The Private Eye Hardcover Oxymoron

The problem lies with the traditional comic fan who refuses to accept the future of this medium is digital. I should know, because I am one of them. I have vehemently resisted the transition, to the point where I have argued with Tony Daniel at a panel session and the chairman had to interject. I like my art in my hands, I like it on the walls and I like to pick it off the coffee table and appreciate it again and again. It seems a little ironic that the growing proportion of art that is produced completely digitally is still cherished most on paper. It was time for Panel Syndicate, Brian K Vaughan and Marcos Martin to make a stand and take a step into the future.

Private Eye was a wonderful comic with a great story of a distorted civilisation with amazingly conceptual artwork. Above all else, it was only available digitally and for any price. It was free to download or you could pay over the odds, the decision was down to you. It was a marketing model that should not have worked, especially considering the numerous letters that praised the comic whilst simultaneously apologising for not paying a dime/penny for it. Ultimately the reader volunteered whatever they thought the art was worth, and much to everyone’s surprise, it worked. BKV stated in #7 that the sales of the book were way beyond expectations and more than they would be getting at DC and Marvel. Most importantly they reaped every cent of the profits, because that was the most integral element of the model. For intents and purposes, it was the future.

I embraced it. I bought every issue. I even purchased the “Making of” issue for at least three pounds a time. I can afford to buy comics and I would never dream of taking the issues for free, despite my dislike of digital comics. I did it because I enjoy the work of BKV and adore Marcos Martin. I was in admiration at the bravery of these two established artists in trying something new and releasing the ownership of creativity to the world. The risk they took in working hard on a project that may bear no fruit whatsoever was immense, and it is an equivalent risk young aspiring artists take everyday. Panel Syndicate succeeded but what they really wished to do was to expand their company. They are actively producing more comics for people to read and perhaps purchase by shining the light on new talent. I have the utmost respect for this team, especially when BKV suggested charging a flat rate for a compiled digital version of the first five issues but Marcos Martin insisted that it remains at the discretion of the reader.

It even got to the stage where fans and comic shop owners wrote letters requesting paper versions, to which BKV simply said no. There were no plans to produce a print edition and I felt somewhat vindicated in my decision to purchase the issues as I did. What is impressive here is that there is a market for this book in print and people will most definitely buy it, but that would go against the principles that the work was founded upon. BKV and Marcos Martin did not have to do this, they are established and are immensely talented but they did it for the art form itself, for the readers to enjoy their work and to pave the way for future talent.

I hope this goes to some length to explain why I felt angry and upset when I heard a hardcover landscape edition of Private Eye was being solicited for Christmas, by Image comics. Please don’t misunderstand me because I may have no rationale for these feelings, I just feel them. And one week later I am still trying to rationalise these emotions, which is my exact motivation for writing this piece.

As a reader and blogger I have no real voice in this arena and I do not judge the reasons for this decision. However I am very curious and would really be interested in the explanation. If I had known this compilation would be released, I imagine that I would’ve changed my mind about buying the comic, perhaps paid less or nothing at all. I wasn’t buying the comic; I was buying into the premise. By paying for Private Eye I was hanging my hat on a company that is going to change this industry and help it to survive. I have had enough of paying more money for headline titles that just fail to impress time after time. I pay for books that impress me on Kickstarter and I spend money on the people I see working hard to produce quality work. And I had consciously decided to buy digital.

I tweeted this as soon as the shock allowed by mind to form coherent sentences:

I had some interesting responses, mainly of excitement and support of the venture. I am not entirely sure if anyone else feels about the way I do but I received no solace from the diplomatic response I got from Panel Syndicate:


The problem with this reply is that the model is not going to grow significantly from people who buy the book as a print copy. They are the very people who refused to buy it in the first place, and subsequently told BKV in the letters page. The trade will catch the opportunistic reader who will see the amazing looking book on the shelf and can afford almost fifty dollars. They may then find Panel Syndicate online and see some other work that may pique their interest. It is an awfully expensive price for something you can buy online for nothing. The dedicated knowledge reader will certainly be putting in their pre-orders. There was little doubt Image would be producing it because they certainly would be giving more profit to BKV and Martin, though it certainly won’t be 100%.

Perhaps I’m being overtly negative because any exposure from the book will be worthwhile and warranted because it is genuinely amazing. I cannot realistically refute that but the cynic in me does feel it is to make more money. And why shouldn’t they? I really do hope that the financial and online exposure reasons are true because the alternatives would upset me more. There are some rumours that BKV sold the book to be able to write an issue of The Walking Dead. That degree of compromise would be unacceptable to me because of all the altruistic values he declared in every single issue of Private Eye, thrown to the wayside for personal interest.

