Congratulations! You’ve been campaigning for years: touring back and forth across the country making stump speeches and holding town hall meetings, greeting campaign teams and voters, shaking hands and kissing babies, all the while keeping your congressional constituents happy — it’s been tough, but you did it! You won the election and are now sworn in as the President of the United States! You have big plans, a clear vision of the future, the country (nay, the world!) will be different under your watch. Change is truly in the wind.
Then, you enter the Oval Office and find a letter waiting for you: it’s from your predecessor. You read it, and suddenly all your plans go out the window.
This is the set up for “Letter 44,” the new ongoing series from writer Charles Soule (“Swamp Thing,” “Thunderbolts”), artist Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque and Oni Press. Debuting with a full-color, $1 first issue at New York Comic Con in October, the series follows incoming president Stephen Blades as he learns of a recently discovered extraterrestrial presence looming in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Campaign promises, it seems, mean nothing.
Comic Book Resources News spoke with creator Charles Soule about “Letter 44,” sci-fi politics and settling in for his first ongoing series at Oni Press.
“‘Letter 44’ is based in part on the idea that an outgoing U.S. President leaves a sealed letter on the famed ‘Resolute’ desk in the Oval Office addressed to his successor,” Soule told CBR News. “It’s presumably filled with tips and tricks about holding the office, but no one ever gets to read it, so it’s impossible to say for sure. In this story, the outgoing Prez is something of a hawk who has involved the U.S. in a number of barely-justified foreign wars, tanked the economy, etc. The new guy, President Stephen Henry Blades, reads his letter after his inauguration and learns that all of that was intentional. The previous President, Francis Carroll, reveals that seven years earlier, NASA detected a sort of construction project up in the asteroid belt — aliens, presumably — and so he wanted as many combat veterans as he could get, and as much money for defense R&D as possible, to prepare for when they inevitably (in his mind) come down to Earth.”
The series will weave together two paths: the story of Blades as he adapts to his new reality, and that of the crew dispatched to the asteroid belt aboard the aptly named “Clarke.”
“We also learn that the US sent up a mission to the belt to see what’s there about three years earlier — the ship is called the Clarke — and they’re about six months away from learning the truth,” said Soule. It holds a mixed contingent of scientists and soldiers, and they’ve been up there for a long, long time.”
Blades has inherited a set of difficult scenarios from his presidential predecessor, including ongoing war, economic turmoil and now, he learns, some potential threat unlike anything anyone has seen before. Soule put much consideration into Blades story and his political arc, looking at administrations throughout history for inspiration and direction.
“President Blades is a man with a plan, like I think a lot of incoming Presidents happen to be,” said Soule. “I did a ton of research into the arc of Presidential administrations, and they often tend to start with big initiatives that sort of dwindle over time as the realities of the office take hold. Presidents — and this is a massive generalization, I realize — tend to ensure their places in history by the ways they react to new crises or changing situations — wars, natural disasters, economic crashes, etc. — as opposed to policy changes they initiate.
“We see that play out here in a very literal way,” Soule continued. “Blades thought he was going to be able to change everything, but that was before he had the whole picture. Now, he realizes that nothing he assumed can be taken for granted, and he has to change his whole program. The question is whether he follows his predecessor’s path, with all the military stuff and the secrecy, or if he tries to go about things in a different way. It makes him a very conflicted and interesting character — for example, Blades is an ex-boxer, and that lets me use all sorts of thematic ideas about what he’s like when he gets punched into a corner.”
Meanwhile, as Blades develops his political sparring strategy, the Clarke is drifting ever closer to its — perhaps final — destination. Blades is able to communicate with the crew, but they are largely indifferent to the party politics playing out on Earth. It seems they have severe problems of their own to contend with, even aside from their looming confrontation.
