Satellite Sam #1
“The Big Fade Out”
Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Howard Chaykin
Letterer: Ken Bruzenak
Cover Colorist: Jesus Aburtov
Review by Eric Owens
I’ve been looking forward to this book since I heard about it months ago. If you’ve ever wanted to write comics, you should be reading books like Satellite Sam. Matt Fraction’s script is a course in compact, multilayered storytelling. Nothing demonstrates that better than one seemingly unimportant element — a burned-out lightbulb. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Satellite Sam takes place in New York City in 1951 and revolves around the live production of a children’s sci-fi show and its titular lead, played by one Carlyle White. In this issue, the cast and crew find themselves scrambling to cover for Carlyle’s absence, for what is clearly not the first time. We’re introduced to a lot of characters early on, including the rest of the show’s cast, Libby Meyers, director Dick Danning, writer Guy Roth, executive of the LeMonde network Doc Ginsberg, and most importantly, Michael White, Carlyle’s son and a part of the show’s production team.
Libby, well aware of Carlyle’s sleaziness, uses a break in the action to run out to where she suspects he’s with his latest floozy. Instead, she finds his corpse. Meanwhile, Guy comes up with a solution to their missing actor problem. Once the show wraps and the police notify Michael, he’s confronted with a side of his father he never knew when he finds boxes of photographs of scantily-clad women hidden under the bed of Carlyle’s flophouse apartment. Admittedly, much of the issue is just setup to get to that reveal, but the action should pick up from here on out.
At least so far, the comic has as much to do with what it’s like to produce a live television show as it does the mystery of Carlyle White’s death. Along with all of the characters’ references to how much time they have, the book finds a few other ways to get the reader to experience the hectic pace of production. One trick that’s employed is to have one scene overlap with the prior scene and having the first scene’s dialog come from off-panel so we can see how they line up. For example, we see Hamilton, one of the actors, stalling for time during the cereal commercial segment of the show. He reacts to a noise off-panel, but it’s not until the next page where we see the action caused the sound. Another method of showing the quickly passing time is employed when Libby goes hunting for Carlyle. Before leaving the studio, she says she’ll be back in eight minutes. As we follow her, we can watch the time tick away on the face of her stopwatch, which is displayed at the top of each panel in that scene.
So what was that about a lightbulb? Fraction uses the simple event of one of the set’s lights blowing out to achieve multiple goals. On one level, it’s just another problem to deal with along with a missing lead, a fed up writer, and interruptions from investors. On another level, it shows us Michael’s willingness to put himself out there for the production when he runs the replacement bulb out himself instead of having someone else on the crew handle it. Since Michael is out of the booth, it also allows Guy to tell Dick his plan without Michael being there to overhear them. Michael replacing a dead, broken bulb also works as a metaphor for how he later saves the day. Maybe that’s a stretch, but in my defense I was an English major. That’s some economical storytelling for what admittedly didn’t seem too important on my first read.
Howard Chaykin has been producing comic book art for over a decade longer than I’ve been alive, so there isn’t much new to say about how talented he is. It’s clear that he’s spent a great deal of time getting all of the details right for the look of the era. His body language and facial expressions are fantastic. For instance, although he’s just a small figure in one panel, it’s clear that Hamilton is overacting. Even the random people on the streets look like they each have unique personalities and their own stories instead of being simple filler. Despite the fast pace of the story, slow down to get familiar with each character’s face and appreciate how different each one is.
If I have one complaint with the book, it’s with the speech bubbles. Instead of the usual wide tail tapering into a point, these bubbles have straight lines. Since the book is in black and white, they have a habit of getting lost. This is made worse when the bubbles are over a white background, due to their lack of outlines. I found it difficult at times to figure out who was speaking to the point where it was a major detraction from my enjoyment of the story. It was a lot clearer on the second and third passes once I was more familiar with everything, though.
The comic is intended for mature readers. Be prepared for a lot of, as Doc puts it, salty language. Also, there are dozens of depictions of lingerie-clad women from Carlyle’s collection of photos, though none are too explicit. If you’re fine with all of that, definitely give Satellite Sam a chance.
Eric Owens is a contributing writer for Drunk On Comics, and you can follow him on Twitter at @EricDOwens