One of this year’s most acclaimed books almost literally came out of nowhere – The Private Eye (www.panelsyndicate.com), by Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, TV’s Under the Dome) and Marcos Martin (Batgirl: Year One, Daredevil), who previously teamed on Marvel’s Dr. Strange: The Oath. Set in a future where the destruction of “the cloud” made everyone’s personal information available to anyone, it’s a world where privacy is valued above all else, most people wear masks in public…and where our hero, who specializes in getting information on people, finds himself way in over his head with murder, conspiracies and more.
In an age where almost every book is announced months in advance, The Private Eye took readers by surprise by launching online unannounced – and with a “pay what you will” model that lets readers get each issue based on a donation of their choice. It’s even experimenting with the form of comics, with each page designed in a “landscape” format, i.e. a sideways version of a traditional comics page.
With the fifth issue of The Private Eye about to launch, we called up Marcos Martin in Spain to talk about the book so far – what’s gone into making it, the risks he and Vaughan are taking as creators, and much more. We’ve also got a single preview image from issue #5 – the first time the creators have ever let an issue be previewed in advance of its release.
Newsarama: Marcos, how’s the experience been so far?
Marcos Martin: It’s been a challenge, I’d say, on different fronts – creatively, with all that Brian was proposing with his script, and a different format with the landscape format, figuring out how to lay out the page and how it would be seen by the reader.
And that this was going to be launched as a digital-only comic book and putting up the website…my God, I’m thinking about it now, and it’s just a nightmare! But we’re doing it, apparently.
Nrama: To quote that old cartoon Super Chicken: “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it.” But that begs the question – how did you get talked into something that was such a challenge?
Martin: Well, I wasn’t really aware of what I was getting into when we first had the idea. Luckily, we had a lot of help with all the technical aspects, because Brian and I are both idiots when it comes to technological affairs.
I think when you start something like this, you have to start going, and little by little you just do the things that you have to do. If you were to think of everything you have to do when you start, you’d never get anything done, because it’s so enormous. And you're actually not even aware of all the problems you'll have to deal with.
If you just keep going, you’re not thinking of it, you just work through the obstacles as you encounter them.
Nrama: The landscape format of the book is interesting to me, because they’ve done that in print comics, and the reaction is almost always, “The staples are in the wrong place!” There’s that real addiction to the classically-formatted comic book page, and you don’t see a lot of experimentation of the form. How did this format come about for your book, and what have been some of the unique challenges/advantages of it?
Martin: The format was one of the first decisions I made when we decided to do the book and do it digital. Basically, I wanted the reader to be able to see the page without having to scroll, so that it would adapt perfectly to the size of a computer screen – I was thinking of computer screens more than iPads or tablets, because I felt almost everyone has a computer as opposed to a tablet or iPad, and that would be more universal.
The idea is that you wouldn’t have to scroll up or down, which is something that makes me nervous when reading a comic online.
When I started tackling the layouts of the book, I had to deal with the creative consequences of that. I’m not sure if it’s the best format for reading comic books, because of the way the eye goes when you read a comic book, which is obviously left to right and up to down.
You really don’t have much of that up-to-down thing when you’re reading the landscape format – you have to go diagonally, I guess. So I’m not sure that it has all that many advantages over the traditional format.
It does have its own advantages, though. It has a movie quality, which I think is good for this story. And a side effect I didn’t think of but found out while I was doing it was that because the setting is Los Angeles, subconsciously, I identify LA with the horizontal, while a place like New York I identify with the vertical. So in a way the landscape format is very appropriate for the Los Angeles setting.
Nrama: Have you been to Los Angeles – or for that matter, what are some of the challenges in depicting it in this near-future society?
Martin: I’ve been to LA a few times – I haven’t lived there, like I have in New York. I actually didn’t like LA the first time I was there, but I really got it the second time.
It’s kind of fun to place the setting of the story there, and to get that feeling to the reader, that LA feeling. I think it’s easier for me to achieve that with New York, but it’s great fun to set the book there.
Nrama: And you have this society that’s sort of Mardi Gras on crack – I’d imagine that it’s got to be fun not just doing generic-looking people for crowd scenes and backgrounds. What’s it like designing all the characters with tiger heads and fish heads and so forth?
Martin: You think it’s fun, right? [laughs] When I started working on these, my main concern was trying to find a way of visualizing this world of masks and disguises without at any time feeling or making the reader feel like they were watching some kind of carnival parade or costume party.
Because it’s not that – it’s more of an evolution of fashion, this is where fashion has evolved to after all these years in this world where privacy is the most important thing.
But at the beginning, I was like, “What are they going to do? Are they going to be wearing costumes like a costume party? Are they going to be dressed up as clowns or cowboys or whatever?”
Nrama: It’s a funny thing – I’ve interviewed several artists who have worked with Brian, and they note that he keeps creating these alternate timelines, like “here’s a bunch of alternate New York Cities” or “here’s a world where all the men died in 2002, and culture and everything else has been frozen since then.” So it’s a really subtle requirement for world-building.
