David Simon isn’t the sort of writer you would immediately associate with graphic novels. It’s a fact that the writer behind nonfiction bestsellers The Corner and Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, and writer and co-creator of television series including The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill, and The Plot Against America readily admits.
But when the French cartoonist Philippe Squarzoni approached him two years ago with the idea of adapting Homicide into sequential storytelling, it was a possibility Simon couldn’t ignore. Published 32 years ago, Homicide was a work of embedded narrative reporting, following the detectives of the Baltimore Police Department Homicide Unit over the course of a year, as they solved (or, just as often, failed to solve) the 234 murders the city sustained that year. Simon’s book had already become the fictionalized inspiration for an NBC drama series of the same name, but Squarzoni – a writer and artist with a bibliography of nonfiction graphic novels on topics ranging from climate change to contemporary Palestine – had something else in mind: a kind of graphic documentary, strictly obedient to the facts and personalities as Simon laid them out, but told with the narrative style and visual momentum of comic art.
The result, first published in France in 2018, was a stark, arresting graphic novel that weds Simon’s account of facts and police personalities (alongside ample use of the quoted dialogue he preserved as well as his own descriptive prose) to visual and storytelling techniques somewhat reminiscent of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Andreyko’s Torso: an unflinching depiction of a city at its darkest, conveyed in deep shadows and shades of gray.
With the first volume of the book’s two-part American edition released this past July, and the second due on December 5, Popverse spoke with each of the creators about the legacy and long afterlife of Simon’s reporting, the craft that Squarzoni put into adapting it to graphic form, and what both works say about the state of urban America today.
Popverse: Philippe, tell me a little bit about your background as an artist. When did you decide you wanted to make comics professionally? Did you have any kind of formal training?
Philippe Squarzoni: I drew a lot when I was a kid, and my parents were comic book readers. So I was immersed in this universe from a very young age, as I imagine most comic book authors are. At the time, comics in France were essentially comics for entertainment, with humor or adventure series. Later in my teens, I kind of stopped reading comics. My focuses of interest had no doubt evolved. Movies fascinated me more. And I missed changes that saw comics evolve into less entertaining, more serious books.
In France, authors who were initially quite marginal, published by independent publishers, had upset the editorial landscape, releasing books that were no longer series, which were no longer based on fiction, which moved away from more classic designs. The belated discovery of these authors made me realize the creative potential of comics. It was then that I began to sense that it was possible to express my often political concerns in comic strips.
At the time, at the end of the '90s, there were still no documentary comic strips in France. But reading Fabrice Neuaud's Journal in particular, and David Mazzucchelli's adaptation of City of Gold by Paul Auster made me realize that I could try this new form. So I started by proposing projects to publishers, with all the drawing weaknesses that were mine (I never took art lessons). My interest was instead focused on cutting [between scenes], grammar, and it's still there that I take the most pleasure in terms of creation today.
Were you a reader of comics growing up? Were you aware of any specific artists who influenced your style?
Squarzoni: I read some superhero comics as a kid. The only ones that were translated in France were Marvel Comics, and in a rather casual way. But I remember loving Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and [David] Michelinie, [John] Romita, Jr., and [Bob] Layton’s Iron Man run. But above all was the work of Claremont and Byrne on X-Men that marked me at the time. I don’t know how much of Byrne’s work can be identified today in my drawing, but he is one of the designers whose pages formed my childhood home.
Watchmen and V for Vendetta later on were a second slap in the face. I realized to what extent a very elaborate [sense of scene] cutting, a real grammar, could also constitute the backbone of a comic strip, more than the strength of the drawing. And the last obvious influence is reading [Brian Michael] Bendis, [Alex] Maleev, and [Matt] Hollingsworth’s Daredevil. Twenty years later we may no longer realize it, but this almost experimental cutting in a mainstream comic; this drawing from photos, both ultrarealistic and expressionist; and this coloring based on strong duotones – it was very impressive. And the comic book Homicide wouldn’t exist without the work of Brian Michael Bendis.
