The Private Eye by Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martin began its life as a pay-what-you like ten issue webcomic. This odd release format garnered some attention from the industry, not hurt by having one of comics' biggest creators behind it, but, as was perhaps to be expected, it became less talked about as time went on. Now available in a gorgeous hardcover edition The Private Eye reads like any other mainstream sci-fi book from Image over the last few years albeit a fairly good one. Set sixty years in the future, the book's central conceit is that a massive leak of private information from the internet in the past (i.e. right now) plunged the world into chaos and eventually ended the internet entirely. Now, due to lingering memories of this privacy break, everyone is allowed, after age 18, to create an alternate identity for themselves and wear an alternate identity everywhere. Also, for reasons I don't think are ever made clear, the police and the press have become one entity of reporting and law enforcement. Our main character who goes simply by P.I. is a paparazzi or private detective who is tasked with running a background check on a young woman before being slowly embroiled, in the tradition of detective stories, into a murder mystery.
Brian K. Vaughan is known for writing with an extremely distinct voice across all of his books. His characters speak sarcastically and cuss, the worldview is cynical, an author avatar in the form of a hip generation x male is present, and the speculative elements in the science fiction are never focused upon. Vaughan's self assure style can come off as over-clever bordering on pretentious, and in past has grated on me in books like Saga and Y The Last Man. However, in the case of The Private Eye Vaughan borrows the well trod style of the noir detective novel to enjoyable if not particularly revolutionary effect.
The plot is a mishmash of tropes from Raymond Chinatown, and Snow Crash filtered through a unique new setting to keep things interesting. Many Vaughan tropes are in place, but in a tempered manner that often sells them as charming rather than self-aware. For example, in this case the hip generation x man is a grumpy octogenarian who rants to his younger friends about the glory days of ipods, laptops, and high speed internet. Similarly he character's voices are those of a hardboiled Private Investigator, a femme fatale, a shadowy villain, and a comedy sidekick and not simply a fast-talking twenty-something. And with many of his other tendencies tempered, Vaughan's perfect sense of pacing is allowed to shine here, moving the story at a brisk pace that never allows things to stagnate but gives the characters plenty of time to interact.
Providing the art is Marcos Martin who creates the world of Private Eye far more adeptly than anything in the story itself. Martin, along with colorist Muntsa Vicente gives the book a retro sixties feel replete with bright colors, tin toy vehicles, and a seemingly never-ending series of crazy disguises. Martin's line work is spare and tight, emphasizing shapes but not textures and giving Vicente room to paint things in extra vibrant colors. Each page is also laid out expertly, taking advantage of the page shape, which, as with many webcomics, is a widescreen rectangle making each image appear like a cinematic shot.
No part of The Private Eye aims for much more than an engaging thriller and this seems to be for the best as the book is at its weakest when Vaughan reflects on the social implications of technology. Instead most of the ten issues are spent on conspiracy theories, chase scenes, and hard-boiled detective work which makes for a hugely enjoyable read. In fact, while I wouldn't call the book perfect, once I started I found it hard to stop (something I have said about a book by Vaughan before). I have perhaps focused a little too much on the author in this review as he has become so high-profile in the last couple of years, but frankly the highest compliment I can pay the book is that whether you like Vaughan's works or dislike them, I highly recommend this book.