Behind the bright lights and big cameras of television lie dark secrets, and beneath the smile of your favorite star could be lurking a sinister side. What Mad Men did for the 1950s advertising industry, the upcoming series Satellite Samis looking to do the same for that period’s budding television industry.
Created by Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin, Satellite Sam aims to pull back the curtain – literally – on the seedy side of television as they open up a murder mystery that starts with a dead children’s TV host and a dusty shoebox full of girlie photos. When that box is discovered by the TV host’s son, it throws his world out of whack and brings up questions he never knew to ask before.
Set to debut on July 3, 2013, Satellite Sam mixes the halcyon memories of mid-century television with dark secrets and some “inside baseball” politics of the industry at the time, and it’s a subject Fraction and Chaykin have been wanting to delve into for years.
Newsarama: Howard, this series is set squarely in early 1950s New York City. We’ve seen you excel at period pieces, but does this time period – which is the same time and place you grew up in – hit close to home for you?
Howard Chaykin: Not really. But it is the world I grew up in, and I watched shows just like this when I was a kid.
I was born in 1950, and came in consciously at the tail end of this era. One of the things I learned growing up is how little New York City changed between 1930 and 1950 due to World War 2. But in the early 1950s with the introduction of steel and glass New York began to transform. And I grew up watching that, which informed Satellite Sam.
When I wrote Die Hard for Boom! Studios, that story of a guy in his 20s running around in 1970s New York City was me. But for the 1950s, it’s about me watching it all from a kid’s perspective. Going back as adult and seeing it as it really was has a way of changing your perception of places.
Matt Fraction: I love the design, I love the era, and I love the period. There’s something – a crackle – when I’ve had the chance to be around the production of television and see how the sausage is made. It’s invigorating, exciting, dynamic and high pressure. There’s a reason why Aaron Sorkin continually does shows about shows.
As far choosing this time period, I don’t want to see Howard draw 2013. I want to see him draw 4012 or 1951 or something. It all started with that idea of a box of girlie pictures and one thing led to another. I don’t know quite where all of it came from. It’s like baking a cake because you happened to find all the right ingredients. It all kind of just came together.
Nrama: The idea of a beloved television personality keeping some dark secrets sounds like all the makings of a public scandal. Does the public know that Satellite Sam, played by Carlyle, had this penchant for this home-brew pornography?
Fraction: It’s sort of sniffed around. There’s a lot of antecedents in the real world to look at for this book.
We as a culture have a way of thinking back on that time as Ozzie & Harriet to replace the truth of things, but people then were just as fucked up as they are now. If you read what the cast of Howdy Doody was like, they were all lunatics. Sort of rampaging around the country as drunken, sex-fueled lunatics. There’s a famous incident where one of the actors on Howdy Doody got into trouble in a bar that I kind of just rip off verbatim in the third issue. People are going to think I was making it up, but it’s all truth.
Nrama: Can you tell us that true story?
Fraction: Actress Judy Tyler, who played Princess Summerfall Winterspring in Howdy Doody, at one point was in the Midwest and climbed up on a table in a bar, hiked up her skirt and said something so outrageous it would have ended her career, but the television station was owned by the local newspaper and they killed the story.
Chaykin: She was a notorious party girl. There’s a wonderful book out called Hey Kids, What Time Is It? And one of the things it points out is that, basically, the crew of Howdy Doody were stoners, party guys and crazy-ass motherfuckers having a good time. Reading that stuff informed a lot of what we’re doing with Satellite Sam.
As a little boy, I watched those old George Reeves Adventures of Superman show and marveled at how these grown men were behaving in ridiculous ways. My mom told me that it’s a job, and they were doing work they were given. That was a real revelation for me, that these actors and actresses had chosen this profession and were stuck with the choices. It was informative for me as a seven year-old, and informs my feeling about my work today. People frequently work in the service of shit, but they’re doing the best they can.
Nrama: Before the death of Carlyle, who plays Satellite Sam, would you say that he and his son Michael were particularly close?
