To Protect and to Serve: Jeff Mariotte on 'The Shield'

U.S. Television has a history of exceptional programming centered around law enforcement. "Dragnet," "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue," "CSI," "Adam-12," well, maybe not "Adam-12," but cop shows have proven time and time again to be some of the most popular and trend setting dramas on television. The latest name to be added to that list would be the FX cable channel series "The Shield," a hard-hitting police drama based in the inner-city of Los Angeles at a precinct where the cops aren't above breaking the law themselves, constantly blurring the line between right and wrong. While the show initially got a lot of press because it contained harsh language, graphic depictions of violence and sex in a way that had not been seen on a basic cable channel before, ultimately the show was recognized by critics and fans as one with high quality writing, direction and acting, eventually garnering a Best Actor Emmy Award for star Michael Chiklis. 2004 sees an expansion of the series, this time into comics.

Initially announced during Comic-Con International in San Diego, IDW Publishing will produce a miniseries based on the popular program. When the announcement was first made there was no mention of a writer or artist for the series. CBR News has learned that first "Shield" comic will hit comic shops in January of 2004, shipping monthly. Titled "The Shield: Spotlight," this first miniseries will be five issues long in the standard 32 page comics format, priced at $3.99 per issue, written by Jeff Mariotte with art by Jean Diaz and covers by Tommy Lee Edwards.

"The comic will absolutely pull no punches," series writer Jeff Mariotte told CBR News, assuring fans of the show that the comic won't be a softened version of the television series. "You'll know from the first page that you're reading a book aimed at the same audience as the series. If it was toned down it wouldn't be 'The Shield.'"

Mariotte told us a bit about the story he's working up for "Spotlight."

"As in the FX TV show, there are multiple storylines interweaving throughout this miniseries," said Mariotte. "There's the story of a murdered journalist whose death focuses a lot of press attention on the Barn and its denizens. There's the story of the art theft that Shane gets involved in. There's a drug gang shootout and a really bad traffic jam. And more! Of course, the real story is the inter-relationships of the main characters, the various agendas of Vic Mackey and Captain David Aceveda and the rest, and how those agendas are often in conflict, even though the ultimate goals are the same -- to keep the streets of Farmington district safe for the citizens.

"The story is set during 'The Shield's' first season, so the relationships are as they were then -- before the Captain was running for City Council (though he might be thinking about it), before Vic's marital situation exploded, etc. The comic will tell an exciting crime story that one needn't be a 'Shield' watcher to follow, but it will be much more meaningful to fans of the show."

Mariotte will consult with the show creator and Fox Licensing in crafting the story.

"In working with the creator, Shawn Ryan, and Fox Licensing, the goal is to maintain the quality of the show, and anything that reflects upon the show has to achieve a similar level of quality," said Mariotte. "They understand that the storytelling approach won't be identical to television, and they're willing to work with that to help us make the best comic possible."

An interesting little fact that Mariotte shared with CBR News is that while he understands Shawn Ryan isn't a huge comics fan, Ryan's brother is, so he's pretty aware of what is going on in the comics world.

Fans of the show are readily familiar with characters like Vic, Aceveda, Claudette, Shane, Dutch and the rest of the group at Farmington and we asked for Mariotte's thoughts on the characters that inhabit the Barn.

"I think it's clearly the Vic Mackey show to a lot of people," responded Mariotte. "Michael Chiklis brought an intensity to that role that surprised me, having only seen him before on 'The Commish,' but he's become one of my favorite actors in the business. His Emmy and Golden Globe prove that I'm not alone in that opinion. But to me, it's not just about Vic, but about the whole group of them -- without Captain David Aceveda's ambition and Claudette Wyms' moral grounding to play off against, Vic's story wouldn't carry the weight that it does. CCH Pounder is also brilliant, and Claudette is a character whose arc is proving to be really fascinating. Dutch (Jay Karnes) kind of struggles to make his mark in a place where he doesn't really quite fit, and helps provide an outsider's perspective on the whole situation. Shane Vendrell, played by Walton Goggins, is an amazing characterization. I could go on and on because I just think this is an incredibly talented cast playing a bunch of really interesting people -- Julien and Danny, Corinne Mackey...everyone makes their own contribution to the whole. In one miniseries not everyone is going to get the space they deserve, but I'll do what I can with them."

