Thursday, July 4, 2013

Review: Satellite Sam #1

They Live

Live TV makes for a demanding daddy, a real bastard to be both crass and clever. Television production requires an adherence to protocols, a chain of command and all are in thrall to the clock. This stolid, inflexible and rigid structure addresses the 'TV' part of 'Live TV,' the object -- hit the break, read as written, or else. The 'Live' part, the descriptor, well, that's the groove, the shake and the shimmy, the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, the distinction between procreation and sex.

Writer Matt Fraction and artist Howard Chaykin combine to cast Satellite Sam as a soapy look at the sins of the father during the adolescence of mass communication right down to its black and white look. Think of this series as the mean between the madcap leave-something-for-the-imagination of Fraction's Casanova and Chaykin's hide-the-kids-and-pets Black Kiss II; mature, but with the dash of prurience akin to a 'nip-slip.'       

Satellite Sam takes place in 1951 a.k.a. television's Paleozoic era when studio cameras were the size of iceboxes (and twice as heavy), being 'handsy' was a workplace hazard as prevalent as secondhand smoke and video tape was consigned to that nebulous category called 'the future.'

Mike White works in the control room of the LeMonde Network's New York studio, his dad, Carlye White, stars as Satellite Sam, a quasi-Buck Rogers for the kids of the pre-Space Age set. When Carlye doesn't materialize on set, a go-to gal (Libby) goes in search of the wayward star and in the spirit of the high-wire act that is live television everyone must improvise to keep this one episode of this one show on the air. And they'll have to do it the next day and the next and the next. See? Demanding.

The 'turd in the punchbowl' is Carlye. In a scandal straight out of L.A. Confidential's gossip rag 'Hush Hush,' Carlye's turns up dead in an apartment in St. Mark's Place amidst black brassieres, a diverse collection of dildos, lights and photography gear. As it turns out ol' Carlye was a bit of a shutterbug with a hard-on for boudoir snaps. Later, after Mike IDs his dead dad, he discovers boxes filled with more slap-and-tickle-type photos of women in lingerie. Whatever sexual energy there was in this secret space has gone out of the room. All Mike can do is flaccidly ask: ''what were you into up here pop?''.

Fraction peppers in the necessary historical context by dropping names like Paley and Sarnoff into a conversation with a bunch of suits. There's even a moment when it feels like one of the 'men in grey suits' is about to play the Bonasera 'I believe in America' card, but the conversation derails into business and politics, too bad. Better than his use of surnames as shorthand for scene setting is how Fraction plays with time -- fractures it, you might say -- allows conversations to overlap and shows the same scene from different perspectives. A live spot for cream of wheat goes full-on Rashomon as a well placed ''pop'' from a light bulb clues the reader into the simultaneous narratives taking place on different pages. By using this technique, Fraction tightens the screws to capture the tension of the story and to provide a sense of the live television experience. It's as if the drama playing out on the page were in itself a serial from the heady days of 1950's television.   

Letterer Ken Bruzneak contributes to this ever-present by shading the word bubbles of headset chatter to distinguish them from the one-on-one conversations taking place in real-time. The on-air broadcast of Satellite Sam shows up (naturally) inside TV tube-shaped boxes, their edges spiculated to look like stars. Many of the speech bubbles are circular like a clock face, perhaps another playful nod to time.

I have celebrated and chided Chaykin in the short time I've written about comics. He could give a flying fuck, which is why (I think?) I continue to write about his work. I'm not a Chaykin apologist, a sycophant or a masochist. I appreciate singular and no holds barred art because of its inherent personal nature. Like him or not Chaykin never compromises.

The design of the characters in Satellite Sam -- manly men with square jaws in suit coats, horn rims and ties, women with hourglass shapes in high heels, classy cuts and skirts -- is vintage Chaykin from as far back as American Flagg!. Even though he continues to draw the characters to look like they stepped out of Life magazine, Chaykin's cartooning maintains the sketchy-quality redolent of Black Kiss II and its antecedent. It's an angrier look for such an elegant time, but who am I to argue with the likes of Howard Chaykin?

If for nothing else, the 'old school' meets 'new school' aesthetic the creators of Satellite Sam bring to this story should make for something both curious and compelling. Perhaps Fraction's equally singular voice -- and decidedly more mainstream instincts -- will check Chaykin's sleaze. Or maybe Chaykin will dirty Fraction up enough to give this series the kind of sophistication and grown-up entertainment this first issue offers its reader. Satellite Sam promises a peek behind the scenes of TV's 'golden age' complete with lacy underthings, racy images and dependence on time. Curious, libidinous and quick, Satellite Sam makes for a promising peep show.      

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