Perhaps when all these emotions eventually subside, I will come to the conclusion that my discountenance is because I paid for something I would not necessarily have paid for had I known there would be a printed version in the future. This statement would imply I thought I had wasted my money, but that is certainly not true. It is just not what I paid for. It was the idea of Private Eye and the DRM free nature of Panel Syndicate that grabbed me. It made me change the way I thought about comics and I wished to support it. I honestly would like to say that I wish I hadn’t, but that would be ridiculous because the model is still in effect and I fully endorse it. And at the end of the day, I still love Private Eye and will continue to do, but only ever in its digital form.


  1. Perhaps I’m being overtly negative – yes. But that’s not always a bad thing. You can’t be right all the time 😉 I’m kidding of course. I do 100% disagree with your post but also, not always a bad thing.

    I’ll start with the concept – a pay what you want model – and you probably know more about the behind the scenes on this whole deal but from what I took from it was this. Sticking their fingers in the water to test the temperature. Would this model work? Was it worth the effort? Would it succeed or fail? I don’t think what BKV was all that brave. He’s very well known, loved and respected. If anyone could pull this venture off, it was him. That said, it could have failed.

    IF he said this would be digital only, forever and ever – fine, he’s got egg on his face. BUT, releasing the print format doesn’t take away from the digital version, it increases exposure for the book and the the PS (if it’s like, on the printed version) AND he’s shown that the model works. The DRM free, pay what you want …

    Wait, no he didn’t.

    That model has been in use for quite some time. Ok, this isn’t about that. This is me respectfully disagreeing. Because, it’s a win win. If you wanted just the story/art – you got it at a low low price. If you want a print version, for your shelf, you can have that.

    It reminds me of two particular comics. D4VE & Daredevil: Road Warrior (the digital book that bridged Waid’s 2 DD runs)
    I bring those up because both were digital first – without knowledge that they would be printed. So I bought the digital comics because I wanted those stories.

    On a side note, which might sound completely douche-y BUT, comics, no matter what they’re on – print, digital, a napkin, etc, if I’m interested in reading it, I’m going to get it on whatever medium available.

    That said, once D4VE and Road Warrior were released on print, I bought them. I wanted them even though I paid full price for both! I had a choice.

    Now you have a choice. You can buy this print version, or not. You can support future digital trials or not. The great thing about comics is – you have a voice, use it, you have a choice, use it. I like what you wrote about, and like I said, even though I disagree, it’s a great topic for conversation.

    1. Firstly I want to thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my article, especially in providing a counter argument. It is greatly appreciated.

      Secondly the crux of your argument is based around the intentions of Panel Syndicate, BKV and Marcos Martin. In comparing to D4VE and Road Warrior, you are describing the question of whether work will be printed in the future. I admire you as a comic fan because you are open to all formats, a view I am trying my hardest to approach. It is fantastic that you will essentially buy comics twice and take the joys of each format. This is fundamental to my argument because I do adore having a book on my shelves and with the Marvel titles you mentioned, I indeed waited for them to come to print. However I did not know that was ever going to happen, so I took that risk and it paid off. Panel Syndicate is a little different…

      The letters page at the end of each issue was a glimpse into the production of this book and almost a journey about how two creators set upon an impossible task. There may not have been any clear diktat that this book was never seeing the light of paper, but in the promotion and the letters pages I inferred that to be the case (The exact line was, “Sorry, still no plans to ever bring this particular story to print” #8). This is certainly my folly and though I may feel that I was mislead, it could be put down to my own interpretation. The fact that Marcos Martin refused to charge a flat rate for a combined digital download was reason enough for me to believe that this artwork was going to remain at the price of the reader. One of the important aspects that BKV did stress is that they will receive 100% of all the money we paid for the comic. That is certainly not the case for a future print copy as there are more costs involved. Possibly another misunderstood misinterpretation on my part.

      As for the risks taken? I think it was important that established artists take these risks, even BKV stated that he was surprised he could feed his family with this venture. Which would certainly imply a level of tentativeness despite his level of credibility. In fact the email chain published in the Making Of issue was very much concerned about the lack of financial reward in their first year. Marcos Martin even says they should try the digital route and IF it fails, go traditional. So I still feel this was an adventurous campaign and it has genuinely paid off in spades. In fact the most pertinent reason why this hardcover can even see the shelves, is that the book has sold so well. They would never invest in a print copy if they didn’t think the book would make those manufacturing costs. Therefore it exists because the model was so successful and that in itself is testament to their bravery.

