One of these days I’ll eventually migrate to reading comics digitally instead of in print. Not yet, though. Not when titles like this, originally published online in a “pay what you want” metric can still find their way into being a physical product. (Particularly when the way involves a handshake deal between Brian K. Vaughan and Robert Kirkman that will allow the former to write a “The Walking Dead” story for his online operation -- The Panel Syndicate.) What I’m trying to say is that after hearing about this series for a while and making mental notes to get around to reading it online, this landscape hardcover was released and I get to maintain my old habits. The wait was worth it, though, as “The Private Eye” is a thoroughly engaging read with lots of things to say about our current state of affairs with its near-future narrative.
The world of this series is that of one without the internet. When it was still operational several decades back, everyone stored all of their personal information on the cloud. Then the cloud burst and for forty days and forty nights everyone’s secrets came out for everyone to see. Lives were destroyed, families ripped apart, and corporations destroyed overnight. When it was over, the internet became a thing of the past and instead of exploring new ideas online, people became able to explore them in real life by adopting new identities -- disguises for real life called “nyms.”
In this world where a person’s privacy has become of paramount importance, the most powerful law enforcement agents are now journalists working for a citizen-revived branch of government known as the Fourth Estate. But what happens when you want to know something that isn’t public knowledge about someone? That’s when you turn to unlicensed journalists -- the paparazzi. Patrick Immelman -- P.I. to his clients -- is one such paparazzo and is also very good at his job. While there’s always a certain amount of danger associated with every job he undertakes, he winds up on a whole new level when the sister of a former client comes to see him about investigating her own past. Not only does she turn up dead soon after, but P.I. finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy to upend society as he knows it.
Vaughan and artist Marcos Martin have created a very interesting world here with “The Private Eye.” The idea that people would be able to walk around in costumes to protect their identities may come off as silly, but such a ridiculous overreaction to everyone’s secrets being made available to all does ring true. There’s also some good worldbuilding done through characters both young and old. Through P.I.’s young driver Melanie, we learn about how kids aren’t able to adopt nyms until they’re 18, assuming they haven’t committed any crimes before then. We also see millenials have adapted to this strange new world courtesy of P.I.’s granddad, who constantly rants about not being able to get any bars on his cell phone, being unable to connect online with other gamers, and how his generation was proud to share every bit of their personal lives because they had nothing to hide.
It’s great stuff and it works well within the story Vaughn and Martin are telling. Yet, this isn’t an entirely credible world if you start to think about it for a while. You do have to wonder just how security is managed in a place where people’s privacy is so closely guarded. Journalists and the Fourth Estate are thrown under the bus here for the purposes of the narrative, which is a bizarre narrative decision. I’m also wondering why journalists have to fire paint rounds first before noting they’re going to switch to live ammo. This could be Vaughan trying to make a point about police violence, but this requirement just seems to make what is already a fairly ineffective security force even less so.
At least the story itself is executed well enough to carry your interest over these issues with how the world is constructed. Though the setup is right out of the private eye trope book, it’s still involving because Vaughan not only knows how to dish out information in just the right way to build the reader’s interest, but also uses it as a vehicle to explore this new world. More than that, “The Private Eye” is blessed with a host of memorable characters. P.I. himself is a complicated individual forever in love with mysteries after the unsolved death of his mother. Melanie could’ve easily been a standard wisecracking teenage sidekick if it weren’t for her willingness to call other people (including her boss) out on their lies and her winning sense of humor. P.I.’s granddad is an even greater source of comic relief due to his status as a relic from another age, but also one with skills and knowledge from that time that prove to be plot-critical. (And if this is ever made into a TV series or movie, he HAS to be played by Alan Arkin -- no exceptions!) You’ve also got the gutsy Ravenna, sister to the murder victim who has the guts to help P.I. crack the case, a pair of French assassins of dubious competence, and an antagonist who genuinely believes that he’s doing the right thing even if it’s for all the wrong reasons. There are a few more that I’ve left out, but Vaughan does an excellent job fleshing out his cast in memorable ways.
Just as critical to the story is Martin’s art. The artist has never been one for intricate detail, but he’s always known how to make every line matter. To see his work here is an experience in storytelling precision as he conjures up a believable vision of a futuristic L.A. While the sklyine has more curves to it, Martin’s L.A. is also one that has been overwhelmed by freakshow culture thanks to the advent of nyms. You can try not to admire all the different identities cooked up by the artist for the crowd scenes, but that would be an exercise in futility. So would trying to resist the smoothness of his storytelling abilities as they suck you into the narrative. The opening sequence showing P.I. doing his job and escaping from a journalist is a mini-marvel in the way it establishes so many different things about this world and serves as a kick-ass action sequence to get you excited for what comes next.
It’s also worth mentioning that while the story is basically a future noir, it steadfastly avoids any hint of grim and grittiness in the art. Part of that is due to Martin’s clean style, and the rest to the lively colors of Muntsa Vicente. The world of this story is one with utterly vibrant colors that provide a delicious contrast to the darker parts of the narrative. Yes the art is great, but Vicente’s colors help make it even more memorable.
“The Private Eye” is, at its core, a detective story dressed up in modern trappings. Yet it also has things to say about how people’s privacy is managed, the role of internet in everyday life, and how the government interacts with the two. Some of these ideas a carried off a bit better than others -- would it surprise you to learn that the government might be up to something shady at the end of the story -- yet Vaughan brings them up in a way that begs for consideration without beating the reader over the head with any kind of specific agenda. However, these ideas are merely the gravy to a great story with memorable characters that anyone would do well to check out -- either online or in print.