By Matt Terl

I tend to enjoy comics written by Brian K. Vaughan, or at least I think I do. I’ve certainly recommended enough of them over the years – much like Saga a decade ago, Y The Last Man and Ex Machina were very much the “comics for non-comics readers” of their day.

Vaughan is one of those writers with some very distinct strengths to his writing. He is very good at cliffhangers, or, at minimum, endings that make you want to know what comes next. Leveraging the same skill on a smaller scale, he excels at treating the comics page as a distinct unit and using the page-turn for effect. He’s good at finding concepts that are just high enough to be exciting, but generally grounds them in the familiar.

He’s also very good, for better or for worse, at giving his characters the illusion of depth, even if they don’t always stand up to close examination. And those characters are always dropping nuggets of trivia, constantly, multiple times per issue, which is fun if you’re the sort of person who finds that sort of thing fun (and is mannered and insufferable if you’re not).

I’m the sort of person who finds that sort of thing fun, so Vaughan’s comics are generally breezy and readable for me, with at least a few fun ideas per issue and a propulsive momentum that keeps the pages turning and the plot memorable. Although I never framed it like this at the time, in many ways he had a lot of the same appeal as Mark Millar did – without the craven cynicism and problematic edgelord baggage. So it was a little disconcerting, on revisiting The Private Eye #9, just how Millar-ish it often feels in hindsight.

Part 9 is the penultimate chapter of the series, which was originally released digitally via Panel Syndicate, the pay-what-you-want digital comics publisher founded by Vaughan, artist Marcos Martin, and colorist Muntsa Vicente. And thanks to traditional story structure, just like in a lot of creator-owned comics and most streaming TV shows, the penultimate episode is where a whole bunch of plot gets resolved. 

The series is set in 2076, in a world where “the cloud burst” and everyone’s online secrets were revealed. This leads to a post-internet American society obsessed with the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, a world where identities are as fluid IRL as they used to be online. Citizens routinely mask themselves, whether with elaborate holograms or with cloth masks, changing their masks (and their selves) from as they move through their various work and social circles. 

It’s essentially a future-noir, with all that that implies: it’s a detective story with a murdered lady, a femme fatale, and a hapless assistant, where the investigation of the murder unravels a larger sinister plot going up to the top, and the detective finds himself a small man caught in the larger machinery of corruption, blah blah blah. If you’ve seen Chinatown or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? you know the drill, only this time the sinister plot is “bring back internet” instead of “something something water” or “something something freeway.”

It’s got a lot in common tonally and structurally with Jonathan Lethem’s early novels and, like in those books, the plot and characters are really secondary to the big idea and high concept. Actually… in this case they’re probably tertiary, because the art is probably the second most essential element here. The comic looks absolutely glorious. Marcos Martin is visibly relishing the task of creating this near-future, and there’s care and thought put into every bit of design. There aren’t many crowded street scenes in this particular issue, but the ones earlier in the series reward careful scrutiny. The acting is clear and effective, and Martin knows how to guide the eye across a page, even working in the somewhat unusual landscape format this comic was released in.

Vicente’s colors are also striking, and crucial to the overall aesthetic of the book. There’s a calculated decision to steer away from “noir colors” even while the art occasionally recreates familiar noir angles and motifs. Despite the effective use of shadows and black where necessary (including a couple of crucial panels in this issue), this is the most day-glo version of noir I can imagine. A world of costumes and disguises would be brightly colored, and Vicente leans heavily on pure cyans and magentas to make sure the street scenes pop. It’s a counter-intuitive, smart choice, and essential to giving the story a distinct identity. 

As for that high concept? The good news is, as is usual for Vaughan, that it’s clever enough to support whatever he wants to hang on it. And, as is also usual for Vaughan, he extrapolates it out well. The near-but-not-TOO-near future setting lets him write his own generation as society’s elderly, the last generation who remembers the promise of the early internet. In this privacy-focused world, Vaughan positions “journalists” as law enforcement whereas the private detectives are “paparazzi.” And so on. It’s all very clever.

Which is kind of the problem. This very much wants to be a comic about Big Ideas – about Privacy and Identity and The Internet – but it also can’t stop reminding you how clever it is. When I first read this almost a decade ago, the big ideas were the point and the cleverness was a filigree. On revisiting, though, that cleverness bumps loudly enough to occasionally drown out the smarter elements of the story. It’s that, occasionally combined with a certain ain’t-I-a-stinker fondness for “edgy” choices, which brings Millar to mind for me most clearly.

Take the culminating action of this issue, the final escalation into the finale: the main characters have foiled the bad guys’ plot and stopped the launch of the satellite into space. Our hero tells the dying villain that he stopped the launch by smashing the computer controlling it. And then…

So we end the issue with the rocket stuck, about to launch directly at the wall that holds the ocean back from California (which is called “the Wonderwall,” because of course it is), because people in this low-tech future don’t understand how computers work. It’s a stunningly glib plot turn in an otherwise pretty straightforward noir story.

Or take an earlier issue, where the detective and his client find a lifesize sex doll in a suspect’s house. As a story element, it’s fine (and actually provides an effective avenue for a specific plot turn) but the decision to continually present it on-panel, crotch-first, splayed out and naked except for a zipper-mouth bondage mask, just feels like edginess for edginess’s sake. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, and it all makes sense if you don’t think about it too hard. But there is something about that glibness and edginess which feels like it’s undercutting the weight of the work as a whole.

When I found myself bumping on the edgier moments in The Private Eye, I wondered if it was just that I had grown up, lost my sense of humor, consigned Puff The Magic Dragon to sadly slip into his cave, generally become a dour and miserable adult, etc. If, basically, my tastes had changed and Vaughan’s writing was going to join Weezer and John Byrne’s art in the list of stuff I used to like. 

I don’t think I can go that far. I still find Vaughan’s gift for the page-turn and the cliffhanger undeniable. And he tends, as is the case for The Private Eye, to choose top-notch artistic collaborators. I’m still amused by the constant cleverness, maybe more than I should be, and if I’m being really honest, I even like the stupid little factoids that people speak in. So, yeah, I still enjoy Brian K. Vaughan comics. I just find myself a little less likely to recommend them now.

 

The Private Eye Chapter 9
By Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente

 

Matt Terl writes about comics at Wait, What, and about actually popular subjects like “sports” for The Washington City Paper. You can find him on Twitter here!

 

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