clark Kent that made Superman stick, that made him the Man of Tomorrow. Later on, it may have been Captain Marvel who harnessed magic lightning, but it was the humble 8-year old Billy Batson who had children whispering "Shazam!" in hopes of becoming more. One boy spent his entire life whispering those words, conjuring the lightning to transform himself over and over again into an icon. When used as metaphor, the secret identity is a veil of social neurosis, societal pressure, and whatever holds us back from ripping off our buttoned shirts and revealing the truth of what we are.
When not shrouded in metaphor, the secret identity is about privacy. Logistically, that's what it's about. It keeps the inside truth inside, known only to those privy to be insiders. This looks to be the angle that Vaughan and Martin are tackling, pushing this age-old superhero trope to the far end of the spectrum in the form of a mystery thriller. Abound and evolved, this concept takes new shape. The business of wading through these piles of secrets is the business of our lead character, a private investigator that digs up the goods hidden behind all the masks. The most interesting development in this first issue (beyond a glimpse at what hipsters will look like when they're grandpas) is finding out that the Internet is dead. Apparently the cloud has collapsed under the weight of all the hash tags and people Instragramming pictures of their pets and thinking it's art because it's sepia.
Vaughan's dialogue and pacing are as sharp as ever, mixing his unique brand of speaking with a Shakespearean ability to create new worlds through new words (like nyms). This future world is molded with relative ease, striking cords of the familiar, while still maintaining a level of discovery. New concepts are introduced in a commonplace manner with enough emphasis that both the characters and the audience are left wanting. With a single utterance, "Shit. Is that a dreamcoat?" the reader is left with his or her emotions matching that of the journalistic pursuer in the first sequence. We feel as foreign and new in this future landscape as this initial antagonist; it seems as though only the protagonist seems to know where he and this
story are headed. That is, until the final scene.
Vaughan is a great writer and his manipulation of the language to create an exciting landscape is a marvel in of itself, but it's the man creating those landscapes that brings the book to life. For most of the book, Marcos Martin is simply showing off. His kinetic style uses an abstract nature to create scenes that look science fiction, but add the mundanity of everyday life in a way that's pure Steve Ditko. It's strange to see so many costumed figures just walking about; never soaring nor leaping, but Martin brings this reality to the forefront of our minds in a way that continually draws us in. He also does a great job of playing to the strengths of the widescreen format, despite being known for his unique layouts. This is a book that begs to be read slowly. With each image of future landscape, there's miles of detail just waiting to be pored over and examined. It's this that makes The Private Eye such an immersive experience; it's fiction that pulls you from your reality and places you in another.
The work of colorist Munsta Vicente is not something to be easily ignored either. The pink-shaded skies reflecting from an illuminated city demonstrate that Vicente understands something that far too few colorists in modern comics understand: color invokes mood. A photorealistic color scheme brings about exactly that: realism. But the landscapes of The Private Eye aren't of the world outside your window; they're of the world inside your head, tomorrows from our dreams. Together with Marcos Martin, Vicente's colors remind us that despite all our feelings that we live in the future, there's still so much more that's yet to come.
My only true critique of this series is that it feels somewhat underwhelming in length, but most of that can be attributed to it's method of distribution, the digital format. If we consider these pages to be halves, then that makes this a 16-page comic book, which isn't much, especially with the introductory sequence taking so much of that space. Another complaint is that we don't really know when the next issue is coming. I certainly don't want some fill-in artist nonsense, but the creators' promise to deliver issues when they're completed isn't exactly reassuring.
If you haven't heard enough by now, stop what you're doing and go buy this book. You can pay whatever you like, but please, pay more than 99 cents so the series can reach its conclusion. Because remember, for every time you pay only 99 cents, there's some fucker paying 77.
You can buy issues of The Private Eye digitally at Panel Syndicate.
Tyler Gross enjoys comic books, but likes to think he's a lot more handsome than that guy you're picturing in your head right now. By day, he's a college student and behavioral therapist for children with autism; by night, he writes all the jokes that end up on the insides of popsicles.