Artist: Howard Chaykin
Release Date: July 3, 2013
For a nostalgia addict like Matt Fraction, a project like Satellite Sam was more a certainty than probability. This is the same writer who turned Mick Jagger into a dimension-hopping superspy in Casanova, infused grind-house kung fu with pulpy escapism in The Immortal Iron Fist, and impersonates Orson Welles routinely on John Siuntres’ Word Balloon podcast. Fraction hosts a deep, encyclopedic appreciation for the underpinnings of pop culture and their domino cascade throughout history. In Satellite Sam, the author dissects an oft-overlooked chapter in entertainment with an unflinching portrait of Golden Age children’s television. And, to say the least, Fraction did his homework. If you’ve never heard of the Kinescope process or the FCC Freeze of 1948, the title creates an intricate diorama laced with historical footnotes, even if they’re mentioned more than explained.
The plot revolves around a live science-fiction show and the chain-smoking adults who sweat and toil to make it happen at the LeMonde Network, inspired by the real-world DuMont Network that ran for a decade during the ‘40s and ‘50s. The behind-the-scenes theatrics hit a critical high when Carlyle White, the actor behind the titular Satellite Sam, is found dead in a slum house surrounded by pictures of dames in lingerie. The producers strive to not only find a last-minute replacement for their star astronaut, but compete on a media platform in the midst of massive innovation threats — the show takes place in 1951, three years before the introduction of color broadcast.
Satellite Sam is also an innovation for Fraction, who uses the tenants of television for more than just his new book’s vintage setting. He and artist Howard Chaykin — a pulp comics icon who authored many of the books that admittedly inspired Fraction — recreate the churning ensemble rhythm of an Aaron Sorkin drama. Their narrative pivots down a series of avenues that include unexplained religious back tattoos, dueling patriotic banter (bet your bottom dollar that the Red Scare will make a future cameo), and a son discovering his father’s hidden vices. This approach marks a shift from the big sci-fi and drive-in action Fraction excels at, taking the naturalism of his Hawkeye work to a deeper, branching level. The experience is incredibly ambitious, if almost to a fault: Satellite Sam boasts a full cast of characters and plotlines, and navigating the various faces and overlapping word bubbles requires a different set of muscles for the comic format.
Howard Chaykin’s taut art, while fitting, doesn’t help clarify the story, either. The pencils and inks exude Mad Men style, defined in sculpted comb-overs and waspy formal wear, but at its core Satellite Sam #1 is a bunch of old white guys talking to one another. The black and white palate may mirror the fictional production it illustrates, but it also makes it difficult to flesh out character identity and movement. Some of the digital background fills also look dense and discordant, pulling attention from the foreground to the back, though this may appear differently in print than on a computer monitor.
For an approach that’s so refreshing and rare in American mainstream comics, Satellite Sam’s faults are incredibly basic, and may answer the question of why more books like this haven’t populated shelves and tablets. But this debut’s potential far outweighs its design flaws, and the project’s cool, compelling aesthetic and unique backdrop will definitely have viewers tuning back in next month for issue two. (Bonus points for Fraction’s new Twitter Handle quoting Chaykin’s random profanity and ramblings during the making of this book).