I’m going to say something that may make our readers feel a little inadequate, so I apologize for any hurt feelings that may come from the following sentence: Charles Soule makes you, me, and most other comic book writers look like slack-jawed, neck-bearded, basement-dwelling wimps.
Here is a man who writes at least two ongoing comics for both Marvel and DC (three in DC’s case), will be headlining the upcoming Death of Wolverine event in September, and also practices immigration, corporate, and entertainment law in New York City. That’s right; he does all those comic book shenanigans for fun. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Did I mention he has a band? And it doesn’t end there, as Soule writes Letter 44, his creator-owned project at Oni Press with art by Alberto J. Albuquerque.
What immediately grabs me about Letter 44 is that it takes a slow-burn sci-fi concept and paces it like an action movie. The premise is novel and immediately interesting: the newly-elected U.S. President Stephen Blades discovers that his predecessor’s actions while in office - actions that started two wars, tanked the economy, and disenfranchised millions of Americans (Soule isn’t subtle about who former president Carroll is supposed to represent) - were all for the sake of preparing the world for one thing: alien contact. When NASA picks up extraterrestrial activity in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, a crew of nine scientists, engineers, and soldiers are sent to investigate. And their ship is set to reach the belt mere days after Blades takes office.
Immediately we’re flooded with information, characters, and concepts to absorb, but Soule does a great job of holding the readers’ hands so that we don’t get lost without dumbing down the story. Having Blades as a newcomer ignorant of the mission provides a natural way to feed us exposition and introduce us to the rest of the cast.
The crew of the Clarke, the ship built hastily to make contact with the otherworldly phenomenon, is well characterized enough, but I’m hoping to get a little more development in subsequent issues. We know just enough to get a taste of each character’s personality and role on the ship, but some characters, like Drum and Gomez, feel a little undercooked. Stephen Blades fairs much better. A young president saddled with the outrageous baggage of the previous President while trying to make good on his campaign promises makes for a very interesting character.
The art admittedly took a while to grow on me. For the first issue or two, I found many character’s faces too bumpy, bulgy, and strangely-proportioned, but as I read on I minded less and less. In fact, I later became thankful that the character models had such a unique facial structure as it made it easy to tell people apart at a glance (and in a series where a character is introduced almost every issue, this is a godsend). And while my opinion on the character design is mixed, Albuquerque has a good eye for perspective and scale, which really helps alternately portray the vastness of space and the claustrophobia of a cabinet meeting.
I do have one major nit to pick. Soule certainly did some amount of research into the mechanics and physics of space travel and living. The astronauts exercise often, complain about radiation shielding on the Clarke, and the occasional detour into sci-fi jargon is well-written enough that I don’t question how plausible a recoilless laser gun might be. However, one of the major conflicts on the ship is based on a premise so silly that it rips me out of the comic every time it comes up: Dr. Charlotte, the senior mission commander, is pregnant.
Let’s set aside the fact that space hanky panky would in all probability be uncomfortable, if not impossible (let’s remember that space is a zero-g environment, where an errant hump can send the two of you spinning around like a gyroscope, among a laundry list of other problems). Charles Soule expects us to believe that two astronauts, two of the smartest and most capable people on the planet chosen to undertake what may be the most important mission in human history, screwed and didn’t use five kinds of contraception. “Sorry, honey. I was gonna put on a condom but I got distracted when I saw how great your ass looked in that puffy space suit.” This may seem like a minor point, but it really undermines the intelligence of some of our lead characters, characters that should certainly have more restraint than a couple of drunk, horny teenagers.
Weightless gland-to-gland combat aside, Letter 44 is a very solid book, as well as an interesting piece of speculative science fiction that’s just plain fun to read. So please go pick it up if it sounds like your cup of tea.
And for those of you reading this review from the International Space Station: please keep it in your pants.