With Satellite Sam writer Matt Fraction and veteran artist Howard Chaykin created a B&W noir mystery story set in the early years of television. It’s 1951, New York City, and the star of the hit TV show “Satellite Sam” has been found dead in a seedy hotel room. We don’t actually see the scene–a bit of visual discretion that made me wonder if it wasn’t being saved for a reveal later in the series–but the room is full of sleazy cheesecake photographs of women dressed in racy lingerie. Apparently Carlyle White (the star in question) had an unusual hobby.
White’s son Michael sets out to solve the mystery of who killed his father and why. This is clearly the central mystery driving the story, but there are many other complications. The owner of the TV station that produces the show is lobbying the FCC to expand into a network. The science fiction adventure “Satellite Sam” is his biggest hit, and he wants to keep it going even after its star has died. He may or may not be aware that Carlyle was plotting to move the show to Hollywood. Other actors on the show are pitching their own shows, and are fighting for screen time (it is live TV, after all). There are mystery kinescopes Carlyle was keeping, which we haven’t see yet (a kinescope is a document of a TV show made by filming a TV monitor).
Visually the story is right down Chaykin’s alley. He loves to draw 1950s men and women: especially when the women are curvy and sporting skimpy, lacy underwear. I’ve seen accusations of gratuitous sex scenes, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Sex is part of the power play these characters are involved in. There certainly is a lot of oral sex (more implied than explicit), which also offers blackmail possibilities. Presenting the story in black and white suits the subject matter very well. I’m a fan of Chaykin’s art–I know it doesn’t appeal to everybody–and was drawn in by both the setting and the mystery.
Each of the collections includes extensive back matter. Fraction and Chaykin discuss such topics as the genesis of the series, how their personal histories intersect with the subject matter, and their working methods. The character pages from the individual monthly issues are reproduced. Even in collected form they are helpful to keep track of who’s who, and Fraction wrote different captions each time which reflect the current state of the plot. I especially enjoyed the last of these in Volume Three, which was written entirely in verse. Finally, the monthly covers are reproduced, in color and full size.
The second collection of Satellite Sam delivers the noir mystery in spades. Michael’s investigation continues–aided by his successful sobriety–and he is increasingly convinced that his father was murdered. At first he thinks that the private stash of kinescopes was a threat because of the power that back catalog would have given to aid a planned move to Hollywood. His father owned the largest collection of Satellite Sam episodes in existence, much larger than the official Le Monde Network archives. That alone might have been enough to get him killed.
But then Michael watches a few of the kinescopes, and discovers extra material that was filmed after the episodes. It’s prime blackmail stuff: live action kinky sex similar to the stash of photographs that was discovered after he died. If the people in the films–such as ambitious politician Wilson Karnes–know the copies exist, who knows what they might do to keep them secret.
Like any good noir, secrets abound. A bunch of new ones pile up in this arc. The show producer’s lung cancer becomes public; the writer’s homosexuality is about to be revealed; actor Eugene Ford is outed as a Negro (in the period parlance) passing for white, just as his TV show is being launched. And at the end of the collection, Le Monde owner Dr. Ginsberg has followed Libby to the secret kinescope stash. Looking forward to what is sure to be an exciting conclusion.
There were a lot of narrative balls in the air at the beginning of this final collection, and the creators deftly catch them all. Not only that, but they subvert some classic noir expectations in the process (they discuss this in the interview-style essay at the end, which has been a common feature in all of the collections). Impossible to talk about these issues without spoiling anything, so consider yourself warned.
The blackmail possibilities of the secret kinescopes were real, and they drive much of the action in this arc. Libby was forced off the road by Dr. Ginsberg (owner of LeMonde Network) at the end of the previous arc, but the details weren’t clear before. He did it to steal the key to the storage locker in Limestone Caves, and with access to the tapes he tries to turn up the heat on Karnes, to force the FCC to allow him to enlarge his network.
Michael takes his investigation of his father’s death to its logical conclusion. Turns out it really was death by sexual misadventure rather than murder: instead of a reveal of the murder scene, we get a reenactment. But that does not mean there isn’t plenty of murderous intent among the principals. This all comes to a head at the storage facility: Ginsberg and the Karnes have broken in to search for the compromising kinescope, and Michael crashes the party. Deaths and a fire consuming the tapes seem to put an end to that chapter.
But Michael and Libby had a plan, which results in Karnes finding himself in the scandal he had been trying to avoid. There’s another plan, as well. Eugene has narrowly escaped a lynching attempt, so he and Eve have good reason to leave town. Michael and Libby join them in Hollywood, where Carlye White’s original idea of taking the Satellite Sam show West combines with Eugene’s foresight to establish the first independent television production studio. There’s a marvelous shift to color for the California sequence, dramatically illustrating the bright new beginning. The art shifts back to B&W for the coda, an equally dramatic look at Kara’s downfall.
The whole series was really well done, capturing the period while employing (and sometimes subverting) classic mystery noir tropes. The creators have left the possibility open that they might revisit this world. I would love to see more.