Friday, July 12, 2013

The International Private Eye and The Future of Comics

How the Internationalization of Brian K. Vaughan & Marcos Martin's The Private Eye Will Change Comics

Much is being written, and deservedly so, about Brain K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's The Private Eye. Self-published online through their Panel Syndicate venture, the monthly comic is being hailed as fairly revolutionary for their publishing model: DRM-Free and Pay-What-You-Want.

Artists releasing material and letting the audience dictate its value is not new, but still a bit of a novelty, especially in comics. If there had been instances in the past of comic PWYW releases, they never made an impact the way that The Private Eye has. The Private Eye is just like Radiohead's In Rainbows, a highly anticipated Pay-What-You-Want release from A-List creators with top-flight production values and undeniable critical success and fan response. While there was much supposition on its release that In Rainbows would change the music industry with many more PWYW releases, this hasn't been the case. Monetized digital downloads of music has revolutionized the record industry, but that was going to happen regardless. The mainstream comic industry finds itself on a similar digital precipice and has been smartly taking advantage of it through various DRM means (Digital Rights Management, that is releasing material tied to a specific program or device). But DRM-Free releases online of comics are actually nothing new - simply look at pretty much every webcomic ever made. But unlike most webcomics, the release format of The Private Eye - ten issue monthly maxi-series of 22-30 page comics with cover and backmatter - is more like mainstream North American comic releases, which are almost never released DRM-Free. And unlike most webcomics, The Private Eye is being produced by two very well-known, critically acclaimed creators who can arguably write their own ticket with any mainstream creator-owned publisher. For Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin to release The Private Eye the way they have is risky, far more so than if they were releasing it through any traditional creator-owned publishing outlet. But it appears the risk is paying off for the creators.

This is all noteworthy, but at the end of the day the experiment would be a failure if the finished product was no good. Unsurprisingly for two creators with their proven creative track-record, Vaughan & Martin's The Private Eye is a superb comic, a complex visual feast wrapped in a layered sci-fi noir parable. Vaughan's story, a richly detailed metaphor about privacy and the media, follows a private investigator in over his head in a murder plot in a future where privacy was apocalyptically shattered and everyone hides behind a mask. Martin's art - with Muntsa Vicente's extraordinary colors - reveals a master storyteller at work, explosive action and dramatic character set-pieces bouncing through an astonishingly realized futurescape. Three issues have been released so far, all of them riveting.

But as good as the comic is, as unique the release format is, I think the most important aspect of the story's release that may have a larger historical impact than anything else the two creators are doing, is the aggressive internationalization of the work.

Private Eye #1, Pages 19 & 20, by Brian K. Vaughan & Marcos Martin (Panel Syndicate, 2013)
Languages (top to bottom): English, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, French
(Open the image in a new tab or click here for bigger.)
The idea to release The Private Eye online, DRM-Free and Pay-What-You-Want, was Marcos Martin's. He'd been looking to do something like that for some time and the opportunity that presented itself in Brian K. Vaughan's story was too good to pass up (especially in light of the storyline parallels about a specifically analog future without an internet). But Martin's true stroke of genius with The Private Eye's release format is in the multiple languages in which every issue has been and will be released.

Martin is a Spanish artist fluent in Spanish, English and Catalan, a romance language spoken in Southern Spain, France and Andorra. When Martin and Vaughan set up their novel distribution method, it was a small step for Martin to release the material in the three languages he was familiar with. And as each issue was released, additional languages would be added on, to date Portuguese and French with more in the pipeline. The nature of the work's production and release, both purely digital, makes this possible.

In most cases of translations of North American mainstream comics, there is a significant time and logistics lag involved. You first must find a publisher for the work in each market, dealing with the logistics of royalties and copyright. In many cases, even popular works by known creators may not see publication in foreign markets for years after initial North American publication, if at all. The availability in each market may be completely outside the creators' hands, with some publishers licensing out work without contractual obligation to pay royalties or even inform the creators involved. And this works both ways, with many well-received European (especially French and Italian) or Japanese comics never matriculating their way Stateside.

In The Private Eye's case, the work has already been released to every market on the globe with a computer attached, and it is a very simple matter to upload versions released under increasingly diverse languages. There are no printing costs involved and the only limit is the creators' will and the availability of quality translations. By their liberal and aggressive internationalization of The Private Eye coupled with their easy to access DRM-Free PWYW model, not only are Vaughan and Martin able to get access to the vibrant comic markets in North America, Spain, Italy, France and the United Kingdom, but they also have an immediate global reach not limited to countries with a comic tradition, a reach achieved by few creators in the history of comics. In the five languages The Private Eye has been released under so far, they can reach 1.2 billion potential native speakers (not even counting non-native speakers). Naturally the potential audience is much smaller than that, limited by access and desire as is any potential audience, but for the first time Vaughan and Martin have in an instant global audience. And by putting out the translations themselves as soon as possible, they negate the need for "scanlations" (fan translated digital bootlegs) ensuring quality control and added potential financial return.

It is this globalization of the type of quality material originally limited to North America that will change comics forever. The power of the tools Vaughan and Martin have at their disposal, coupled with their vision and will to utilize those tools, are truly remarkable.

Already the industry is shifting in response to Vaughan and Martin's vision: Image has announced that their titles will be DRM-Free, though not Pay-What-You-Want. But some established Image books, as well as every comic and graphic novel put out by America's largest publishers Marvel and DC, are locked into long-term republication and licensing contracts that necessitate large gaps in time and catalog coverage between different languages and regions. But it is a given that more creators with control over their rights to their work - a steadily increasing proportion in the light of the creator-owned renaissance gleefully endemic of this decade - will begin to internationalize their works like Vaughan and Martin have with The Private Eye, especially if they have digital global distribution at their disposal, even DRM limited distribution which most North American comics fall under.  

And of course, the comics medium exists as a unique visual language all its own where there is no translation necessary. But the costs of translation are minimal and the benefits are nearly endless. The Private Eye is the perfect work, with its quality and accessibility, to lead the vanguard of the new future of comics as a truly global phenomenon.

The Private Eye by Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin is published monthly, DRM-Free and Pay-What-You-Wish in multiple languages by The Panel Syndicate at

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