A few weeks ago I talked a little bit about the new book that Brian K. Vaughan is working on, Saga, a planetary romance that he co-created with the brilliant Fiona Staples. Saga was one of my favorite books last year, and in my column I tried to give it all the praise that it deserved and also hopefully turn a few people onto it who might not have already been reading it.
Now it seems that Vaughan might have already landed a spot on my list of favorite comics from 2013 with a new comic that he and artist Marcos Martin released in March called The Private Eye.
I’ve been a fan of Marcos Martin since seeing his astounding linework in the pages of his and Vaughan’s Doctor Strange: The Oath, and then later in his and Dan Slott’s run on Amazing Spider-Man. His work was simple and clean, capable of being both highly detailed and uniquely expressive, and it contained a great deal of depth without being overly cluttered. He’s one of the few artists around that seems to enjoy really drawing comics rather than drawing glorified movie storyboards, if that makes any sense. Martin and Vaughan being paired up again on a totally new comic was a no-brainer for me.
There’s two things about The Private Eye that are amazing for me, that totally set it apart from the other comics I’m reading. The first thing is the comic itself. The story of The Private Eye is set in a future Los Angeles where the newspapers and the police force are one in the same. The hero of the story, tentatively named Patrick Immelmann, is a private detective, or “paparazzi.” Paparazzi are apparently illegal or operate in some kind of sketchy underground capacity, which sets up a conflict between what Patrick does and the journalist/cops, who seem to want a monopoly on the sharing of information. You can see the analogy here to old media versus new media.
The setup for the series is essentially the old noir/pulp chestnut of the gorgeous femme fatale who hires the private eye for a case that winds up taking him way out of his depth, an always reliable inciting event, especially for stories like this one. But it’s Vaughan, so of course he has a new angle to use with it, and a good portion of that angle is the world that he and Martin have conceived. There’s outlandish new technology everywhere, such as cloaking devices and holographic animal masks that seem to be all the rage in the future, although we’re still not completely sure why at this point.
Immelmann himself is a more old fashioned character, surrounding himself with trinkets from the past such as old vinyl records, print books and film noir movie posters. He also looks after an older character, “Gramps,” who appears to be a geriatric version of the modern hipster, and through him we get filled in on a little bit of the backstory of this world and why media has become what it is. As a journalism graduate and a total media nerd, this kind of stuff totally peels my banana, so to speak. It’s very Transmetropolitan-y, but updated for iPhone users and denizens of “the cloud.”
The other thing that puts this comic in a different league for me is its distribution format. Similar to what we’ve seen bands like Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails do in recent years with their new records, The Private Eye is available for digital download at a pay-what-you-want price point. Vaughan and Martin are offering you a 32-page comic book and you pay them whatever you think is fair in exchange for their product. Then they’re going to try to keep the series going with whatever money comes in, hopefully enough to realize the full 10-issues that Vaughan says he intends for the series to encompass.
Not only are these guys commenting on the state of new media and digital content, they’re actively participating in the digital revolution. If this idea pans out, I’m sure we will be seeing many other established comic book creators breaking away from even indie publishers to simply host image files of their creations on the web to be downloaded by fans in exchange for what the audience feels is a reasonable sum.
I would imagine that a lot of times piracy comes about as a result of readers feeling as though a single issue of a comic is too pricey for the tiny amount of entertainment that it’ll actually provide. Paying $4 for 10 minutes of story is a bit steep sometimes, especially when it’s an unfamiliar title or one in which the creator is “writing for the trade,” which I think really restricts the “wow” factor of the single issue. What Vaughan and Martin are doing neutralizes that problem because it totally hands the content over to the reader and asks them to decide for themselves what they think they should pay.
That’s the sort of freedom of choice that I would think so-called “pirates” are actually seeking, and this distribution method provides the solution. I don’t know if Vaughan and Martin are the first to use it, and I doubt that it’s a solution that would really be all that lucrative if the creators didn’t already establish a built-in fanbase through prior work at bigger publishers, but this is certainly an exciting endeavour, especially in conjunction with the subject matter put forth in the comic, and it’s something that comic fans should definitely be paying close attention to.
The other thing that this format does, is it really frees up Marcos Martin to do some absolutely stunning drawings. He’s drawing for the screen here, not the paper pamphlet, so he’s able to do some pretty amazing double-wide layouts. Cityscapes seem to go on for miles, crowds feel densely populated, and even the dialogue panels are allowed to be spacious and contain a lot of detail. On top of that, his linework is just absolutely gorgeous. Totally smooth, all finesse. Classic. Add to this Munsta Vicente’s amazing colors and you get one of the most beautiful comics of the year, at least in my book.
So, yeah. Another home run from Vaughan and Co. I can already tell this will be one of my top picks of the year, and I can’t wait to see where the story goes from here. That is, if we get to see the story through to completion. That’s where you come in. Head on over to Panels Syndicate and throw down a few bones on the first issue of The Private Eye. What you pay is totally up to you. See what you think. If you like it, shit, pay more. No one’s stopping you. And hopefully we can help these guys tell the story they want to tell and maybe usher in a new age in digital comics distribution in the process. How freaking cool would that be?
Also, FYI, Saga artist Fiona Staples is selling copies of her sketchbook as well as prints of different Saga covers over at Essential Sequential. She’s amazing, the art is amazing, I strongly urge you to check it out.