The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughn and Marcos Martin was originally a webcomic they offered using a “pay what you will” model on Panel Syndicate, It began in 2013 and won both Eisner and Harvey awards in 2015. In fact, it is still up and available for any price you choose to pay, and I highly recommend doing this. I followed the first six issues eagerly, but then life distracted me and I lost track of the releases. It wasn’t until the hardcover printed collection came out in late 2015 that I got my hands on the whole story, and sat down with it and re-read the whole thing from the beginning. Marcos Martin’s art is brilliant throughout and having the discretion to linger over a page in a way that feels impossible on a laptop or tablet screen was so rewarding I do not regret spending money for what I could have in digital format for cheap, if not free! If I have one criticism of the book, it is that in the translation from the web to print, the book is oblong and a little awkward to read, but more importantly the impact of some page-turn moments were lost in a few places because the eye is drawn to a reveal on the far right before making it to the left to start reading the spread of pages. Still, this issue of format is a minor one.
The book takes place in a 2076 United States where cars hover on magnetic waves, holograms are a common fashion choice, and there is no longer any such thing as the internet. Law enforcement and the press exist as one institution, “The Fourth Estate,” with a national 24-hour news channel—CNN—essentially being the feds. The Private Eye’s setting is post an information apocalypse—an event 60 years earlier, called “The Flood” where all the private information people once kept on the cloud came bursting out of the ether. Suddenly, every text message, email, digital photo, bank account number, and (worst of all) internet search was public for everyone to access and read. The result of this was a total rejection of sharing information over networked computers, and a total individual and social retreat into a paranoid anonymity. In 2076 there is a whole generation of people raised to believe that their identity is their most valuable possession, and legal and social norms have been re-shaped to reflect this. Everyone goes outside in domino masks, false skins or holograms, taking guises that evoke the possibilities of virtual spaces like Second Life, but out in meatspace. People are dressed as fish, as tigers, as giraffes, as old-timey deep sea divers or aliens, but also as people of different races and genders.
The comic is beautiful and a well-executed vision of a kind of pop-noir sci-fi world developed through a well-paced and compelling detective story, but what appeals to me about it is how The Private Eye pushes at the boundaries of our understanding and lived experience of identity by its focus on the isolation of the characters drawn into the narrative. The plot concerns a scheme to “bring back internet” (by networking smart TVs) that leads to murder. But even more compellingly the story provides a way to consider how our connections make us vulnerable. It does this through the cultural attitudes towards the internet held by most people who are too young to have ever experienced it. This is crystallized in the protagonist’s 16-year old driver, Melanie. She sees the internet as a turn of the century “fad,” and characterizes the Facebook Generation as “narcissistic shut-ins who masturbate to stories about themselves all day.” On the opposite end of the spectrum, the villainous CEO—Khalid DeGuerre—that wants to bring the internet back, spouts the most generous claims of the internet’s advocates (including sometimes, I must admit, even me): “The world-wide web will bring great minds together to topple dictatorships and liberate entire populations.” His position is one that sees the possibilities in social media driven activism leading to real action (like Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring), without considering the limits and failures of those movements. It’d be facile to say the truth is somewhere in the middle. More interesting, I think, is that these polarized positions on the internet function perfectly within the paradigm of the speculative future setting while recapitulating the same extreme positions by which such views are characterized currently. Like the best sci-fi, The Private Eye shifts the social milieu temporally to provide another way of considering issues of self, politics, and technology in our current era.
What’s absurd, of course, is that the scheme to “bring back internet” doesn’t even consider the degree to which the internet works because people buy into it. And while it has only taken about 30 years to become ubiquitous, that is still a hell of a lot longer than it seems the characters involved think it would take. There is a degree of post-literate orality that needs to develop through textual and image-based interactions for this social entity we think of as “The Internet” (as opposed to the technical material necessity of networked computers) to actually exist. Furthermore, its users need a digital self (or set of varying selves) to accrete over time through words and other data—selves as vulnerable as our lived self—in order to engage with the virtual world so deeply they become entwined. It is not clear if this would or even could happen in the setting’s cultural framework, but what matters is that “internet” has become a legendary thing in their imaginations.: an all-powerful entity that was either amazing and egalitarian or fetid with secrets and dissembling.
