Picture the following scenario: the year is 2076, and the internet is gone, for good. This is the world of The Private Eye, a comic book series conceived by Brian K. Vaughan (comic aficionados beware: a few mild spoilers ahead).
Vaughan is the celebrated creator (together with illustrator Fiona Staples) of the comic series Saga (2012–ongoing), an enthralling epic which elegantly hybridizes everything from Star Wars to David Cronenberg bio-tech aesthetics to Game of Thrones to the refreshing poly-sexual frankness of TV series Transparent into an alternative space-opera. Saga tells the story of a young couple of different planetary descents (a duo that makes Han Solo and Princess Leia look like an altar boy and a nun) who are on a dangerous odyssey with their young daughter. What sets the series apart and makes it truly specific to its medium is what Vaughan has slyly described as it being ‘too expensive to be TV and too dirty and grown-up to be a blockbuster’.
Coming back to The Private Eye (Vaughan’s project with illustrator Marcos Martin, first published online and recently also in print): the internet is gone because some decades before, the ‘cloud’ burst. For 40 days and 40 nights, every single human being’s search history, images and messages are freely accessible to anyone else – a veritable apocalypse of shaming and embarrassment, not least for the once who had always feigned they had nothing to hide. Once the digital deluge is over, the good news is that programmers and engineers don’t have to waste energy, headspace and time on another silly app or useless upgrade, and instead start to invent things like hover cars, or a gigantic dam on the Pacific coast that saves Los Angeles from the consequences of climate-change-induced rising of sea levels; or a medical vest that automatically heals wounds, like those of a shot reporter. His boss comes into the hospital room and hollers ‘You son of a bitch. You’re gonna win a Greenwald for this!’ (turning Glenn Greenwald, who worked with Laura Poitras on the Snowden files, into the future Pulitzer eponymist, is one of numerous little ironic twists on our contemporary scene of leaks und reporting on surveillance; another is a ‘Free Assange’ poster in the style of ‘Free Abu Jamal’.)
In this future scenario, people, when leaving the (restored) privacy of their homes, put on masks or entire fantasy costumes, which have evolved into a complicated visual language of self-expression and self-shielding, with people sporting carp-heads, kinky latex balaclavas, or hologram clouds. Meanwhile journalists have replaced policemen – because publishing has become policing; the F.B.I. has literally turned into C.N.N. – the ‘Citizen National News’, and SWAT teams don’t show up with guns (or not only) but with big vintage shoulder cameras and shove-it-in-your-face microphones, because in this post-internet world, being publically exposed on television is better policing than incarceration. Consequently, the lead character, the private eye Patrick Immelman a.ka. P.I., is effectively a paparazzo. And he’s trying to stop an evil guy who wants to bring back the menace of the internet.
This variation on the classic LA murder mystery may not be as game-changing as Saga – or in fact Vaughan’s third recent project, his ongoing series Paper Girls (the story of a group of newspaper-delivering girls – imagine E.T. crossed with Stand By Me and War of the Worlds). But certainly it is entertaining and teasing, full of twists and ideas. One of them is a variation on a famous Sherlock Holmes theme: the perceived death of the private eye. As the granddad of P.I. says: ‘My boy just pulled a Reichenbach falls’.