Back in the year 2016, all digital data accumulated on the Internet about everyone—email records, chat logs, photograph collections, search histories—suddenly rained down on the world. Nobody knows whether this “Cloud Burst” of virtual information was terrorism, a bug in the system, or an act of God. What is certain is that, in just 40 days, real people were ruined as their personal lives and lies were laid bare. Deprived of their secrets, people became acutely aware of how valuable privacy could be.
Now, in 2076, the world is a very different place. The Internet, long dismantled and abandoned, is little more than a myth to most people. Privacy is sacrosanct, and amateur reporting or digging into people’s personal lives is a criminal act. People move through their daily lives wearing elaborate masks and costumes to disguise their identities and take on pseudonyms to protect their privacy. Private Eye is an unlicensed investigator—a paparazzo—who finds out information people don’t want to share. He’ll find out anything about anyone… for a price. However, when a client with a strange request turns up dead, Private Eye finds himself on the run from both the law and contract killers.
In Private Eye, Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin have taken the grimy humanity and shades-of-grey morality of a sunshine noir and lovingly wrapped it up in the gleaming cityscape, future tech, and sociological exploration of a retro sci-fi story. If it sounds like a fantastic concept, that’s probably because it is. I’m also happy to report that the execution is every bit as excellent.
The story’s central theme, that everything is anonymous and the Internet is a thing of the past, drives much of the action and cleverly allows Vaughan to sidestep many of the worst traps that modern detective stories face. In a world where you can’t go online or pick up a cell phone, traditional investigative techniques like a good camera and a lot of legwork reign supreme. The maze-like plot moves briskly and, if the story’s catalyst is never completely explained, the conclusion of Private Eye is both satisfying and genre appropriate.
The cast of Private Eye hits many of the detective genre staples without feeling like recycled or stock characters. Their unique motivations and personalities influence their perception of the plot and their reactions to events. This creates interesting tensions even between characters ostensibly “on the same side.” The antagonist, who teeters dangerously close to cliché evil villain at times, even manages a few moments of complexity, and his motivations are clear and understandable, even as his methods are odious.
The artwork, provided by Martin, is crisp and detailed. His vision for an LA of the future is colorful, chaotic, and kinetic. Bright pastel buildings sheathed in neon lights tower behind brutal concrete structures covered in lush urban farms. Sleek futuristic cars that use magnetic levitation cruise on elevated expresses beside “classic” cars from 2015. Nowhere is Martin’s playfulness and energy more clearly seen than in the characters populating the world of Private Eye. There’s endless variety to the clothing and disguises that allow Martin’s characters to hide their identities; Martin presents a veritable kaleidoscope of masks and elaborate costumes, all drawn with an eye for detail. While Private Eye is full of the kind of outlandish and bizarre outfits that would be at home in a digital playground, Martin has also come up with some interesting fashion choices that seem plausible as fashion of the future (honestly, I’d wear some of them right now, if I could).
Interestingly, Vaughan and Martin’s work has turned out to be somewhat prescient. Private Eye was designed and released before many of our own digital clouds started to burst, predating Edward Snowden’s release of NSA data, the hacking of Sony Pictures, and the iCloud celebrity photo leaks. So far, we’ve managed to avoid banning the Internet (lucky for this site!), but it does lead to some interesting parallels and makes the book an excellent start to larger discussions about privacy, information, and the ways we present ourselves.
Private Eye was originally conceived of and released as an online exclusive through Vaughan and Martin’s digital publishing site, Panel Syndicate, but has since seen both a physical release and a collected digital edition. Because it was designed as a digital release first and foremost, the entire book is presented in “widescreen” format; on a mobile device, it is best viewed turned sideways to view the wider pages. The collected edition also includes a number of special features, such as correspondence between Vaughan and Martin and early characters sketches that fans may find interesting.
Private Eye would make an excellent selection for an adult graphic novel book group. It deals with culturally relevant social issues in a serious and thoughtful manner and provides the sort of action and intrigue that fans of crime novels expect. This would also be a good choice for noir readers looking to add some sci-fi to the mix. While the subject matter in particular might appeal to teens, the strong violence, scenes of male and female nudity, and some frank sexual content may make this inappropriate for younger readers.
by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Marcos Martin