Vaughn’s sharp and quick-paced approach to The Private Eye makes good use of the comics’ form as a stand-alone story in 10 chapters. Unlike a long-time serialized comic in which characters accrete a history through endless stories written and drawn by countless different writers, here we learn about characters most through the degree to which we can understand their relationships. The protagonist, which we only know as “P.I.” is hired by a woman to look into her own past and affiliations, as a kind of test of how well she has covered her tracks for a high-profile job she is applying for. P.I. is a “paparazzo,” a freelance snooper who finds traces of people beneath their carefully crafted and multiplicitous public identities. When his client ends up dead, P.I. reluctantly joins forces with her sister, Raveena, to investigate the death. Throughout the story there are multiple times where—despite how closely they work together over several days—the two characters are surprised to learn something about the other. As readers, we get more insight into P.I.’s past—his absent dad, his mysteriously murdered mother, whose many identities made discovering details about what happened to her impossible to learn, growing up with his white Millennial hipster grandfather (who is 90 and still living)—but even these glimpses only gesture at a whole person, and cannot begin to capture one, but that is part of the point. The obsessive privacy of this comic’s world has actually undermined the notion of identity altogether by isolating people, thus highlighting the degree to which identity is dialogic and positional, and necessarily incomplete. Who we are and can claim to be manifests in the telling and sharing of being. In other words, even individual identity is social. P.I. resists letting Raveena know anything about him, even as their lives become entangled. When she finds out that “Gramps” is actually P.I.’s grandfather (earlier he demurs when asked to shed light on their relationship, calling the story of how they know each other “boring”), she wants to know more of the story of their family life, asking “Where is your mom now?” P.I. changes the subject, replying “Can we play 20 questions later?” When P.I. is forced to contact another “paparazzo” for help, it becomes clear that these two men were once lovers. “I don’t know you at all, do I?” Raveena says when she sees them kiss passionately. “Kinda the point,” P.I. replies. The suggestion here is that she can’t ever really know him, even if they were to play “20 questions” or participate in those inane Facebook questionnaires that ask you where you grew up, what was your favorite toy as a kid, or when was the last time you cried. In fact, the faux-profundity of the questions smack of armchair psychology seeking superficial closure among the small facts of a person’s life in order to make sense of who they are, which of course assumes that selves can make sense to begin with.
This distancing of self from identity is a fascinating thing to consider given the degree to which identity is performative and depends on social relations. We are not the same person with close friends as we are when encountering a police man or in a classroom. Society interpellates, to use Louis Althusser’s term. It calls on us to fill a role determined by ideological relations. This power is the organizing feature of social relations. It is the mechanism by which individual freedom is diminished as any given behavior or cultural marker (such as race) can be framed as to establish a predetermined free-floating ideologically-bound identity. These forces are weakened, however, by the multiple puppet identities of the post-Flood world. While types of masks might indicate certain economic positions—as when P.I. tells his would-be client he knows she has money because of the cost of her high-end hologram mask—typically, no one can know for certain who it is beneath the disguise—even voices are modified by some of them—but must instead try to figure something out about the person based on their choice of mask, which is slippery work.
