Matt Silady’s The Homeless Channel is one of the more unique graphic novels I’ve come across. The book is partially a social satire, but what makes it really work is that Silady never loses track of the inherent humanity of his characters.
The men and women of this book are quirky but never seem unrealistic. They seem like a group of people who are balancing their interest in social justice with the desire to make money and do well in their careers. These characters give the book a nicely naturalistic feel; events in this story feel logical in construction, like moments that come from the real world.
The character at the center of the book, Darcy Shaw, really drives the story. She’s intelligent, ambitious and funny, and she also has a deep personal issue that drives her to create the cable channel that’s referenced in the book’s title. Her character feels real; therefore, the events around her also feel real.
Adding to the sense of reality in this book is the art that Silady delivers. It’s all derived from photographs–a process that Silady explains in detail on his Web site. That artwork gives the story a unique feel–a half step away from the real world for us, but a half-step closer to the real world than what most comics present.
Where most comic artists interpret the world through their artwork, presenting abstractions from reality, the effect in this comic is very different. People look like real people because they are literally based on real people. They peek out from the pages like real, living people. Backgrounds and cityscapes surround characters, fully grounding them in the real world.
Moreover, because the characters are abstracted from photographs, they look consistent throughout the book–which makes some of the more abstract scenes more eerie. When Darcy thinks about her sister after she suffers a great loss, we see the two women in a simple and ordinary fashion sitting next to each other. There is no illustrative trickery or traditional comic style flashback.
Instead, the moment feels piercingly real–as real as the heartbreaking memories in Darcy’s head. The scene makes the intensity of Darcy’s loss much stronger. Through moments like this, we can see the passion of the sisters’ relationship transposed from Darcy’s mind onto the printed page. The scene wouldn’t work nearly as well if Silady had chosen to use a different art style.
The art is also appropriate because the book is so firmly grounded in reality. It’s the story of Darcy Shaw, who starts a 24-hour cable channel called the Homeless Channel–which, essentially, delivers reality TV programming featuring homeless people 24 hours a day. At first, readers might think that Darcy is simply taking on this task to make a few dollars or to gain a little fame. Instead, we find out at the end of chapter one that Darcy’s sister Mary is homeless.
It’s her relationship with Mary that gives Darcy a personal stake in the outcome of the TV channel, and it also gives this book a great deal of its heart and soul. Mary’s approach to her situation defies the classic sound bite dynamics that readers might be expecting. Mary seems to have ambivalent thoughts about living on the street, and her discussion of how budgetary concerns work against getting an apartment really ring true.
We see the stress of the relationship with her sister wear on Darcy as the story moves along. By the final pages, we see the enormous weight of their shared history in every line of Darcy’s face. This point is where Silady’s photo-referenced art is at its strongest. With this art style, Silady is able to effortlessly capture a distant and haunted look in Darcy’s eyes as she discusses her feelings of loss with her boyfriend Grady.
This story isn’t all darkness, though. Darcy has a fun little romance with Grady O’Connor, the man assigned from the corporate offices to keep an eye on the Homeless Channel. Darcy and Grady’s relationship is funny–on their first date, Darcy basically forces Grady to help her do her laundry. However, as they get to know each other better, we see how Darcy and Grady start to mean more and more to each other.
Darcy’s relationship with her best friend and business partner Margaret is also very entertaining. The two women really bounce off each other in just the way that old and close friends do. They’re cute together, and their scenes are a highlight of the book.
Overall, this book is surprising and entertaining. Going in, I expected this story to be a satire of American news media. Instead, it proved to be a much more subtle and complex book than I had expected. It’s still satirical and still has a bite, but the bite turned out to be very different from what I was expecting.