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Today, Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin went loud with a pay-what-you-want DRM-free digital comic series, The Private Eye, out of pretty much nowhere.

Vaughan was, as I detailed in my Saga post, my first favourite comic book writer and important to my development in a whole lot of other ways too. Martin is one of the sharpest artists in comics, his linework a potent mix of classical cartooning and modern design.

I’ve just finished reading it, as the initial surprise dies down and the conversations start about how important a move it is for the industry – and, given the spirit of the whole venture, it only seemed right to broadcast my thoughts immediately.

Because The Private Eye is, as the ‘Share/Follow/Like’ teasers yesterday suggested, a look at where a world saturated in social media is headed. It’s my absolute favourite kind of sci-fi, the kind that asks ‘what’s next?’. Like Orwell, like Bradbury (given a nod here), like Atwood, but with none of those pesky ties to reality – it leans closer to broad satire.

(Brits, think Black Mirror with an infinite budget and a much bolder colour palette.)

Nevertheless, the set-up speaks to a number of truths about our real world. As our protagonist Patrick Immelmann tells his granddad, in an exposition-dump scene that is simultaneously the one clunky note the comic hits and entirely necessary: this is a world where the internet burst open. All our search histories and deleted pics and private messages went public, and in response the world went private.

Two generations later and we’re introduced to a world where seemingly everyone takes on a ‘nym’, a masked identity; where there’s no more internet; and where taking a photo of someone without their express permission is a federal crime.

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The set-up is perfect, the kind of thing people always used to pigeonhole Vaughan as being great at – a high concept so tight that it sings, so clean that simply relaying it tells you almost all you need to know about the comic, at least in terms of what it’s about.

So all that leaves is the execution, which is glorious. It’s what Vaughan always has been great at – a taut thriller plot, with characters established quickly and sketched out just enough that you care when the stabbing starts, with a thoughtful meaning-packed core. All of which only hangs together because of the sheer craft involved.

The Private Eye is built around a monitor-shaped landscape ‘page’, a format the pair do some neat things with. Vaughan never misses a chance to fill the screen with dozens of garishly-dressed individuals each tightly rendered by Martin.

And so, something as simple as two people having a conversation in an office becomes the most visually interesting part of the whole beautiful comic. It’s a literal talking heads scene, where one face in profile dominates the right half of the screen, a series of close-up panels filling the rest of the space. The next page flips the layout on its head, in a way that would be slightly spoilt by having to physically turn a page.

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The Private Eye is never overly flashy or gratuitous in its imagery, but it’s a joy to flick through. Sitting here now, having read the whole thing, I find myself alternating between page up and page down, jumping back and forth between screens, and it’s entrancing.

That’s a good word for the whole package, actually. The narrative momentum of the cliffhanger, the perfect strobe-light stills which fill each page, the odd world-building idea which catches your mind just right, the whole important-for-the-industry experiment: it’s entrancing.

There’s no question of whether you should download and read The Private Eye. The only question is: what is being entranced worth to you?

(The Private Eye can be downloaded from the Panel Syndicate for whatever you choose to pay here.)

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