Fraction: Their relationship is strained. The father, Carlisle, and the son, Michael, are very different. Carlisle is a gregarious television star who loves what he does for a living, and is a rich genius who’s making hand over fist. He’s a television visionary like Desi Arnaz, who saw the future of television leaving New York City and going to California. It’s easy to dismiss Desi Arnaz as “just” a Cuban band leader, as the guy that married Lucy, but he was a savvy little genius that got rich really fast because he understood things that the New York City media didn’t because they were steeped in the radio and newspaper traditions. Arnaz didn’t come from those mediums, and wasn’t labored by those ideas.
In Satellite Sam, Carlyle loved being a television star. He loved banging a different girl every night and loved being rich and famous. His son Michael is much more an introvert; he works as an engineer, actually. He’s a tinkerer, a builder, a technician. He works in the booth, behind the camera. The fact that he happens to be the spitting image of his old man physically means he’s pushed to literally step into his father’s shoes when Carlisle doesn’t show up to work one day. In Satellite Sam, Michael has to figuratively and literally put on his father’s shoes and see what happens. Whereas his father had an addiction to sex, the son is an alcoholic haunted by what he endured during the second world war and what went on after.
They’re the same, but different.
Nrama: Satellite Sam seems soaked in father-son issues, and you Howard have spoken pretty openly in the past about your own relationship with your adoptive father and finding your biological father. Is there a connection between your own issues with your fathers and the father/son dynamic in Satellite Sam?
Chaykin: Not to be disingenuous, but I never made the connection. I never knew my biological father, and most of my issues had more to do with my mother. This doesn’t apply particularly to the book, but I’m willing to consider it.
Nrama: Matt, what about you?
Fraction: I have enough father issues, I didn’t need to borrow Howard’s. I feel like Howard and I get each other in a lot of ways. We share a lot of quirks. For me, I wanted to talk about something… something that’ll be worth years of my life; more than “Hey, Batman punches a guy!” In the conversations Howard and I have add, we’ve come to understand the characters and their lives and we’re going to be showing that in the book.
Nrama: Where’s Michael’s mother in the picture?
Fraction: She’s sort of long gone. Michael never knew his mother. After he finds his father’s box of girlie photos, he begins to figure out that one of them is his mom. Besides the photograph though, she’s never been part of the equation for him.
Nrama: Can you describe the children’s show that the titular Satellite Sam, Carlisle, stars in before his death? It like Captain Kangaroo or something like that?
Fraction: It’s sort Space Patrol and Captain Video, both very real shows during this time period. They were daily science fiction soap operas for kids, and they’re the models. They were big hits at the time, in sort of the Howdy Doody vein. Those shows had a crazy synergy with marketing products, with product tie-ins like characters using a periscope in a scene and then the camera is thrown to a side stage with an actor saying “Hey kids, it’s fun to play Captain Videobuy when I have Wheatabig cereal I save my box tops to get a periscope like the one you just saw Captain Video use.”
The idea that they said “Hey, we’re going to produce a daily science fiction show with aliens and outer space.” It was effects-driven children television on a budget of about $9 a day in a medium that was re-inventing itself on a hourly basis. The cameras at the time weighed about 300 lbs, and the set lights raised the temperature to 120 degrees for everyone in their way.
Nrama: Let’s talk about you growing up watching shows like Satellite Sam.
Chaykin: One of the things that came through to me while we were at the Paley Center is how my childhood memories perceived shows like Space Patrol and Captain Video.
Whereas Captain Video was made inside of a shoebox, Space Patrol was something else. Space Patrolhad clumsily painted sets and the like, but there is a line ascending from work they did there to what Gene Roddenberry did with Star Trek. My childhood memories of Space Patrol told me the show was much cruder than it actually was. Captain Video was just as shitty as I remember, though. [laughs]
The Mad parody of Captain Video is so right, it’s terrifying. It’s like the planet of cheap special effects.
Nrama: Satellite Samis promised as an ongoing, and I know there’s more to television in the 1950s than NYC, especially looking over at the then-expanding Hollywood scene. Have you two thought ahead about exploring that at some point?