David, you don’t immediately strike me as somebody who’s an aficionado of graphic novels. Had you had any history with the medium?
David Simon: I’ve tried really slightly. Obviously Maus [by Art Spiegelman] is on my bookshelf. And, oh, what’s the hitman one? They made a movie…Road to Perdition! And a while ago, somebody named a couple of characters for myself and Laura Lippman in a series of graphic novels and sent them to us [Simon and Lippman inspired the name of a character in Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark’s Gotham Central series, for which Brubaker cited Homicide as an influence]. And I read those, and I enjoyed what he was telling me. But I see the art of it. There’s a lot to be admired. I’m not averse to it, I just, you know, probably haven’t found it with the vigor that some people have.
Philippe, how did did the book Homicide first come to your attention? Had you been familiar with David’s work prior to reading it?
Squarzoni: I knew The Wire, and I think I may have seen Generation Kill, when I bought Homicide at a bookstore in Portland. At the time, the book had not been translated into French. And on reading the first pages, comic strips began to appear to me spontaneously. I read the David’s pages, and I saw the graphic novel that could be drawn from it. It's the only time it's happened to me. I am quite fond of this tradition of long documentary books, written by journalists, that you have in the United States. But often these are books that do not have much literary interest. They are well-written, but we feel the techniques of writing workshops, or the interventions of editors, who flatten them into formulas aimed at efficiency. Or at the Pulitzer. There was none of that in Homicide: no shortcuts or formulas. However, the book is extremely well written. David Simon's language, his style, his writing ambition give the book a literary quality that goes beyond purely documentary interest. I believe that it was first thanks to this that I was carried away.
The last thing that I liked about David's book was obviously its political dimension. David Simon is an author who has convictions, who does not hide it, and we probably share the same values and the same political anger. At the heart of his work, there is always the question of the representation of the world. A desire to say: here is what we usually show you, and here is what I am telling you. In Homicide, David dwells on describing everything that Hollywood leaves out. Nothing sexy or entertaining. But [instead] the repetition, the slowness, the absence of direction, the impasses, and the structural and political constraints which weigh on the work of the detectives.
So how did this book come about? Philippe, how did you approach David about taking on this adaptation?
Squarzoni: After reading a few chapters of Homicide, I went to my publisher, and I said “this is my next book.” It was good, because [editor] Guy Delcourt also really liked the work of David Simon.
Their rights department then approached his agent, but we got no response. Two years later, I believe, Simon's notoriety as a TV writer meant that the book was published in France, 30 years after its American release, by Sonatine, and David came to accompany the release of the book. Luckily, Guy Delcourt knew the French publisher, and we sent him a fairly short letter in which I quickly explained my project. David responded fairly quickly, to give his agreement, on the condition that I respect the chronology and the facts that had taken place during this year 1988. But that was precisely my intention.
Simon: [Philippe] wrote me. He spoke of it as a graphic novel at first, and I think I corrected him there, when I said, “Look, these are real people. And this is what happened in 1988 in Baltimore, and we can’t call it a novel, and you can’t veer off of what’s known.” I mean, if you want to use this material, I have to have some regard for the fact that all these guys signed releases long ago, and even when they made it into a television show, they made that into a fictional dynamic; they changed all the names, and combined characters, and pulled characters apart, and made up cases.
So I said, look, you can either fictionalize it, in which case, you don’t need the name, and go with God. And he said, “No, no, no, I want to actually follow the book.”
And you trusted that Philippe would create basically a graphic documentary under those terms?
Simon: Yeah, I think I understood that he would bring his sense of what was required for storytelling and the graphic form, and his artifice. And I understood that it was not going to be as I would write it or how I would pace it. But the facts would be honored, so that was all I needed. He was unequivocal that he would honor the facts of the Baltimore homicide unit in 1988, and did.
