Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing The Private Eye 10, originally released March 19th, 2015.
Drew: One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever got was from my older brother as I was preparing an essay for my college applications. I don’t remember his exact words, but he advised me to ease off a bit on my conclusion, which he pointed out was trying way too hard to wrap my essay up with a grand statment of purpose. It’s a common tendency, but it’s easy to understand why: the end is your last chance to leave an impression on your audience — better make your big point now, whether you’ve earned it or not. That tendency becomes even more treacherous when the work in question is meant as a kind of critique of modern society, where the very idea of an ending might feel forced, and any kind of grand statement would feel particularly heavy-handed. It should be no surprise that the sly-as-ever The Private Eye 10 avoids this pitfall altogether, offering an ending so subtle, it might actually be too ambiguous.
I should clarify, because there are more than a few ambiguities at the end, but most are of the kind I’m not at all frustrated by. P.I. may be dead, or he may not be, but it really doesn’t matter as far as this story is concerned — he’s inspired Raveena to take up his mantle (and at least a scrap of his cloak), and he successfully thwarted DeGuerre’s plan to kickstart the internet. It’s that last bit that has me wondering what The Private Eye is really all about. We’ve spent the past nine issues knowingly chuckling at the garish real-world translations of internet culture — anonymity, “stalking” old friends, even researching basic information — but the cover-up of DeGuerre’s real motives, and especially the ease with which the media/government is able to do so in an age where they control all information, casts thwarting the satellite as something maybe less than a “win.” Perhaps the internet isn’t just a facilitator of nonsense, after all.
That, to me, is the real question left hanging at the end of this issue. Do we understand the parallel for our internet to be The Private Eye‘s society at large, where people are interested in cultivating their image to the exclusion of asking deeper questions about the stories we’re fed, or is our internet better represented by DeGuerre’s hope of a free exchange of information? I think the answer might be “both,” with the moral taking a pessimistic outlook on the state of the internet currently, with a more optimistic look at what it could be.
Brian K. Vaughan notes in the letters column that this series premiered before Edward Snowden famously released all of those classified documents, but it’s impossible not to interpret this issue in light of those events. Does the internet represent a dangerous invasion of our privacy, or is it the means through which those invasions of privacy are brought to light? More importantly, how do we value our privacy? Not to put too fine a point on it, Raveena and Strunk have out a discussion as old as time (certainly as old as the Ben Franklin quote Raveena so casually paraphrases).
Raveena is quick to point out that everyone has secrets that can destroy them — this society has firsthand knowledge of that — but Strunk isn’t really there to argue. It seems he’s there to warn her off of gumshoeing, going so far as to offer a scrap of P.I.’s dreamcoat as a twisted reminder of what happens when paparazzi get in over their head. Instead, it serves as a totem of P.I.’s heroism — after all, without his actions, they’d all have the internet now — which she takes up in kind. That may have been Strunk’s intention — it’s a deliciously ambiguous noir meeting they have — but it doesn’t matter, Raveena has found her new face.
Again, it may be more of a question mark than a full stop, but the more I think about it, the more this conclusion seems to swirl around the importance of privacy and anonymity. Perhaps the preciousness with which this world treats their own identities isn’t so much a satire of embarrassing online handles as it is a reaction to too much openness on the internet. In that way, being utterly invisible might be the best way to reap society’s benefits without sacrificing any liberties. Or maybe that sacrifices accountability — another casualty of the internet.
Spencer, I’m having so much trouble drawing conclusions that I’ve completely failed to mention Marcos Martin’s art, which I think we can agree is more criminal than leaking any number of classified documents. This issue might very well feature the most beautiful images of the entire series, but I’m most struck by the bigness of it. This issue features a ton of full-page spreads, and many more with a gargantuan scope, from an aerial shot of L.A. to a rapidly approaching tsunami. Did you have a favorite?
Spencer: I have a lot of favorites, Drew. I’m partial to the explosion of the rocket in the middle of the ocean, but if I have to pick just one spread to rave about, it has to be this one:
It’s probably the best action shot in the issue, if not the series; it’s detailed and dynamic but still clear and easy to follow, and Muntsa Vicente’s colors do a wonderful job of contrasting the dark of the night with the unnatural brightness of the rocket, as well as contrasting the eye-catching red of Raveena and Melanie against the more realistic colors throughout the rest of the spread.
