Private Eye, written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated by Marcos Martin with Muntsa Vicente, is finally collected in print for the first time after formerly only being available online. This collection, ten installments in all, is set in L.A. in the year 2076 and follows an illegal private eye as he travels this somewhat dystopian or utopian future, depending on your point of view. It is presented in wide format with tons of extra material. The book enjoys many varied themes such as privacy/identity, the Flood, and the benefits and risks of technology. There is also nostalgia at play here, as the piece seems to yearn for the older and simpler times, when books were read with pages that smelt.
Private Eye opens with a shot of a camera and our protagonist. While seemingly pretty straight forward, soon we realize why the story was originally to be entitled “Masks.” A lady wearing a mask of another lady is revealed. Before learning too much, though, our protagonist is stumbled upon by authority figures brandishing a press slip like a badge. Soon a chase ensues, and the hero narrowly escapes in a beautifully rendered sequence by Martin.
In this brightly-lit future, we discover cameras can be illegal, and our protagonist is a paparazzo, though not in the traditional sense. Details of this future world are revealed to us as we follow our protagonist, P.I. (standing for Private Investigator, but also the initials of our hero’s pseudonym), in his dreamcoat that blends into its surroundings but is not invisible. In this version of the future, concealing one’s true self has become essential to survival. The internet no longer exists, as decades earlier, the Cloud burst and flooded the world with everyone’s information.
Later, P.I. is being paid by a man in a fish costume in a world populated by citizens all wearing different forms of masks. The man in the mask seeks to find out about a past lover and has paid P.I. to investigate. This task is made more difficult by the fact that everyone’s idenity is fluid and can be shed like a snake skin. A face for every interest, in a world where people only know you by the face you wear today. A system of multiple identities where you can share what you want, and if you go too far, you can just throw away that face and become a new person, born anew with each mask. Identities without the repercussians of society and its judgments.
Working from a notary office as a cover for his P.I. work, the door looks like any other, with the exception of the mathamatical sign for Pi. Our P.I. discretely uses this sign to advertise his business, emblazing the card with that one character, with only those meant to, knowing the truth. Privacy from the prying eyes of the masses.
A customer enters P.I.’s office wearing a tiger mask. The woman, named Taj, removes her mask, reavealing her true identity in hopes of garnering P.I.’s trust. She needs P.I. to investigate, not some former lover, but herself, claiming she is worried about what a future employer will uncover. Things take a twist when Taj, having returned home, is murdered and on her hand is written the name Patrick Immelmann, the alias of our P.I.
We skip to the next day with P.I. meeting his driver, an underage named Melanie. She is not yet old enough to wear a mask, but is already yearning to develop a “persona,” as they call it. P.I. begins investigating the case, only to discover Taj’s murder. P.I. wants to leave it alone, but Melanie believes it is his duty to finish the investigation as Taj had wished. As it turns out, it matters not, as the case is on a collision course, speeding toward his own life.
Raveena, our murder victim’s sister and a former client of P.I., races to see him after finding his name scribbled on Taj’s hand. They are interrupted when two French-speaking, masked assassins decend upon them. They escape, and this rag-tag duo will spend the rest of the story together, rushing feverishly to find the murderer (and, as it turns out, save the world!).
Later, we are introduced to the old man who took care of P.I. when his mother died in mysterious circumstances. The old man is our window to the story, as he represents the modern generation, the pre-flood, internet-loving, phone-dependent masses, haunted by overmedication. Further into the story, in a typical scene where the old man is fiddling with some by-gone contraption, P.I. explains, “Ignore him. He’s part of generation A.D.D. They gave hime so much legal speed as a kid his brain’s fried.”
In a crucial scene, P.I. and Raveena revisit P.I.’s fish-masked client from the beginning, C.G., who is a librarian. In this future, librarians are the keepers of knowledge, both the forbidden and the mundane. He, perhaps, best explains the events from the past: “Listen, when the flood happened, it wasn’t people’s private letters or chat transcripts that destroyed lives. It was their search histories. All we do is lie to each other, but when we’re alone looking hard for what we actually want most in life…that’s when we reveal what pathetic wrecks we really are.”
