Talking to Brian K. Vaughan About the Future of Privacy
"I have a fear, particularly now that I have children, of how the internet has eliminated our ability to forget entirely."
In 60 years, the internet will be obsolete. At some point between then and now, there will have been a catastrophic leak of every piece of data stored online, from bank details to Twitter drafts, and America will become obsessed with privacy. New laws will allow citizens to start adopting a string of pseudonyms when they turn 18, and everyone will wear masks whenever they leave the house. Journalists will be allowed to investigate matters of public interest, but only as trained members of the Fourth Estate, a tax-funded force that will replace cops.
This is the future as it unfolds in The Private Eye, a serialized digital comic by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Marcos Martín that's been coming out every couple of months since March 2013—before Ed Snowden pushed NSA spying practices into the open, before Jennifer Lawrence's naked selfies were stolen from her iCloud, and way before North Korean hackers leaked the emails of filthy-mouthed Sony execs.
Vaughan has written for X-Men and Batman, worked on three seasons of Lost, and won awards for his own influential comics like Y: The Last Man, so it wasn't due to a lack of options that he and Martín decided to make The Private Eye available only as a digital download through their own site, Panel Syndicate . The price is whatever readers want to donate, and enough is coming in so far to allow the team—including colorist Muntsa Vicente—to continue working this way.
It's a bold publication strategy, especially since the comic is about a post-technology, fully analog future. As the final issue approaches, I asked Vaughan what he's trying to tell us about America's social-media addicts, and whether we're really headed toward a digital apocalypse.
VICE: What was the germ of the idea for the story?
Brian K. Vaughan: Both Marcos Martin and I are Luddites. We're not on Twitter or on Facebook, and it's something we end up discussing a lot. It's less a fear about our government or corporations spying on us, and more about how fellow creators and family members were willingly sacrificing their own privacy.
Why does that worry you?
I have a fear, particularly now that I have children, of how the internet has eliminated our ability to forget entirely. The smallest transgression in your private life can really have a profound effect down the line. I think people perhaps don't think about how private what they're sharing is. The more that people are like, "I have nothing to hide, you could go through my email"—it's those people are in the gravest danger.
What kind of danger?
We're all starting to keep our information in this ethereal, non-physical place that hovers over us, and it seems that certain disaster is always just around the corner—whether that is an accident, and stuff spills out; whether it is an act of war, with another country releasing this stuff; whether it's a business rival or a personal rival. The mere existence of all of this information creates the opportunity for it to be used against us.
Do you cover your tracks online?
No, I'm much too stupid and technologically backward. I've just gotten to the point where I presume someone is reading any email I send to someone or conversation I have. If they're not listening now, the possibility exists that at some point in the future they will be able to. It does have a chilling effect on what kind of things a creator might investigate or think about. When I was working on a comic book called Y: The Last Man, I had a character trapped in the White House, so I remember going to the library to do a lot of research on the layout of the White House and its security. I would think twice before I would Google those things today.
Snowden sparked a lot of debate about privacy versus state security, but you look at free speech too, and how there's a tension between all three values.
[Marcos and I] were fascinated by how the internet has largely eliminated that distinction between a professional journalist and an amateur journalist, oftentimes for the good of journalism and sometimes for the ill. We wanted to consider a future where the internet went the way of the Apollo space program. How might that division between amateur and professional journalist be strengthened again? If privacy became the primary concern in our future, much more so than the right to a free press, how might the press conceivably evolve?
In our world, it's called the Fourth Estate. Law enforcement and journalism have combined into one entity. It's a separate branch of government and an equal one. It's paid for by your tax dollars, and the only people who are allowed to investigate their fellow citizens are people who have to be licensed and trained, like police officers. Then we thought, even if such a thing existed and it was difficult to become a journalist, there would still be this need for a kind of underground paparazzi. People would still want to know, "How much did your neighbor pay for their house?" or, "What does your favorite celebrity's baby look like?" You wouldn't be able to just go on the internet or read a tabloid, you would have to hire your own journalist to get that information.
The series isn't a futurology report, but there's something chillingly believable about the idea of wearing face masks in public.
Obviously I have no idea what the future holds, and I hope, like most science fiction I love, that The Private Eye is more about the present than it is about the future. That said, we're trying to push things to their most illogical conclusions. Marcos sent me a link to some misting backpack that you can carry with you that will create a fog around your head, and we had a character in the first or second issue that had a thunderstorm mask. It seems that the more bizarre we get, the closer we hit to where we're actually headed.
