By Brian Martin | Graphic/Novels Editor Published: 07/04/2013 1:00 pm EST
Every Wednesday, there is one comic at the top of Graphic/Novels editor Brian Martin’s “pull list.” Whether it’s because the comic is consistently brilliant, it’s the beginning of a new series or run, or it’s purely a whimsical choice, one book must be read before all others. In this weekly column, Brian examines the book he’s anticipating most, why he’s looking forward to it, and, after reading it, whether or not the issue met his expectations. Expect mild spoilers!
The Book:Satellite Sam #1 (Image Comics, $3.50)
Why is it at the top? It’s Matt Fraction. It’s Howard Chaykin. One of today’s most inventive writers joins forces with one of the most influential figures in comic history. It’s true that some of Fraction’s writing has left me a bit cold, but he’s always at his best when writing either on the fringes of a major franchise (as in Hawkeye or FF) or in an independent series with a world all its own (the trippy, insane Casanova). A new Fraction indie title demands a look. And while I’ve been less than enthused with some of Chaykin’s recent output (the “Marked Man” serial from Dark Horse Presents, for instance), his American Flagg is, and will always be, one of my absolute favorite runs of all time. Chaykin is one of the guys who dictated the style of modern comics, and his impact is unquestionable. I’m hoping that the Fraction/Chaykin pairing will bring out the best of these two creative juggernauts.
So how was it? For a first issue, this comic really throws its readers into the deep end. The first half of the issue is incredibly frenetic and aggressive with its pacing, mirroring the content nicely but potentially leaving readers’ heads spinning. It is a dense and structurally inventive comic. To say that Satellite Sam benefits from a rereading is something of an understatement. It practically requires it.
This is not so much a criticism as it is a warning, though. Be prepared to spend more time with this comic than most others you’re liable to pick up this week. While not nearly as complex as Fraction’s work on Casanova, there is so much going on here at any one moment that even the characters in the story can barely keep things straight. This first issue is fairly experimental, playing with linear narrative storytelling in a complex, challenging (perhaps too much so, occasionally) way. But, considering the talent behind the series, the refusal to play it safe comes as no surprise.
The story opens in New York City, 1951, at LeMonde Studios, where the live broadcast of the adventure program Satellite Sam is underway, with or without its lead performer. During the opening pages, directors are flummoxed, writers spontaneously rework scripts, actors prepare for upcoming scenes, and producers are chased off-set. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the whole thing reads like an episode of an Aaron Sorkin show. There are shades of Studio 60 and The Newsroom here, if only in the rapid-fire dialogue and relentless pacing of a television studio in the midst of a live production. Scenes, even panels, overlap, giving the whole issue a real feeling that everything is happening simultaneously.
Honestly, the pacing is much of the reason I became invested so quickly. We aren’t really given much time to learn anything about the cast here, and by issue’s end we’ve still learned relatively little. But being thrown into the trials and struggles of these working stiffs in the early days of television is certainly arresting enough to maintain interest.
It isn’t until about the two-thirds mark until the action slows down substantially. Without giving away anything that wasn’t spoiled in the solicits for the issue, Carlyle White, AWOL lead actor of Satellite Sam, is found dead in a decidedly seedy environment, surrounded by women’s undergarments. It is only at this point that this comic really begins to reveal itself for what it is—a murder mystery—and the effect is quite jarring (in a good way). After being sucked in by the barely-held-together nature of the television production, White’s death hits us just as hard as it does any of the characters. Not a bad effect after barely 20 pages of story.
The black and white artwork suits the time period nicely, and is almost essential considering how much of what we see is meant to be elements of an old television serial. Chaykin’s work benefits immensely from this lack of color. His recent output has relied far too heavily on digital hues, which have made his pencils seem artificial and his characters look almost as though they were constructed from various plastics. Thankfully, these colors aren’t here to detract from Chaykin’s pencils, and his work on Satellite Sam looks better than it has in quite a few years. Chaykin’s style here is sketchy, rough, and unrefined—a perfect visual for a series about both the early days of television and a grisly murder.
In one particularly inspired artistic moment, just as Elizabeth Meyers discovers White’s body, a small girl watches the woman collapse in a hallway. The girl’s head appears outside of the panel itself, a spectator removed from the story itself, almost like a television viewer, further maintaining the feel of the series even a it takes a dark turn.
Overall, Satellite Samwas easily engaging enough to ensure I’ll be back for subsequent issues, as Michael White attempts to get to the bottom of his late father’s sleazy dealings. The series may be getting by more on its concept than any real character development thus far, but as a work of comic pop art it’s exactly what I was hoping for. Rest assured, you won’t read another comic like it this month.
Brian L. Martin is an educator, writer, and amateur curmudgeon. An avid fan of novels, movies, and beer, he would much rather spend his time reading comics, a lifelong love since receiving a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man # 242 from Spider-Man himself in 1983. His favorite books include The Grapes of Wrath, Siddhartha, and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which is heavy enough to be considered the only real defense weapon he has in his home. He currently lives with his wife in Uppsala, Sweden.