“The Clarke launched (well, departed — it was assembled in orbit) from Earth with a mixed group of military and scientific personnel,” Soule explained. “They all have redundant specialties just in case someone is lost along the way: two pilots, two doctors, etc. The leader of the science side is Dr. Charlotte Hayden, and the leader of the military side is Col. Jack Overholt. They’re all extremely dedicated and skilled people, committed to the shared goal of finding out what’s up there and whether it poses a threat. Still, they’ve been flying for three years — the mission launched at a slightly non-optimal window for getting to the belt, but it was the best one they had — in a ship that was designed very quickly that may or may not actually last as long as it takes to get there. They’re constantly repairing equipment failures — slapping duct tape on things and praying. A three-year space voyage would be incredibly psychologically trying in the first place, and then when you add in the stresses of this particular mission — they’re a pretty shell-shocked group.
“There are also plenty of secrets about the things that have happened during the three years they’ve been flying, which will be revealed throughout the series,” added Soule. “They haven’t been entirely honest with mission control back on Earth about what’s been going on, for reasons that will be explored.”
Soule is currently writing ongoing series for both Marvel and DC Comics, but the writer has gone slightly off that beaten path for “Letter 44,” publishing the book with the Portland, Oregon-based indie publisher Oni Press. “Letter 44” seemed to find its home with Oni naturally, and Soule couldn’t be happier with the publisher.
“I’ve loved Oni’s books for years, from ‘Scott Pilgrim’ all the way through more recent stories like ‘Petrograd,’” said Soule. “I like that they’re so committed to story, and seeing stories through. I mean, you look at ‘Sixth Gun’ or ‘Wasteland’ — those are long, epic stories that Oni’s supported all the way. I felt that if I was going to try to tell a long-form story like ‘Letter 44,’ that I’d want to put it somewhere it had a decent chance of getting to the finish line — not that Image, Dark Horse or any of the other publishers out there aren’t great, but it just felt right at Oni.
“As for how it came about — I told the premise casually to my friend Cory Casoni some years ago at C2E2 — he was the marketing guy for Oni at the time,” continued Soule. “He strongly suggested that I present it to Jill Beaton, the editor on the book, and so I did — but again, just a verbal pitch. Every time I saw her for a while after that, she asked me about it, so I figured it was something I should probably pursue. Happy accident, basically — the way a lot of comic projects come together.”
Joining Soule on “Letter 44” is artist Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque, bringing to life the characters and sets with a deft pen, from Blades in his sleek boardroom meetings to the crew of the Clarke in the ramshackle, claustrophobic workrooms.
“What I love most about Alberto’s work is his storytelling, and his character ‘acting,'” said Soule. “‘Letter 44’ has its share of action, but it’s what I would consider hard sci-fi with a political angle. You can’t be the artist [of] a book like that without having to draw some conversations, and Alberto finds ways to make them fresh every time. He’s also a very even-keeled guy, which is cool. We have a conversation over Skype every time he starts a new script, and it’s just a pleasure to know him and work with him. I’m asking Alberto to draw all kinds of crazy stuff, and he hasn’t blinked once. He’s doing an amazing job, there’s no doubt about it.”
For many readers, the circumstances Soule sets up in the beginning of the series will feel very familiar: an idealized, youthful, newly-elected President taking office on a promise of change, an outgoing Commander-in-Chief leaving behind a legacy of war, class frustration and bungled speeches. It’s that sense of familiarity, Soule hopes, which will allow readers a point of access: a tether to Earth.
“There’s an aphorism I have stuck up on a post-it above my writing desk,” Soule said. “It says: ‘Readers will buy strangeness in a familiar package.’ I think that’s great advice — if you’re going to take people someplace weird, give them some reference points first. Anchor them in the world before you go too far afield.
“I’m certainly doing that with ‘Letter 44.’ The political side is intentionally set up to be familiar, in a million ways big and small,” continued Soule. “I want readers to feel like this is a great ‘what if?’ — what if an actual President had to deal with something like this? It’s just a great place to start from — but believe me, there’s plenty that’s new. I can’t wait for people to head on up there with us.”
“Letter 44” debuts from Oni Press at New York Comic Con in October.