Privacy And Isolation In Brian K. Vaughan And Marcos Martin’s ‘The Private Eye’
Internet privacy is easily one of the most confusing realities of life in the 21st century. It’s the best ongoing story in collective awareness, complete with heroes, villains, victims and martyrs, turning points, and insane plot twists that regularly put The Good Wife to shame. PRISM, Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, XBox One, social engineering, News International, Anonymous, and even our stupid Facebook updates are all involved. Every player and plot-line are all tangled up in a worried knot that gets bigger and more complex every year. It’s all one story, and we’re all living it; spectators, beneficiaries, victims, and contributors. It’s one of the defining issues of our age, a still-forming zeitgeist that could be explored for years to come.
In his proposal to artist Martin, contained in The Private Eye: An Inside Look At The Creation Of The Digital Comic, Vaughan wrote, “This is a story about privacy, and whether our generation’s ongoing campaign against it will ultimately be good or bad for society. I don’t know the answer that yet, so I want to make a comic to find out.”
At first that seems like a pretty haphazard way of working through one of the most pressing issues of the modern age, but it turns out that comics are the way to go. As usual.
Set in the year 2076, The Private Eye takes place decades after “the Flood,” a period of forty days and forty nights in which every American’s most closely-kept secret was made public, for everyone in the world to see. Not just passwords and account numbers, but chat transcriptions, search histories, website memberships, and the secret identities of every YouTube commentator. After the Flood nearly destroyed America, the Internet was turned off, and a much stricter set of privacy laws were introduced that protect every citizen’s right to privacy from corporations, from the public at large, from the government, from spouses, from everyone.
Because the Internet is no longer around and privacy is so respected, people take to wearing costumes in public, concealing their identities and adopting “Nyms”; because electronic records no longer exist, pneumatic tubes carry information from place to place; the police have been replaced by the Fourth Estate, journalist-detectives who enforce privacy laws and perform other tasks like investigating murders while protecting the identity of the deceased.
Vaughan and Martin built the world of Private Eye in such a way that makes it detailed and spectacularly comic-booky while keeping everything firmly rooted in political and social realities. Indeed, they’ve ended up with something that actually doesn’t seem so far-fetched, as some of 15 million annual American identity theft victims will tell you. I know because I’m one of them.
My identity was stolen ten years ago. Somebody got hold of my debit card number and emptied out my bank account, sending me into a negative balance. While that really, really sucked, it probably wouldn’t have been so bad if I hadn’t lost my job just a few days before that. I was already unemployed with a negative bank balance when several automatic bill payments came through, and the cruelly-named “overdraft protection” paid out the first few and penalized me, putting me in an even deeper hole before I was even aware what was happening. My account was deactivated, which meant that legitimate bill payments were rejected, causing my phone and internet services to be cancelled — which didn’t matter anyway, because a week or so after that, my computer died. Sure, I could go to a friend’s house or a library or something, but not after my car broke down as well. After I suffered my first big back injury only a week later, I really didn’t feel like going out — what money did I have left to spend anyway?
Before all this happened, I was writing for NinthArt, a comics site which sadly no longer updates, but happens to have been co-edited by none other than ComicsAlliance staff writer Andrew Wheeler, and he can verify this: after regularly contributing to the site for almost two years, I just disappeared. No goodbye, no, “Hey, some stuff’s going on” (again, sorry about that, Andrew!). After all the cascading crises connected to my identity theft, I was just done.
And oh, I almost forgot (I will never forget): right before all this happened, I was working on a second draft of a 5,000-word story for The Comics Journal, which would have been my first nationally-published print piece. But job-loss-identity-theft-computer-death-car-breakdown-back-injury-month was a little too distracting, and I never got the second draft in.
After a long time, I put things back together and got back on track, but the worst month of my life was followed by a pretty dark year or so. I didn’t do anything, didn’t create anything, never touched a guitar, and barely went out. All I wanted was to be left alone with my chronic insomnia, bad back, and severe depression. The violation was so gross and so destructive, I just wanted to be anonymous.
Coming from that experience, it’s not hard to imagine what would happen to the psyche of a nation were everyone to suffer the same fate all at once — and not just economic, but personal — and for forty days and forty nights.
