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Comic Book Review: SATELLITE SAM #1 is a Killer

The first thing you see when you open Satellite Sam #1 (apart from that gorgeous, provocative Howard Chaykin cover, that is), is a two-page, black and white spread littered with Polaroids of women in their lingerie. You might be tempted to quickly flip past this, dismissing it as bookend material. Don’t. Stay a while, let your eyes wander from image to image, and you’ll quickly find yourself awash with a strange blend of feelings. These images are at once titillating, intriguing, detailed and menacing, everything you’d expect from a piece of Chaykin art. They’re also, for all their apparent simplicity, the perfect introduction to what might prove to be one of the most important comics of the year.

If all you know about Satellite Sam #1 going in is what’s written in the one-paragraph plot summary, you might be expecting something very different from what you actually get in this issue. Don’t worry. That’s a good thing. Though by the end it certainly seems that we’re steamrolling toward the sensationalism of “SEX, DEATH, LIVE TV” that the book has promised us all along, this is a first issue in the truest sense, a chance to cozy in and get to know the book’s characters a bit even as something darker creeps ever closer to their lives. So, before we can really get to the sex and death, Chaykin and writer Matt Fraction (with the help of truly excellent lettering by Ken Bruzenak) must first show us a little live TV.

What could have been an inescapably boring sequence packed with technical gobbledygook and exposition turns – in Fraction and Chaykin’s hands – into a seamless and surprisingly dense chronicle of the cast and crew of the Satellite Sam TV series (a sci-fi show shot live in 1951 New York City) having a really bad day. Potential network investors are wandering around the set, the actors are their usual combustible mix of personalities, the writer is threatening to walk and – most importantly – the star of the show is late.

There’s no one key to why this all becomes a crackling, addictive set of scenes, but together Fraction and Chaykin create an environment that at once feels endlessly lived in and familiar, yet very, very new to the reader. Fraction’s dialogue, a brave mixture of TV production jargon and unvarnished behind-the-scenes honesty, is among the best he’s ever produced, in part because it doesn’t ever feel like Fraction is talking to us. It truly feels like these people – the nervous director, the showboating co-star, the grandstanding network executive – are just talking, just being themselves at work. It’s both refreshingly natural and fascinating enough that you’ll want to read it at least three times.

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Many have said already that Chaykin seemed perfectly suited to the mix of sex, violence and period imagery that Fraction cooked up for him with this story, and he is, but that’s not what makes his work on this issue brilliant. Yes, he excels at depicting the issue’s seedier moments (see the above description of all those Polaroids for proof), but he’s also a master of character moments. His layouts as Fraction takes us through page after page of control room dialogue are a kinetic and mesmerizing blend of close-ups and wide shots, an intricate mingling of perspectives that creates a full and fascinating picture of the world we’re entering and the people who inhabit it. The way he draws a character as he sips from a coffee cup, the way he draws a lighter flicking open, the way he uses Zip-A-Tone to delicately control the lighting and make both his backgrounds and foregrounds come alive, these are all the hallmarks of a master at work. Fraction built the stage, and it’s a hell of a stage, but in this issue at least, Chaykin is the one who gets the curtain call.

What’s most surprising about Satellite Sam #1 is not that it’s good. It’s how many times I found myself going back to look just one more time at a particular panel, or even a particular portion of a panel. The way the show’s director (who also happens to be the star’s son) flicks his cigarette lighter open and closed throughout the issue left me mesmerized, and reminded me over and over again of the flicking open and closed of cell phones that Martin Scorsese used so brilliantly in editing The Departed. The way the light falls on an autopsy table had me staring for several minutes. The way a headset hangs on a particular character’s face was enough to leave me on the same page for far longer than I expected to be there. All of these little moments left me entranced, but they’re also all part of something bigger, something dark and sexy and dangerous that gives the feeling that a fuse has just been lit and we’re watching the sparking flame crawl toward us. This is not just a thoroughly entertaining piece of graphic storytelling that will leave you aching to know that happens next. This is something made with care and craft and mastery that we’ll be talking about for years to come. Don’t miss Satellite Sam.

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Matthew Jackson

Matthew Jackson