Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Charles Soule is an interesting writer; earlier this year his graphic novel, Strange Attractors, came out, and it’s quite a good book. While he’s gotten sucked into the maw of DC recently and is now tasked with making us care about a forced romance and mediocre art, but he’s still plugging away in the independent trenches, and his latest comic, Letter 44, came out this week. It’s drawn by Alberto Jiménez Alburqueque, colored by Guy Major, lettered by Shawn DePasquale, and edited by Jill Beaton. It’s published by Oni, which decided to lure you in by pricing this to move at one thin dollar. One thin dollar, you say? YES! 100 measly cents! But is it any good?
Well, it’s a first issue, so Soule has to get the hook out of the way, but it’s pretty sturdy so far. The new president, Stephen Blades, finds a letter on his desk from his predecessor. Blades is an Obama-analog, so he’s the 44th president, and he gets a letter. GET IT???? Anyway, he was not a big fan of the previous president (let’s just call him “George Bush”), but in the letter, President Carroll tells him that he got the U.S. involved in overseas wars for a good reason – one he couldn’t tell the public about. It turns out that seven years earlier, NASA discovered something alien in the asteroid belt, and the people who know about it think it’s hostile. President Carroll wanted the army to have combat training, which is why he got them involved in foreign wars (which is stretching credulity a bit, but whatever). Meanwhile, three years earlier he sent a manned spaceship to the asteroid belt, and they’re about to arrive. So, yeah. Pretty heavy stuff for the new president.
Soule gets this out of the way and introduces the main conflicts of the book: President Blades wants to tell the American public, and it’s pretty clear the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense – the only people who know about it – aren’t on board. Meanwhile, on board the ship, the crew members have their own secrets. There are nine of them, but we only see eight in this issue, so there’s that mystery. Meanwhile, the leader of the expedition, Dr. Charlotte Hayden, is pregnant, and apparently there’s something weird there, because she discusses it with the senior military member of the group. She also seems chummy with him and another member of the expedition, so it’s unclear what the romantic situation is on the ship (I’m hoping for pansexual nonagon, personally). At the end of the issue, they reach their destination, and they’re pretty resigned to dying quickly once they find out what’s going on with the alien presence. I highly doubt they will die, though. That would be a pretty big bummer.
There’s a lot to get through, and Soule does a pretty good job of getting through it. He establishes the character of President Blades in broad strokes, but it’s early, and there’s no serious missteps. He does a slightly better job with Dr. Hayden and Colonel Overholt and the rest of the crew, as expendable as some of them seem to be (I hope I’m wrong, but there’s a real Veronica Cartwright-Harry Dean Stanton-Yaphet Kotto feel to some of the characters). There’s a few examples of really clunky dialogue (Overholt to Hayden: “You’re stronger than I am.” Hayden’s response: “Of course I am, darling.”), but they have interesting and different personalities, unlike the politicians, who come straight from Central Casting. Soule does a good job implying how close people in such claustrophobic circumstances can become, for good or for ill. I’m sure there will be a political drama back on Earth, but the space mission, after one issue, is far more interesting.
Alburquerque’s art is pretty good – his characters are slightly “off-model,” so they look somewhat odd, but that adds to the slightly strange tone of the book. His characters have relatively flat noses, wide faces, and smallish eyes, which make them look the tiniest bit alien themselves, but that’s just Alburquerque’s style. He does a good job showing Blades’s anxiety when he realizes the secret he’s been entrusted with, and Soule doesn’t need to tell us that the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary aren’t happy about his plan to tell the world, because Alburquerque shows it in their faces. The characters on board the ship are well done, too – Alburquerque does a good job showing Hayden’s steeliness and her vulnerability, as well as the crew’s fear as they realize they’re approaching the (presumed) end of their lives. Alburquerque does a very nice job with the final page, giving us something pretty cool to anticipate in the next issue. Major doesn’t have a lot different to do, but the way he contrasts the eerie blue of the spaceship with the comforting earth tones of the White House is pretty neat. He also helps make the final page pretty darned cool.
It’s weird, but the text at the end of the book, written by Jill Beaton, the editor, actually made me like the book just a little less. If you happen to buy this, skip that text piece. Beaton tries way too hard to link this story to real-world events, like Edward Snowden’s revelations, and the book just doesn’t need it. Soule certainly isn’t too subtle about linking Blades – a Hispanic president – to Obama and Carroll to Bush, and if you’re not an idiot, you can figure out that Blades’s plan to reveal all to the world is keeping in line with Obama’s attempts to make government more accessible. Presumably Blades will find out that it’s not as easy as he thinks, and we don’t need Beaton banging us over the head in the back of the book to make the clear. I usually don’t care too much about text pieces, or I skip them, but this one really rubbed me wrong.
That shouldn’t stop you from checking this out, though. Soule is a clever writer, Alburquerque and Major make a good team, and it’s an interesting way to deal with a “first contact” kind of story. Plus, it’s a dollar. I may have mentioned that!
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
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