Some plots require such a high level of credulity for 'em to work that to get past it demands a huge leap on the reader’s part. In Matt Silady's black-and-white graphic novel The Homeless Channel (AiT/Planet Lar), we're asked to believe that a woman teevee producer will be able to convince a media conglomerate named Infinicorp to fund a twenty-four hour cable network devoted entirely to the homeless . . .and generate enough commercial revenue to make this dubious venture profitable. "Not bloody likely," thinks the reader with even the mildest amount of commercial savvy. I could buy maybe a coupla hours in the ass end of programming on some progressive cable net like Sundance, but a whole Homeless Channel? Uhhhh, no.
To be sure, Darcy Shaw, the brains behind THC, has a convincing reason for coming up with this quixotic media scheme: her mentally ill sister Mary, despite repeated family attempts to move her someplace safe, has been a street person for the last five years. When the channel goes on-air, the first homeless image it airs is of Mary, sleeping on the sidewalk. In addition to keying into the story lead, the moment also immediately raises the book's big questions. Where is the line between exploitation and documentation, between conscience and commerce? And at what point do you put down the camera and simply try and help the hurting person in front of you? Watching two college boys engage in a televised hapless replay of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, a character in the studio asks, "When do we step in? Even Survivor gives the dumb blond stitches if she needs them."
This intersection between the worlds of A-Type urban professionals and urban wrecks provides some admittedly amusing moments. Having hired a group of street people to be her eyes and ears in the underground community, Darcy also has to answer to the corporate suits when one of her new hires acts up. When told there's been an incident in the cafeteria, she quickly replies, "That's Marty. He's harmless. He's back on his meds." For Darcy's homeless envoys to be useful to the net, they have to be functional but not too functional.
Our heroine, thankfully, remains aware enough to recognize the contradictions even if she does still occasionally retreat into sweeping generalizations. "I know very few people who need to be reminded how to care," Grady O'Connor, the Infinicorp suit brought in hired to watch over Darcy's baby, states at one point, and though we may feel compelled to come up with counter examples, we still get his point.
In addition to providing one of several counter voices to Darcy's occasional bursts of unbridled idealism (another is her obligatory wise-ass best friend Peg), Grady also serves as our heroine's romantic interest. The scenes between the two provide some of Channel's most crackling dialog, even if I never fully bought the specifics of an argument about the best way to make a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. Still, Silady's patter is snappy enough that I hope he gets a chance to put it to use in a more convincing framework.
Silady's photoreferenced art works to ground his story – though at times his characters' limited affect interferes with the emotions on display (a scene where Darcy has a mini-freak-out and tosses all her money and credit cards at a homeless guy is particularly weak). The artist does manage to sneak in some small comic-y visual concepts: my favorite is a two-page spread devoted to a momentary flight of visual fancy which lays out our heroine's life as a children's board game called "Darcy Land." A few more out-there moments like that and I think I would've more willingly accepted this flawed-but-entertaining graphic novel's central conceit . . .