Funnybook Babylon

March 18, 2008

Hanging on The Wire: FBB RemiXXX

Filed under: Articles — David Uzumeri @ 2:26 pm

Everything is Connected

Note: This article was originally published as an Alternate Current at PopCultureShock. In the manner of our culture, there’s some new content added at the end for our much-appreciated audience.

HBO’s The Wire, co-created by David Simon and Ed Burns, finishes up its five-season run on Sunday. For its small but incredibly devoted viewership, this provides closure to over five years’ worth of emotional investment in an intricate serialized story about countless people from all walks of society and how they mingle, relate, love and kill. Propelled by a single artistic vision, five seasons, each with their own theme, build on each other to form a single complex and unified tale, manipulating existing genre conventions to create something wholly new and different.

Sound familiar?

It’s no surprise that television and comics have become kissing cousins over the past few years, sharing talent, ideas, and sometimes whole properties – they’re both serialized visual media that extend a story over a long period of time, creating a natural back-and-forth between the creators and the fanbase/viewership. They can be open-ended or finite, deliberately paced or created one at a time, episodically self-contained or continuity-laden.

So what makes The Wire unique? Largely its ambition. Meticulously plotted and incredibly complex, The Wire engages the viewer eloquently, trusting him/her to stay alert, put together the pieces and follow the narrative without the consistent recapping and handholding that often permeates network television. Each season introduces a new cast of characters that supplements rather than replaces what was already there and exposes a new layer of the interrelated machinery that runs the city of Baltimore.

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So what does any of this have to do with comics? To look forward, we must first look back. In 1993, David Simon’s book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets was published, leading to both considerable acclaim and the seven-season NBC police drama Homicide: Life on the Street, which Simon left journalism to work on himself.

In the late ’90s and early ’00s, a few hotshot young turks entered the comic industry with backgrounds in crime fiction: namely Brian Michael Bendis, Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker. They didn’t all come in at the same time, or at the same place, but they fairly quickly found each other and started to collaborate. Their writing was detail-oriented, their dialogue as realistic as possible considering the context of the standard superhero comic, and their plots were always planned out far in advance. All of them, in terms of influence, were disciples of Simon.

In the Powers v2 #12 50th-issue blowout interview, Bendis states that “HOMICIDE: A YEAR OF KILLING on the Streets by David Simon … started my absolute love affair for the idea of a homicide detective and his life.” Brubaker and Rucka have both cited Homicide as a major influence on the dynamic and structure of the Eisner award-winning Gotham Central. These three would later go on to work on a variety of projects, both somewhat related to crime fiction (Daredevil, Crime Bible, Detective Comics) and not (Wonder Woman, Uncanny X-Men, Mighty Avengers). Wherever they went, however, the humanistic perspective and attempt at verisimilitude fostered by their crime work would go with them, no matter how bizarre or alien the project.

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Additionally, particularly Bendis is often tagged with the reputation of being responsible for what’s known as “decompression”: which is seen as either dragging out scenes or giving them room to breathe, depending on your perspective and the quality of the work. Where before a particular story or conflict would tend to take up one or two issues, with plot threads leading from and to the next issue separate from the particular episodic story, runs would be built as successive arcs, usually four to six issues, which tell a single story, with plot threads running between them. Any attempt at making each issue immediately accessible was abandoned, a necessary sacrifice in the name of verisimilitude and narrative complexity.

This approach, rather than alienating readers, combined with the newfound proliferation of trade paperback collections to shoot Bendis, and later Brubaker, up to the top of the sales charts. These extended stories, heavy on realistic dialogue and character interaction, were hugely popular in collected form and drew tons of new readers in. Which brings us back to The Wire.

It’s interesting to note that, unlike comics, television hadn’t really – and still hasn’t – made that switch completely yet. DVD box sets are replacing trade paperbacks in the metaphor, and certainly shows like Lost or Arrested Development are far more enjoyable when watched in order, but they still make an attempt for each episode to tell its own story. They still act on the unspoken assumption that every episode could be someone’s first, and that as writers they have an obligation to hook them. This is an attitude very much encouraged by the networks. As a result, many shows get bogged down in episode-specific details to maintain the fractal nature of their storytelling – to serve the needs of that single episode’s story, the stories of the multi-episode arcs around it, and on top of that the main driving throughline of the show. This nearly crippled Battlestar Galactica during the back half of season three, as all momentum from the midseason climax was lost in a sea of forgettable one-episode stories with no impact slotted into the story just to fill out a schedule.

