Brian K. Vaughan’s The Private Eye is a bold move forward for digital comics

Brian K. Vaughan’s The Private Eye is a bold move forward for digital comics

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s The Private Eye #1. Written by Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man) and drawn by Marcos Martin (The Amazing Spider-Man, Daredevil), this digital-only title presents a new way to fund and distribute comic books while providing readers with a high-quality finished product.

The opportunities afforded by digital technology have been quickly changing the comic-book industry, and this past week, Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin made another forward leap by unveiling an unorthodox online distribution model for their new series, The Private Eye. As the book features a story set in a future America with no Internet, Martin suggested that it be released only digitally, which means readers can go to panelsyndicate.com and pay what they want for a new full-length comic by two of the biggest talents in comics. The sales of each issue go directly to the creators to make the next chapter possible. It’s a bold move on Vaughan and Martin’s part, bypassing print publishers and digital outlets like Comixology to put their product in as many hands as possible, as quickly as possible. It also allows the creators to use their fan base for funding without asking them to donate to an unfinished product, as with the Kickstarter model. 

For fans, it’s money well spent when the product is this captivating. The Private Eye poses a fascinating question: What if all the personal information that was stored online—every embarrassing photo, inappropriate search, offensive conversation—was suddenly dumped from the cloud for everyone to see? People would want to hide their real faces in public, so in Vaughan’s futuristic society, almost everyone wears a mask, everything from animal heads to cloaking hoodies with creepy faces on the back. In a world where no one is who they seem, the paparazzi have become a new kind of private detective, a role the book’s central character performs with panache. Vaughan wears his noir influence on his sleeve, decorating the office of “Patrick Immelman” with posters of The Maltese Falcon and Angel Face, and offering a thrilling twist on the typical P.I. tale.  

Whereas Vaughan’s Saga is hyper-fantastic science fiction, The Private Eye is based in a world that’s recognizable to readers, a believable evolution of contemporary culture. Vaughan is a master world-builder and Martin has a remarkable talent for creating detailed, living worlds, so it’s no surprise that this first issue is such an engrossing read. The pacing is particularly excellent; Vaughan opens the issue with a quiet, almost intimate surveillance scene that segues into a pulse-pounding chase after a splash page reveals the full scope of the city. Martin has drawn Batman, Spider-Man, and Daredevil, so he knows how to choreograph a dynamic urban action sequence, and his ability to fully realize a setting amplifies the sense of motion across the page as the characters race across maglev trains, construction zones, and rooftops. 

As “Patrick” makes his escape, a second splash page moves from the skyline to the street, revealing the costumed public. It’s a meaty image to chew on before the title card, and it shows off Martin’s immense skill for designing distinct, instantly intriguing characters, even those who only show up for one panel. After the title card, the pace slows down as the paparazzo gives his client the photos he took in the opening scene and takes on a new case for a beautiful woman who shows up at his office wearing a tiger mask. Without spoiling anything—because the book is just one click away, and available for however much you want to pay—things get messy fast, and it’s clear that this world’s mask culture is going to pose a big problem moving forward. 

The book has its fair share of grand science-fiction elements, but the most fascinating aspect of Vaughan’s script is the way it comments on how the present-day public uses technology. When “Patrick” gets a call from his grandpa asking about the wi-fi in the house, he has to leave work and go calm the old man down. In an exposition dump, “Patrick” fills his gramps in on the 40-day purge of the cloud, to which the old man responds: “I shared as much as I shared ’cause my life was an open goddamn book. My generation was proud of who we were. We didn’t have nothing to hide!” It’s not hard to see the 10-year-olds on Facebook today turning into this type of delusional curmudgeon in 60 years, refusing to believe that all that technological convenience could potentially come at a price. In a brilliant marketing move, The Private Eye was teased on Monday with images from the book that had the words “Like,” “Follow,” and “Share” printed over them in Spanish, building interest online while providing a subtle hint at what the new series would be about.  

It’s astounding how much different the reading experience is when artists design pages for a digital screen; Martin’s widescreen layouts give his artwork an extra cinematic flair. A cell phone isn’t the ideal device for reading The Private Eye, as the text can get very small without any sort of guided view, but it looks fantastic on tablets and full-size laptop and desktop monitors alike. The element of the book that benefits most from backlit digital technology is Muntsa Vicente’s rich color palette, creating a vibrant future cityscape where the sky is magenta and the streets are filled with multihued masks and costumes. Vicente and Martin have a finely tuned connection, and the colors adjust to fit the tone of the pencils, growing darker as the story moves into more dangerous territory.

It’s great to see creators and companies continuing to experiment with the digital medium, and this week also saw the release of another exciting digital endeavor: Brian Michael Bendis’ latest Guardians Of The Galaxy Infinite Comic. Marvel began experimenting with the Infinite Comics format during last year’s Avengers Vs. X-Men event, giving Mark Waid the opportunity to use new technology to create a reading experience that can’t be offered in print. The new Guardians Infinite Comics are prequels spotlighting the main cast of the Marvel Now! series, teaming Bendis with artists like Michael Avon Oeming and Ming Doyle, along with layout artist Yves Bigerel. That last name is the secret weapon on these books; Bigerel has been a regular creator at Waid’s Thrillbent, showing a deep understanding of how to adjust panel layouts for the swipe of a finger rather than the turn of a page.

Bendis’ readers will recognize the technique he uses at the top of this week’s issue, showing Rocket Raccoon delivering a monologue while standing in the same place. The “Cosmic” arc of Powers had one of these speeches every issue in the form of a stand-up comedy act, taking up an entire page using the same fixed panel while the speaker makes slight changes. In the Infinite Comic, the background stays fixed while the word balloons and Rocket change with each swipe, building to the moment when Rocket jumps across the bar. With the next swipe, the screen pans to the left, making a smooth transition without actually moving to a new panel. These Infinite Comics are the perfect middle ground between comics and animation, creating motion on the page while still letting readers control the passage of time. But the best thing about the Guardians Of The Galaxy Infinite Comics is that they’re completely free, so there’s no reason not to give them a chance. 

There’s a wide frontier still left to explore in the world of digital comics, but the work of Vaughan, Martin, and Marvel this week shows that the industry is beginning to take significant strides into the future. These comics are accessible and immensely entertaining, and if comic books want to expand their audience, digital is beginning to seem like a smart course of action. In just the past two years, technological advances have led to major changes in distribution, and as creators begin to experiment with the storytelling possibilities, the future only looks brighter. 

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