Fraction: We’ll get to California eventually. It’s great at this point to explore the early days of television in New York; that sort of Goodnight, Good Luck era. Living in that moment and in that place. You can literally say, “hey this was filmed at Rockefeller Center” or “this was made at Blackrock.” People don’t realize how important New York is to television’s early days, so its fun to kind of resurrect this dead world.
We’ll get to California eventually, but that trip – or the thought of it – becomes the crux of the book. Does the show stay in New York City or go to California. What did Carlyle want, and what will Michael do? There’s a lot of money involved in the decision, and it makes Michael think that maybe his father didn’t just have a heart attack but someone provoked it.
Nrama: This is about a father and son, but also about television. Howard, you’re worked in television during the 90s and 00s, so what’s your big attraction to it as a medium but also an industry?
Chaykin: As I explained to my wife once, think about that opening sequence in Dream On with the kid planted in front of the television set. That was me. I’m am absolute TV junkie, then and now. No quibbling, no qualifications. I adore television, and some of my most specific early memories are of me in front of the television. I recall very specifically bursting into tears when Clarabell the Clown died in the final episodes of Howdy Doody. My wife, for example, grew up without any real interest in television so she doesn’t get half the cultural references I make in conversation. To this day I watch far more television that her, and people wonder how I get much work done with it on.
It’s not so much the case now, but the television medium used to congratulate you on being too hip for television. Once you believed that, they had you by the balls. Now we’re living in absolutely the worst era of television era.
As for working in television, I never worked on a show I’d actually watch but I had a good time for the most part.
Nrama: Have either of you had the opportunity to talk with anyone who worked in television during the time period Satellite Sam is set? Or were books, documentaries and the like your primary resource?
Chaykin: Oddly enough, not for the book but I did know someone. The husband of a friend of my wife worked as far back as the golden age of television; he’s dead now, but he was a very cranky old man who had a very jaundiced view of the industry.
As far as research goes, besides being a TV junkie I’m a research junkie; I don’t fake anything. What’s in this book, I researched.
Fraction: We spent kind of an amazing day at the Paley Center in New York, but I haven’t done any first-person research talking to someone from that era. I’ve spoken to friends of friends from that generation, but those people are largely gone. There’s a lot of documentary material to be mined, but unfortunately I’ve not spoken to anybody with first person knowledge of this time.
Nrama: Howard, you’ve worked on several television series, both live-action and animated, but they were in the 1990s and early 2000s. Matt says you have some intense fascination and interest in television production during the 50s era, so can you talk about that interest?
Nrama: How’d the idea for you two to do this series come about, Matt?
Chaykin: For my part, I don’t recall how exactly it started. I remember very specifically doing an endless day’s walk through Manhattan. It was a running tour, ending with a dinner at a typically New York City restaurant. We spent a good part of the day at the Paley Center which covers the history of television and broadcasting. For me, that trip was the defining moment of getting this up and running. Matt might have sent me a page’s worth of notes, but that day was a cementing day for me. Wandering around the city and seeing the ghosts of New York and applying them to this story. We both agreed that one of the key parts of Satellite Sam was the transfer of culture from the East Coast to the West Coast during the 1950s.
Fraction: Boy, I have been of fan of Howard Chaykin for as long as I’ve been reading his work. Working with him on Punisher: War Journal was crazy to me; kind of the most amazing perk of having this job is working with people whose work you genuinely love, and in this case after we worked together we kind of became friends. Clearly we enjoyed one another’s company, and I wanted to work with him. I wanted to do the kind of book that I wanted to read. That’s always been the mission with my creator-owned work; put out stuff that’s not out there in the world. Don’t do another fucking Batman comic book.
So after Punisher: War Journal it was sitting there in the back of my mind to attempt to do a creator-owned book with him. It was just a matter of figuring out what it would be. I came across the story of Italian architect and designer Carlo Mollino, and the idea of a son finding a box containing this secret life of his father as a private pornographer with mistresses and hookers that the public didn’t know about. This kind of massive, private archive of girlie photographs jumped out to me. Felt like chicanery to me. After I hit across that, the spark kind of ignited into what would eventually become Satellite Sam.
