How serious are you when you suggest that The Wire is comparable as an aesthetic achievement to something like Bleak House? Does The Wire's visual style compare to Dickens' prose, for example?
Robinson: A lot of the strongest statements in the book are intended as provocations as much as actual arguments. That being said, there's no doubt that The Wire is an incredibly complex piece of fiction, that uses narrative in a lot of really interesting ways, and that manages to be persuasive without being didactic. Those are incredibly rare things in any art form, and deserve to be celebrated as high achievements.
Of course, if we're treating prose style and narrative deftness in a novel as analogues to visual style or other formal elements of television storytelling, I don't think The Wire really stands up aesthetically to most of Dickens' work.
So, there are lots of places, particularly visually but also occasionally narratively, that The Wire doesn't hold up as well as one might hope for an aspirant to the category of timeless art, but many of those things are a function of the economic necessities of television—quick turnaround, the massive amount of individual hands needed to create filmed media, all of the tens of thousands of decisions that must be made every day a show is in production. So if the show isn't as visually consistent or flamboyant as a David Lynch film, or occasionally took narrative detours that don't have payoffs, I think those are forgivable sins. Those are not dissimilar in fact to the production problems facing Dickens and other writers of serials—it's an accident of typesetting, for instance, that we have the version of, say, Oliver Twist that we do. He would typically overwrite each installment—that is, write more than he knew would be included in the actual serialization, and mark in the manuscript which portions could be most easily eliminated or trimmed so as to make the page count for each installment.
DeLyria: As Sean says, visually, it lacks panache, although there's a perfectly valid argument to be made for a style that doesn't call attention to itself. The idea behind Hemingway's writing is that the narrator falls away; the action becomes the center of the reader's focus, rather than the telling of it. The Wire (unlike a Victorian novel) was going for that journalistic style, and for the most part succeeds.
However, Hemingway's style still manages to be idiosyncratic (as you say, does Dickens's), and I don't think The Wire manages that. In order to remove the narrator and highlight the action, the show's visual effects are for the most part mundane.
Sean, I wondered too what you were using as touchstones for the illustrations? And also, specifically, how much you relied on the television show for the visual style?
Robinson: Halbot Knight Brown, a.k.a. "Phiz," was the chief model for the illustrations. It seemed appropriate—he was Dickens' chief collaborator, his work was readily available to me, and he was enough "of the time" stylistically that he was completely passe and unable to find work after a few decades of popular acclaim. As prep before we started the book, I sat down and copied a whole range of his drawings in pencil, just trying to internalize his stylization and visual tics. Some of my own tics and limitations kept creeping in too, but for the most part I think I nailed the look pretty closely—although I used a lot looser of a line than would be typical of him, in keeping with the reputation for the Wire's grittiness, and because it happens to be something I do well and it seemed a shame to not exploit one of my strengths.