Even though privacy is the foremost concern of 2076 America, there are still those who seek to abuse, manipulate, and benefit from the new status quo, and that’s where our “hero” and “villain” come in. Known as “Patrick Immelmann” or P.I., the protagonist is a young paparazzo who protects his own identity by any means, never giving out his real name and removing his fingerprints with acid — even as he makes a living by invading the privacy of others. P.I. is hired by an intriguing woman who’s murdered shortly after he takes her case. Of course, P.I. reluctant to follow through and find her killers because that’s not what he was hired for — yeah, he’s a kind of a piece of sh*t.
But P.I. has reasons for what he does. As a child, his mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver (in a sequence that quotes James Ellroy’s My Dark Places, calling out one of the strongest noir influences on the story) who might not have gotten away with it if traffic cameras were still around. And as he explains to his driver/sidekick Mel in the sequence above, there are still circumstances which justify an invasion of privacy: no matter how respectful we’re supposed to be of other people’s secrets, if it affects you, you have a right to know. There’s a disconnect in P.I., a contradiction that’s typical to Vaughan’s typically believable characters. He’s like us: he expects his own privacy while being willing to violate others’ as long as he considers the reasons good.
The antagonist DeGuerre — as in nom de guerre, which has come to mean pseudonym or pen name, but is literally French for “war name” — has his way of justifying his violations against society as well. A television executive and self-proclaimed revolutionary, DeGuerre is trying to bring back the Internet, and he’s willing to kill several to do it. After murdering Taj McGill — the woman who approached P.I. and kicked off the story — for fear that she would go to the press, DeGuerre also smashes in the skull of an engineer who discovers that cameras are being installed in the latest television models, and takes several shots at P.I., Taj’s sister Raveena, and even Mel.
Despite all his villainy, though, there’s something about DeGuerre that’s human. He’s a regretful killer, as depicted beautifully by Martin’s facial expressions. Regret certainly doesn’t absolve DeGuerre, but it makes him more realistic and interesting.
Also, he might be somewhere close to having a good point.
It’s apparent that there really is something wrong with all of this. In Vaughan and Martin’s 2076 America, private citizens are afforded more rights than before, yes, but that hasn’t translated into more freedom. There’s no more Internet, but everybody has just dragged their favorite parts of it into the real world. They still live through their screen names, just out on the streets, in costume; they catfish in real life; they keep secrets from each other like friends and families do today, but they’re bigger secrets and there are way more of them. Americans were willing to cut themselves off from the Internet because they never really cared about the information or the connection, what really mattered was the anonymity.
Thus the world of Private Eye is one with an almost perfect sense of privacy and no sense of trust, literally walling itself off from the rest of the world to keep the signals out. Although P.I. believes that the return of the Internet would be the worst thing that could happen to the country, it’s hard to look at the world he lives in and flatly agree.
We can’t be sure how Vaughan has answered his own question on whether our war on privacy is good or bad, but it’s probably something like “a little bit of both.” In 2076, Americans have sacrificed trust for security; in the current day we open ourselves up to all manner of nerve-wracking possibilities every time we get online. We learn that the NSA is data-mining us and the Target store lost 40 million credit card numbers, and yet we somehow don’t throw a riot the size of Texas, because if we just can’t stop tweeting, updating statuses, or even comics blogging.
Heading into its last three issues, The Private Eyehas captured those contradictions with uncommon subtlety and style. Marcos Martin might very well be the best sequential artist of his era. With Toth-like efficiency, he makes even an uneventful page of dialogue sing.
It was in fact at Martin’s urging that Vaughan agreed to make their sci-fi noir set in a near future without the Internet available to readers exclusively via Internet, because clearly they’re both whimsical Pucks who like f*cking with people. Adopting a pay-as-you-like model, The Private Eye can only be purchased on Panel Syndicate, where users enter whatever the hell price they want to download copies of each issue (without any DRM protection).
Besides being all kinds of meta and ironic, the move has proven once again that the Internet isn’t all horrifying, and that somehow there’s still a sense of community and honesty out there in the ether. Not only is The Private Eye the first digital-only blockbuster comic, it’s also been a financial success for the creators. Even though literally every single person who buys a download could enter $0.00 and laugh maniacally at such a foolhardy “business model,” according to the letters page from issue #7, Vaughan and Martin are making more than they would with similar audience numbers at big publishers like Marvel or DC Comics. While everyone else talked about the tricky terrain of the digital comics landscape, Vaughan and Martin tore across it in a tip-jar-shaped dune buggy. In this way, The Private Eye is contributing in a major way to the bigger conversation about the new digital life, even while its story tears that paradigm apart at the same time.