Consider when P.I. and Raveena run into her sister’s former comrade. They end up having to chase him down and Raveena beats the shit out of him to get information. He appears to us in the form of stereotypical 1970s Link-from-the-Mod-Squad kinda look, but when his mask is torn, we find out he looks very different beneath. Raveena quips, “I think I knocked him white.” The story does not comment on the character’s choice to appear like an afro’d brotherman, and P.I.—who is mixed race—does not seem perturbed by it, and yet by making that choice in a world of people that can choose to be medieval knights, the cast of Yo Gabba Gabba, or even modernist cephalopods, suggests that gendered and racial ideas from our contemporary time still inform the futuristic story. Even the opening scene which finds P.I. spying on a sultry blonde who turns out to be a cute, but nevertheless more plain, freckle-faced woman, suggests that racialized ideals of various kinds still shape the interactions of identities. A generous reading might suggest that the sense of increased distance between a self as we experience it and performed identity means raced and gender stereotypes can exist distinct from the dehumanizing and generalizing effect of which they both results and symptoms. From this lens the world of The Private Eye is a form of imagined post-racial culture, but I don’t buy it. I think the degree to which race is not addressed is more an artifact of the way race is written into an inescapable ideology that frames the work to create a graphic narrative. Our invisible present seeps into the imagined future in ways that become notable in the tension between the absence of race as an explicit framework in The Private Eye and the visual component that still signifies early 21st century caricatures of race, whether they be the “cool black guy” or the “killer blonde.”
Despite being called out explicitly only once, race chimes throughout this text through its visual rhetoric. One of the things I love about The Private Eye is how it questions all expressed productions of identity. The villain’s somewhat reluctant henchman, Nebular—who typically wears a kind of big-eyed octopus mask—is Asian-American. When DeGuerre questions Nebular’s love of generic American—and thus inauthentic—Chinese food, the latter responds that he’s 6th generation American. He only knows what he likes. He doesn’t care that “those aren’t even real Chinese letters on the bag.” The irony here is that DeGuerre is looking to the internet age for some form of authentic egalitarian impetus that the world of secrets and masks does not have. This is of course laughable to us in this present given the relative anonymity of the internet, the disingenuity and varying degrees of trolling that taint nearly all its public interactions, and the internet’s penchant to combine and recombine ad nauseum. Further complicating Nebular’s role in the project is his ambivalence towards its aim. He only wants the opportunity to muck around with archaic electronics to pull-off things that haven’t been done in a long time, if ever, like using an old MacBook to launch a satellite rocket. He’s basically a tech nerd obsessed with his own thing, and glomming onto someone with the resources to let him play, which in its own way is more indicative of how the internet is shaped than any democratic possibilities.
In all the instances where race rises up silently, however, the narrative feels less sure, more ambiguous. For example, P.I. is quite careful when it comes to his work. In a setting where “The Fourth Estate” is synonymous with law enforcement, and violating the law leads to being part of the public record and thus vulnerable in a culture that values privacy over all, to be a freelance “paparazzo” is to operate in the realm of a hostile and resentful law enforcement agency. As a mixed-race person, P.I. has a fraught relationship with identity, able to blend (with the help of “Dreamcoat” that makes him hard to identify), but also at times more vulnerable to identity’s capriciousness. Raveena, on the other hand, is a white woman of some means (able afford to hire P.I.), who repeatedly uses her grief over her sister’s death to justify threatening P.I. and drives the story towards a violent conclusion with her sense of entitlement. The caution that comes with a double-consciousness is lost on her. She feels she deserves answers and revenge, without considering that her sister may have wanted to be private for a reason. Or better yet, that the very cultural underpinning of identity’s value as a secret kept her from knowing her sister as well as she might have or should have.
When the reader is allowed a glimpse into P.I.’s history through a scene set at his mother’s funeral, the very kind of answers Raveena seeks are framed as inaccessible. P.I.’s mom was killed in a hit and run, and no one knows who is responsible. Various groups of friends show up for the funeral in their masks, each identifiable as a distinct subculture she was part of through her engagement in identity play. The luchador-masked minister presiding over the funeral refers to her by many “nyms” (short for “pseudonyms”), ExWhyZed, Ms. Exalted, Thomboy and more—distinct communities sharing space uncomfortably, but joined in the singular end that is death. A young P.I. is obsessed with learning something about her death. Where was she going? Who was she with? Who was she when she died? His grandfather provides little comfort, telling the boy that if he wants to find out the truth one day he needs to become a theoretical physicist. He explains, “[If] you want answers you might as well study the universe, ‘cause you’re sure as shit never gonna get any from people.”