And I think my sense of what he was doing was not only flattering and charming to me, but also of its own interest and merit. When he started sending me panels of what he was working on, I saw these guys become graphic versions of themselves. Of course, all their dialogue was in French in that version, but I was even more charmed by that.
I was pretty comfortable letting go and not being an overseer or an editor in any way other than to just every now and then check in to make sure it was following the actual 1988 narrative. Because the worst thing you can do sometimes as a writer is do surgery on your own child. And in some ways when you go from one medium to another, you need somebody who is familiar with that. Film is not prose, prose is not a graphic novel. I just got off adapting Philip Roth [in Simon’s HBO adaptation of The Plot Against America]. “TV hack takes a shot at Philip Roth” – I mean, Jesus Christ. But in some ways, the fresh eyes, and the fact that I live in this medium and Roth didn’t [was helpful]… Roth doesn't have to live with these six hours of television. He already wrote the book, and it's great. So I'm sort of comfortable with the idea of this is Mr. Squarzoni’s own world, and I'm going to let him have it, and I'll be a resource when I can.
What was your process like for creating this graphic novel, Philippe?
Squarzoni: The very first thing I did was to re-read the book entirely, in English, and to make a large table, hung on the wall, of 10 columns, corresponding to the 10 chapters of David’s book. On this large table, I placed post-its of different colors, which indicated all the cases handled, and the names of the investigators concerned.
I had a color code that allowed me to see if they were resolved or not. Another color for those moments when David paints the portrait of a detective. A thread linked the post-it notes of cases that came back a few weeks later. Post-its of different colors for the five chapters where David stops talking about current affairs to focus on a specific aspect of the investigators' work (the examination of the crime scene, the interrogation, the autopsy. ..). And yet another color for the year-round Latonya Wallace affair [the murder of Latonya Wallace, and the detectives’ persistently frustrated attempt to solve it, is an ongoing narrative thread throughout Homicide]. It allowed me to have an overall vision of the book without everything being completely fixed in advance. And then I went to work on the pages, working from the English text, which I translated as I progressed through the pages.
Was David involved during the creation process? Did you ever approach him with questions, or to ask for clarification or feedback?
Squarzoni: David accompanied me throughout the five years devoted to making these books as a sort of technical advisor. To be closer to reality, I asked David many questions at the beginning of each volume. As it was not possible to find images of all the police officers in the unit who appear in the book, I sent him a table containing the names of 20 or so police officers concerned, asking him for each one’s age, build, whether or not he smoked, whether he had a mustache (almost all of them have one), whether he wore glasses while reading. I also asked him to describe the offices where they worked, if there were computers, if the cops carried their weapons in the office. I asked him to tell me the age and skin color of each of the victims.
All of these elements helped me to get closer to reality – knowing also that it was impossible, and not necessarily desirable moreover, to stick exactly to this reality. That it had to be transposed. But if there were any discrepancies between my portrayal and the 1988 reality, I wanted to make sure they were intentional and not unintentional. For example, the real [detective] Pellegrini had a different haircut than I gave him, but I couldn’t find it graphically, so I chose to make it different. But I did it knowingly.
Simon: I just checked in on the story to make sure that it was following what occurred in the book, and that he was honoring the one singular promise I asked him to make, which was don't fictionalize anything. That doesn't mean don't bring your own view. I mean, it scans as a noir to me, and a beautiful one. And obviously, I think there's a great elegance to the illustrations. But it's his take on what he read.
I think I was my interactions with him were all about trying to figure out, you know, how wide the row houses were, where a detective would wear a shoulder holster, or the Chevy Cavaliers, what year were they? And you know him, he was very into certain illustrative precisions that I wouldn’t have thought about. Because when you write it in prose, you just say, “Some ratty old Chevy Cavalier with its four-cylinder back motor,” and you’ve done enough. I didn’t have to drive it or show the detective in that car.
