In The Private Eye, writer Brian K. Vaughan, artist Marcos Martin and colorist Muntsa Vicente create a world where the cloud broke, destroying society as we know it. I’m not talking about a physical cloud, but the digital cloud. Decades before the setting of the book, 2076, everybody’s digital secrets were exposed for the rest of the world to see and chaos ensued. This moment in time caused the world to overthrow the Internet and retreat into levels of privacy that we would consider bizarre. People wear elaborate disguises in public and move from identity to identity with relative ease. There is no Internet and computers seem to be rare. If you want to search for things you have to go to heavily guarded and secure libraries where librarians are authorized to use lethal force to protect your search history. Want to meet up with your college girlfriend? Tough, because unless she gave you her contact information that is up to day there is almost no way to contact or find her (no yellow pages or Facebook).
In this world journalists have evolved to take on a government sanctioned role as legal enforcers. It’s unclear why this happened actually, maybe because private information has become so valuable, but the “Fourth Estate” is now a legally backed arm of the law. In fact, they may be the only arm of the law, since the book doesn’t show any other agencies that function along with them. The story follows a young man who goes by the name of P.I. (Pie) who is an unregistered “papparazo.” He’s basically a private investigator and does what the licensed journalists do, but illegally and for a price. Want to know if your wife is having an affair? Even though in this world you have zero right to know? Contact P.I. and maybe he will figure it out. Anyways, the book follows him as he and an old client named Raveena get wrapped up in the diabolical machinations of a wealthy businessman who wants to launch a satellite into space that will bring back the Internet. He also murdered a bunch of people, including Raveena’s sister, which is how the whole story gets started.
The central mystery is a good one, but I think what sets this book apart is the fascinating world that the creators have built. This is a trademark Brian K. Vaughn comic books. Y The Last Man and Saga are among the most richly developed and unique worlds I’ve ever experienced and he wrote both of them. Since the very early days of the Internet, science fiction has become saturated with extrapolations of the Internet; a deeply interconnected cyber world is extremely commonplace these days but The Private Eye goes in the completely opposite direction. This world has hologram technology, amazing medical technology but practically no cyber connection between people. It is really fascinating to think about because our modern world is going in the opposite direction in so many ways; we still want and protect privacy, but it’s so often breached that most intelligent people just assume they will get hit eventually. In a time where privacy as a concept and a right is under fire and evolving at light speed, this book offers a really great look at where all that might lead us.
Little moments throughout the book offer strong critiques of the way the modern world is currently operating. One character notes that there was more advancement of technology in the first 5 years after the Internet was destroyed than there had been for it’s entire existence. Instead of creating the next great app or a better way to transfer information across Wi-Fi, people had to go out into the world and actually do things. It’s an honest and powerful moment that could be easily missed if you’re not paying attention. I wish that the motivations of the antagonist had been fleshed out a little more though; I’m not saying his aims need to be justified equally, but I would have liked something more about why he wants to do what he does. All we know about him is that he wants the Internet back but we never learn why. He’s not old enough to be missing the Internet, I think, and he never makes a specific point for why he hatched his plan. Actually, most of the characters are a little mysterious. P.I. is young, bisexual, of mixed ethnicity and an orphan. Other than that, I don’t get much of a read for why he does what he does. There is a flashback that explains his contempt for the Fourth Estate, but we don’t get much beyond that. He is a good counterbalance to the culture of his era at large. His statement that people deserve to know about things that have a direct effect on them is strong and stands apart from the belief in his society of privacy at any cost. But that’s a minor critique really; he’s still a compelling and well-created protagonist.
The best character though, from a purely entertainment view, is P.I.’s grandfather, who is my generation grown old. Grumpy, full of tattoos and desperate to get his old iPhone working, he plays video games and wants the world to be the way it once was. While he’s not really a damning critique of our generation exactly, there is nothing really wrong with him per se (sexual misconduct in his younger years notwithstanding), he is a really great reminder that the world will pass my cohort by and that someday we will be old and out of touch with the world and culture.
The art, arguably the most important part of a comic book, is simply stunning. Marcos Martin is a monster talent who has been one of the best artists in the medium for quite sometime. The world he creates is lush and beams with life in a way that few comic books do. He has this really delicate and thin line that capture the shape and weight of people and places in a really great and unique way. There is a chase scene early in the first issue that captures the feeling of movement and crackle of people in motion and conflict that jumps off the page. The cityscapes he draws walk the fine line between recognizable and futuristic in much the same way Blade Runner or Star Wars. It’s remarkable. Not to be left out, the coloring job by Munsta Vicente brings it all together. Overhead shots of the city at night come alive with a cacophony of sound and motion thanks to the coloring job and action scenes are elevated because of the way the colors bring them to life. Black and white comics can be some of the best things around, but this book would have looked incomplete without colors; the vibrancy of the book comes from the colors. I can’t say this book is worth it just for the art in it, comics is a synthesis of words and images after all, but The Private Eye comes real close to getting me to utter that clique.
What strikes me the most about this book is that it presents a world that I would not necessarily want to live in, but one that I could live in. As the world attempts to push privacy aside, which is a trend I’m actually kind of on board with (kind of, everybody calm down), it’s intriguing to think about a future that goes in the other direction, that somehow turns the tide against the wave of technology and culture that values privacy less and less. That being said, the creators do a good job of reminding us that even in a world like this, things are not necessarily better, they are largely just different. P.I. makes a good point when he says that people deserve to know things that effect them, even if by knowing said thing the privacy of others might have been breached. I found myself thinking a lot about the confluence of privacy and technology. Like all great science fiction, The Private Eye is as much a prophetic warning against where our world could take us as it is a fun adventure in a fantastical world.
You can get this complete, ten-issue story if you go here where you can pay whatever price you like for all ten issues; you can even get it all for free. That’s right, you get access to one of the best comics in years for nothing. If you are super cheap. If you are just cheap, like me, you pay one dollar per issue. At least. This book will not disappoint you. Science-fiction these days often forgets that it’s supposed to contain a political/social message as well as a fun adventure and The Private Eye does an excellent job of containing both.