Martin: Yeah. It’s the subtlety that makes it hard – you can’t really go over-the-top, because that’s not what the story asks you to do. In my case, the disguise thing had to be a little over-the-top, but it’s a future that can’t be too far away from what we know.
It serves as a look into our past in a way, as it has more things in common with the 1980s or 1990s than what we would think of a future as being like. So it has to have that right mixture of futuristic and current or even old vibes to it.
It is hard. That Brian is an asshole. [laughs] He makes things difficult for us artists.
Nrama: [laughs] Let’s get all the dirt out there! But seriously – what’s your collaboration like? Because you’re in Spain, he’s in Los Angeles…is it mainly Skype, emails, what?
Martin: Well, I’ve been able to lure Brian to the world of Skype, which makes things much easier and less expensive for either of us. At the beginning, we had phone calls, but now we discuss most of the things through Skype or regular emails.
We have two or three Skype sessions every issue to discuss everything from plot details to small script things that we want to make sure we're getting right. Then there’s layouts, and things that have to do with the launch of each issue and stuff related to the website.
Other than that, we communicate through email. We’re in touch pretty often, I’d say. It’s obviously best to be in the same city, but that almost never happens, so this is about as good as it gets.
Nrama: What are some of the sequences in the book that were most fun to draw?
Martin: They’re the easiest ones to draw. I always tell Brian, “If you sit two people at a table talking with the lights out, that’s the perfect scene for me. As many black panels as you can put in there.” [laughs]
Usually the situations I feel I have never drawn before are the most fun. Right now, I'm thinking of the dream sequence at the beginning of #3, that was exciting to draw. Although there's a scene I've just finished drawing in #5 that I think is the best one I've ever worked on.
Not because of the drawing, but because of how great it was in the script and how much it has evolved through our conversations into something I feel it's even better. That's the most exciting part of my job as a comic-book artist, the part that's actually invisible to the eyes of the reader.
Nrama: One question that might be interesting for a lot of people looking to put their work online is: How has the pay-what-you-want model worked out for you? I would imagine that as an artist, you have a bit more at risk, as Brian’s got that good Stephen King money to fall back on…[just razzing you, Brian]. But seriously, what have been the highs and lows of this so far?
Martin: Well, we knew it was a risk from the beginning. It was a big risk for me, because it’s my only source of income, so if it hadn’t worked out, I would have had nothing to fall back on.
But it was a big risk for Brian, too, who had been working on this story for a long time only to have it released in a way that could end up being completely overlooked or ignored.Aside from the fact it could almost certainly make much less money than it would've under a traditional publisher. We have a deal worked out where I take a certain amount first, and then Brian takes the same amount.
And after that we split everything 50/50.Brian, fortunately, is perfectly fine with that, and it’s been successful enough to be able to put that plan in order. But yeah, at some points, it was a bit scary for me in the sense that I basically had to spend all of my savings before launching.
Martin: But it was worth it – even if it hadn’t worked out, it’s always worth trying new things. And especially with the state of the business as it is now, something new has to come along, and in a way that’s most fair to the authors and the readers. Also, it's not like I would have not been able to find some work eventually... I hope.
Nrama: Well, the web has offered more possibilities – Scott McCloud has talked about the “infinite landscape,” and there’s ways of presenting the story or doing types of stories that are very different from what you’re most likely to encounter when you walk into a comic shop.
But as with anything on the web, there’s still that question of how you’re going to do that in a way that lets you do thinks like eat food and have electricity in your house.
Martin: Yeah. I think since that’s not something the Internet was created with that mind – making a profit – I guess it’s kind of difficult for the cultural products to find a way of making money out of it. So my artistic ambition has always been not to fight against that, but to find a way to make everyone comfortable with that setting.
The pay-what-you-want model, I truly think that it’s a model that works for both creators and readers. It’s definitely worked for us. The thing is, can it be expanded to more people, to other areas? I don’t know.
In the end…I guess you need a revolution, and the revolutions never come from the people who already have the power. They have to come from the average folk, and you need a lot of those folk to do that.
Right now, it’s a few people – the Internet is like the Wild West, and while many people found gold there, many didn’t. Actually, many died miserable and alone... So, yes, that should raise some spirits.
Nrama: What’s the plan for the storyline of The Private Eye? Some of the initial talk made it sound like it would be 12 issues…
Martin: When Brian first told me about this idea, before we decided to go for a digital model, it was always as a limited series. So right now I think it’s supposed to be 10 issues. It could be slightly more, I guess, but it definitely won't be less – 11 or 12 maybe, but at least 10 if the readers like it and support us. As long as they’re there up to the 10th issue, we’ll be there.
Nrama: You’re about to release the fifth issue, so that’s about the halfway point. That’s a chunk to go, but do you have any comics projects beyond this planned?
Martin: I don’t – I am still far from finishing, and I usually never try to think of what’s next until I’m almost finished with what I’m doing. Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m doing next once I finish. So it’s probably going to be a while before I think about that.
But with everything that's ahead of me that’s the least of my problems right now, believe me. I obviously would like keep doing something through Panel Syndicate. As long as the readers keep supporting us we'll keep trying.
Catch up with The Private Eye at www.panelsyndicate.comand get ready for issue #5 coming soon!