After I had a rough idea, I just attacked Howard with swagger and verve and baited him with it. I didn’t fan him out; I just emailed him and said “I’ve got this creator-owned thing. Give me a shout!”
It had become a sort of life’s ambition as a fan and reader to be a part of Howard’s body of work, and here I am doing it.
Nrama: I imagine a copy of Time2 looming at you from a bookcase while you say that.
Fraction: Right. I don’t think there’s a printed version of American Flagg I do not own. I came his work young during the late 80s during his last hurrah in superhero comics, when he was doing really complex, aggressive and design-oriented work. He and the Hernandez brothers were the only two creative forces in comics making comics the way hey did. They refused to let you be a passive consumer; they refused to allow their comics to be only good for reading on the bus or the toilet.
There’s a famous story I heard where someone says to Howard, “I tried reading an issue of American Flagg for a half hour, and I didn’t understand it!” and Howard comes back and says “Read it again.”
I love American Flagg. At no point did Rueben Flagg say “Wow! It’s great to be back at the Plex!” and recount his life up until that point. It was the antithesis of what was going on at Marvel and DC. I was at a point where I stopped being a kid and started being a teenager, and I started to want adult expressions or whatever you’re interested in – and Chaykin and the Hernandezes were the only ones doing that stuff. I love that their comics wouldn’t let me be a dumb kid. I felt smarter for reading their books.
And I’m glad to say we even have Ken Bruzenak onboard for Satellite Sam.
Nrama: Howard’s listed “just” as an artist, but as you said he’s just as much a writer as an artist. Matt, what’s it like having that there to help chart the story?
Fraction: Chaykin’s a great writer – a phenomenal writer – so the chance to workshop the story with him was great. The day trip was a chance for us to kind of shamanize that history and put ourselves in the time and space of that world. It became a case of “well, if they made the show here then they would go there for a drink. And the Copa Cabana was down there.” We put ourselves in that spell, and it was great. It was one of my favorite days ever. I got to hear all sorts of great comic gossip as well.
Nrama: What about you, Howard? You’re equal parts writer and artist, so I found it odd to see you doing a creator-owned book where you weren’t writing.
Chaykin: Why do you say that?
Nrama: Well, maybe I’m selfish but I figured when doing your own affairs like this you’d want to write your own material to draw.
Chaykin: Sometimes, but Matt is one of my favorite guys to work with because he pushes me in directions I wouldn’t naturally go. I’m using solutions and techniques in Satellite Sam that I haven’t used in a long time. He’s given me visual directions and shots called that are different from what I do. Matt is an artist himself, so he has a pretty solid visual sensibility that makes doing this more interesting.
Furthermore, being selfish is its own reward. If you can step around it, you can open yourself up to different ideas.
Nrama: I wanted to ask about that trip to the Paley Center, which I learn was a part of a larger day going through New York for the book. Can you tell us about it?
Fraction: Well, we wanted to just do kind of a day of reference and research. We wanted to look at the buildings, take pictures and kind of submerge ourselves in the world for awhile. It turned into a day tour of Manhattan, where we discussed where television used to be made and where comics were made. Along the way we talked out the story. I had the notion of Satellite Sam going in, but once we were together like that we were able to plot it out.
Chaykin: There’s a standing joke in our house that when Matt and Rick Remender were writing the ending of Punisher: War Journal, the spatial relationships in there to New York landmarks were delusional. [laughs]
I basically know my way around town; the older parts, now. Not so much the new city. I’m still surprised to see Greenwich Village as three square miles of highrises. The village is now yuppie scum central, instead of old school tenement buildings I remember growing up.
Nrama: Last question, but probably one of the first things people will notice when the pick up the first issue. I’m told this series will be in black-and-white. What led you to go that route, and what are you doing in the art production to make it work without color that you wouldn’t do if you knew a colorist was coming in after you?
Chaykin: It looks very different. I’m doing a very different process here, even more oddly different than Black Kiss was. We’re trying to create an atmosphere that’s similar to both 1950s television and also the late noirs of the 1950s.