In the future, everyone will wear masks. After a now-historical release of all information–all information–contained in the cloud, society is transfigured, with an emphasis on anonymity and disguise. Journalism is strictly state-controlled, with unlicensed journalists running around as hired criminals.
This is the world of The Private Eye, a new digital comic book written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Marcos Martin. Yesterday, the first issue was released through Panel Syndicate, available by donation–pay as much as you like and download the comic in several formats and languages. It is an intriguing shift away from traditional models of comic book distribution, particularly given that both Vaughan and Martin are mainstays of the Big Comics publishers like Marvel and Image.
Everyone is not who they appear to be. We open with a young man–let’s call him PI–capturing a young woman in a bikini on camera from a neighbouring building. It’s a very blatant moment of the Male Gaze–she’s the standard Pretty Blonde White Girl, scantily clad, positioned in the camera sight. But the money shot is when the woman pulls her own face off and reveals another, plainer one. The Male Gaze complicated by illusion. Around that time, the police–or possibly licensed reporters–show up. PI throws himself off a building to escape.
It is a first issue, an opening chapter, and Vaughan drops us into the world with only enough detail to ground ourselves while we stay running. PI moves like a shark through his world, he’s deft, and we are expected to mimic him. The script feels very tight and efficient, not allowing itself too many excesses.
The comic has its share of genre tropes, though. It’s riffing on a very standard genre, the detective noir, and relies heavily in the accepted structure of the genre–a woman comes to his office to hire PI for a job, and it’s a strange case that attracts his attention. She’s mysterious, which is fairly standard, but that has far less cultural capital in this world where mysterious is the baseline. Vaughan gives us a couple supporting characters, including PI’s presumable grandfather, an old man who who remembers the world before the cloud-burst, part of the generation who freely documented and broadcasted their entire lives.
Ultimately, though, the star attraction is Marcos Martin’s artwork. Martin helped to revitalize Spider-Man over at Marvel, with clean, fluid lines. His Spider-work ghosts through the story, as PI is another thin, acrobatic photographer moving expertly through an urban space. Martin has a strong sense of panorama and clean storytelling. He also has a great deal of casual charisma, populating the city with a wide variety of masks and costumes and personae. Vaughan’s script is tight and entertaining–it’s popcorn–but Martin’s artwork is sumptuous and breathtakingly immersive.
I’m curious to see if Vaughan will step up his game with the writing to match the artwork, if he’ll explore deeper territory and push his plotting and character work to match Martin’s imagery, but for the moment it’s delightful and energetic, unsullied by the mechanics of the editorial oversight indicative of the Big Comics scene these days.
I’m curious to see how the model will do in the long run, and I have to wonder how much of it’s immediate success–within hours, Paypal had a conniption–has to do with Vaughan and Martin being respected and well-known names in the Comics world. It’s certainly a model that can be applied to other artists, particularly as there are more and more people working and publishing online, developing fanbases independent of having work with the Big Comics corporations, and it’s a nice reminder that there are always ways of distributing our work without having to restrict ourselves to the traditional gatekeepers.