Being President of the United States comes with a lot of responsibility and power, and in Charles Soule and Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque's Letter 44 that includes knowledge of an impending alien invasion.
As the U.S. deals with the first day of a new President in the real world, Oni Press's Letter 44 is beginning its final arc as the first contact between aliens and humanity comes near.
With Letter 44 #30 due out this week, Newsarama spoke with Soule about his long-running creator-owned title with Albuquerque, the politics of alien invasion, and what's in store for these final issues.
Newsarama: Charles, it’s been about three years that you’ve been publishing Letter 44 with Oni Press, and you just released the fourth collection last month. What’s the journey like for you working on this series compared to your mainstream, superhero fare?
Charles Soule: It’s interesting, because Letter 44 has been there for me throughout the entirety of my superhero work so far. I started working on it in 2012 in a big way, and the first issue came out in 2013, which was when my runs on Swamp Thing and Thunderbolts began (my first work for DC and Marvel, respectively.) Big Two series come and go. Sometimes you do four issues for a mini, sometimes it’s a 36-issue run, but they all tend to come to an end. Letter 44’s always been there in the background, though. I only have two more issues to write, though – so I guess I’ll find out what it’s like to live in a post-Letter 44 world soon enough.
Nrama: For readers of yours who have not started up this series, how would you sum up Letter 44 if you had 30 seconds to pitch it to them?
Soule: A U.S. President, on his very first day in office, reads the secret letter from the previous president that only he’s allowed to see. That letter contains a huge revelation - that the U.S. government discovered some sort of alien construction project in the asteroid belt seven years earlier and covered it up. The letter goes on to describe all the secret policy decisions that were made with this knowledge in mind (the development of superweapons, etc.), including a manned space mission sent out to make contact a few years earlier. Those astronauts are en route and due to arrive in the belt soon. All of that is now this new President’s problem, and the story runs on two tracks. First, we have the President back on Earth, and second, we have the astronauts in space getting ready to make contact. It’s like West Wing meets Alien.
Nrama: You’ve also been working with Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque since the book first came out. In the years since you first came together, how would you say your creative process has changed - or has it remained the same?
Soule: It’s pretty similar, except that Alberto and I are working now like a well-oiled machine, which is what you’d hope for after almost five years on the project. It’s really rare to get 35 issues out of a creator-owned series these days, and even more rare to have the main series artist stay the same. Every seventh issue has been an interstitial story featuring a guest artist, but setting those aside, Alberto will have drawn 30 of the 35 issues when it’s all done, almost 700 pages when you factor in the covers. It’s an incredible achievement for him. He’s also just wonderfully collaborative and smart - the characters have really come to life under his pen, and it’s hard to imagine seeing this book any other way.
Nrama: What aspects of Alberto’s style do you think has evolved the most since he first began working with you on Letter 44?
Soule: That’s an interesting question. I think it’s his fluency with character acting. It was always great, but he’s found a way over the course of the series to expand his palette as far as emotions we see the characters portray. It’s not just anger, sadness, happiness, but it’s… the sort of happiness you have when you drop your child off at college for the first time – you’re proud, happy, but you can’t help but be afraid and sad too. Letter 44 has plenty of moments like that as we race to the finale, and Alberto is nailing them all. I am very lucky to be working with him.
Nrama: For many creators, Image often finds itself the “go to” place for Big Two creators to publish their indie projects, yet you chose to bring Letter 44 to Oni Press – a much smaller boutique publisher. Why were they the right choice for you then, and what about Oni continues to make them the best publisher for yours and Alberto’s series?
Soule: Oni was always extremely supportive of this project, right from the start. I first showed it to an editor there named Jill Beaton, who is awesome, and really brought the book together from the beginning. I think part of it was that I knew I wanted this to be a big, lengthy sci-fi epic, and those don’t always make it to the finish line these days. That was even more true in 2012. That said, I knew Oni had good luck with seeing longer series through - The Sixth Gun, Wasteland and others. So it seemed like a place where I’d have a chance to get the whole thing done, with support from a great marketing and editorial team - and that’s how it’s been. James Lucas Jones, Joe Nozemack, and Robin Herrera have been great stewards for Letter 44, and I’m really happy they (and Jill, of course) took a chance on it.
Nrama: Now, Letter 44 focuses on a president faced with catastrophic destruction on a global scale thanks to aliens and the pending destruction of Earth with less than a thousand people destined to survive.
Let’s be honest: This is pretty heavy stuff, and to continue on for as long as you have, what sort of affect does that have on you as a writer?
Soule: Well, I’ve known this is where we were headed from the very start, so I’ve been living with this story in more or less its totality for years now. Its impact (on me) has been blunted a little... but ultimately, yes, it’s heavy stuff. My focus in this story has been on the little bits of heroism people exhibit in situations where you’d think they should give up. I think that’s a true thing, by the way. People don’t fall apart. They don’t give in to despair and savagery. They organize. They try to help each other, and help where they can. So, it’s a story about the end of the world, sure, but it’s also a story about the best of humankind. It’s the classic glass half full/empty question. Is Letter 44 a story about despair or inspiration? I say inspiration.