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The Wire, despite being ostensibly an ongoing television drama (well, ongoing to five seasons, the same way you could consider Y or Ex Machina an ongoing comic) never went with that route. Each season had its own arc, but even though each episode had a different writer and director, they would flow together to create one cohesive story – no episode-specific crises, no tangents slotted in to make the series more “accessible.” It was full speed ahead from the word go, and to say it was critically lauded would be a fair understatement. Unfortunately, unlike Bendis – who got to prop his experiments with comic pacing on the marketing giant known as Spider-Man – David Simon had an HBO show with unknown actors and unknown characters, so that commercial success largely eluded him.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this relationship continues to develop. It’s easy to say that Simon, his writing partner Ed Burns and their staff are unaware of this connection, but considering the Ultimate Spider-Man shout-out in season two I’m not wholly convinced. People always accuse the comics market of being infantile and underdeveloped, but the aspects that made The Wire so unpopular with the general audience have been hugely successful in the comic industry, both inside and out of the corporate-owned superhero market. Does this speak just to the talent of the creators involved? Increased marketplace awareness within comics fandom? Or simply luck? I have no idea.

But I do know I’d kill to see Simon and Burns do a comic.

REMIX!
As is our M.O., for the FBB repost of this article I’m going to include a bit of extra commentary on the comparative structure of TV and comics, and respond to some of the stuff I’ve heard since I first put the article up for Mr. Brothers on PopCultureShock.

First of all, don’t take the above article as an implication of causality – simply of an intriguing correlation. Second of all, the esteemed Messrs. Bernhardt and Thomas questioned my SAT analogy of episode:DVDset::issue:TPB. This is an interesting point, and one I’d like to expand upon.

It’s certainly true that a full-season DVD set is nowhere near as easily digestible as the standard six-issue trade paperback – nor do the pieces fit together as smoothly, due to disc swapping, credits and menu selection. With a trade paperback, you might have a cover in between chapters, but it largely flows together as a single, consistent work – except haven’t you ever watched a few episodes of a TV show back-to-back, and, upon being quizzed, had no idea in which particular episode an event occurred? Or, even, where the episode breaks were? A narrative involving enough, and with enough suction, can break the episodic boundaries to form a seamless narrative, no matter what the origin or the boundaries.

That said, it certainly still leaves the time constraint – but in that case, is a DVD box set really all that different from, say, the Brubaker Cap or New X-Men omnibi? Those are both huge multi-hour time commitments, and although maybe not as long as a full season of a TV show, are still largely enjoyed in spurts. Additionally, in both of these cases, much like The Wire, they dispense with clunky recap sequences within the narrative almost completely and depend on the patience and attention of the audience to keep the pace going. If you’re reading or watching it at once – you shouldn’t have a problem. If you’re doing it episodically – pay attention, we won’t hold your hand.

Of course, it’s still a loose analogy, and I fully admit that – but considering talent and intellectual property crossover between the two media, I don’t think it’s so loose as to curb any discussion. I’m curious for the thoughts of the FBB crew – Hell, tear me apart, I ain’t no Val D’Orazio.

6 Comments »

  1. “[T]hey dispense with clunky recap sequences within the narrative almost completely and depend on the patience and attention of the audience to keep the pace going. If you’re reading or watching it at once – you shouldn’t have a problem. If you’re doing it episodically – pay attention, we won’t hold your hand.”

    I concede. That’s a very good point (you had me at correlation). One thing, though. To me, the main looming difference between the two is that the TV audience has not embraced this model of storytelling. There is the success of something like Lost, which still has a rabid audience (which ABC has done a remarkably job of maintaining), but it feels like the exception that proves the rule. Is it because consumers are more comfortable with tackling long and complex works when they are in book form?

    Comment by Jamaal — March 18, 2008 @ 3:44 pm

  2. Hitting on my main question: How come “Fuck recaps” got Bendis in the top 10 and Simon an empty space on his mantle where a Triforce of Emmys shouldbe? Honestly, I think it’s because the fans of comics are used to serialized genre fiction and *enjoy* filling in the blanks and the speculation, while it drives the average TV watcher looking for quick entertainment totally insane.

