…it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you do that defines you.
Rachel Dawes, Batman Begins
Drew: As a child of the 90s, assured at every moment that it’s what’s inside that counts, the above sentiment confused me when I first heard it. The obvious difference is that, while after-school specials were focused on appearances and prejudice, Batman Begins is trading in ideologies. That is, the best of intentions don’t amount to a whole lot if you don’t act on them. Feeling guilty for being a jerk doesn’t actually excuse jerky behavior. Unfortunately, the practicalities of life force us into hypocrisy, as we cling to moral ideologies that we can’t actually measure up to. Think about how much you read compared to how much you want to read (or worse yet, how much you think you should), or how often you exercise, or call home, or see your friends. We want to be “better,” more ideological people than we are, and only occasionally do we put on a Batsuit to right those wrongs. Private Eye 4 finds DeGuerre reaching one of those ideological breaking points, only his goals aren’t nearly so noble.
The issue opens with P.I. and Raveena making good on P.I.’s suggestion that she couldn’t go out dressed as she was. Fortunately, his only lead is that the hit-men were wearing rare masks, so they’re able to pick up some new duds for her while on the hunt. Unfortunately, the nym shop owner is a strict observer of the fourth amendment, and entirely impervious to bribery, forcing P.I. to pursue an even more illegal lead: digging up Taj’s library search history. P.I. just so happens to have leverage over a librarian — that lovesick fish-headed guy from issue one — allowing them access to the central library. Of course, another librarian discovers them, and the chase is on! P.I. is able to get Melanie’s assist as getaway driver, but they crash and fly off of the overpass.
It’s a bravura sequence — artist Marco Marin alternates between invoking heft and seeming weightlessness, and I’m particularly enamored of the way he draws us from the right to the left for that bottom panel, making Melanie’s arm an unfortunate point of punctuation — but the real power here comes from the fact that it’s the last we see of this cast. The issue doesn’t end here, but writer Brian K. Vaughan pointedly leaves us hanging.
Instead, we’re treated to what DeGuerre is up to, and while he stops in to check on Nebular’s progress with the missile (or whatever it is), we get a tease that his occupation may note jibe with his philosophies. Sure enough, as we follow DeGuerre back to his day job, we realize that he’s the head of TeeVee — the company that makes those Big Brother TVs I got so excited about last issue. Oh, and just to remind you that he’s a bad guy, he casually takes advantage of his assistant.
This guy may be an idealist, but he’s living with some intense cognitive dissonance in order to do so. He laments the homogenization of American culture, but works for the organization that produces whatever Big Bang Theory knockoff the nym shop owner is watching, and is willing to accept an entirely dispassionate blow job. We know that he’s some kind of figure in international politics (or potentially the study of international politics), which brings up the great question of how the cloudburst effected the rest of the world — or really, any place that isn’t LA. Would this information matter in countries where the population isn’t nearly as narcissistic? What about in places where internet access is still incredibly limited.
This issue answers some of those questions, suggesting that privacy is now incredibly well-guarded (methinks the careers of many politicians were ended with the cloudburst) in spite of the presence of an eavesdropping TeeVee in everyone’s home. Search histories are so top-secret, they can’t even be opened to solve the murder of the searcher in question. In a world where our rights to privacy have been nibbled into smaller and smaller pieces by technology companies hoping to better target advertisements, that kind of protection sails past refreshing, landing it in over-the-top territory. Protecting a person’s privacy — even in death — is seen as more important than apprehending the person who killed them.
These are some neat ideas, but something about them felt a little more expository than I’m used to from Vaughan — I have a sneaking suspicion that concepts like the sacredness of search histories or nym purchases are going to need to be well established in order for some character down the road to stay hidden. I don’t necessarily have an explanation for this suspicion, other than the fact that Vaughan tends to loop back to characters and ideas he introduces earlier in a series. I’m generally impressed with this kind of stealth exposition, but something about the way this information is presented feels a bit like I’m being walked through something. I can’t put my finger on it, but I suspect it has something to do with the rapidly approaching end of this maxi-series.
What do you think, Patrick? Did this issue feel a little too expository to you? I know it’s a weird complaint to have when essentially every page of every issue leading up to this has introduced and explained new ideas, but something just felt different here. Do you have any idea what that might be? Or, am I going nuts? Also, I’m sure this isn’t a part of LA that you visit regularly, but I feel like that nym shop might already exist on Rodeo Drive? Is that possible?
Patrick: Rodeo Drive is the kind of place I drive through with friends when they visit me for the first time. I usually grumble something like “okay – seen enough?” and then we continue on to the beach or something. So I can’t speak with any authority as to whether Jackie’s Fine Nyms and Alternate Identities has any real-world analogue, but it wouldn’t surprise me. In fact, one of the things I noticed in this issue was that there was a little bit of reality creeping in around the corners. I’ve always liked being able to recognize pieces of LA the landscape in Private Eye, but it’s interesting to see modern culture pop up in interesting ways. Drew, you already mentioned that there’s a Big Bang Theory knockoff playing on the TeeVee in the nym shop – that’s such a specific reference, right down to main character wearing a Flash costume. In that same panel, you can see a Daft Punk nym on display on a mannequin.
I don’t really know how to use this information, but both BBT and DP are huge cultural touch stones. P.I. might like to think the world has changed a lot since his burnt-out grandfather’s generation let the cloud burst, but the omicient reach and power of corporations appear to have stayed the same. Just look at the food we see our characters eating in this issue: Nebular chows down on “Panda Dragon” — a kind of fast food chinese — and Melanie’s eating at a McDonalds drive-thru. I’m sorta bummed out that “Panda Dragon” isn’t simply “Panda Express,” but I guess no one wants to get sued. Pseudonyms be damned, the point is clear — and even if it’s not, DeGuerre is quick to articulate it:
Your country really is a melting pot. Boiling away all its original flavors until everything tastes like the same bland shit.
But then again, there appears to be an elevated train that takes people to Rodeo Drive… never mind – strike it all: Private Eye takes place is a bizarre fantasy land where the impossible is possible!
Drew, to speak to your question about exposition, I also trust Vaughan to deliver gratifying ends to all of the threads he sets up in this issue. In fact, he’s already begun paying off earlier threads – like Mr. Fishhead. Remember how we were introduced to him as a clever vehicle to explore what kinds of lengths you would have to go through to stay in touch with people in the half-stalkerish way we do now, but without the internet? That scene was delightful, but it was just an elegant info-dump. Bringing back that character adds value, not only to his introductory scene, but to this issue as well. He’s not just a frustrated family man looking back on his past girlfriends through pervvy, rose-tinted glasses, he also a hypocrite. Drew mentions that hypocrisy might just be the order of the day, as DeGuerre also appears to talk one way, but walk another. That may just be a symptom of this kind of story — corruption is commonplace in detective fiction — but it’s hard to shake the feeling that this world, and not this genre, is to blame.
Hey, so what do we make of the fact that our heroes t-bone a mail truck? That could be any vehicle, but Vaughan and Martin make a very specific choice here. First of all, it’s a government vehicle. Second, it’s something that delivers information to people’s doorsteps – presumably, it carries all kinds of sensitive information. And finally, it’s one of those nifty re-relevant relics of the past – just like the corded phone that Melanie has in her car. Maybe I’m looking at it too literally, and it doesn’t “mean” anything. Damn good scene-painting though.
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?