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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Review: Satellite Sam #1

Quick.  Name an era where television was at its absolute best.  Most of you probably said sometime close to the present, didn't you?  You may be right.  We live in a time where serialized dramas have become a place for some of the best writing, acting, and directing anyone has ever seen on television.  But this is also an age of a pandemic of reality television and long expired sitcoms that just don't know when to quit.  So is this really a second Golden Age of Television?  Maybe, maybe not.  Now, think back to that first Golden Age.  Most mark the Golden Age of television as taking place from around the late 1940's to the early 1960's.  Such was a time when classic shows like I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and any number of other shows dominated the air waves.  It was a time when television was beginning to come into its own as a medium of entertainment, seeking to prove any nay-sayers of the "boob tube" wrong.  This time in our history does not seem like the most obvious setting for a comic book, but that is just where writer Matt Fraction has placed his new series Satellite Sam.  Image Comics has been on a roll lately with brand new comics, so will Satellite Sam rise to the top with the rest of the company's titles?  Only way to find out is to keep reading!

Satellite Sam tells the behind the scenes story of a 1951 television series aptly titled Satellite Sam.  Issue one begins with an episode in progress of the science fiction series, and there are a number of problems already, with the biggest easily being that lead actor Carlyle White has still not shown up for work.  Studio heads and investors are breathing down the necks of director Dick Danning and crew to create a great show in order to boost ratings, but there is a secret to Carlyle White's disappearance that just may threaten to undo Satellite Sam entirely.

Many of these Image comics work with an extreme disadvantage when it comes to attracting new readers.  As this is an indie company which largely publishes non-superhero comic books, Image does not have the luxury of characters instantly familiar to new readers like Batman or Spider-man.  Instead, Image must cultivate readers based on their producing quality series from comic writers who are known for creating great work.  So, with that in mind, it is up to the writer and artist with these comics to establish quite a bit in their first issue as to what readers can expect from the series as a whole.  In many ways, reading the first issue of a comic like Satellite Sam is like watching the pilot for a television series you know very little about.  This is the work Matt Fraction is doing here as there is quite a bit established in this issue, with much of it being story-based.  As mentioned, this is a comic set during the Golden Age of television, and many of the hallmarks of that era are present here: odd sponsors that dominate almost every aspect of the series, lots of cigarettes being smoked, misogyny, and the entire comic is even in black and white.  Much of this first issue seeks to establish the setting of the comic being a behind the scenes drama.  With series like The Newsroom or the film Network, this is an idea that is not unfamiliar to most of us, but Fraction does a good job of weaving in his own twists to the genre that make this comic unique.  If you are like this reviewer, there is just something fun about getting to see the way a television show is run.  Although much of the elements of producers and other big wigs working to expand their empire as well as the stress of getting a show made properly are a bit old hat, Fraction throws in just a twinge of noir in this issue to keep the reader on their toes.  By issue's end, we already know the answer to why Carlyle White has not been on set, but some of the clues are not as intriguing as one may hope in such a unique setting.  This is a comic populated with tons of characters that feel like archetypes, and none really have a ton of depth to them just yet, making for some very superficial characterization.  It is important to remember, though, that this is the first issue, and Matt Fraction undoubtedly has more up his sleeve.

While Matt Fraction does not do anything too fascinating with his characters, there are some pretty unique elements to the way Fraction structures this issue.  This is a story which has a somewhat linear plot, but that does not mean every single panel comes one right after the other.  Often you will see characters in the show Satellite Sam say a line twice as a signpost of sorts to clue readers in to when certain panels are taking place.  Such a stylistic choice on Fraction's part is an interesting one, but it is a move which comes off a bit clunky at first.  Although Satellite Sam is an enjoyable comic thus far, it took several pages to gain a handle on the way this comic is scripted.  As this does take place largely in a television studio, a lot of people are talking at the same time, and, while it is an appropriate writing move, it is one that can be a bit confusing for readers at first.  Having certain panels and pages take place at the same time is a brilliant move that Fraction pulls off to the best of his ability, but one cannot help but feel that maybe this is a plot device we have more effectively used on television and on film.  Once the reader understands what Fraction is doing structurally, however, it becomes much easier to appreciate just how intricately this comic is written.  A dropped light bulb makes for a brilliantly subtle moment that shows several panels taking place at the same time, and it is much more easily understood after the structure issues are worked out.  Perhaps the reading experience of Satellite Sam will improve now that it has become clear how many of its scenes will be structured.  If there is anything Fraction should seek to improve right now with the structure of this comic, it is that a little more clarity as to who is speaking would be quite appreciated.  

As this is the "pilot" for this comic, it is perhaps worth taking a look at whether this is a comic book which has a lot of longevity.  If Satellite Sam were a television series, it is quite easy to see how the elements which make up this comic could, with the right network and marketing, be an incredibly popular show which lasts several seasons.  When one takes into account that this is a comic book, however, it is a little bit more difficult to see how this could go on for too long.  The way Matt Fraction writes this series has a very mini-series feel to it all, with a narrative that, while certain aspects feel wide in scope, feels so intimate that it is hard to imagine this lasting more than 30-50 issues.  Sure, the way this network grows and the behind the scenes drama can be exploited for a while, but the mystery surrounding Carlyle White is one that does not seem to have a ton of longevity outside of this opening story arc.  But this reviewer is not writing this series, so one can hope Matt Fraction has plans for this comic which exceed the limited vision that is displayed in this opening issue.  All of that being said, there are a few things which happen here that make one excited at the possibilities of where this comic could go.  One of the studio executives makes mention that, by 1955, their station will have color.  Since this is a series in black and white, one could not help but wonder if, when the comic reaches 1955 in story, whether the book will suddenly be in color.  It would certainly be a stylistic choice that could be exploited greatly on Fraction's part.

While a lot has been said in this review about the color of this comic, or lack thereof, not much has been mentioned about the art.  Howard Chaykin is on art duties for Satellite Sam, and he thus far is doing an excellent job.  Going in, this reviewer was not very familiar with Chaykin's work, but this issue alone is enough to make one intrigued about what else he has done.  The writing of this issue may not do much to make the characters too three dimensional, but Chaykin's art makes up for that setback.  These characters feel much more fleshed out in their expressions and their body language than they do in their speech, so it will be fantastic to see how Chaykin's work can make more well-rounded characters really thrive in this comic.  Chaykin seems to be the perfect fit for the noir meets science fiction meets Network feel of this series, and it will be great to see his work improve as the comic continues.

Overall, whether you would enjoy Satellite Sam really depends on your own personal taste in story.  As mentioned, there are no familiar faces here in terms of characters, so you kind of have to take a blind leap of faith based on what little information has been presented to you.  Matt Fraction's writing style may be a bit of a turn off for some, but it is a style which is much better appreciated once one gives the comic a chance to lead you where it's going.  Chaykin's art, while great, may seem like too stylistic a choice in its lack of color, but The Walking Dead is Image's most popular comic series and it has been running strong for over 100 black and white issues.  With an Image book, it is best to treat it like a television series.  Would you watch Satellite Sam if it was on your screen?  Then this is a comic you definitely need to try out.  It is not a comic without its problems, but these small qualms are things which could easily be resolved quickly.  It is not Image's best new series, but don't be surprised if Satellite Sam ends up on more than a few Top 10 lists come December.

Rating: A

Summary:  Satellite Sam combines behind the scenes drama, noir, and 1950's science fiction television to bring a unique comic reading experience that entertains and intrigues.  There are some small issues with a lack of character development and plot structure, but nothing so bad that it makes this comic anything less than a must read. 
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