Two years ago, comic book writer Brian Vaughan and comic book artist Marcos Martin teamed up for a 10-volume series called The Private Eye, about a future in which society has abandoned the Internet due to "the Cloud" bursting. It's the year 2076, sixty years after everyone's secrets spilled out into the open, and no one wants to own a smartphone or commit anything to collective digital memory. The graphic novel's hero is a journalist who has to solve a murder (while deprived of the power of Googling) and thwart an evil TV executive. (Without Internet, television is thriving of course.)
Science fiction is one of the best places to grapple with the consequences of rapidly advancing technology and the ways it's changing how information about us gets collected, mined and exploited. But sometimes technology moves so fast that it outpaces the fiction writers. Vaughan and Marcos have been steadily churning out issues over the past two years, releasing them online with a "pay-what-you-want" model. During that period, versions of the cloud burst of their imagination have actually happened: Edward Snowden popped the NSA cloud. Unknown hackers invaded the Apple cloud to expose celebrities' naked pictures in "the Fappening." And hackers potentially acting on North Korea's behalf turned Sony Pictures' cloud inside-out, spilling employees' email and private files across the Internet. Despite their secrets, private thoughts, and body parts going viral, none of the victims have tried to destroy the Internet (yet), though many of them do claim to be much more diligent about using the "delete" button.
The last issue in The Private Eye series dropped last week. Luckily, we still have the Internet today, and that's where you can get this thing: on their website, Panel Syndicate, you can pay what you want to binge-read the creator-owned series now — which you should totally do. It's an excellent meditation on privacy and what we'll need to do in the future to protect ours. Adults, for example, generally wear holographic animal masks in public to protect their privacy, while kids are forced to wear their real identity until they turn 18.
(Though I quibble with the logic here: if there's no Internet, you lose the processing power of the Cloud, so you probably wouldn't need to worry about facial recognition.)
We caught up with Marcos, an illustrator who has inked Spider-Man among other big name comics, and Vaughan, who is well known among comic book geeks for his work on Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, about wrapping the series.
Fusion: 'Private Eye' was incredibly prescient. Did the Snowden leak, the Sony hack, or the Fappening change the plot or introduce any new elements to the dialogue or drawings?
MM: From a visual point of view it just gave us the excuse to add small visual jokes here and there, like the SONY sign in #10. The series' plot was pretty much mapped out by Brian since day one but there were some significant changes to the original planned ending.
BKV: Yeah, the story evolved as we worked on it, but less because of things happening in the real world and more because of the way our characters and this project forced me to think about my own relationship to privacy and the internet in new ways.
(Fusion asked about other possible endings)
Sorry, my lips are sealed! I'll just say that the story ended the way it had to end.
FUSION: What exactly happened to the Internet in the world you created? I may have missed this in my rapid binge read but, in your imagination, how did it get taken down after the great cloud burst? Who dismantled it?
MM: No, you didn't miss it. It was never said and we feel it's better that way since the actual details about the CloudBurst are not really important. Let the readers come up with their own explanations.
BKV: Correct, though I had always assumed that the public dismantled it themselves, quickly and furiously, not long after all of their darkest secrets were laid bare for any curious neighbors/loved ones/strangers to see.
FUSION: You often joke about not using computers in the Afterwords of the issues, but would you actually describe yourselves as technophobes?
MM: No, I love technology. I'm just an idiot, that's all. And I'm just not cut for social media, don't really understand the need to share every single detail of your personal life with the world.
BKV: Seconded. Marcos and I are both enormously private, but I love technology. And being a lurker on social media is grand, I just have no desire ever to be a participant.
FUSION: This was an experiment for you two in both doing your own comic (rather than one distributed through one of the big labels) and in letting readers pay what they want for it. How did it go? Were you content with how the pay-what-you-want model worked out?
MM: So far we are well into six figures in both number of downloads AND dollars earned, with nearly half of all readers contributing an average payment of slightly over $2 per new installment. And the cumulative downloads for #1 would place the book on the latest Top 20 comics sales chart for actual print comics with regular distribution. So yes, we're more than content with the pay-what-you-want model, to the point where we are certain we wouldn't have made it past #3 had we decided to charge readers an established fee.
BKV: As long as our competitors like Comixology aren't sharing their figures, I'd be reluctant to get more specific than Marcos. But I'll agree that this was successful way beyond my wildest imaginings, which is why Marcos and I are already discussing what to do next through Panel Syndicate.
FUSION: Why animal masks?
MM: Why not? Seriously, as an artist when you've got to come up with an infinite number of masks and disguises all possibilities are welcome!
BKV: Actually, my favorite mask was the working holographic raincloud that Marcos created. Animals are yesterday's disguise…