P.I. and Raveena are able to bribe C.G. for information on Taj, and the three take an after hours trip to the library together. Busted by another librarian and in a bind, P.I. calls on Melanie to be their getaway driver. The scene ends in an epic crash that sends Melanie to the hospital, leaving her, as it turns out, highly vulnerable.
From the records retrieved from the library, we find that Taj was communicating with Khalid DeGuerre, the head of Teevee, which without internet has had a huge resurgence. DeGuerre swiftly emerges as Taj’s murderer and the primary antagonist of the book. He is working with the French-speaking assailants and a former associate, Nebular, on a sinister plan to restart the internet, and is already using Teevee to this end. In a desperate attempt to learn more about the duo that could foil his plans, DeGuerre has his lackeys kidnap Melanie from the hospital. A more tender side of P.I. is revealed as he shows tremendous concern for her injury and further distress with the knowledge of her kidnapping.
P.I. and Raveena are in a race against time to save Melanie and intervene with DeGuerre’s wicked plot. The final standoff takes place at the dam, built high around the city to hold back the waters of the Pacific. At the top of the dam, DeGuerre critiques present society, and unveils to Melanie his plans to launch a satellite-loaded rocket into space. As sassy and convicted as ever, she chides, “And your genius plan to change all that is to give us Internet again? So we can go back to being a bunch of narcissistic shut-ins who masturbate to stories about ourselves all day?”
This is a clear criticism of the internet age, of social media, and our reliance on devices and technology. Oddly enough, Vaughan has used the youngest character in the book to communicate this message.
In a thrilling whirl of events, P.I. manages to kill DeGuerre and redirect the rocket, but perhaps ends up paying the ultimate price. The rocket shoots into the side of the dam and water bursts forth, flooding the city. This ties back to the recurrent theme of flooding in the book. It seems fitting to end the action with a literal flood, when the flood of information is so key to telling this story.
“Look, nobody knows if it was an act of war or an act of God, but for forty days and forty nights, everything just poured right out for the whole damn country to see. Every message you thought was safe, every photo you thought you deleted, every morifying little search you ever made…it was all there for anyone to use against you.” – P.I.
“In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, on the seventeenth day of the second month- on that day all the springs of the great deep burst forth, and the floodgates of the heavens were opened. And rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.” – Genesis
The scripts are very similiar, as are the effects of the events on the world. Both wipe the earth clean, a blank slate to start anew after the cataclysm. Total destruction to annihilate the past and give birth to a new world order.
Private Eye is a great book. Some of my main complaints have to deal with format. The wide-screen format does wonders for the art, but man, sometimes it’s hard to read. It’s bulky and heavy, and every page you turn you have to rearrange how you hold the book. It almost feels like the weight of the pages will tear out the binding if you don’t hold it right. In addition, it’s quite expensive at $49.99.
Another critique is that character development seemed to fall a bit short. We get to know our hero at least in a topical way, but the portrayal of Raveena is hollow at best. Given relatively little background on the villian, DeGuerre, perhaps the best thing we have to work with is the translation of his name in French: “Of War.” However, I can’t help but feel that this was Brian K. Vaughn’s intention. It’s almost like he is respecting the privacy and the true identities of his own characters. In a scene where Raveena and P.I. visit another P.I., it’s almost like Raveena is speaking for the reader. She says to P.I., “I don’t know you at all, do I?” To which, he replies, “Kinda the point.”
These are relatively small things that are far outweighed by the ideas and wit that lie within. It’s a comic that was originally released exclusively online about a world minus the internet. Kind of a fun irony, when you think about it. Important themes of our time are explored, namely privacy vs. security, and individualism vs. community, and where the boundaries lie in balancing these ideals. Vaughn presents both arguments and gifts us with a world of extremes, the endpoint of years of paranoia and individualism, and what life looks like as it moves forward.
“Even if you’re not doing anything wrong, you are being watched and recorded.” -Edward Snowden