In 2013, Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente launched The Private Eye #1 on the newly founded Panelsyndicate.com. The issue was offered as a digital exclusive, urging any potential customers to pay what they wanted for a DRM-free file. It was a risk for the creators, but the project found early success and throughout the ten issue story, The Private Eye only gained momentum. Now, Image Comics has collected the full series in The Private Eye: The Cloudburst Edition; a deluxe hardcover collection for those who still prefer their comics in physical form.
The Private Eye takes place in an alternate future, one defined by privacy. The year is 2076 and the Internet is a thing of the past. The cloud-offsite servers that house all digital information from social security numbers to search histories-mysteriously burst one day. In a disaster harkening back to biblical times, everyone's private information rained from the cloud for forty days and forty nights. By the end, there were no more secrets. Families were torn apart, lives were destroyed, and the Internet no longer had a place in the world.
Conceptually, the themes of the story are just as resonant today as they were in 2013. As more facets of life become interconnected via the internet, sites are constantly gathering new knowledge about their users. The illusion of privacy is just that - an illusion. The book plays with that idea, taking it to a logical extreme. The pages show a population forced to adopt real-life pseudonyms and disguises just to keep their lives private. The Private Eye makes a point of noting that it's not the identifying information that destroys society, but the revelation of people's search histories. It takes the broader concepts and immediately makes the ideas personal, prompting the reader to think of their own searches and how they could be interpreted by friends and family.
The Private Eye is set in the United States decades after the Cloudburst, a country inhabited by people wearing masks every time they leave the house to hide their identities – similar to an internet avatar. Members of the press serve as the law enforcement agency in this world, dedicated to protecting the fourth amendment and a citizen's right to privacy. P.I., the main character, works illegally as a private investigator in California. Known as a Paparazzi in this world, P.I. will find the information people most want kept secret - for a price. The story sees him drawn into a conspiracy after one of his jobs goes as wrong as possible. What follows is a story of identity, sacrifice, and the battling ideologies of private vs. public information.
Vaughan is responsible for some of the strongest storytelling in comics over the last fifteen years, and this story is no exception. The ideas presented are fantastic, but Vaughan manages to ground them with a sense of plausibility. The characters feel as though they were pulled from a hardboiled detective story and placed into this fantastic future. It’s a modernization of classic ideas and it works well with Vaughan’s style. The dialogue is quick and witty, keeping the story flowing towards the explosive climax.
Perhaps fittingly, there are a lot of questions left unanswered about P.I. He’s a character obsessed with secrecy, almost to a fault, so many of his interactions with the supporting cast are ineffectually probing for details. As such, there are moments where the character feels underdeveloped, but it works with the themes of the story. Vaughan builds empathy with his lead through his moments with side characters, allowing readers to form an attachment to an enigma.
The Private Eye tells a great story, but the artwork is a spectacle that demands all of the reader’s attention. The book is presented in a landscape format, emulating the original widescreen presentation of the digital issues. It’s a unique format, one that Martin embraces completely. The art makes great use of the space, filling the page with larger, more-detailed panels than those found in standard comics. The benefits of the widescreen are most evident in the splash pages, with vibrant and beautiful moments that feel like production stills from a film.
Martin is a talented artist and the book’s premise allows him a great deal of freedom in his character design. There are costumes of all sorts shown throughout the book, but it’s P.I.’s design that will likely stick in the reader’s mind. Wearing simple black and white clothing, distinguished only by a Cheshire cat’s grin on the hood of his jacket, the character sticks out by blending in. Colourist Vicente is largely responsible for setting the mood in the book, presenting a gorgeous, brightly colored future marred by the shadowy underworld.
The collected edition also includes supplemental material, including email correspondence, character designs, and script material from the creative team. It’s a welcome addition, as it not only gives readers more insight into the story, but also details the creators’ hard work throughout the long process of creating the book. It brings the risks of creating a digital comic, specifically one where readers could opt not to pay for the book, into perspective. It’s a nice gesture for those who have already read the story, giving an incentive for purchasing this new edition.
Though potentially much cheaper to consume digitally, The Private Eye: The Cloudburst Edition is absolutely worth a spot on every reader’s shelf. The hardcover is gorgeous, presenting a compelling story with some of the most visually impressive formatting in recent memory. It is masterful work – exactly what you would expect from this creative team.