Still, while that may be my favorite single image of the issue, there’s a sequence I like even more, and it comes at the end of the confrontation on the dam. The rocket’s exploded, P.I.’s been lost to the tsunami, and his friends and family are in shock; Vaughan and Martin play the scene with admirable restraint, letting the entire ordeal play out in silence before slowly fading away over the space of four full-page spreads. It starts with a shot of the battered dam, and then pulls away into the sky and grows dim; the third image is nothing but darkness, a black page of nothingness, which then abruptly cuts to this:
The transition from sheer darkness to this hyper-saturated, bright blue is jarring as hell, but that’s probably the point; we skip straight from the dark moment of our protagonist’s seeming death to a world that’s moved on, ignorant to what even happened, and even moreso to the sacrifices made along the way. The world three months later looks sunny and new, as bright as the shade of blue Vicente chooses here, but beneath that facade things are still as dark as ever, and the loss of P.I. hasn’t yet healed. Allowing that loss to sink in over those four images is a smart choice, but even smarter is the choice for all four pages to be spreads — as Drew mentioned, it adds to the bigness of the scene, and that bigness helps to better represent the enormity of the loss here. Thanks to the endless canvass self-publishing through Panel Syndicate provides them Vaughan and Martin have as much space as they want to let their story play out, and they make smart use of that freedom.
When it comes to the story itself — and especially what the message behind its ending may be — I admit that I’m as conflicted as you, Drew. Still, I really like the point you make about anonymity sacrificing accountability, as it’s an idea that popped into my more than once throughout the course of The Private Eye.
There are a lot of ways to be anonymous in the world of The Private Eye, from making a new pseudonym to disappearing entirely, but no matter how one goes about gaining it, that anonymity can be used to escape taking responsibility for one’s actions if they know what they’re doing. Really, this aspect of this internet-free society isn’t too different from what we have today; people use the anonymity of the internet to escape accountability, to say and do horrible things and then hide behind their unknowable virtual avatars when the consequences come pouring in.
Maybe our society today isn’t too different from the world of The Private Eye in most ways. Maybe what Vaughan is saying is that the internet is just a tool; it can be used to invade privacy, but it can just as easily be used to bring injustices to light; it can be used to help as easily as it can be used to hurt, and if the internet was to disappear tomorrow, people would carry on with these same behaviors using whatever tools they could. After all, the government of The Private Eye seems to have found a way to spy on its citizens even without the internet, and paparazzi have been invading the privacy of celebrities far longer than the internet has been around.
It’s a cynical take, but that cynicism feels right at home among Vaughan’s work. Still, there’s a layer of hope beneath The Private Eye‘s dark veneer, even if that hope is something that depends on each and every person as an individual as opposed to society as a whole. Vaughan shows that we all have a choice in how to use the internet and the options it provides, in how much of ourselves we want to reveal to the world and how much we want to keep hidden. For every DeGuerre (while the jury may be out on whether DeGuerre’s plan to bring back the internet would have been “good” or not, the fact that he murdered Raveena’s sister to bring it to fruition places him firmly in the “villain” camp) out there causing trouble there’s a P.I. using their resources for nobler goals — and for those of us with less-than-stellar internet track records, P.I.’s example even shows that redemption is still possible.
Ultimately, it’s hard to tell whether The Private Eye has a “happy” ending, or even what exactly the creative team may be trying to say about the internet and the idea of privacy (I mean, the themes and even the distribution model of The Private Eye ran a bit counter to the luddite persona Vaughan adopted in the letter column from the very start). I think it’s up to the reader to decide exactly what they may think Vaughan and Martin are trying to say and whether that message will affect their online practices or not.
For a book with a title character as elusive and mysterious as P.I., I suppose an ambiguous ending is appropriate; likewise, when it comes to a book about a private investigator, suggesting that the audience do their own digging, their own investigating, makes a lot of sense. For those reasons and many more, The Private Eye is a book that people will be talking about for a long time to come, and it should be fascinating to see whether its vision of the future becomes more or less prescient as time marches on.
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?