brian k vaughan

A Quick Snoop at The Private Eye

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. 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. 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.)

2012’s Finest: SAGA

I’ve already talked about today’s pick – very briefly – in my Comics round-up post. I called it “the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit. The first two issues were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically.”I’m such a little tease. But I’m not one to break a promise, not least one made on the internet, so here goes: SAGA “Face it, our only choice is to lay low and stay out of trouble. We have a family to think about n–”“Don’t! / Don’t you every say those words to me! / Sorry. But ‘we have a family to think about now’ is the rallying cry of losers.” For all its sci-fi set dressing – the winged and horned main characters, the quest to get escape a warring planet, the excellent monster design from Fiona Staples – at its heart, Saga is a story about what compromises you are and aren’t willing to make in order to protect something dear to you, something you’ve created. It’s a comic about selling out. Saga starts with the birth of the series’ apparent eventual protagonist, Hazel – a character who doesn’t speak a single word throughout the first volume, due to being a baby, but does narrate the action, in borderless captions scribbled on top of the pictures, children’s book-style. In fact, she even gets the book’s first words: …Which is pretty much the comic’s mission statement (especially because it’s almost immediately undercut with the slightly more earthy “Am I [defecating]?” from the birthing mother, Alana, but we’ll get back to that). The first scene, as well as being a beautifully, brutally honest scene of childbirth, keeps drawing this same line between creating a child and creating, you know, art. “But ideas are fragile things,” says Hazel, as her parents consistently ground these highfalutin ideas with talk of sex and poo and pain. “That’s why people create with someone else.” And so the line is drawn, nice and thick, between Hazel’s mother and father, and the book’s – Vaughan and Staples, writer and artist, each providing their half of the whole. Within moments of birth, Hazel is in danger, and the book has its drive: Mommy & Daddy have to get off the planet before the various forces hunting them down can hurt Baby. And there are plenty of forces who want to cause them harm: Marko (horny dad) and Alana (winged mom) are from two warring species, and both sides want to get the results of this starcross’d union. Enter hunky bounty hunter The Will, and aimless robot prince Prince Robot IV, who will have their own matching dilemmas set up before the first volume’s out. Every character has a clear set of values, and something they want to protect – which is actually a child in every case – and are asked by the story: what are you willing to give up for that cause? Take Marko, who puts his violent past behind him to become a pacifist, a vow made physical in the sheathing of his ceremonial sword. But, with two bounty hunters, a TV-faced robot and two armies all trying to harm his daughter, that doesn’t last too long. For The Will and Prince Robot those dilemmas are only set up in this volume. (And if you don’t want to know how, skip the rest of this paragraph). Will, clearly disinterested in bounty hunting, finds a little girl enslaved into prostitution, and realises the only way to save her is by buying her freedom. His hypocrisy is constantly, and disturbingly, questioned: “it’s morally acceptable to execute people of any age, but only to make love to a select few?” Meanwhile, Prince Robot is sucked into the conflict when he discovers he has a child of his own on the way (courtesy of an earlier scene of hot robot sex) and is told he can’t return to the kingdom until this matter is dealt with. Later, his TV-screen face – which flashes involuntarily with symbols showing his thoughts – shows a rattle with a ribbon tied around it, right before he puts a big sinewy hole in the chest of another character. Violence is something the characters of Saga are forced into. For a sci-fi adventure comic, there are surprisingly few action scenes, and what it is there is ugly. The nearest we get to ‘good’ violence is Marko’s beserker rage with that sword – and any glamour is undercut by him pratfalling ingloriously out-of-panel. It might be reaching a bit to read Marko’s attempts at pacificism – and his lack of consistency on the matter – as Vaughan himself trying to avoid big action setpieces, but there’s certainly a sense of him trying to stomp down on any signs of genre convention throughout. Vaughan and Staples are drawing as much from fantasy imagery as he does traditional sci-fi, but – like Marko and Alana turning their back on their races, which happen to be magic- and science-based respectively – Saga isn’t interested in playing by either genre’s rules. Mundane real-world elements are constantly dragged in, from the aforementioned Chaucerian interest in bodily excretions to everyday technology (one character complains about auto-updating apps crashing his phone). Even the choice of Fiona Staples on art is unconventional. She draws some deeply excellent aliens (the character design of The Stalk, another bounty hunter, being an art highlight of not just this book but of the year). What she really excels in is drawing people and emotions – something Vaughan always seems to find in his collaborators. They’re the focus, not her (admittedly gorgeous) backgrounds. So often, building the world is the real meat of sci-fi, but here they’re sketchy, smudgy, watercolour-soft. It all reflects the fact that the characters, on both sides, just aren’t interested in the big trad sci-fi conflict. They’re certainly not going to be piloting X-Wings into the heart of […]