The Private Eye 1

Alternating Currents: The Private Eye, Patrick and Drew

Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing The Private Eye 1, originally released March 20th, 2013.

Patrick: Read The Private Eye. I don’t like starting off our conversation with a demand, but I feel justified in making this one. The story takes place in Los Angeles in the late 21st Century, but it is a decidedly old-fashioned detective story. It’s written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Marcos Martin. You can download the issue at Panel Syndicate for whatever price you think is fair (even if you this $0.00 is fair — the ol’ In Rainbows trick). This is a comic that it is absolutely worth going out of your way to find and to spend money on. But you don’t have to do either.

As this is the first chapter of a proposed 10-issue detective story, it is particularly tricky to summarize the action in this issue. The issue is ripe with exposition, setting up the unique world of this series. The information is so carefully portioned out that it seldom feels like Vaughan is sitting you down and lecturing at you. And on the singular occasion that he does, it’s a fresh breath of clarity — one that seems revelatory and self-damning at the same time. I’m about to break down the story here, and much of that grace is going to be lost — so please please please: read the issue first. Also, we never get a real name for our main character, so excuse the clumsiness as I refer to him as about a billion descriptive pseudonyms. Hell, who needs a name when you have such a clean and graphic concept as a face on the back of a hood?

Face on the back of the hood

The issue opens on the sight of a man hiding in the bushes outside of a woman’s apartment as he snaps pictures of her. It seems like pretty straightforward pervert stuff until the woman starts to peel a mask off of her face. But the situation quickly escalates as our peeping tom is confronted by the cops and a full-fledged urban chase scene breaks out. Here’s our first vocabulary lesson for this series (and there will be a lot of them): Journalists are any kind of investigators, so this detective is a Correspondent and the shutter bug that’s currently being chased through the streets is Paparazzi. Once the Correspondent comes to the conclusion that he is on the tail of Paparazzi, his Bureau  Chief and is authorized to open fire on him. The gun fires paint balls – the intent is to tag the Paparazzi and invalidate his anonymity. But our boy is too good, and gives his pursuer the slip.

The next morning, the PI meets with the man that hired him to take those pictures. He looks like he has a fish head. Don’t worry – he only looks that way.

Private Eye finishes the job

Fish Man here refers to the various nyms his old friend started using — cue our next vocab lesson. Nyms are the various disguises (holographic and otherwise) that people use to obscure their identity. Fishy asks if he can see this woman, and the PI basically tells him to stop dreaming — he could deliver a message to her if he liked, but it would be expensive and likely wouldn’t end well. This scene is incredible and seemingly underlines and undermines the whole premise of the series, but does so before that premise is explicitly stated. We’ll circle around to this in a bit.

Back at the PI’s office, a woman walks in asking for help. (I told you it was an old fashioned detective story.) She’s wearing a holographic tiger nym when she comes in, but deactivates it at the PI’s request. Her name is Taj McGill, and the PI had done some work for her sister in the past. She leaves a $5,000 deposit and asks the PI to look into her own past because she’s applying for some high-profile job (“one of the few gigs that still runs background checks on all applicants”) and she wants to make sure her dirt is properly buried. Before he can properly accept the job, the PI gets a call from his grandfather, who badly needs his grandson to come see him.

Grandpa sits alone staring at his bricked iPhone, complaining that he can’t get the thing to work. That’s when the PREMISE IS ANNOUNCED: 60 years ago, all the information on the internet was made public. Like public public — every PIN, every photo, every Google search became free game. This ruined everyone’s lives, so human beings collectively decided to shut the internet down. In the 2070s, there is no internet.

With that information, let’s go back to some of this earlier business. Fishy’s actions might have seemed creepy at the time, but all he’s really asking for are the services provided by Facebook. He just wants to see what she’s up to now, maybe send her a message that she’ll probably ignore. This scene serves to demonstrate to the readers how warped our views of privacy have become. PI’s grandfather claims that he was (and by extension we are) of the generation that was “proud of who were were. We didn’t have anything to hide.” Vaughan avoids making a judgment about the vanity of this mentality, but let’s the practical security questions linger just long enough for you to realize you willingly inputted your credit card number so you could read this fun story.

It’s also fascinating to me that the world simply finds different ways to have that on-line experience, namely achieving anonymity in real life. That’s why the paint gun the Corresponding is toting is such a big deal, that’s why everyone wears masks, that’s why its odd that Taj’s job would require a background check.

Drew, I could ramble on about the internet-living commentary (and fully acknowledge the irony of doing so on our website), but I suspect you’ve got some good stuff to say about the detective story aspect of this issue. So, is this everything you ever wanted from a futuristic noir mystery?

