Not content with writing Saga, one of the most universally-acclaimed comics around (and former Alternate Cover “Best Of” inductee), Brian K. Vaughan chose to give the medium another kick up the arse this year when he teamed with Marcos Martin to release The Private Eye, a noirish sci-fi tale set in a world where everyone has a secret identity and the Internet doesn’t exist.
But before we discuss the story, we have to discuss the form. The Private Eye is the first (and thus far only) release from Panel Syndicate, a digital-only publisher selling DRM-free comics. It was revolutionary enough for two of the industry’s top creators to be releasing a new and original work under that model, but the fact that they also went pay-what-you-like on it suggested that this was a serious attempt to find a new model for comics publishing, rather than a gimmick. It was, in no small way, hugely exciting, and may have been the catalyst for Image Comics to make their own store DRM-free, which they did just a few months ago. For committed digital readers like me, it’s been good to see. And with this much emphasis on the sales model, it helps that the actual comic is great too.
Fresh off his work on Amazing Spider-Man and Daredevil, Marcos Martin had been blowing readers away with his hugely imaginitive layouts, Ditko-esque figures and fluid linework. On The Private Eye, his layouts are more conventional, but it’s the level of imagination and detail that truly impresses – in a world where everyone is dressing as someone or something else there’s no such thing as a background character, and Martin doesn’t shy away from drawing every character as if they could be the star. Meanwhile, Vaughan has taken a simple theme of personal privacy online and spun it into an original and unfamiliar world that could still somehow be our own, populated with new takes on established archetypes that make it feel like a fresh read rather than yet another detective story.
Not everything about the The Private Eye works straight away – the idea that the press can function as a police force doesn’t really make sense if you try to analyse the execution of it, and the mechanics of the technical collapse that fuelled the series are glossed over a little too conveniently – but you can’t fault its attempt to do something different, both with the form and with the genre. There are too few books around you can say that about, and even if it wasn’t doing that, The Private Eye would still deserve a spot on this list merely for being the first of its kind. Let’s hope it isn’t the last.