Prophet. Saga. The Manhattan Projects. In 2012 Image Comics delivered critically adored hits with eye-catching regularity, and this week’s Image Expo has shown that the publisher has no plans to slow down. Buoyed by the multimedia success of The Walking Dead, it announced a host of new launches featuring all-star creative teams and unique high concepts. The expo appeared to be a statement of intent, and a challenge to Marvel’s and DC’s dominance of the market.
So what better time to launch Satellite Sam, written by critical darling Matt Fraction and drawn by legendary artist Howard Chaykin. Set in New York City in 1951, the series tells the story of fledgling television studio LeMonde and the people who work there. However, one of the employees has met a grisly end, setting up a murder mystery that will likely engulf the lives of all the cast.
We join the action moments before the live broadcast of popular children’s show Satellite Sam, with the titular star missing and the cast and crew desperately trying to cover his absence. In the opening pages the action jumps quickly from scene to scene, effortlessly evoking the feel of a hectic studio. Barbs are tossed around, grievances are aired, and the sense of panic is tangible. The majority of the issue covers a span of just 20 minutes, and the reader is thrown in at the deep end. Aside from two exposition-heavy pages of conversation between the studio owner and potential investors, the audience is expected to get a sense of the characters and the world they inhabit from their words, their actions, and the things other people say about them. It’s an unusual approach compared to most first issues, but it’s one that largely works.
Fraction has clearly spent a lot of time researching the era; he nails the period details and does a particularly good job with the dialogue, adding colour to a world that is depicted in black and white. Meanwhile the 1950s setting plays to Chaykin’s strengths, allowing him to give full reign to his pulp sensibilities. Everyone looks harried and overworked but still manage to dress immaculately, and the art has a rough-and-ready feel that betrays the fact that every line has been laid down expertly. It’s a book perfectly suited to his talents.
Together they have crafted a fully realised setting, as well as a mystery that ties into deeper thematic concepts. There’s the television studio on the verge of greatness just as colour TV looks set to become a reality, and a nation once more on the cusp of change. The American Dream hangs heavy over proceedings, as does a patriotism that’s been rootless since the end of World War II. And there’s the son forced to step into his father’s shoes and unravel the complications of his life, despite having problems of his own. The surface details perfectly evoke the period, but what lies underneath is even more fascinating.
It’s not entirely without fault. The rejection of so many first issue conventions and the refusal to hold the reader’s hand is disorienting, especially in the early going, and means there’s some confusion as to which characters are key to the tale and which are merely bit part players. And plot plays second fiddle to establishing mood, meaning there aren’t too many clues as to where the story might be heading. But like the death at the centre of Satellite Sam, these are mysteries that will surely become clear in due time, and given the creative team involved both the journey and the answers at the end of it are likely to be worth sticking around for.
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