Jul 04 2013

Review: Satellite Sam #1

Satellite Sam - Howard Chaykin

Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin form a perfect dream team, and then subvert those dreams as they gleefully trip through the seedy underbelly of 1950s television.

Satellite Sam #1 (2013)

Satellite Sam Cover #1 - Howard Chaykin

Writer: Matt Fraction

Artist: Howard Chaykin

PublisherImage Comics

Rating:  ★★★★½ 

More info

Some of the great comics throughout history have shown us worlds we can only imagine. The best peel back the curtain and reveal things that we might have imagined in our darker moments. Howard Chaykin is no stranger to  deconstructing the American Dream, from the future political satire of the classic American Flagg to the more recent American Century. The latter was set in a similar era to Satellite Sam, which uses the world of 1950s television to construct one of Matt Fraction‘s first forays into the crime genre.

The entertainment industry merely serves as a thin veneer that separates the glamour from the grit. Live children’s show ‘Satellite Sam’ is going to air, but star Carlyle White is nowhere to be found. As visiting investors remind the frantic studio, the power of sponsorship demands that live TV stops for no single man. However, when White turns up dead in his apartment, it starts to bring the bile to the surface, beginning with a box full of photos.

Fraction doesn’t waste time on elaborate exposition, instead throwing us straight into the deep end of his meticulously researched world. The rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue keeps us in the moment, reminiscent of Aaron Sorkin’s current television writing. Going back further, it mirrors some of the cinema of the era, and to Fraction’s credit, it’s the kind of thing Paddy Chayefsky would conjure up if he ever wrote comics. Thematically, it’s actually more like a James Ellroy novel, where the web of deceit is already present and aware of itself, it just takes a catalyst to send it spilling out over everything it touches. So much is given to us in this first issue, but we only ever get the sense that this is the tip of any number of icebergs.

Chaykin captures the mood of the era, wisely choosing to present his pages in glorious black and white. Richly detailed, the characters might border on caricature if the expressiveness wasn’t perfectly apt for the 1950s TV industry. Cutting between close-ups and long shots, Chaykin isn’t afraid of having two incidental characters dominate the foreground while shadowing the lead conversation in the background. Elsewhere, the sequence in which production team member Libby exits the studio, journeys to White’s apartment and makes a grim discovery is a Hitchcockian masterclass. While it doesn’t have the overt eroticism of Chaykin’s Black Kiss, and not many comics can claim that anyway, you can still feel the sensuality almost dripping out of the wood panelling in each frame. As one character struggles between showing off the cross around her neck and too much cleavage, we sense that we are only panels away from Chaykin unzipping his art and showing us everything that his mind can conjure.

Satellite Sam is one of the most complex and handsomely constructed debuts of the year, showcasing Fraction’s ability to build big and interconnected networks of characters. On any given page, he gives us enough material to sustain an entire series worth of character development, and one of the joys of this book in the coming months will be the discovery of how all of the pieces fit together. We are spectators in this theatre of voyeurism, but Fraction and Chaykin have just invited us in for a closer peep. We would be wise to accept.

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