Drew: Any points I have about the detective beats are part and parcel of what I want to say about this issue as a whole: it’s devastatingly clever. Sure, that scene in PI’s office is a classic dame-walks-in-after-closing, but it also riffs on and openly references similar scenes. It’s no mistake that there’s a poster for The Maltese Falcon on his wall, but old detective stories aren’t the only pop-culture name-checked here. The other poster we see, Angel Face, still kind of fits — it’s not technically a detective story, but it’s decidedly noir — but Vaughan and Martin make a point of showing us selections from PI’s record and book collections, which run into contemporary faire like The Audacity of Hope and Freakonomics, along with classics like Tropic of Cancer or Something Happened. The implication is that PI has some retro tastes (or are these antiques by this time?), which is borne out by the analogue trappings of his office (and, as we learn in the opening scene, that his “Dreamcoat” is an “old form of urban camouflage”). But of course, Vaughan has to have a little bit of fun with the idea of what the “classics” might look like in the future, cramming in an as-yet-unreleased album (on vinyl, no less) by The Flaming Lips, “Their It Was” — presumably the consequent bookend of their first album, “Hear It Is.”

Those details set the scene remarkably well, but I can’t help but wonder if the referenced works might play a bigger role in the narrative going forward. In particular, the Angel Face poster is featured rather prominently in that scene, which rather effectively establishes Taj as a femme fatale figure — a point which comes across even with no familiarity of the film itself.

Angel Face

The double emphasis on “Kill” from the movie’s tagline makes it perfectly clear that Taj might be more than she appears. At the end of the issue, we discover that she most certainly is, but she’s also dead, voiding any threat that she might pose — at least directly. It seems that her killer may be coming for PI next, which could be the danger implied by that scene, but I’m honestly not sure if the allusion to Angel Face was intended entirely to fake us out. Were we only supposed to read into it to goose the shock value of Taj’s death, or might there be a larger reference at play here? I have no idea, but I’m as intrigued as hell.

The idea of recreating social media in the real world is fascinating, and Vaughan makes sure to hit every side of it. The issue feels as though it offers a general anti-internet sentiment (and Vaughan fully acknowledges the irony in his afterword), but closer inspection reveals that it is much more complex than that. Sure, recreating anonymity or the ubiquity of ads in the real world draws our attention to the absurdity of those things, but this future also sharply contrasts the free exchange of ideas that the internet provides. I’m not sure that the loss of internet would place us in a propaganda-only media world, but it would limit our access to the diversity of opinions out there.


Actually, I’m not even sure Vaughan is rallying against the anonymity of the internet. Sure, everyone looks absurd, but Taj makes a pretty compelling case for why anonymity mighty be important — a pretty far cry from the “only criminals need to hide their identity” argument I still occasionally hear from grown-ass adults. It’s obviously a complicated subject, but we don’t really need an opinion about it to appreciate just how different the world would be if people treated their identities the same way they do their internet identities.

I mentioned the irony that an internet-only comic would be about an internet-free world, but what really fascinates me about this series is the way it embraces the medium. Martin has adapted to a digital-only environment just as well as the characters have adapted to their digital-free environment. Each “page” is laid out with respect to a practical, computer-friendly aspect ratio — a radical departure from the “more or less ignore that these might be read digitally” approach that most creators (and publishers) take to their comics. It makes for a dramatically different — and easy — reading experience, setting a brilliant example that publishers would do well to follow.

It’s an interesting premise, set in a fully-realized world, and deployed with intelligence and skill. It’s a fantastic first issue for what promises to be a singular series. Patrick said it right the first time: read The Private Eye.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

19 comments on “The Private Eye 1

  1. Whenever I write about BKV, I always have to fight the impulse to say what his single greatest strength is as a writer (I might fail at that sometimes, come to think of it). This world is so marvelously realized, and the dialogue is so rich and the plotting it tight as a drum. I realize it’s trite, but Brian K. Vaughan is a great fucking writer.

  2. One thing that always makes me uncomfortable about the “name your own price” system is what it actually means. Like, I’m used to paying $2.99 for my comics, but is that what they’re worth to me? What about a really really good comic? What about the fact that I want to encourage this kind of project in the future? When In Rainbows came out, I was a college student with no income, so I downloaded it for free, but I can afford more than that now. I ended up paying more than a normal comic, but I anticipate reducing the price for future installments. I figured I could demonstrate what the project means to me with that first payment, even though I couldn’t justify spending that much for ten issues. Am I overthinking this, or did anyone else have a little anxiety about setting their price?

    • I’ve read interviews with Thom Yorke where he’s said that releasing In Rainbows that way was one of the biggest mistakes Radiohead ever made. Not because it hurt the band – they actually did very well, and their music made it out to a lot of people. The problem is that it set a precedent of devaluing content, which Yorke traced to rise of streaming music services, like the now ubiquitous Spotify. If you let the audience not to pay for content, then they come to expect not-paying for content. And there’s always going to be a Radiohead or a Brian K. Vaughan that can afford to let you access their work for freesies – they’re big enough entities that the increased profile leads directly to more money and more work elsewhere. But someone new to the game can’t afford to offer their stuff for free. The irony is that we end up having to pay for the lower quality products and get the higher quality stuff for free.

      I DO NOT think you’re over-thinking this.

