Comics As TV

The Homeless Channel
By Matt Silady
AiT/Planet Lar – softcover, $12.95

I HAVEN’T READ ANYTHING LIKE Matt Silady‘s The Homeless Channel recently. It’s a book with the rare combination of an eyebrow-raising high concept and an uncommonly restrained narrative approach. The result feels less like a run-of-the-mill graphic novel than, appropriately enough, four episodes of a TV drama (though not necessarily consecutive episodes, more like four key episodes of a show’s pilot season). The biggest influence on the tone and style appears to be Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night, right down to the book’s title and credits coming after an off-page call to, “Go 50. Roll VTR. Graphics look good. Roll credits.”

The plot of The Homeless Channel involves a large-scale social experiment undertaken by producer Darcy Shaw, who launches a homeless-themed 24-hour cable network with the help of a media conglomerate called Infinicorp. The idea is to run a full slate of programming––dramas, comedies, news, reality shows, etc.––with the problem of homelessness the central theme of all of them. Overnight, the network runs live footage from cameras out on the streets, with sponsors’ logos underneath. Since the idea of a network like this actually making it to the air is fairly incredible, Silady wisely drops us into the story late into the pitch process and spends very little time on the question of finding sponsors. We’re simply asked to suspend our disbelief and focus on what’s important: the consequences of a person and a corporation taking a chance on such an unusual project.

After setting up the premise, Silady keeps the story’s complications low-key, avoiding obvious drama like threats to the network’s survival, unwanted attention from political groups, or too much corporate intrigue. These types of plots could be applied to any type of television show and the Homeless Channel concept would be wasted on them. Instead, the episodic plot is driven more by character and variations on the book’s themes of how people act when they find themselves unable to ignore the realities around them and the fine line between depicting people’s suffering and exploiting that suffering. There are also several subtle moments of reality that bring an awareness of the complicated issues surrounding homelessness, as when a producer admits to being somewhat afraid of homeless people, Darcy’s growing frustration that, despite running a network devoted to homeless people, she can’t personally help them all, and a scene in which she loses her temper at a homeless man who recognizes her.

Scenes like these not only add complexity to the story, but to the characters as well. Darcy clearly genuinely cares about the plight of homeless people and is savvier than most about their experiences, but she’s not a saint, and her experience serves as a reminder of the differences between working for an issue in the abstract and having to face it directly. Darcy is the most developed character and it often seems with some of the others that we’re meant to understand them through their role at the network, though a few of the more important characters get a moment or two to elevate them above stock types. The dialogue also helps, as it’s strong and full of personality (and another element that shows a Sports Night/Sorkin influence.)

The only real misstep I found in the plot was the introduction of a love interest for Darcy in the form of her corporate overseer, Grady. This comes off as the obligatory romantic sub-plot and therefore feels forced, as well as seeming somewhat rushed. Despite his position as the one keeping an eye on Darcy, Grady doesn’t play much of a role in the plot outside of being the love interest, so I would have liked it if more focus was placed on him there. More rewarding is a subplot involving Darcy’s homeless sister, and a scene of the two on a bench late in the book is quite moving.

As for the art, my understanding is that Silady was unable to find an artist for the book before deciding to illustrate it himself. Silady created the art by manipulating photographs in Photoshop into something approximating pencil art, then inked by hand. The look is actually quite fitting for a project so steeped in reality and allows for things like the seamless integration of real celebrities in the Golden Globes sequence. It’s also interesting to see Silady’s inking improve and his abilities in translating the important elements of photos into his finished art grow over the course of the book, from an awkward first chapter to competent second chapter to a pretty effective finish.

Darcy in chapter 1. Darcy in chapter 4.

For someone who originally didn’t intend to draw his own comics, Silady shows a good grasp of page design, with several advanced page layouts that keep even the more stiffly drawn early chapters visually interesting. There are some layouts that get a bit repetitive; one walk-and-talk layout that zig-zags across two pages is used twice in the same chapter. Since both involve Darcy and Grady and show them in two different stages of getting to know one another, I suppose an argument could be made that one is a callback to the other, but I don’t see a strong thematic connection between the scenes and the two versions of the same unusual layout so close together is distracting. The only other layout problem is the occasionally confusing balloon placement, which can make reading order unclear, but the book is generally attractively designed.

The Homeless Channel has its flaws, but it’s a good read and a pretty impressive debut from Silady. I look forward to seeing what he does next.

Watch the Homeless Channel trailer.


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One Response to “Comics As TV”

  1. Journalista - the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Oct. 22, 2007: You might want to wash that first Says:

    […] Brendan Wright on Matt Silady’s The Homeless […]

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