The Private Eye, and the Art and Business of Digital Comics

Posted on March 23rd, 2013

So Brian K Vaughan’s return to the comics fold appears to be well and truly on track. His Image series Saga has been a pretty big hit, and now he’s trying his hand at something a little different. Issue #1 of his latest series with Marcos Martin, The Private Eye, came out on his new website Panel Syndicate this week. It’s pretty cool and I recommend checking it out, especially if you’ve ever liked any of Vaughan’s other work (which reminds me, I’ve still got a few volumes of Y: The Last Man to catch up on. Always behind the times, me).

It’s an interesting project on two main levels. Artistically, it feels important that this is presented in a widescreen horizontal format. Comic books of course have always traditionally favoured a more vertical alignment, although some books have of course used the double-page spread as a way around this, Frank Miller’s 300 being the notable example of a book consisting entire of double-page spreads.

Comic strips have used horizontal layouts for years, and with the transition to digital media, most webcomics have had their roots in the strip medium and have stayed horizontal to match computer screens, and in the last few years there’s been a movement to longer-form horizontal comics (that smart man Warren Ellis has written about this).

I’d always thought that the transition to tablet screens would be useful for the mainstream comic book medium because it enables the reading of vertical books without much fuss, but somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that the beauty of reading on a tablet is that it can be horizontal too. In an era when both screen and tablet are used (and this isn’t even taking into account the push for TVs as internet devices) switching to the common alignment makes sense. Based on #1 of The Private Eye, this is a pretty good thing – it turns out a book of Marcos Martin spreads looks pretty sweet. With the images being fairly large and coming in at a retina-friendly 200dpi, this is a book optimised for higher-resolution future.

On an economic level, it’s interesting that this is a self-published, pay-what-you-can model of distribution. Now, there are clearly limits on pay-what-you-can as a viable business model. For example, if I was to put the stuff on this site up using that, I’d get very few people paying, and it might even put off people who don’t want to go through the charade of being begged at for money. But if you’re an established name, a known quantity with an in-built fan base? It makes loads of sense to gamble on your economic viability, particularly if you’re going to get a bigger cut and more creative independence.

Brian K Vaughan appears to be at a point in his life where he just doesn’t need the bullshit that surrounds working for the major publishers. The first sign of this was taking Saga to Image, seemingly the most frictionless of the major publishers. Now he’s taken it one step further, cutting out the middle man entirely, and he knows that he’s a big enough name to be able to afford to do so. It seems inevitable that digital self-publishing by some of the more established names in comics is inevitable, particularly as the means of distribution is now so streamlined.

Going forward, it feels like major writers and artists are going to get into the digital self-publishing game more and more. If they have pet vanity projects that none of the publishers want to go forward with, or feel that they’ve earned the right to get the benefit of the doubt, betting on yourself might be financially viable and get it access to a wider audience than traditional channels. If these creators are going to commit to digital, then they’re going to have to at least reconsider layout and shape in their work, which means that we might start seeing a new shape of comics that’s been a while in coming. It won’t work for everyone, but if this allows some of the bigger names in the game to get their interesting pet projects off the ground, then I’m on board.

Oh, and I paid $1, 1 whole cent above BKV’s RRP. I’m generous like that.