Nrama: I can’t help but think we’re in a socio-political climate right now where it feels like a sort of “end of the world” for many with only a select few who will avoid the negative effects felt by many. I know you started this series years ago, but how much of the present-day environment would you say is filtering into your work on this series? There are some pretty obvious similarities between POTUS 43 and 44.
Soule: That’s intentional, of course - the main President, Stephen Blades, is sort of an Obama analogue, while his predecessor Francis Carroll is a bit of a George Washington Bush doppelganger. But that’s really just a surface thing, from the start of the book. I wanted to give readers a hook they could get into early on, and making the Presidents superficially familiar was a way to do that. You’ll see that as the story moves on, Blades and Carroll become much more unique, their own people.
As far as the current environment filtering into the book... well, as I’ve mentioned, this was always going to be the ending, and I wrote some of the story points you’re talking about well before the results of our most recent Presidential election (and the general shift towards isolationism we’ve seen in many of the world’s democracies over the past year or so.) However, I’ve always wanted Letter 44 to be one step away from real-world events, and I’ve been trying to write it from the very start in such a way that readers can see whatever parallels with their own lives (political and otherwise) they might find. Honestly, I think that’s why the book has connected with readers, and why we’re still going.
Nrama: Do you find it difficult to filter out your personal politics from your writing or do you embrace it? Is there a risk you’re taking in making this choice?
Soule: That’s a very hot topic among people who make their living from creativity these days. Our work as creators has given us platforms we might not have otherwise - are we “allowed” to use those platforms to express our political views? Should we put those views into our work at all, especially if we’re making some kind of entertainment that’s generally viewed as escapist, like superhero comics? My feeling is that if you’re not putting yourself into your work, political views and all, then you’re probably not doing fantastic work. Superman is inherently political – that book is about the use of power. Batman is inherently political - it’s a discussion of the role and responsibility of the individual to take action when/if they feel like government systems have failed. Captain America is inherently... well, you get the idea. Letter 44, by its nature, is political - but I’ve been trying to write it in such a way that it’s balanced, with understandable points of view for everyone, that sometimes are in conflict.
Nrama: Was there a particular moment in the now-thirty-one issue run that stands out as your favorite? Your most challenging to craft?
Soule: That’s a good question. I would say the beats at the end of Volume 3 were very hard to interweave correctly – they involved World War III coming to a head, some very intense events with the astronauts out in space, and a massive twist that hopefully no one saw coming, all of which had to feel earned and organic. That was tough. There’s also a big towards the end of Volume 4 where we get the explanation of the aliens’ ultimate plan and reason for coming to our solar system that was hard to get right. The aliens (they’re called the Builders in the series) don’t speak or think the way humans do, and so I had to write them explaining their plan in their version of speech, and then figure out a way to translate it into something readers would understand, while still maintaining the impact. And beyond that… well, the story across all 35 issues is a massive thread of interwoven stories, flashbacks, backstories, action and mystery, and making it all work has been the biggest writing challenge of my career so far. But I think I got there! We’ll see if I screw it up in the last two issues.
Nrama: Given how long you’ve spent on this series, are there any characters who’ve changed in ways you did not expect? If so, what is it like writing these characters – whom you’ve created – only to find your plans for them won’t “fit” into the narrative?
Soule: Yes. I purposely didn’t let myself know all the astronauts’ backstories before I started. The mission to the asteroid belt is a one-way trip, and the entire crew knew that going in. So, I knew I’d have to find nine separate, distinct reasons for individuals - who presumably were the best and the brightest back on Earth, with great lives waiting for them there - to abandon their home planet on what amounts to a suicide mission. Finding those as the story continued was pretty revelatory, and helped to open them all up beyond just archetypes. It all worked, though – no one started to stick out as someone who didn’t fit anymore.
Nrama: Ultimately, we’re dealing with a series that’s about the end of the world, and either the people of Earth are going to make it or they won’t. What can you say about the end of this series? Is there a definitive ending in sight? Any idea how long until we get there?
Soule: The book will go to #35, so we’re almost at the end. I’ve written through #33, and I know everything that happens in #34, I just have to type it. #35 I’ve left a little open. I know the key imagery, and the feel of the thing, but it’s also the end of the story Alberto and I have been telling, and endings are tough. I want to make it feel very earned, and emotional, and give readers a sense of closure for the journey we’ve all gone on together. Even as I’m typing this I feel a little knot of nervousness in the pit of my stomach about the moment when I’ll sit down to make those decisions. After all, if you screw up in #34, you can fix it in #35. If you screw up in #35… you’ve screwed up. Let’s hope I get it right!