      • I can’t help but think of every aspect. Like, Vaughan and Martin are obviously getting a bigger cut with no publishers, distributors, or retailers acting as middle-men, but they’re also incurring all of the overhead costs themselves (which I’m certain were NOT cheap). I have no point of reference for what percentage of the gross might go to the creatives, but even with the overhead considerations, more of anyone’s $2.99 is likely making it to Vaughan and Martin than with a print comic. Still, when I consider how much I actually value a comic like this (and even the idea of a comic like this), I’m willing to shell out a hell of a lot more than $2.99. Patrick hits the nail on the head in the next thread, where he calls it “spending more than what I’ve been trained to think a comic is worth, but probably less than what I actually value it at.”

  3. First of all, THANK YOU. Your twitter feed here on this site turned me onto this comic’s existence last night and so I come here a man informed (I think I’ve said this before, but this site is awesome!). As the both of you, I love this first issue; I studied cinema in college and fell in love with noir films, and being that the more BKV I read the more I love the man (in a totally heterosexual way), this is right up my alley, I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

    As for the price thing, I’m glad I’m not the only person fretting over it. I’m a student (again) so finances aren’t huge, I did pay something for the issue, but not as much as I should have. Part of me wishes (although given the afterword I have doubts) that this will eventually come out as a physical copy, at which time I would gladly pay for it again, full tpb price. much as the concept is rad and the layout well adapted to computer reading, I’m a sucker for BOOKS. So I hope it does, so I can own this at home in rid myself of some guilt by shelling out more money for this awesomeness than I can justify to myself in this digital only format.

    • Oh you are quite welcome. It was kind of a surprise for me when I heard about this thing (some of which was from angry twitterers who wanted this thing to be physical too), so it seemed like the kind of thing we should get the word out about. Glad it worked!

      I address the pay thing below, but I never know what to pay for these things. Same deal with Kickstarter – what does it mean when I say I want to support something $20 worth? I get inside my own head about it and — for something like this — end up spending more than what I’ve been trained to think a comic is worth, but probably less than what I actually value it at.

      • Kickstarters are usually easier, because I pick the price-point that gets me the prize I want to receive, but yeah, it was hard to choose what to pay for this one.

        I just wanted to say thank you to you guys for this review. I had been wanting to buy this book for days, but then forgot about it, and seeing this reminded me to go actually buy this and I’m really happy I did. Great book. I don’t think I have anything to add to it, you guys covered it very well, but yeah, this was just fantastic. I cant wait until the next issue.

  4. Patrick — did you read this on your computer or on the Kindle? I know you’re pretty used to reading on the kindle at this point (and actually, is the aspect ratio of that screen just the inverse of the standard computer monitor?), but this was a very singular experience for me in that the page filled up my whole screen. With comixology, I’m constantly zooming in to read the thing and zooming out to get a sense of how the page sits as a whole. This didn’t have any of that. Like I said, the page fit my screen perfectly, so I was just scrolling through pages. The pdf version also had a very smooth zoom action — much easier than the clunky zooming on comixology. I would love to see more comics in this format (and yes, I realize there are a LOT of digital comics that have been taking advantage of the whole screen for years, but we’ve stuck pretty closely to titles that are released physically, even if we’re reading them digitally.

    • I read it on my computer, but only because I would have had to do some tricksy shit to get it on my Kindle in the first place. Well, not tricksy, just not my typical comic downloading process – if I could just tap through it on Comixology, I would have done on the Kindle.

      Incidentally, Infinite Comics look fucking great on the Kindle. We’re going to be covering the four Guardians of the Galaxy infinites in one big Alternating Current in a few weeks, so I’ve read the first two. The experience is fine on the computer, but it’s a fucking revelation on a tablet.

  5. Slightly off topic: do you guys send some sort of congratulatory email for getting inducted into the guest writer database, or do you only contact people once you’ve selected them to write for something? Somewhat more on topic: if I’m in the database, add this title right after Batman in my “most want to write about”, and you can throw Superior Spider-Man, All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men on my pull as well.

  6. Here’s something right out of panel syndicate’s FAQ which makes me feel better about myself:
    “How much does each issue cost?

    That’s entirely up to you. Here in the States, full-length comics usually cost at least three bucks, but we think 99 cents is a pretty fair asking price for our new issues. Whatever you decide, 100% of your purchase price will go towards helping us complete our story, so thanks!”

    I ponied up more than a buck so all of a sudden, BKV manages to make me feel like I’m not such a dick after all.

  7. Despite being a faithful reader of this site, I don’t actually read comics outside of a handful of graphic novels. But since you ordered me to read it at the beginning of the article, and since it was easily and cheaply available, lo and behold I downloaded it and read it. I was blown away. Beautiful visuals and truly imaginative writing have me hooked, and waiting for the story to continue. Thanks.

    • We are still waiting for news on that one. BKV’s letter at the end of the first issue made it sound like they were only “hopeful” that they could manage to roll this into a whole series (I’d guess based on the money they brought in from the pay-what-you-want model). Don’t worry, we’ll be sounding alarms when we do hear about the second issue.

  8. Pingback: Analog 1: Discussion | Retcon Punch

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