Philippe was also obviously quite distant in both time and geography from the 1988 Baltimore you were writing about.
Squarzoni: Some of the exchanges with David concerned precisely this aspect. The fact that detectives smoke at crime scenes. That there is only one computer upstairs for all the police officers of the brigade. These are small details that I asked him for to be able to be a little more authentic. I also did some research. The baltimorecitypolicehistory.com site gave me an idea of police uniforms during this period, for example. It was more difficult to find images of the Chevy Cavalier used by detectives at the time: this car has few nostalgic fans who flood the internet with their photos. But anyway, I didn't want to make a meticulous and detailed reconstruction of every detail from the past. When I draw policemen in uniform, I don't really care where the handcuffs were on their belt in 1988.
And it's the same for Baltimore. It would certainly have been very pleasant, and instructive, to go there, to visit the places with David Simon. But quite simply, the Baltimore of the late '80s no longer exists.
Rather than trying to chase after details, some of which would always escape me, I chose for my backrounds a more rapid design. An internet search to find the street where the crime scene takes place. Narrow, three-story buildings with a brick facade. That was enough for me to say Baltimore. It allows the book to have a coloring of the '80s, a tint of Baltimore, without being totally fixed in an era. The heart of the book is the character of the cops, and the cases they face.
David, how clear was your memory on the stuff that he was asking about? Could you remember what the make of a car looked like in 1985?
Simon: Yeah, I mean, I could figure out what year ’85, ‘86 Cavaliers -- by then, maybe a few ‘87s. But no, I mean, sometimes I had to look stuff up. Sometimes I had to go back and check a police report for him.
And there were other times where I had to throw up my hands and go, I don't know… in some ways, he's his own art director. He's his own wardrobe, if you take the analogy to film.
It’s interesting, because when you take a real-life situation and turn it into a narrative, even if you’re sticking to the facts, you always have to structure it in a way that’s telling a story. So how do you walk that line?
Squarzoni: It is totally true. Perhaps if David had chosen to put himself in his book, this would have been very different in my adaptation. It would have been the story of a journalist in the first person, and the documentary dimension would have been much more obvious. But that's not the case. Indeed, from the moment I draw, the cops become characters, the places become sets. Representation becomes obvious, and my work interposes itself in front of reality. Suddenly, the adaptation in comics seems more like a fiction, as you say. And I admit that I have no idea what formal mechanism I could have put in place to avoid this. Suddenly, I am very aware that it gives a somewhat strange effect, and that the force of reality is probably reduced compared to the original book.
Simon: Every storyteller decides what he thinks is more or less important. What he can omit and what he should highlight. I had a year in that unit, the things that I thought were important and meaningful and took voluminous notes on in January, and February, and March ended up not being in the book, and things and characters that I did not think I was going to be following for the entire year ended up being central. In the beginning of the year of research, I wasn't particularly interested in Tom Pellegrini. Or even Jay Landsman’s squad. I was more interested in Nolan’s squad, because I knew Harry [Edgerton], and I knew how great Donald [Worden] was as an investigator, and he was in Terry [McLarney]’s squad. And instead, Pellegrini and Edgerton caught Latonya Wallace, and Tom was the detective who stayed with it for years after that, and certainly through that calendar year.
So some of that’s organic, but some of it is the writer’s choice. I mean, are you saying journalism is completely objective? There is no objectivity on the part of the storyteller. I was following detectives the night they found Latonya Wallace’s body, and they were jumping out at everything that moved, just trying to rattles the cages of the people who were up there to see if anything got shook loose…And back in the alley, this huge, huge rat scurried across. And this alley cat was crossing, and the cat just backed up at the sight of this rat and ran away. And it was later on when I was writing that I said, “well, shit, there’s a found metaphor.” Was it based off something real? Yes, I mean, I’m a journalist. Did I decide to make that the culminating statement on the night, and by what right? I don’t know. By the right that I was standing there, and I had some stuff in my notepad, and this is how I’m going to shape it. And that’s always the case with narrative journalism, and it always will be.