The answer to the question of identity—whether it is the one we ask ourselves or each other—is: there is no answer. Or perhaps, if we feel more generous, “It depends.” I suggested this earlier, but I want to reiterate it more clearly: any understanding of identity and the work to make sense of it inevitably fails, because it assumes that identity makes sense to begin with. In the words of a friend and colleague, “identity is being formed, preformed, transformed, and contested everywhere.”
I conceptualize the “I” as where the frayed edge of an ongoing project in self-making abuts a world outside itself that also helps constitute it. Jerome Bruner’s foundational 1987 article in Social Text, “Life as Narrative” gets at what I am trying to convey. He writes, “’Life’…is the same kind of construction of the human imagination as “a narrative” is. It is constructed by human beings through active ratiocination, by the same kind of ratiocination through which we construct narratives. When somebody tells you his life…it is always a cognitive achievement rather than a through-the-clear-crystal recital of something univocally given” (692). This kind of self-production, however, must also overcome a barrier of translation between individuals, wherein that self acquires another sense of remove. The narrative of identity is always fragmenting, requiring re-framing—what am I to myself? To you? I want to highlight that here because Bruner’s notion of the self as narrative construction also provides a framework for how people understand (or claim to understand) each other’s identities, not just what an individual tells, but how she is read. In some of my previous scholarly work I have theorized a mode of ongoing effort towards narrative closure as “(re)collection,” when it uses and re-shapes popular culture as a framework for positionally understanding self and selves.
But that isn’t what I am trying to get at here—we get very little sense of what kinds of stories the people of 2076 enjoy—except some scenes of TV show featuring comedic characters in domino masks (is one of them a middle-aged derpy Flash?)—rather, in the post-Flood world of The Private Eye, the intense privacy that has developed as a cultural norm has led to an overvaluing of what hidden aspects of the lives of others might be discovered. It may be a kind of hyperbolic sci-fi over-valuation, but it nevertheless reveals something of a lower order, but no less slippery and troubling, that occurs in our contemporary era. When forms of self-telling are shared they appear to have more power in The Private Eye’s setting, adding a sense of ironic credulity to a society that otherwise does not trust. Since the selves we understand ourselves to be are “highly susceptible to cultural, interpersonal, and linguistic influences,” (694) we look to stock “canonical life narratives” when trying to identify and understand others, using whatever we can discover as evidence of these predetermined notions. In other words, in the post-public identity framework of The Private Eye, identity is no less fraught given its guarded expression, and its take resonates with the problems that arise from the so-called “color blindness” as a response to racism.
In no other literary or visual form aside from comics is the backward-formation of the relationship between narrativization and identity not only so obvious, but so complex. This is especially true in long-form serials, because given a 40 or 50 or 75-year history readers are able to develop the myriad approaches to identifying and defining a character. As speculative fiction, The Private Eye is embedded in an imagined history that connects it to our present moment, thus creating a framework for understanding it as part of an ongoing and contingent narrative. It speculates a future that changes our relationship to privacy or identity, but does not change the narrativistic mechanism that makes it legible to us.
There is a lot more going on in The Private Eye than I can coherently unpack here—from its take on adolescence and identity through the figure of Melanie, the ecological themes, it’s considerations of privacy, how its future U.S. pursues isolationist global policies, and its brilliant and/or reactionary conflation of the press with state power—it portrays the surface of a deep world. It rewards multiple close-readings, especially because of Martin’s rich backgrounds and detail (which none of the sample art here does justice to). I plan to return to it again. Smart stuff.