In Letter 44, new President Stephen Blades steps into office after America has suffered eight years of a substandard Presidency. Picking up a letter left by his predecessor, however, he learns that much of what went wrong in America – money being pumped into the military rather than in services at home, pointless wars which killed thousands of troops – were actually part of a longer-term plan to deal with a far bigger problem.

Specifically: aliens are out there, and they may or may not be planning to invade Earth in the near future.

Writer Charles Soule and artist Alberto Alburquerque handle the fallout of that letter across a bulky first trade, collecting the first six issues together.  What becomes apparent pretty quickly, though, is that this is a series which isn’t particularly interested in telling contained arcs, or telling stories for a trade. Instead, this is a proper ongoing series, in which the last issue of this trade feels like just another step towards a bigger picture, rather than a wrap up of everything that’s come before.

Characters remain in limbo, their fates undecided, and mysteries still up in the air. There’s something irresistible about that refusal to follow the typical comic book structure, and the initial premise proves to have considerable depth and longevity. Soule writes with a feeling of icy confidence, putting together a story which expands and contracts in unexpected and intriguing ways. That confidence proves to be the key to the series – when Soule is presenting his mystery, the book has a momentum and paranoia that proves compelling. When sketching in other details, the book stalls – but only slightly.

 

 

The story can be broken down into the two parts presented here: firstly, in the more immediately present half, the narrative follows Blades as he attempts to reconcile his new Presidency with the fact that Earth might be on the verge of attack. The second half, airier and less gripping than the political drama, follows a small spaceship crew as they fly out to try and make contact/observe the alien settlement within the Solar System’s asteroid belt. Both are fairly successful in terms of building up immediate and long-term threats to the characters involved, and Soule manages to throw different styles of peril at each. It’s not quite as strong a compare/contrast exercise as perhaps is intended, however.

Alburquerque’s art is perfectly serviceable in telling both story, and his work particularly settles into a groove when telling the Earth-bound story. However, his work isn’t often particularly interesting, either. He tells the story well, but falls well short of providing the sense of wonder which Soule is clearly aiming for within the space-set sequences. Dan Jackson, on colors, attempts to cover for that lack of visual impact by throwing all kinds of vivid Stanley Kubrick influence on the page – but more often than not, the sequences feel somewhat dull and thudding.  That this makes up a good chunk of the book proves to be a little problematic across the course of a trade.

Sequences where the ship navigates space feel more like place-setting than anything else. It pads out the story and helps with the overall pacing across six issues, but there’s little incentive to stop and stare at the pages for long. You could sense these sequence being engrossing in the hands of a more experimental artist, but Alburquerque’s angular, chunky style doesn’t really gel with a story set in unexplored space.

 

 

The lack of wow factor in his artwork also blends the two parts of the series into a cohesive whole, when the script clearly wants them to feel like they clash on each other. There is meant to be a feeling of distance between the story on Earth and the story of the astronauts, with Soule adopting different dynamics between the characters in each half -- but that doesn’t come across in the artwork. To the detriment of the story as a whole, both halves of this whole feel fairly similar to each other, and the concept of clashing a political drama with a science fiction tale is somewhat muted as a consequence.

Having said that, Alburquerque does bring a sense of authenticity to the inside of the spaceship, and his exaggerated character work develops over time to invest each crewmember with a distinct personality. Soule’s script -- a mystery story -- obviously withholds a lot of information from the reader, and so it’s in Alburquerque’s pacing and character interaction that we’re able to understand the subtext in each scene. It can be hard to remember which of the astronauts is which (and the two female astronauts in particular are distinguished only by one wearing glasses) but he does work hard to try and make each person onboard feel different to one another.

Alburquerque ratchets up the sense of claustrophobia on the ship, and creates a real sense of tension and internalised rage in the people who live there. Soule’s writing implies a lot of the peril in the interpersonal conflicts which define this small spaceship society, so the artistic team are left to explore that as best they can with furtive glances, hands-off body language, and use of space. Jackson, again, does some great work in establishing the wonder of outer space with the everyday-rust of the ship’s innards. Outside is bright light and shock – inside is corroded metal and dusty floors.

The withholding script actually proves to be the most interesting part of the trade – there’s a palpable feeling that Soule is refusing to cooperate with the reader. Throughout the book, he makes offhand, small references to things which the reader can’t quite understand, and leaves them to try and make understanding of the information they’ve been given. We only get a few panels with the First Lady, for example, but there’s a clear sense that she’s hiding something from the other characters, and there’s no indication as to what that might be. Each character has agency outside of the narrative of Letter 44 – you could easily see him spinning off anybody here to be the star of their own story – and the building up of character is incredibly well done.

 

 

He also keeps the pace up, more or less, and sets up a long-form thriller concept that doesn’t let up on the reader. Setting part of the story in the White House establishes real-world stakes for the reader right from the start, but Soule’s scripts focus so deeply on the main characters that each and every secondary character feels like a threat-in-waiting. The reader is always guessing as to the motivations of every single person in every scene, and there’s genuine paranoia creeping in at the edges of every page, peeling back the corners.

The story is so carefully polished that you get the feeling Soule knows every single beat of every plotline, and already knows exactly where each is ultimately heading to. Whilst unbalanced somewhat by average but effective artwork, the series as a whole feels supremely confident, and sweeps the reader into a huge world of politics, conflict, and human drama. This feels like a story which might go on for years, but the first trade leaves me confident that Soule knows exactly what he’s doing on every page – and will do for every page to come.