Expanding on that point, the Latonya Wallace case becomes this kind of haunting, running motif throughout the whole book, and in some ways feels like a metaphor for everything you’re saying in the book. What was it about that case that made it so important for the narrative?
Simon: Obviously, it had the differential between 50% of the murders, which were street arguments and drug arguments. And I’m not suggesting those are not murders, or that human lives are not hanging in the balance – they are – but, you know, a 12-year-old girl is a 12-year-old girl. Obviously, they kept working that case for a year, so it just stands in opposition and highlights what the assembly line of death investigation is in the modern American city. Because that’s the tone I wanted to abide throughout the book, is, “we do this every day.” We don’t cry, we don’t lift up the blanket and go, “Oh my God.” I wanted the assembly line to be apparent, because I wanted to try and say something about what we’ve become as a society.
And we’ve always been this, but it’s a little bit more mechanized now, with guns and levels of violence that we’ve become tolerant of. And then you had this murder that was a little more unique than that, and a little more profound in terms of the gravity that it threw at the detectives…And then the other great value was, it didn’t get solved, which is enigmatic and frustrating.
Squarzoni: The Latonya Wallace case is one of the rare examples, unfortunate of course, where reality serves the narrative. Everything about this case is pure horror. And I approached each of those pages with an even stronger sense of responsibility than on the other cases. That's probably unfair, because all the other deaths that feature in Homicide are worth as much as this one. But, like what happens in the book for the unit, the murder of Latonya has become a red ball [police jargon for a high-profile, often politically fraught case] in my work. One who required more effort, delicacy, or thought, to avoid being indecent. Because it is exceptional, and it is treated as such by the police, it gives a tragic thread to this year 1988, for the police officers who worked there, as for the reader.
I was struck, reading the graphic novel, by the way you chose to use verbatim quotes from the original book as dialogue for the characters, allowing the story to advance through their actual voices. Philippe, how did you try to find a balance between this very distinctive prose and the visual nature of comics?
Squarzoni: David chose only to transcribe dialogue he was present for. So I followed the same logic, and my characters only speak when there is dialogue in David's book. So... not often at all. Which in comics is a real challenge, especially for interrogation scenes. Because an interrogation is the dialogue scene par excellence. But in 1988, the detectives rarely let David Simon be present. As a result, I found myself drawing several scenes, and in particular the whole chapter which is devoted to the interrogations - which is around 40 pages I believe - almost exclusively in voiceover.
But it's in these moments that you have to be clever and creative, and that my work takes on meaning.
More generally, I have chosen to remain very faithful to David Simon's text. I cut, but I don't modify anything, or very occasionally a word here or there, for reasons of narrative clarity. But it was the literary quality of the book that led me to [make] this adaptation. And I wanted to keep as much of the original text as possible.
Logically, I chose to make an adaptation that deliberately places the text as the narrative engine of the book, with the art rather taking a back seat, as a support. The question of the text/image relationship inevitably comes up when you adapt a literary text, which already stands on its own. And by reading interviews with [other] authors who had adapted books into comics, I realized that all these authors were saying the same thing: they cut out the text that is conveyed through the images.
And I said to myself, why should I make this choice? I have about 700 pages of comics to do, why deprive myself, possibly, of an effect? After all, text/image redundancy is sometimes used [as a technique]. Frank Miller, for example, does this often. He draws an opponent who hits Batman. And the text says: “He hits me.” In the next panel, Batman hits his opponent. And the text says: “I hit him back.” Redundancy: it gives an effect of gravity; it supports what it says in the panel. So I chose to keep this effect when it is relevant.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered while creating the graphic novel?
Squarzoni: The length of the book was a challenge. Almost no dialogue. And the issue of violence.
