Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Strange Death of Carlyle White

I found my copy of Satellite Sam issue one from Image Comics sitting innocently next to Swamp Thing on the new realeases shelf at my friendly neighborhood LCS. Little did I realize then how truly out of place it was, even if the cover sported a woman in lingerie standing over a dead spaceman, holding a smoking gun. This book is from a different time, and the talent involved from another world. Writer and current comics golden boy Matt Fraction and legendary artist/designer Hoawrd Chaykin have started something interesting and informative here, a new series that already has me racing to the nearest search engine to learn more about the fabled "golden age of television", as well as questioning everything I might have ever known about my own deceased father's sexual appetites. Yes, this comic my leave an impression on you, and it may make the most uncomfortable questions you have about your parents' pasts seem like a mystery worth solving.
Satellite Sam takes place in New York City, 1951. The war is over, but still casts a long shadow over the world, and live television is one of many opiates used to sooth a weary generation and energize as well as motivate the children who lucked out of having to replace their fathers on the battlefield, thanks to two questionable decisions dropped on Japan. The title character is a work of fiction within fiction, a childrens' television host whose daily interstellar exploits delight the youth in glorious black and white. Satellite Sam's world isn't like the edutainment programs of my generation at all. He exists in that glorious time before any real standards and practices, where news anchors smoked and any sort of child programming was simply that: programming kids to buy more cream of wheat and toy rockets. The man who plays Satellite Sam is nowhere to be seen, and his sudden disappearance is the focus of the story, a depth charge that shakes and rattles an already panicked television studio, as they stand on the verge of either total collapse or overtaking CBS and dominating the airwaves. Hastily, the actor's son is put into his father's role. After filling in for dear old dad, he learns his father isn't missing, he's been found dead. Then the book takes a strange turn and the real story begins; the son finds his father's "secret stash", a massive collection of photographs of women in lingerie.
"Pop, what the hell were you into up here?" he wonders aloud on the last page. Then the reader is encouraged to return next issue as the mystery of Satellite Sam's murder will surely deepen. Fraction turns in a hell of a script, utilizing techniques he's been experimenting with in books like Hawkeye and Casanova. Certain scenes take place simultaneously, and events are viewed from several angles. It's the kind of comic that doesn't quite sink in on the first read. I found after reading the issue for a third time that the entire issue takes place in the span of minutes and perhaps slowing down to digest every single hectic word balloon inside the TV studio may not be the most effective way to read this. Rather, the chaos implied by the setting lends itself to skimming the book, a reading technique I normally dispise. The characters all "sound" like fifties archtypes, at least to my knowledge, and the swearing and sayings of the day all seem pretty genuine. Yep, the words are all where they need to be. Being an introduction more than a first act, not much is gleaned about any of the characters, but it seems pretty obvious this will read better when I have all the issues and can enjoy them in one sitting. Or if you prefer, maybe this will do better as a trade.
The reat treat here is the art. If you're not familiar with Howard Chaykin, let me just take a second to recommend American Flagg. Flagg is essential reading for fans of independent comics and Frank Miller-esque 80's dystopian fiction. Chaykin's work is always very sexually driven as well, so when Mr. Fraction approached Mr. Chaykin with this story, it must've been right up his alley. From my observation, Chaykin draws three things extremely well: half-naked women, fifities Americana, and fabric textures. All of which are on display here. The polaroids of beautiful naked "pieces of strange" (as the lead character puts it) adorn the inner back and front covers, giving the reader the same sensation as the main character when he discovers his father's secret stash. The interior sequential art is brilliiant, even is long-time fans of Chaykin may see it as a little old-hat at this point. There are some obvious uses of photoshop in the layering of crowd scenes, but nothing jarring or amateurish. This story is also in black and white, which regretfully turns some people off. The use of black and white here however is right in line with the setting and tone of the story. The graphic depiction of the the main character's father's "play room" is probably my favorite page, mostly because I'm a bit of a perv myself. Comics need more dildos.
Needless to say, I'll be back for more. This is a great departure from my usual reading habits when it comes to comics. It's nice to read a story where the capes and costumes are just props, and the only doomsday device is a double-sided sex toy. But seriously, why this was on the same shelf as the New 52 is just baffling and proves that many retailers don't get around to actually looking at their product.

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