March 20, 2014

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Letter 44 Gets a Seal of Approval

Letter 44 #5
Written by Charles Soule
Illustrated by Alberto Alburquerque and Dan Jackson
Oni Press

When you're President of the United States (or in any position of authority), you're tasked with handling whatever happens on your watch. There are the expected challenges (the economy, social issues, war, terrorism) and then of course there's the signs of extraterrestrial life in the solar system. How a President (and a government) would respond to that, in a real-world setting, is the hook of this intelligent and ambitious series from writer Charles Soule and artist Alberto Albuquerque (with colors from Guy Major and Dan Jackson).

The series begins just as Stephen Blades is about to be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. He finds a letter waiting for him in the Oval Office from his predecessor, Francis Carroll, who left the country a legacy of unpopular wars and economic uncertainty (Hmmm, sound familiar?). He also left President-elect Blades a letter explaining the real motivation behind many of his choices - there's an alien presence in our solar system, and has been for at least seven years. Moreover, 3 years ago, the US sent a mission into space to investigate in a ship known as the Clarke. The series then covers two different fronts, as it chronicles President Blades and his staff's attempt to get a handle on this situation (and deal with some treachery from within its own administration), and we see the activity aboard the Clarke, as the ship gets closer and closer to the alien presence. 

In the current issue, the scope of the story expands to three fronts. In addition to the President and his staff, and the crew aboard the Clarke, we now begin to see what was hinted at in prior issues - former president Carroll is up to something, and the issue doesn't say exactly what it is, but it's ominous and more than a little suspicious.  Out in space, a few crew members have gone in a smaller ship to investigate a potential alien presence on asteroid, and that interaction doesn't go very well and raises more questions than answers. The President is dealing with his own issues, as he implements a creative way to deal with the treachery within his own administration (which reminded me of a bit from the movie Dave, always a good thing).  

This is an intelligently written, dramatic series (with nice moments of levity). Imagine if they'd found out about aliens on The West Wing, and you get a sense of the tone of the series. Which is to say that the comic has sharp, thoughtful dialogue and is occasionally talky; while there are a number of places where the creative team lets the art tell the story, this is a fairly dialogue-driven series. In addition, the pacing is fairly deliberate; it may potentially read better as a trade. The book does benefit from strong art from Alburquerque and interesting color choices from the colorists. People here are drawn in a stylized, slightly angular manner, possibly meant to highlight key aspects or features of the characters. 
What Soule is doing in this series is very ambitious; he's taking every aspect of this story seriously. Blades is a well-rounded character; he's clearly been placed in a difficult situation but you get the sense he's managing it as well as he, or anyone, could. The discussions between Blades and other members of his administration feel like they take place in a real world full of skepticism, competing agendas, and secrets. Similarly, aboard the Clarke, you get a real sense of the fact that these people have been trapped in a very confined space for a long time; there's tension, sex, frustration, sexual frustration, and even an unplanned pregnancy (I did mention the sex), along with the very real struggles of having to repair a spaceship with no hope of backup. A sense of thoughtful detail comes across in this series.

If an intelligent mashup of contemporary politics and science fiction appeals to you, this is a strong, promising book.