One of the characters mentions something dating back to the "Paul administration." Do you see an obsession with privacy as shifting things even further to the right in America?
I don't see privacy as making us more conservative or more liberal, I think that both sides will try to exploit the concerns and fears for their own ends. But it's becoming something that neither side can avoid anymore, whereas privacy was something we just largely didn't talk about for a long time. And Marcos grew up in Spain, so his outlook is radically different from mine growing up in the United States. I think if your country has endured fascism, you hold your privacy much more sacred.
America seems OK with destroying reputations and livelihoods forever if people break its rules, and the internet has that same tendency. The slate doesn't get wiped clean.
It's been interesting to read about Google in Europe and this idea of the "right to forget," which is a very French idea. It's kind of alien to us, this idea that one should not have to suffer forever, that their honor needn't be tarnished for all time because of a mistake. It's hard, because the internet makes distant mistakes immediate and glaring and difficult to recover from. It's hard to sympathize with people who get caught saying something horrific or racist or stupid, but it feels like it's going to expand. It starts with the very worst offenders, but I really do believe that everyone has some piece of kryptonite in your past, whether you know it or not, that could enable someone else to dismantle you if they want to. It's probably going to get worse as time goes on.
Ever since 1984, people have written about this dwindling sphere of privacy, but I've never seen anything that's addressed it in this way before.
We felt like there was an opening, particularly through comics. To do a comic which has costumes and secret identities but isn't about powers, that was appealing to us. Comic books have always been fascinated with that idea of aliases. The pieces were already there.
The world you create isn't exactly utopian or dystopian.
We wanted to show both sides. Sometimes Marcos and I will sympathize with the villain of the series, DeGuerre, and his outlook more so than with the so-called heroes. Hopefully it doesn't read just like a pamphlet where we're just haranguing readers with these views.
Has it helped clarify your thoughts?
No! It's made me more confused, which is usually what writing does for me.
A lot of your writing seems to be about putting characters with different viewpoints in a room and—
Letting them fight it out. Definitely. With Y: the Last Man, I was scared and confused about gender, and Ex Machina was about living through 9/11 as a New Yorker. I think whatever I choose to write about is something I feel overwhelmed and bewildered by and writing about it makes it a little less terrifying.
The comics are published online only, through your own website, the Panel Syndicate, for whatever readers want to pay. Can you say how many people have downloaded it?
I'll say that it's a lot. It's way more people than read Saga for example, which has been a really successful book for me, and on average more than half of the people who download it pay something. It's doing far better than I ever imagined it would.
Has anyone ever self-published comics on this scale before?
We're certainly not the first web comic, but I think it is rare for two relatively established people to come out and do it ourselves. We wanted that control and to hopefully show other creators, "You can do this."
Besides the fact that you're cutting out the middleman, you also have total control over the content. Comixology, who publish the digital version of Saga, made you remove a panel that included a snippet of gay porn on a computer screen.
Comixology has been astounding for getting Saga into more people's hands, but that comes with a cost. To get all those eyeballs you have to play by the company's rules, which can sometimes be arbitrary or shifting. When I have the luxury of making a fine living, all I care about is, "Just leave the work alone and let us tell our story," and that gets difficult, even for independent comics like Saga. So yeah, I love that there's now a place that we never have any creative concerns.
What else is in the pipeline?
Saga is ongoing at Image still. That will hopefully keep going forever. I'm finishing The Private Eye with Marcos, and he and I will do one more, probably a new miniseries. I have the privilege of getting to work in Hollywood for a couple of years, and it's been an adventure, but mostly what it's taught me is that I love comics.
Can you ever imagine handing Saga over to another writer?
No, no, never. No. That's my baby, I would cling to that forever, and similarly I couldn't imagine doing that with anyone else but Fiona Staples drawing it. We'd like to keep doing it for a really long time.
Any dream projects?
I will say that anything that I do next will be original. I got to play with my favorite toys when I worked at Marvel and DC. I've written Superman and Spider-Man and X-Men and that's all been great, but I don't have any characters that I ache to get back to. No books that I've always wanted to adapt. It'll be new, and about something that creeps me out. Stay tuned.
The Private Eye 's tenth and final issue will be out in February. A second comic, Universe! by Albert Monteys, has also started its run at Panel Syndicate.
Follow Jessica Holland on Twitter.