It seems to me that there are two pitfalls when you have to represent violence. Especially when it's a murder that actually happened. Be too spectacular, and create a sequence that is either entertaining or obscene. Or be too modest, and involuntarily water down the brutality of the facts. The representation of violence, real or otherwise, is a fine line.
I chose to alternate. Most of the time I'm more restrained, [leaving things] off-screen, and I let the strength of the facts and the text tell the intensity of the violence. But sometimes, very occassionally, I put a little bit of graphic action, to show what the victims have suffered, and what detectives face on a daily basis.
But the main challenge of this adaptation was to identify what was the narrative heart of David's book, and to find a formal equivalent in comics. There is a tension between the very repetitive form of the cases; the routine of murders, almost daily, and the frightening violence of each of these cases, since each time it is a question of the death of a human being. This very strong tension between the daily routine of repetitive, always identical, almost boring work and the violence of the cases in question, seemed e essential to be in the structure, the transitions, the very design of the pages.
David, did you feel like you were making a larger argument about Baltimore, or the police, or about society when you approached your book?
Simon: What did I think? I was 27 when I started that book, and when I finished it I was 30. I’m not sure. What I had was an interior view of our society’s response-slash-non-response to poverty and violence where the rubber hits the road. That’s what I had. This is the place where all the strands that hold us together as a society are frayed: people are poor, people are desperate, people are angry. And we’ve assigned this handful of guys to basically clean up the mess and mark it as being plausibly addressed, and we’re asking them to do it quickly and with a minimum of resources – because, again, there will be another body in about 10 days.
And I thought that was an interesting place to stand, because you can stand elsewhere in society and think, oh man, we're a lot more functional. You know, by the time I got to the end of the book, as I pointed out, chance of being punished if you took a human life in Baltimore was about four in ten. And by the time we shake them out, drop the charges that are not strong enough to get indictments, then drop the not guilty verdict at trial, it’s going to be down to 38%. In terms of the deterrent to the taking of human life, is that healthy enough?
So for the average detective in the US, the chance of putting the wrong man in prison is pretty minimal. The chance of the right guy going free is pretty significant. And that was said by a lot of detectives, who would tell you privately, “What’s your worst nightmare? The worst nightmare is locking up the wrong guy.” I mean, not everything in that unit was great, but I don’t think any of them had any vested interest in locking up the wrong guy. They all wanted to think they were getting the right guy.
And yet one of the running themes of the book is the way that larger pressures from up the chain of command, and from elected politicians, push police in directions that are counter to doing good police work.
Simon: Well, working murders and working, say, vice have different paradigms and different metrics. The thing you have to resist in homicide is locking up the wrong guy. And by and large, I think these guys were fairly conscientious about trying to make real cases. I saw an awful lot of cases where somebody was charged – and sometimes you charge for leverage, which is something people don’t understand. But, I mean, in Baltimore, in retrospect, there have been exonerations. A handful of them involving some of the characters in the book. And then – because nothing’s simple – it turns out that some of the most egregious things that were claimed by the people seeking exoneration were themselves made up. Turns out in a couple of the cases, people just forged exonerating documents.
Could it be detectives have done something wrong? I mean, yeah. Did I sit around and watch them hide exculpatory evidence? Was I that stupid a reporter? No. It didn’t happen. Could they have put two and two together and gotten five, and the jury have believed it? That’s the thing I think you know can happen. One of the things I did early on was I gave everybody an interview, so I sort of had a baseline: where did you grow up, where did you go to school. And what’s your worst fear, what’s your worst nightmare, as a detective? And I’d say about a third of them said, “Shit, locking the wrong guy up.”
But that’s when you get to something like the drug war, and cops who get promotions and get paid based on how many inanimate drugs or inanimate guns [they] pull off the street. That’s just building a machine that routinely violates the civil rights of everybody it touches.
Right, so isn’t there a pressure from these institutional forces that either overtly or unconsciously prods detectives just to make a case by whatever means necessary? Could it make somebody sloppy just because they want to close a case?
