This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on November 29, 2013.
Brian K. Vaughan (Y: The Last Man, Saga) and Marcos Martin (Daredevil) self-published the first issue of The Private Eye in March. It is a digital only comic available, DRM free, for whatever price the reader chooses (including no price at all). All of this has been accomplished without the help of any outside companies, allowing anyone in the world to discover the comic for no price at PanelSyndicate.com. This model is no different than that of many webcomics that offer merchandise and physical printings in order to fund the digital comics continuation. However, the high profile of the creators, in both critical and commercial terms, set this release apart.
It was a large risk for two artists who were already successful working in the current print model at companies like Image and Marvel. They have described the response from readers and the series success as “overwhelming”. In response to the written and fiscal rewards of the series, the creators have done a great deal to interact with fans, including large letter columns in their releases, releasing pictures of cosplayers, and publishing a behind-the-scenes look at the conception of the series and construction of the first issue.
A behind-the-scenes publication can be viewed simply as a gift for fans who cannot get enough of a particular idea. That does a disservice to the value found in this release though. Included in the 85 page PDF document are e-mails, sketches, Vaughan’s first script, and Martin’s first series of layouts. This provides valuable insight into the storytelling process of two Eisner award-winning creators. Making of The Private Eye is a comprehensive background rarely available in mainstream comics.
One of the most interesting contributions found in Making of The Private Eye is the revision of its ending, wherein a single page is made into two. The change from Martin’s original composition to its final version reveals how small changes can make an extraordinary difference.
In the scene below, the protagonist’s client is confronted in her apartment by a new character. She is murdered and her mask (in essence, her identity) is stolen.
There are a total of nine panels on this page (p.27). In a Frank Miller composition that might not be jarring, but up to this point, The Private Eye contains an average of about five (5.32) panels per page. Only two of the previous twenty-five pages contain more than seven panels and those pages are devoted to a singular idea (e.g. specific details of an office on page twenty). This leaves the page feeling rushed with so much occurring. Not only is it revealed that the woman has been violently murdered, but the murderer has discovered the alias of the book’s hero, and assumed the identity of his client. When the busiest pages of the comic are focused on singular ideas, this design seems overwhelming.
That is not to say that the page is bad comics. The narrative still reads naturally from left to right, moving between two perspectives. First the murder is revealed from the eye of an outside party, moving from the woman’s body to the blade and back again. Gutters cut off her hand calling special attention to it and focusing the scene on the killer’s perspective. Moving from her hand to his eyes to her hand to his smile reveals the thought process at play. It is perfectly functional work, but Martin is capable of doing much better as his final composition reveals.
In these two pages (p. 27 and 28), the same story is split into two distinctive sections, with greater focus on details and emotional resonance. The first page focuses entirely on the murder. The first panel from the original composition is left, almost unchanged. The only difference is that the blue background now runs into the bleed, providing the reveal with a timeless quality. Instead of only having two panels to focus on the woman’s reaction to her stabbing, there are now five. In panels two and three, close ups of her mouth and eyes are shown. Close ups are just as effective at creating a personal connection between viewers and characters in comics as they are in film. The focus on blood coming from her mouth and tears welling in her eyes, pushes away outside concerns and leaves only her reaction. It is a painful thing to behold. The running mascara and raised eyebrows play off of both panels two and four, showing the reader just how self-aware and scared the victim is at this moment.
Before there was a clinical sensibility about this crime, showing only the cause and effect relationship between the stabbing and collapse. In the final layout, there is time to consider the victim’s reaction, which make the fourth panel (with the knife exploding back out) so much more painful. Instead of simply knowing that a character has been killed, the reader is forced to reflect on how personal this evil action was and what it reflects about the antagonist.
By making this murder a more personal experience, Martin is able to reflect the emotional reactions of the reader onto the newly revealed antagonist. His face only occupies one panel of the previous page and it is obscured. Here he is revealed, the man responsible for a horrific act. Again, a tall panel on the left portrays a thesis for this page: That this is a dangerous, predatory man who looks down upon those around him.
The following six panels play out this idea as a story. The murderer calmly examines the scene of his crime. He first notices a clue scrawled on the young woman’s hand, the alias of the protagonist. His smile informs the reader that he is now targeting new prey. But there are more advantages to be found, as he turns to notice the woman’s mask. In a futuristic world, where everyone wears masks, it is relatively easy to assume another’s identity. The murderer promptly does so, metaphorically skinning his victim and wearing her hide. In the end it is clear that this man is a cold and cunning predator, much like the animal whose face he applies in the final page: the tiger.
Vaughan and Martin, by providing their original notes and outlines, provide readers with a “what if?” scenario, or an alternate comic. Reading both versions, what could have been and what is, teaches a variety of lessons about the design of a comics page. A functional page is transformed into an effective one. A cold murder is made to be absolutely chilling. A murderer is revealed to be absolutely monstrous.
When viewing art, especially good art, it’s easy to overlook the artifice of a piece. Effective storytelling does not (usually) draw attention to the craft that makes it effective. Instead, it allows readers to easily consume the story. A piece provides emotional resonance and disseminates ideas naturally, as if by magic. So when one is allowed to peak behind the current, even for a couple of pages, the work required and lessons learned can be truly astounding.