Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan and Carlos Martin

Metaphors are wonderful things, in their places. They can brighten literary works, create unexpected parallels, and add depth to stories that otherwise would feel thin. What they can't do, though, is substitute for worldbuilding. (There are a thousand bad examples back on my homeworld of Skiffy.) A metaphor has to become concretized in a story, to be something other than the words that make it up -- it has to mean actual things that happen in the story or underpin it.

I'm saying all this because Brian K. Vaughan doesn't seem to have learned that lesson yet.

The Private Eye is based on a metaphor: blatantly and nakedly. We say that all of our data is "in the cloud" these days, yes? Well, in The Private Eye that cloud burst! And it rained data upon the USA! For a highly biblical forty days and nights! Isn't that exciting and amazing?

But if the reader thinks about that for a nanosecond, the questions instantly pop up. Did some hacking group simultaneously break into AWS and Google and the NSA? Did a million disgruntled tech employees team up with WikiLeaks in the greatest data-dump known to mankind? Did a foreign power get everything at once and release it? Did the Internet itself become sentient, like an early William Gibson story, and throw off all of the merely human shackles on it? (That last one is the least likely, though it's the most plausible mechanism for everything being accessible immediately.)

And did this happen to the whole world, or just the US? If the latter -- which the story hints is the case -- what stopped it from going wider?

Vaughan doesn't care about any of those questions. The cloud burst! Get it! Isn't that awesome?! He waves away any tedious questions about how dozens of different, physically separate servers could "burst" simultaneously, or how the Internet would remain up while everyone did all of this intensive research on their neighbors and co-workers over a month or so, or even how people were able to find anything meaningful in a torrent of unindexed terabytes of random stuff from a million sources.

Even worse, what seems to be the most damaging things were individual search patterns and web history...you know, the stuff that's mostly held locally and already has prompted a lot of unpleasant conversations between family members and co-workers? Of all of the things that could happen in a world with total data transparency -- from baroque forms of identity theft to chaos in the financial markets to weird forms of information arbitrage -- widespread distress about regular people's sex lives is easily the most boring, conventional, and dull.

And all of this could have been avoided: Vaughan didn't need that metaphor in the first place. All he really wanted was to tell a near-future detective story in a world where everyone wears masks. (Like superheroes! Because this is comics!) Now, except for the opening pages, the fact that masks hide identities really isn't important -- it really looks like Vaughan started from "wouldn't it be kewl if everyone dressed up like superheroes" and didn't go much farther than cobbling up a quick explanation for that.

But that's what he did: the "cloud burst," and the USA collectively turned off the Internet, destroyed all serious computing devices, and went back to making shiny physical stuff like we did in '50s SF. A generation or so later, the US is prosperous if insulated from the world (which is also against every economic lesson of the last 200 years, but I'll let that go for now) and everyone wears masks all of the time because Vaughan thinks that would be awesome. Oh, and the media are now the police, for no obvious reason -- though that's also a cool metaphor!

That all is too bad, because the detective story is OK (if very conventional and Chandleresque) once you finally get down to it. Sure, there's a murderous megalomanical billionaire with a stupidly complicated plot to do something both gigantic and silly, but you have to expect a comic-book writer like Vaughan to go too big: that's what comics trains writers to do. (Oh, and the foreign-accented henchmen as well...come to think of it, there are a lot of cliches here, so spotting them could be an amusing pastime while reading.) Our hero is the usual guy who walks down mean streets but is not himself mean -- yadda yadda yadda -- but he also has a fancy apartment that can get trashed and a comic-book hero's requisite quirky and vitally useful sidekicks, so he's less Philip Marlowe and more MacGyver.

The art is from Marcos Martin, in low, wide pages originally designed for screens -- which translates into a short fat book that is substantially more expensive that you might expect -- and there's less to criticize there: he tells the story cleanly, using his unusually-sized pages well. The art is a bit scratchy and dark, to suit the noir atmosphere, which colorist Muntsa Vicente also plays up.

I can't really recommend The Private Eye to anyone familiar with prose science fiction or mysteries; it will come across as cartoonish in a number of ways to readers who've thought about any of these things before. It has been pretty lauded in the comics market, which possibly says more about that market than about the book. It is pretty, and it aims higher than most comics about people who wear masks all of the time, and it has a real structure and ending. That may sound like damning with faint praise, and maybe it is. But it's better than you might expect for a comic about an LA full of costumed wackos that was originally going to be called Masks.

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