Simon: Always. Always. It can make somebody not believe evidence that is indeed exculpatory. Of course. I saw it end up getting people charged. In the Gene Cassidy case, on the night when a cop he knew had been shot twice in the head, he and [detective] McClarney and others ended up locking up the wrong guys. When they had to go back and start building the case for trial, more than one witness statement started to fall apart in their hands, and they had to go back. They had to not only exonerate the people they had charged, then they had to make a case against Butchie Frazier [who was eventually convicted of Cassidy’s murder]. So, yeah, depending on the speed and the intensity of the case, bad things can happen.
Generally speaking, though, because homicide is an ornate prosecution, it’s going to have to go through a full breadth of discovery. It’s going to get the best lawyers. And it’s going to get more work. Whereas [with] drugs, it’s a matter of who you walk up to on the corner, and who you decide you can throw in a wagon. You say, “Here’s my probable cause: he was coming out of the alley, and I saw the envelope sticking out of his pocket.” It’s different. It’s a different and more dismissive level of anybody’s rights and procedure. And that’s always been the case with vice.
So, listen, there’s a reason they let me in the homicide unit and not in narcotics. Eventually, in Baltimore, our generation had finally got down to cops robbing people, which is something else I did a television series about [2022’s We Own This City]. But I’m against the drug war. I’m against police violence, and against militarization. Call me crazy, but I still think that when a human life is taken, you’d like somebody to go out there, and take the person who’s taken a human life, and remove them from society for some measure of time.
Which is to say, you still consider yourself opposed to the defund the police movement.
Simon: You still need a police deterrent, and if we try to pack it up and remove it, people die. Do you need the police deterrent as we have it currently? Do you need to spend this money on mass arrest? Do you need to target people over substance prohibition? Did this many people need to be incarcerated? Those are different questions than defunding. By the way, do I think people need an 18 year old kid who committed a murder over some argument, or even a small amount of drugs or whatever, needs to go to jail for 30 years of his life? I don’t. But that’s sentencing; it’s not an argument about the deterrent.
Philippe, were you aware of some of the political debate around policing in the U.S., and specifically how it’s depicted in art like comics, when you were working on the graphic novel? And did it affect the way you approached it?
Squarzoni: I didn't know there was this kind of debate about the representation of police work [in the United States]. But that doesn't surprise me. And I find that healthy. In my opinion, this is a question that goes beyond the problem of police work alone. Hollywood, for example, is full of people with liberal convictions, probably opposed to the death penalty, who produce, write, or direct films where the villain is ultimately punished with death. Not directly by the hero, but by an “accident” (a fall, an explosion) which gives the spectator a very dubious satisfaction.
Superhero comics are full of scenes where the good guy, defender of good, punches a bad guy to get information. And these scenes are written by screenwriters who are probably opposed to torture. Since Saving Private Ryan, war films have depicted combat where the violence is no longer entertaining, but unbearable. But these movies return like clockwork to a third act which is the spectacular climax of the film. In the best of cases, it is a contradiction between the desire to denounce violence, and the siren song of entertainment. Sometimes it's just a blind spot. And in the worst case, it's almost an aesthetic claim to the legitimacy of violence. But it is a real problem. And the fact that these debates appear today is a rather good sign.
But authors are not solely responsible. Publishers should also question their liability. Labeling your most promising young designers under the “Young Guns” label, and then whining, every six months, after a school massacre. This is the great quality of David Simon's book. He never gives in to this type of bias. He never tries to take the reader with him by offering action scenes to entertain them. He does not attempt to glamorize police work. This vigilance is in itself a political affirmation.
Do you know if any of the detectives involved in the book have seen the graphic novel yet?
Simon: I mailed all of them the full French version when that came out. From those who responded, some of them just said thanks, but some of them were like, “What the hell?” And then a few of them were like, “Why am I speaking French?” And one guy just sent back a note that said, “merde.”
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