Oct 12, 2017

Private Eye: A Dip Into Pay What You Want Comics

As (nonexistent) fans of the (infrequent) column will know, I have an affinity for Brian K. Vaughn’s work. I’ve read most of his non-Big 2 canon and have found it worthwhile enough to continue returning again and again to this writer. For a slight change of pace, i.e. not just reading trades from the library, I delved into the world of pay-what-I-want comics and devoured Private Eye.

A Dip Into Pay What You Want Comics

The premise is simple, the execution is remarkable, and the ending is competent (for me, a compliment). All together, a good use of whatever you choose to pay.

The story takes place more or less 50 years after everyone’s every move on the Internet is made public. The result is that privacy is paramount and visual gags are plentiful.

I am nominally less interested in visuals than story, but this story made me take heed of the visuals. The first chapter does an efficient job of showing that what being presented on the page should not be taken at face value. Other than that, the story is a basic whodunit noir murder. The dialogue is heavily influenced by this decision and the number of gags in the first four pages let you know that no matter how closely you pay attention, something will get by you.

Despite this cautionary statement, pay attention to the words. They are dense and full of playful allusions. The words can be preachy coming from the PI, but it’s effective and usually terse. Now you know everything about the world necessary to pull you in and read 9 more chapters about a murder you already know the solution to.

The visuals sprinkled throughout the 10 chapters, particularly in crowds and as asides, are what make the world immersive and worth wanting to explore. Perhaps one of the biggest conceits is that in a world with elaborate and manifold gags hiding people’s identities, our hero uses basically a domino mask.

The story is basically Chinatown with a bit of the Maltese Falcon thrown in. The bit of difference is that the Cloud was the Internet and not Los Angeles water rights or the most famous McGuffin. This fact does nothing to diminish the effect of the story, because while we know who killed the dame, we don’t know who (nom) de Guerre is after. The villain’s name is perhaps my favorite bit of wordplay in this entire story, followed closely by all the PI references.

For me, what distinguishes this work from prior BKV efforts is the believability of the world and the characters. It’s a good example of the synthesis of images and words that I often find dragging down other works. The dialogue make sense coming from the established characters and the pontificating is held to a minimum - except for the villain, he gets to pontificate to the genre’s fullest extent.

The fact that everyone is in some sense wearing a literal mask and not who they appear to be can lead to some interesting thought experiments. Who is PI actually kissing? How much do we know about the protagonist? Is he really a protagonist? The audience knows more than our main cast, but we still don’t know everything. It’s a difficult trick to pull off in any medium, but I think it works well in this limited series.

The story asks one questions two ways: how well do we know the people around us? It does so with its visuals and its dialogue. In this tale, the society enforces strict public privacy. In public, you are effectively anonymous once an adult. However, even in private, people exercise the privacy that ultimately led to the Flood. They keep secrets - non-forgotten flames, research into famous figures, activities outside the home - from those ostensibly closest to them. By the end of the first volume, we know that the missile we’ve seen is probably not missile, but rather a satellite to bring back the Internet. Or at least make Gramps’ cell phone work again.

Volume 1 set up this action, now it’s time to run to the conclusion. Volume 2 kicks off with some good, old-fashioned noir beat ups and rising action and tension. The first issue is about racing toward these 2 groups meeting and it’s done effectively. As is the violent cooler/fridging of someone who got too close.

I don’t speak French, so half of what the mercs say in this series I have to pick up from context.

As you wind toward the climax, the groups of hidden people, come together and their masks fall away. The last sentence was both clever word play and also a way to move along PI meeting de Geurre. Plus, we get plenty of comic violence along the way throughout the opening chapter.

Despite the action rising, as they move from a confrontation between protagonists and antagonists, there is still time for character development and how PI meets his Jimmy Olsen — or whatever Mel is supposed to be. It’s a nice piece of work and elides well with Melanie moving in and out of consciousness, enough of a slide to make you think the Frenchman is going to off her, but not enough to confirm it at this juncture (there are still 3 chapters to get through people). You also get 2 fakeouts for the price of one, plus a blowup doll. So, definitely an adult comic.

One thing the book is consistently good at doing is adapting the noir movie stylings with hardboiled fictional structure. So, of course, PI steals a ride, gets to shoot someone and rush away. It was at this point in the book that my strong suspicion that Gramps is what BKV sees himself becoming was largely confirmed.

At the point where the Press become involved more actively in the story, the allusions to the critical reader who is also a mild connoisseur of grammar, reporting, and the history there of becomes apparent. These are definitely a 1-3% type of reference, but I appreciate the appearances of Strunk and Bly in the book. If you don’t know who they are, well, use the Internet.

However much I might appreciate these references, I do realize that unless a reader is well versed enough in journalism to understand basic newspaper terms, it hamstrings understanding of what’s going. The flip side, is naturally, it encourages you to re-read the books. Which is how I picked up on at least half the details.

The appreciation for making the future Los Angeles a place that is lived in by a society only at a slight right angle to ours is peppered throughout the book. In Chapter 8, though, just dropping what the Wonderwall does in between all the group shots is perhaps the one element of the future I appreciated the most.

It’s nonchalant and simply a part of the new LA. So much so, the characters don’t care about it enough to make the reader think it’s of any importance. At first, I thought it was some cheesy boardwalk-type place.

After this point, it becomes a race to the finish. Chekhov's rocket is about to go off. But is it going to actually bring back the Internet? Is Melanie going to die? Since this isn’t an ongoing and it fits in with the noir theme of few bright, shiny outcomes, any outcome is really possible.

Naturally, before we fully get to the concluding scenes, we need to establish PI’s need to get to actual truths. The surface ones haven’t served him since he was kid. The flashback does a nice mix of showing and telling before plunging back into the action. There is always time, though, always, to rag on old smartphones.

To finalize the noir arc, PI and Raveena must engage in some gruesome hand to hand combat and anti-heroic theatrics. I find fist fights and knife fights to be far more stomach churning than simple shootouts. I find this feeling true in comics and on TV. There is a kinetic aspect of those kinds of fights that is simply too fast with a gun. Basically, in this final stretch of action before the denouement, I received my fill of people getting punched and stabbed with stuff.

The finale of the whole event is both blockbuster epic and also anticlimactic. However, the anticlimax is not a let down. It’s more a reflection on the fact, stated repeatedly throughout, that the new normal of the book’s universe is difficult to shake. At the beginning of the book, the Flood was a flood of information that ruined society and reshaped the entire country. At the end of the book, a different flood occurs.

It’s a stunning set of pages, with few words and some earned emotion and reactions. The whole section is straight out of Hollywood, but it’s earned. The Deluge is a more literal flood. The outside world, or in this case the higher Pacific Ocean, could not be kept at bay. However, it also sends out the message that the truth of what was going on will probably never get out. It does end on a paranoid note, which is fitting with the overall style and goal of the effort. The simpler answer is plain terrorism and not a return of a past the future is convinced was a nightmare.

While I am a frequent reader and booster of BKV and his associated artists, I do often critique him for flubbing the landing of his limited series. Often, the final chapter is ham handed and undercuts the points he had been making. I think this of Y The Last Man and Ex Machina, despite otherwise possessing a strong affinity for these series. Private Eye does not suffer from this problem. Even if the prose of the final exchange with Gramps (aka future Brian) is less eloquent, the series served, in this crotchety, very occasional blogger’s opinion, as one of the best blends of noir detective stories with the crazy, bonkers visuals comics can pull off. I want to see and play in this world more, but I also know that this limited run — at a price I chose — is enough.

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