From the start, Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin’s Satellite Sam set out to be more than just a standard noir. Certainly more on the tawdry side, emphasized by Chaykin’s illustrations, Satellite Sam contains a dirtier, uglier, and far more sinister America than we’ve seen historically in the noir genre, so much so that I feel a little scummy every time I read it (and even ickier when I admit to how much I really enjoy this series).
Volume Three, Satellite Sam and the Limestone Caves of Fire, marks the closing of the first major arc of the series. While the first volume sets the foundation for the series and puts the mystery of Carlyle White’s death into motion, the second and third volume move further away from the whodunnit component of the first and instead, focus more on the individual characters and their own focused minor arcs. In fact, by the middle of the second volume, you pretty much know the identity of the murderer; you stick along for the ride to see how the different people involved react and the peripheral plots develop.
Now, with the murder mystery interest cast to the side, Satellite Sam emerges primarily as a work of pure mood creation, with its characters and storylines built to convey the underbelly of post World War II America and the bleakness, desperation, and abandonment of normalcy of not only those who fought in war but those who survived. This is the lurid America of The Naked City rather than that of Don’t Knock the Rock.
As mentioned in my discussion of the first volume, unlike the traditional noir, Satellite Sam reveals all of the debauchery that consumes people and discusses the social issues of the era with a freedom unaccepted in the 1940s and 1950s. From the dialog referencing the abundance of Antisemitism in the television world to the strained race relations seen through the tormenting of Eugene Ford, the first black man (though originally represented as white to audiences) to be on television, Satellite Sam captures the overall turmoil and tension of the era that we’ve looked back on with images of jukeboxes, poodle skirts, and Elvis Presley’s singing and dancing. Most significantly, the series concentrates on the deviant sexuality of the era we often recall as the age of the cheerful teenager. Running with America’s fascination with Bettie Page’s bondage images, Fraction and Chaykin use sexual perversity as their primary tool to explore a rotting America where sex is used as a weapon of power and domination. As a result, the sex never gets too sensationalistic; it is a symptom of a diseased state of being evinced by Michael White’s descent (and eventual sobering) as well as Carlyle White’s fall along with Reb Karnes’s and Madeline Ginsberg’s.
With this focus on the overall mood of the era, the third volume of Satellite Sam feels a bit anticlimactic, since the atmosphere and characters keep more interest than the sequence of actions as Michael White closes in on his father’s murderer and the conspiracy boiling up behind the scenes of the LeMONDE network. Consequently, this greater focus on telling stories about a time and place rather than just setting a story somewhere at sometime prepares the series for its extension. With volume three, Fraction and Chaykin have completed their portrayal of New York City in the golden television age, exposing the underside of what lies right under the cold, the dirt, and the garbage of the city. Now, it is time to begin a new tale about a new place…Los Angeles.
As a modern day recent transplant from the east coast to the west coast myself, I look forward to seeing how the cast of Satellite Sam will adapt and how perhaps they participate in the rise of what we know as television today. Unlike New York, which we see drawn in a dour black and white for nearly the entire city, Los Angeles is represented in color in a few of the closing pages of the volume. New York’s disease lived under and was the byproduct of the starkness and severity of the city. We’ll see where the depravity lies in Los Angeles for Michael White, Libby Meyers, Eve Nichol, and Eugene Ford. I’m guessing it will not be far from the spotlights, red carpets, well tanned skin, and sunglasses.
And most of all, I look forward to the new illustrations and short descriptions of the characters at the end of each issue, since after all, I myself enjoy a good bit of slick art and bylines filled with wit and a touch of sleaze.