52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
Charles Soule has much more on his resume than just being a comic writer. Soule also practices law in New York City, juggling his two occupations seemingly with ease as he manages to pump out tons of scripts each month for all the different books he’s writing. There was a point and time back in 2014 where Soule was seemingly writing every book for every major publisher. One of Soule’s strongest series, Letter 44, started publication from Oni Press in 2013. In 2014 it was optioned for development as a television show by the Syfy network. Although Soule is still considered a relative “newcomer” in the industry, he has perhaps been one of the busiest creators in the medium over the last two to three years.
Letter 44 Volume 1: Escape Velocity
Newly elected as the 44th President of the United States, Stephen Blades inherits a whole new set of responsibilities before he has time to even be inaugurated. Receiving his historic letter from the 43rd President, Francis Caroll, Blades learns of an alien object in the far reaches of space discovered years ago. Ruining the economy and waging two separate wars were all part of Caroll’s plan to create a facade for the general American population while a nine-person team of astronauts was launched into space to investigate the anomaly. Blades now struggles with the difficult decision that comes with learning this information; does he carry on acting in the same manner of which his predecessor Caroll did or does he reveal this information to the public to deal with the potential political and social ramifications? The difficult decisions that lay in front of Blades only create a target on his back, resulting in more enemies than he has friends as mysterious figures try to implement plans of their own against Blades. Meanwhile, in the far reaches of space, the team of nine astronauts get their first true glimpse at the strange alien construct and must decide how to approach the conflicts that arise from it. With the crew seemingly in dire straits, these nine brave souls need to discover whether or not the construct is truly a threat to human life and how best to take it down if it is.
What genuinely surprised me about Letter 44 upon my first reading was not only how densely plotted it was, but how strong it was overall as well. Charles Soule gives us a political/sci-fi drama that is so wildly and vividly compelling that you’ll feel the need to sate yourself with more of the series almost immediately. There is always so much going on at one time in the series that, yes, it does get hard to keep track of some of it. At the same time though, it’s kind of nice to have that problem as you have different areas to focus your attention towards. You’ll climb through twelve pages of the space expedition crew but in the back of your mind you’ll be curious what’s happening with President Stephen Blades down on Earth after being left with a delicious cliffhanger. The story does this multiple times throughout, flipping between compelling and dramatic constantly to keep you on your toes the entire time.
Let’s zone in on the plot for a second and address the two basic plot lines at play. In the primary plot you follow Stephen Blades as he comes into his first term of being the 44th President Of The United States. The secondary plot is entirely focused on the space expedition crew consisting of scientists and soldiers tasked with discovering the foreign object in space. In their simplest forms, both of these plots could be endearing and engaging but Soule pushes it a step further with all the extra subplots he sprinkles in. With Stephen Blades we get more than just his presidency, getting to see plenty of fascinating political espionage unfurl. We watch the man struggle with sabotage, personal threats, politics, family life, and a plethora of other themes that come in to play. Meanwhile, in space, we learn a lot about this crew of explorers who could potentially be humanity’s last hope. We see the struggles for survival they face, while tackling their collective loneliness, their sense of discovery, and of course the big elephant in the room that is a potential alien force. Both plot lines just whip and sharply turn in plenty of ways that will at first confuse you before Soule pulls back a layer or two and shows you why things shook down in a certain manner.
The setting and characters go hand-in-hand in this one, as they are both incredibly dependent on each other. Stephen Blades shows us the political side to Washington while the explorers take us into the unknown reaches of space. How these settings affect the characters and vice versa is obviously all co-dependent on the characteristics of each cast member. In throwing nine explorers into space, five military men and four scientists, Soule is enabled to examine plenty of different character dynamics and interactions. You encounter men and women of science versus those of faith or strong will, giving way to some tumultuous situations. Needless to say, nine people alone in space for nearly a decade is sure to result in plenty of unfortunate situations and it’s fascinating to see what this crew has evolved into during its mission into space. It’s even more interesting to see the track that the crew is set upon after making some big discoveries in regards to this alien force.
Soule also does some amazing character work with the lead character in Stephen Blades, highlighted by some solid character development. Wherein the crew of nine explorers has had years to slowly descend or ascend into the types of characters that they’ve become, Stephen goes through dramatic changes in a matter of months. In being President, Stephen is basically shoved right into the fire, evolving and adapting within a high pressure environment to become a character you want to continue following. By volume’s end Stephen comes full circle, transitioning from a worried man who lacks true confidence to be the last man of the planet you’d want to mess with. He changes quickly into a character who takes action instead of becoming just a reactionary member of the cast. So much of what the man does during the first four to five issues is so reactionary that when he finally straps on the gloves and takes a swing it’s one of the most rewarding parts of the entire volume. In the face of adversity Stephen has, at least during this first volume, shown he is a man who can take a few punches and keep coming forward to eventually get his way, as brilliantly highlighted by one of the closing scenes from the character in the final issue of this volume. Although a fascinating plot is one of the strongest aspects of this series, Soule’s work with Stephen Blades during this first volume is perhaps THE strongest aspect of the series.
Like all works of fiction, nothing is perfect. This fact is highlighted during Letter 44 by its cast, which is also one of its strengths. The largest problem you run into with the cast is how forgettable some of the members of the expedition crew are largely due to how many members are present. A handful of characters are thrown at you all at once and you’re expected to be able to sympathize, or bare minimum understand, these characters with little to no time to actually get to know them or the struggles they’ve already faced. With so many characters cropping up at once, it becomes difficult to separate character names and takes a bit away from the story when you have to remember which guy Pritchard is and the fact that he isn’t Gomez and so on. It’s just an unfortunate blip in an otherwise strong series that asserts that sci-fi and politics can be mixed together in a way that will leave you satisfied as well as curious for more.
Collects: Letter 44 #1-6
Best Character: Stephen Blades
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: “This is my country now, not yours. I’ll handle it as I see fit. Stop &$%*ing with me, Mr. President.” – Stephen Blades
Best Scene/Moment: A grand discovery is made by Gomez and Pritchard – Issue 4
Best Issue: Issue 5. This is the issue where everything gets turned up a notch. We find out the fallout of the fascinating discovery made by Gomez and Pritchard at the end of issue four while cutting those scenes with a FBI raid on a compound near Denver, Colorado. Both of these stories compliment and contrast each other beautifully, as they constantly ratchet up the tension the reader experiences with every transition that occurs. When everything climaxes you’re left with a somber decision, an interesting cliffhanger, and an all around fantastic climax to this first volume.
Why You Should Read It: Featuring a dense plot, large cast, and an impending alien attack, Letter 44 is perfect for anyone who wants a “House Of Cards” and “Independence Day” style mash-up. Politics, loneliness, and human error are all central themes in this incredible series by Charles Soule. Soule taps into rich characters to tell a two-pronged story that has more exciting twists and turns than a high-speed car chase up a mountain. You should read this series because it’s from a smaller publisher in Oni Press and deserves the attention that it doesn’t get because it isn’t from a larger publisher.