Letter 44 #1,
Charles Soule, Alberto Jiminez Alburquerque,
Soule and Jiminez Alburquerque’s Letter 44 looked to me, at first glance as I scanned the new releases, like an Image comic, not an Oni title – given the really seriously good run of interesting new titles Image has had on our racks in the last couple of years though that is a compliment, not a criticism. The letter in question is the private one which outgoing presidents of the United States leave on the Oval Office desk for their successor as they hand over power. As president-elect Stephen Blades picks up the letter from outgoing President Carroll, a politician he could not stomach and who he and many others thought to be intellectually backward, a fool who thought nothing of dragging the nation into Middle Eastern wars they didn’t really have any business with in the first place (sounds not a million miles from a certain recent former president…). But there are things you know when you are in opposition then there are things you only learn when you sit behind the desk in the big chair – and those things can change not only what you thought you would do in office but also change your entire view of your predecessor and indeed the entire world. Blades is about to discover such a secret…
Letter 44 opens with a nice splash page of a space scene, putting distance and human perspective to the fore: “150, 000, 000 miles from Earth. Before this, mankind hadn’t even gotten further than the Moon. Fly to the Moon and back three hundred times – something we only pulled off nine times in the Apollo missions – and you still wouldn’t be this far...”
By the second page we are back on Earth, from an intriguing, large scale (literally as well as metaphorically) science fiction opening to what seems more like a West-Wing influenced politics tale of a new administration coming into power, preparing to be sworn into office, with all their idealistic plans about to hit the reality of what they actually can – and cannot – do as compared to what they dreamed of doing, if only they held the levers of power. After reading the letter, Blades is understandably shaken – his predecessor has just informed him that there is alien life out there.
And not in a crashed-in-Roswell type cover up, this alien life is still out there, in space, but far, far too close to Earth by astronomical standards, seemingly working away mining in our own solar system’s asteroid belt, their presence partly concealed by some sort of shielding technology. A top secret science-military mission is already in flight towards their location to try and learn more, a fact not even the CIA knows, about as secret a secret mission as you can get, a crew flying into the unknown and quite possibly facing a hostile and far more advanced species in space, perhaps on a suicide mission. Heroic endeavour and almost no-one knows about it…
Blades has his inauguration ceremony and ball, but he is distracted through it all, unable to tell most people – even his family – why, with them assuming it is the weight of responsibility settling on his shoulders as new president that has him so preoccupied. In a way they are correct, but they can’t even guess at just what responsibility he has just taken on – his first day in office, a meeting to go over this revelation, hoping it is somehow an elaborate prank by the previous president, but no, it is real, there is a threat and the previous president, it seemed, got the US involved in so many foreign wars partly to build up a reservoir of combat-hardened veterans and to justify a huge increase in military spending and R&D – because when – and he is sure it is when, not if – those aliens come down to Earth we are going to need every little advantage we can muster…
This is a cracking first issue – Alburquerque has a slightly cartoony style rather than the hyper-realistic some may use, especially for this kind of tale, and it worked for me, with some good characterisation in the faces, which helps a lot when you have to introduce a whole bunch of new characters in a first issue, but also handles the few space-set scenes we get this issue well too (a nice bracketing effect with the opening and final pages both being large splash pages set in space – in contrast to almost claustrophobic scenes in the spacecraft or White House briefing rooms and offices - but very different in tone and inference, both in terms of content and because of the context of what we have now learned). Soules crafts an intriguing premise, a different slant on the old alien-invasion chestnut – no gung ho Independence Day heroics here, this is, despite being American, more tonally like Churchill’s Britain during World War Two, a silent resignation, quiet heroism, knowing the odds are terribly against you but you must still plan and act with a reserved form of dignified heroism, never give in.
Perhaps Blades is wondering if he is about to lead the world into a new “Finest Hour” and if, like that desperate battle for civilisation, the forces of good will triumph, and at what cost… Both writer and artist capture that moment of awful realisation of the dreadful burden that has just been placed on Blades, that he must be, like Churchill decades before thinking “The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us” and wondering what he can really do to protect those he has been elected to lead. No wonder the former president who left him the letter seemed relieved to leave office. It seems there is nothing for him to do but recall historical precedent and ”Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties…”
It’s a great set-up (and inverting the usual view of all those recent foreign wars was a clever note too, that it was being done to prepare us for a bigger battle to come) and certainly has me hooked to read the next issue. I’d say my only real criticism is that it is perhaps rather dialogue and exposition heavy in several places – to be fair there is an awful lot to get across here, but really, you shouldn’t have a panel where around a third of it is dialogue, I think, and Soule perhaps needs to be more careful of that. But that’s a minor criticism and perhaps as the facts of the story become more established that is something Soule will not rely on so much – it certainly shouldn’t dissuade any of my fellow science fiction readers giving it a try.