Mariotte went on to describe how the comic will or won't fit into "Shield" canon.

"The general rule, that I've followed in all my extensive dealings with licensed work (which includes writing novels based on 'Buffy,' 'Angel,' 'Charmed,' and 'Star Trek,' in addition to editing 'CSI,' 'Star Trek,' 'Thundercats' comics, and more) is that what appears on the screen is canon, what appears in print is not. It's impossible to eliminate all inconsistencies between print and TV/movies, no matter how hard one tries. So while I always attempt to be as faithful as possible to the original source material, I don't have any illusions that I'm contributing to canon."

"The Shield" as a comic book will be instantly labeled as a crime comic, but Mariotte notes there are themes the comic and show explore that make it more than just another crime comic.

"'The Shield' comic is definitely a hard-boiled crime comic in the same way the TV show is. It's different from other crime comics out there because it's also a family story, in a twisted way -- these cops don't all love each other, but they all work together when they have to, in pursuit of their goal. It's not about the lone detective walking the mean streets -- it's about a disparate group of individuals fighting those mean streets together, even when they would rather not."

Crime comics as a whole have gone in and out of style throughout the history of comics publishing and they're very much in these days. With comics writers like Greg Rucka, Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker and others redefining the way crime is depicted in comics and graphic novels, one wonders how "The Shield" as a licensed comic fits into this niche within the comics industry and how Mariotte likes being in the company of those talented authors.

"I'll leave it to others to judge whether or not I belong, as a writer, in that company. For the past few years I've been focusing on novels, and have written quite a few. I've also been known in the comics world for mixing up unexpected genres, as with my western/horror series 'Desperadoes.' I love genre writing, I love crime fiction (and I am part-owner of a mystery, sf and horror bookstore, Mysterious Galaxy, so I read a lot in the crime genre and know most of its practitioners).

"Having said all that, I think 'The Shield' is unique in that it's truly an ensemble piece, as alluded to above."

When looking to lock up publishing licenses, most comic companies tend to seek out licenses related to movies or genre product, video games, toys, cartoons and the like. IDW has approached the licensed market slightly differently, having now landed two major licenses based on television shows with massive mainstream appeal. In addition to the planned "Shield" comic the company also publishes a series of comics based on the popular "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" series. IDW has very specific reasons why they feel television licenses are the most attractive of the bunch.

"I would almost always rather do TV show licenses than movie licenses," said Mariotte. "TV storytelling is the closest medium to comics storytelling that there is -- we're both providing continuing, sequential entertainment created by a combination of words and images. We both want you to come back next week, or next month. We're both looking to have people make a habit of watching, or reading. Movies are here and then they're not, or they're on video, but they try to tell one, finite story (not counting sequels). TV tells open-ended stories with a through-line that keeps people tuning in for more, which is the same thing comic books do.

"And, really, since movies have become more and more about big explosions, big car chases, and big muscles, the most interesting, imaginative, compelling storytelling on screen these days is done on TV. 'The Shield' is at the front of that pack, but there are other shows: 'The Wire,' 'The Sopranos,' 'CSI,' 'Nip/Tuck,' etc., that have more creativity packed into a single episode than 95% of movies do today."

With "The Shield" IDW is in a unique position to try and capitalize on a large audience of fans that likely haven't read a comic book in years. The company plans to go wide with their promotional push, attempting to pull those fans into comic shops.

"Between Ted Adams, Beau Smith, and myself, IDW has three of the most experienced marketing people in the comics business behind it. We'll be putting our combined marketing savvy behind this in a big way, because it's one of our most important books. We can't announce any details yet (though you've probably already seen the comic mentioned in TV Guide), but it's our goal that everyone who reads comics or watches TV will know that there's a 'Shield' comic book series."

Look for "The Shield: Spotlight" in January from IDW Publishing.

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