If you’re reading this post, you’re almost certainly aware that Brian K. Vaughan teamed up with Marcos Martin to announce a mysterious independent comic project last Monday. People were excited. The excitement only grew when Vaughan announced that the book would be available for download, DRM free at the Panel Syndicate website on the following day, and that fans could pay what they want. In a FAQ for the project and in an interview with the NY Times’ George Gustines, Vaughan noted that the continuation of the series was dependent on financial support from readers and that the proceeds would initially go towards paying Martin and Muntsa Vicente (the colorist) for their work, with any additional profits shared by Martin and Vaughan.
This raises two obvious questions.
(1) Is this important?
(2) Is this book any good?
I think the answer to the first question is a qualified yes, at least for high-profile creators. As to the second question, it’s a slickly produced, briskly paced book with a clever script from Brian K. Vaughan and gorgeous artwork from Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente.
There’s been a lot of excitement around this project, which can be attributed to the popularity of the creators involved, Vaughan’s marketing savvy and the appeal of the “pay what you want” model. The Private Eye also serves as a timely reminder that there are viable alternatives to the lease model of digital comics distribution. In the last few weeks, readers were disappointed by the limits of Marvel’s Netflix-like Digital Comics Unlimited IOS/android app (subscribers can only download 10 comics for offline viewing) and the open-ended leases offered by Comixology and JManga. Vaughan, Martin and Vicente reminded us that there is a simple, consumer friendly alternative. Just sell the comic to people who want to buy it. No shell games or cleverly worded contracts. No deceptive ‘crowdfunding’ campaign on Kickstarter. Just click the link, contribute what you want and download your book.
It’s not the most original idea in the world (note that the best book of 2010 is available for download in pdf and cbz formats on My Digital Comics), but illustrates that the traditional gatekeepers are far less necessary than they were in a pre-digital age, particularly for high-profile creators. There’s something tremendously appealing about the notion that Vaughan and Martin are making these issues available to readers right after they are finished (as Vaughan suggests in the backmatter of the first issue). It’s as close as a reader of mainstream American comics can get to the creative process – two incredibly talented creators making and sending their art to us without any intermediaries. There are still a number of unknowns. In his NY Times interview, Vaughan mentioned that a sizable number of consumers paid about 2.99 for the first issue, but I’d be interested in knowing more about the financial side of this project. What was the average price paid by consumers? How much did they earn for that first issue? I think transparency around the economics of the Private Eye project wouldn’t only be fascinating to observers, but to other creators. I’d also be curious to know more about the financial threshold for completing the ten-issue series and how subsequent issues will be announced/marketed. I’m almost certain that I will never know the answers to these questions, but that’s okay for now. After reading the first issue, I know that I want more of this.
The premise is appealingly simple – a noir set in a near future world obsessed with privacy. A private detective like figure is hired to help a person ensure that the skeletons in their closet stay where they belong. Complications ensue. There’s an interesting twist in the first issue that I won’t spoil. I think it goes without saying that Marcos Martin’s art is brilliant in this issue. His figures, his storytelling…
I just finished reading this wonderful post by Jesse Hamm about Alex Toth’s brilliance as a designer and there’s something about his description of Toth’s commitment to simplicity and clarity that remind me of Martin. The first thing I noticed about this book was how easy it was to read. I just glided through the thirty pages and was at Vaughan’s backmatter in what felt like a matter of moments. At first, I thought that I was skimming or distracted, but when I revisited the issue, I realized that it was just because Martin made everything so simple. Every panel (and every image in the panel) has a defined purpose. Everything’s clear. You absorb the information without even thinking about it. It’s pretty amazing.
Martin and Vicente create a world that feels plausible by blending futuristic elements (hovering cars and holographic projectors) with familiar anachronisms like Walkmen and telephone booths. I know that there’s a specific reason in the plot for this weird mix of analog and digital, but it also helps sustain the absurd futuristic noir atmosphere. On some level, it even grounds the story in a recognizable reality (as do the familiar brands that Martin places in the background). Our present is filled with echoes of the past, so it’s only natural that our future will look a little bit like today.
The pages are all slightly oversized, which might be annoying on a computer, but is perfect on a tablet. Gently swiping across each page to get to the right quarter of the image almost creates an illusion of motion, one that’s far more appealing than all the motion comics initiatives (which tend to distract me from the story). The weird size of the pages also gives the story a sense of scope that’s pretty entertaining, particularly during an early chase scene. It also gives Martin the space to play with panel placement and perspective in an incredibly entertaining way.
I wasn’t very familiar with Vicente’s work (a quick check of his website indicates that she’s a talented illustrator who’s done work on Captain America and a recent I Heart Marvel anthology), but was blown away by her coloring in this issue. I particularly loved her use of color to reflect the emotional state and actions of the characters, as well as to establish atmosphere. Vicente’s color choices help underline the impact of the violent sequence at the end of the first issue (I love how the muted aquamarine room shifts to red and then a brighter aquamarine at the end of the issue). I read this issue on a first generation iPad, and the colors were rich and impressive. I know that this might come out in trade at some point in the uncertain future, but I can’t imagine reading this in any format.
Vaughn’s writing is less awe-inspiring, but effective. He’s just mastered the art of writing an individual issue of a comic book. He sets up the premise, introduces the main characters, lays the groundwork for the conflict, and all with a minimum of exposition or unnecessary dialogue. It’s a showcase for Martin and Vicente, and Vaughan gives the two space to work. His dialogue is typically strong, clever and fast-paced without being too artificial or self-indulgent. He embraces the satirical elements of the story while establishing a believable set of stakes.
Private Eye is potentially revolutionary because it should be ordinary. An original story that’s told well by three extremely talented craftspeople. No gimmicks. No distractions. No complicated debates about lease terms and economic models. It’s worth thinking about why this is so unusual in the digital marketplace for mainstream American comics.
Note: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Muntsa Vicente as a male (in the third to last paragraph). Thanks to Carey for pointing that out. I apologize for the error.