    The problem with The Wire in this respect is that it mixed the storytelling manner of Lost with the subject matter of Homicide, and didn’t get any Lost viewers due to the lack of polar bears and genetic experiments, and lost all their Homicide viewers because the show *demanded* episode-to-episode attention. It was simply before its time.

    Comment by David Uzumeri — March 18, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

  3. I think that “before it’s time” is dead on. How long has TV been doing long, season-length stories? I want to say just in the past what, 8 years or so? X-Files was almost there, though you could miss an episode and keep playing along pretty easily.

    Comment by David Brothers — March 18, 2008 @ 5:52 pm

  4. I’ve heard many people involved in Law & Order attribute the show’s success and subsequent mandate as “Dishwashing Television”. Television that you don’t have to pay close attention to. You can read a book, pay bills, and wash dishes without missing anything significant, because there’s at least a thematic recap at the head of each segment.

    The Wire is a show that you can’t even answer the phone during because you *will* miss something important. It demands a lot from it’s audience. Of course, the payoff is huge.

    I’d argue that Bendis’ success comes from demanding a little less from his audience, in terms of previous knowledge, and always delivering on his setups, he won’t setup subplots without having them payoff which is a great problem in Comics, (a “sin” dramatic tv rarely commits).

    I’d argue that bendis’ contribution is closer to a law and order than the wire. Competent storytelling day in and day out. You pick it up and it works. Even if you don’t 100% remember what happened last issue.

    Comment by Joseph Mastantuono — March 18, 2008 @ 9:26 pm

  5. I don’t have the book I was reading about in front of me, but there’s been an avant garde (literally) doing season-long interweaving storylines for a couple of decades now in television, easily. Hill Street Blues was still mostly episodic, but would have lots of plotlines slowly percolate over the course of several episodes. Other shows I remember watching in the early 1990s (Northern Exposure, Twin Peaks) did many similar things; they may not have been “novelistic” in nearly the way the Wire is, but they broke with the televisual convention that the status quo must be re-established at the end of every episode, except those ending or starting a season.

    I think the show that really innovated this and brought it to a mass audience was Seinfeld, honestly. Seinfeld was (unless I’m missing something) the first really successful sitcom that did away with the eternal status quo; sometimes Jerry or Elaine would date someone for several consecutive episodes, and starting in its fourth season would bring in season-long uberplots, like the meta-sitcom, George’s fiancee, George’s job with the Yankees, etc.

    This has rubbed off on practically every sitcom worth its salt in the past ten years — Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, the Office, Scrubs, Malcolm in the Middle and probably a bunch of others I’m missing; things don’t end in the same place they start from episode to episode they way they would in shows of yesteryear. And there are more and more dramatic shows (anything on HBO/Showtime/FX, and others) that expect you to watch every week lest you have no idea what is going on three episodes down the line. Many, if not all, of these shows work better in DVD form, where you can watch them in more concentrated bursts.

    Now, the big difference between comics and television is that even within the realm of scripted television, there are still a shitload of “done in one” shows. Law and Order, CSI, House and a million of their bastard children populate the television dial, but even those shows offer incremental character development over a raft of episodes that initially confounded me when I tried to watch a random episode of SVU. Granted, the Mystery of the Week is of prime importance, not whether or not Stabler will get custody of his kids or if Finn gets a promotion, but those plotlines are there, and they wouldn’t have been there in Dragnet or most other shows of yesteryear. There are very few, if any, shows that are modeled on the shows of 30 years ago.

    Comment by Chris Eckert — March 19, 2008 @ 12:51 am

  6. I think Seinfeld really represents a different phenomenon. Even though there were significant changes to the status quo, the characters never really evolved or developed in any way. It’s different from traditional sitcoms in that the lack of development was a conscious creative choice, rather than a commercial one, but I don’t know if it’s similar to the Wire in that sense. One of the reasons that the Wire stands out to me is that it actually developed the characters, and went as far as to have characters evolve off-screen (which I think explains a lot about Kima and Daniels).

    With regard to Bendis, I really think that it’s important to consider the different expectations that audiences bring to different mediums. People read books (and watch some movies) carefully. People aren’t in the habit of watching television in the same way. People also don’t expect the characters to significantly change in response to the events in the show. I think that readers bring similar expectations to comic books. Fortunately, Bendis has proved that one can take small steps in that direction, at least in mainstream superhero comics.

    Comment by Jamaal — March 19, 2008 @ 8:45 am

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