      So in summary I appreciate that there was no clear instruction to never have this book in print, and I also admire that you enjoy all formats in comics and are willing to pay for them. I bought this title to support the mission, not necessarily the art itself which happens to be of fantastic quality. That was my error and I hope I will buy digital again because you have inspired me to be a better fan!

  2. I think this is a great, well-reasoned post, I just happen to have had the complete opposite reaction. When I heard that TPE was being released in an oversized HC format, my immediate reaction was “finally! This will be released in a format worthy of the art and story.” Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved the digital, DRM-free, pay what you want model. I bought every issue as it came out and I appreciated that they were trying to do something innovative.

    Now, with respect to your feeling tricked or cheated, I’m sorry you feel that way. I’m sure that was not the creators’ intention. My sense is that they were probably just responding to overwhelming customer demand, I imagine there are lots of people who said to them “that’s nice that you want to do this digital only. Now quit f$&@ing around and release it in print”.

    I buy plenty of digital comics though still mostly print. And the thing is that digital comics just aren’t the same. As you mention and express eloquently, there’s a real tactile value in being able to hold the book and appreciate it as an object of art. When I read books digitally I feel like I’ve read them but I haven’t REALLY read them. So, for work as stunning as TPE, I think for someone to really appreciate it, a big HC book s the appropriate format.

    I think that putting out a print book will bring a lot more exposure to what’s a really special work. As much as we know/think digital is the future, there are still so many more people who have no intention of reading a comic on a computer or an iPad. My wife, for example. I’ve told her about the story in TPE and just how great it is and even shown her some art. She will NEVER read a comic on a screen; but if I put a great HC in front of her? She’ll read that. Digital are great for many things (including innovative formats and layouts), and the ability to buy them is a real gift for people who don’t have easy access to a comic shop, but they are ephemeral. I don’t blame the creators for wanting to address the market of people who want something with more permanence. Is there a profit motive involved? Of course! As you correctly point out, why wouldn’t there be? But if that men’s that I get a beautiful HC to put on my shelf? I’m thrilled.

    As you say, I don’t think you were cheated. I don’t feel that way with respect to my own purchase of the series. I paid a fair price for each issue and got tons of enjoyment out of each of them. I got what I paid for. And now, if you choose, you can buy something else. Or not. The existence of the HC doesn’t negate the experience you had reading the digital issues. You still have them and can enjoy them.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts. Thanks for writing this! I didn’t even know I had opinions on this issue.

    1. My reaction is a mixed combination of both of yours. I enjoyed the digital issues but not nearly as much as I usually enjoy reading something in print. My 1st reaction was “I have to get this!” bu my 2nd reaction was “I guess this means their experiment failed.”

      If they cave and give in to printing it, then perhaps that does mean their original mission actually failed, especially if the printed book earns more money than the digital run. Others may disagree. Either way, I’m still going to get the book and enjoy it.

      1. It’s a good question. I’m not sure what a success or failure precisely is in this context. If their goal was to create a digital-only work that people would want as much or more than print comics, then I guess maybe it wasn’t a success. But I think that’s a limitation of the medium rather than any knock on them.

        If their goal was something less ambitious, just to try out this different format and see where it goes, I’d still call it a success. The book was critically acclaimed (it certainly made my list for one of the best of 2014) and apparently a financial success for them as well.

        I think having work available in multiple formats really services different kinds of readers, so I hope they keep approaching the work from all formats.

  3. It seems that the last few comments have focused upon the issue of digital comics. And I do love the word ephemeral to describe them and the feelings that you never quite felt like you have read a digital book. I believe we have discussed the motivational aspects of the creators enough to say that their intent was perhaps fully digital but they never ruled out print comics. This is a fair and reasonable conclusion and brings the fluidity of the decision making process into the conversation.

    James and Kirk have very eloquently discussed the prevalence of digital comics in the community and the contentions with it. BKV certainly described those subset of readers that just refuse to entertain a digital comic and will not buy Private Eye. It seems a little ridiculous that you can buy a hardcover for a expensive price compared to a free version online, but that would satisfy everyone. Perhaps this is the way to capture all readers, because those refusing to read digital will have to pay but still appreciate the work. Whether this lends to the transition to digital remains to be seen.

    Above all else I think it is unreasonable to assume the model failed, even though they produced a hardcover edition. It has been stated that the creators have made enough profit to live by, so from their perspective it is a definite success. Whether it has succeeded in bringing new readers to their computer screens is a much harder question to answer. Without any direct information from Panel Syndicate it will remain speculative, just as it is unlikely we will ever know the true reasons for the hardcover. I found James’ summary statement particularly apt: Whatever the price you paid for the comic, it can probably be said for all that they enjoyed the comic they purchased.

    Once again I thank everyone for the time and effort in commenting on this post.

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