They’re watching you
These kids today. As I get older I struggle to not become of those, “these kids today” kinds of people. I worry that I might be becoming a crotchety old man though. You see, I grew up in the 1980s and hold a fondness for the decade and its popular culture. I also remember the how many members of the media in particular and society in general seemed to vilify my Gen X brethren. According to some we were the slackers that would bring ruin to American society, the thirteenth generation of Americans that would undoubtedly prove unlucky for the nation’s future. At the time everyone seemed to worry about us and openly express their displeasure with the Xers. These criticisms were unfair and rather reactionary, saying more about observer than the observed. I don’t want to be one of “those” people but I fear that it could slowly be happening.
I wonder if part of me is a little unfair to the generation that was born after me — commonly known as the Millennials. During my teaching days I got to know a number of students from the younger generation and one thing that continually confused me was the majority’s seemingly unending need for groupthink, which, in my mind, created a distressing lack of individuality and privacy. I grew up viewing group activities as breeders of laziness and a violation of my personal space. I was raised to believe in self-reliance, individual work, and personal space. Maybe the world has changed and I should fall in line or maybe we should have a conversation about privacy and individuality as a society. No matter what happens I doubt that society will return to how it was during my youth.
When I read Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin’s The Private Eye #1 this week I thought about many of these subjects again. This digital comic book has received a large amount of much-deserved attention since it first appeared last week. For those of you that don’t know, the introductory issue is being sold exclusively online for whatever price the buyer wishes to pay and has seemingly been a big hit. While the business model maybe interesting, the story is what is truly important. The tale is a neo-hard-boiled detective narrative set in the year 2076. At some time between now and the start of the tri-centennial the Internet collapsed in such a catastrophic manner that it caused everyone’s information, no matter how private, to become public. This served as a catalyst for a societal swing in which Americans appear to value privacy above all else. Everyone seemingly has a secret identity, the police and the news media have merged into one entity, and the Internet no longer exists. (Interestingly, Los Angles has a subway-like public transportation system, ostensibly a move away from individualism.)
The story is a classic Sam Spade style detective tale with attractive dames, a Dick Tracy inspired police officer with wristwatch communicator accessory, a withdrawn and contemplatively nostalgic gumshoe, and a murderous villain with a secret agenda. The twist is that all of these elements seem new in this bright and colorful future setting. Martin’s artwork is dazzling and jumps off the page like a neon lit Las Vegas night. The artwork and story are much brighter and more inviting than most of the dystopian visions of the future produced during the last 50 years. I’ve been trying to describe the work to my friends and the elevator pitch that I have settled on is the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz meets Blade Runner mixed with Sam Spade plus a large dose of Easy Rawlins. I loved the first issue and can’t wait for the next one to arrive in a month. It’s rare these days that I get excited about a monthly comic book (Saga, The Manhattan Projects, The Walking Dead, and Scott Snyder’s Batman are the other current entries on the list.) I’m anxious to see where the story leads and what Vaughan and Martin have to say about the line between the personal and the public spheres.
My favorite part of the story is undoubtedly a three page passage in which the main character tries to re-explain society to his senile grandfather. Assuming the older man is around 80 then we can place his birthdate about 1996, or someone that would be approximately 17 years old today. The almost completely bald senior citizen still sports a sleeveless “wifebeater” t-shirt, skinny jeans, and a body full of tattoos. When the reader initially meets the elderly gentleman he is desperately trying to get his iPhone to work although his grandson tells him that it hasn’t functioned for sixty years. The grandfather angrily replies, “I shared as much as I shared ‘cause my life was an open goddamn book. My generation was proud of who we were. We don’t have nothing to hide.” To which the grandson replies, “Yeah. That’s what they all said.” To me this is the heart of the story, the boundary between public and private. The understanding of what is overt and what is secret. Changing cultural mores that leaves one generation behind as another moves forward. As I feel the world moving on I wonder how soon before I will be the grumpy old man.
Although I strangely identify more with the grandson than the older man closer to my birth year, I still sympathize with the grandfather. Getting older is rough and seeing the world change around you is something that society quite never prepares you for. It’s hard to accept that the world has moved on and you’ve been left behind. I suspect that the future will bring less privacy and more groupthink but I could be wrong. I am happy to know that the coolest new comic book of the year is a retelling of a classic Raymond Chandler like tale. At least these kids today have something decent to read.
Jeffrey Johnson is an avid reader of comic books, watcher of television and film, and an annoying fount of 1980s and 1990s trivia. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Michigan State University and has written numerous journal articles and book chapter about popular culture. His latest book is entitled Super-History: Comic Book Superheroes and American Society, 1938 to the Present. He currently lives and works in Honolulu, Hawaii.