In October, Oni Press will release the first issue of Charles Soule and Alberto Alburquerque’s greatly anticipated ’Letter 44’, a high-tension tale of political intrigue and outer-space adventure. We here at MTV Geek have already featured the series as one of our 10 Most Anticipated New Comics Of Fall, and now we’re excited to present our conversation with Soule and Alburquerque about their inspirations and creative process (and at the same time, give a special sneak-peek at some of Alburquerque’s design sketches).
MTV Geek: Based on issue #1 (which premiered in a limited black-and-white edition at San Diego Comic-Con), this isn’t all that easy a book to categorize. I guess I’d say it’s a ’sci-fi political thriller’ if I was pressed into a one-sentence twitter-worthy description, but even that doesn’t quite hit the mark… So how do you describe this story to people?
Charles Soule: When I’m going for the Hollywood-esque mashup, I say it’s 24 meets 2001, or West Wing meets Apollo 13 (with aliens in it.) If I have a bit more time, I describe it as a story about an incoming U.S. President who learns (via the titular letter, which is left on the Oval Office desk for him by the outgoing President) that NASA discovered aliens up in the asteroid belt seven years earlier, who seem to be involved in some sort of mysterious construction project. The previous Prez spent his entire administration secretly preparing the country for what he expects to be a hostile first contact scenario, and now it’s the new guy’s turn to handle it. Oh, and P.S., a mission went up about three years earlier to see what’s up there, and they’re almost at the destination, flying along in their increasingly rickety spaceship. Lots of cool political intrigue, lots of awesome real-world space travel derring-do. Letter 44 is everything to all people, basically.
Alberto Alburquerque: Man, you can tell Charles is the writer! I think I couldn’t describe it better. I’d say it’s a lot of political action and a lot of space intrigue. It’s sic-fi but it’s real people doing real things. This book is a lot of things at the same time and it’s really difficult to categorize in a few words but it’s a lot of fun, that’s for sure!
Geek: And why this combination of elements? Why space? Why Presidential politics?
Soule: Very simply, because I love both. I’ve been fascinated with space travel since I was a kid, and writing a book that features those elements prominently was a real dream come true. This isn’t lightsabers and warp drives – this is “oh no, our CO2 scrubber failed and now we’re all going to die unless we can jury rig a fix out of spare drinking straws.” Plus, it has the aliens as well, so I can write about warp drives, if I want to. But probably not lightsabers.
The political side just interests me too, particularly the idea that Presidents (a) have an incredibly tough job to do and (b) know so many things that the average person does not. While I don’t think Obama actually got a letter from Bush revealing aliens when he took office, he could have. I’m also sure that whatever he did learn was probably on a comparable level. I’ll never know myself, but I can certainly write a fun story about the idea.
Alburquerque: That’s clearly seen in some of the polemic decisions Obama has had to take during his years in office like keeping Guantanamo open, not retreating the troops, etc…
Geek: Has this concept changed much in the process of making it from your head to the page? Have you adjusted or altered your ideas as you see Alberto’s art rolling in?
Soule: Alberto is an incredibly skilled artistic storyteller. I haven’t yet found something he can’t draw, and I’ve thrown him a million curveballs. We’re talking huge alien constructions, to military operations on Earth, to talking head scenes that he somehow manages to make as interesting as any action sequence. Not just anyone could draw this series, and Alberto is a fabulous collaborator that I feel very lucky to be working with. Plus, he speaks at least three languages (that I know of) and can do a page a day. Lucky is indeed the word.
Alburquerque: I love you too, Charles! Hahaha.
Soule: As far as changes, sure. This book changes all the time, whether because the story twists under my hands, or because I do some research that pushes me in a new direction, or because something happens in the real world that I want to reflect. The current Syria situation, for example, has had some impact, although that’ll be in the second arc, I think.
Geek: So is this a story where you have a roadmap in place ahead of time? Or is it more of a launchpad idea, and you’re just heading off, seeing where it takes you, and adjusting your course as you go?
Soule: I like the space metaphor you slipped in there. There’s absolutely a roadmap. I know where this goes, and I CANNOT WAIT to write the scenes that will get us there. If anything, I wish I were faster. I’m writing an arc ahead at a time, so I can make sure each “book” of the story is internally consistent. If I could, I’d write all the way up to the last issue and just hand it all in, but staying about 6 issues ahead is about the best I can do. Alberto’s drawing issue 4 right now, and I’m working on issue 10.
Geek: Alberto, what drew you to this story and this project?
Alburquerque: Basically, it was by chance and good friends. I met my friend Steve Lieber (artist of “Whiteout”, currently drawing “Superior Foes of Spider-Man”) in a comic con in Algiers (yep, I know, it’s weird) and he invited me over for some time to his place in Portland. We went to Seattle for Emerald City and I met Jill Beaton there. She told me she had a project to propose me and sent me “Letter 44”. She told me that she could find something else if I wasn’t interested but it was too late! I had already read the synopsis and the character descriptions. By then, I had to drew it!! This is a story that catches you from the first balloon and I couldn’t let it slip.
Geek: And what elements have you particularly enjoyed or been excited by while bringing the story to life?
Alburquerque: The whole story is a challenge. From getting the right cast to designing the alien stuff. That’s something I always enjoy. Creating something from scratch is one of the most difficult tasks in a comic-book and I had the chance to do it all. Of course, Charles was a great help in that point since he had some ideas that helped me stay in line and I think we synched quite well since the beginning. Also, the political drama was something you wouldn’t expect to be cool to draw but once you get into the story, you find yourself trying new things and learning how to tell what’s going on there without getting into boring storytelling. I have to keep up with Charles’ story and that’s a tough task… I just hope the reader enjoy the conversation scenes as much as I enjoyed drawing them. Of course, the alien stuff is always cool but that was too obvious of an answer, right?
Geek: What sort of research are you putting into this story, and how are you handling the collaborative process?
Soule: We have a Skype conversation before Alberto starts each issue, which I think is really important. There are a lot of weird concepts and scenarios in this story, and talking things over with Alberto to make sure I explained things well enough in the script can help a lot. I do a TON of research for this one. I’m sure I’m getting things wrong all over the place, but I do try to get it as right as I can. It’s important to me. There’s a JPL astronomer who’s been a fantastic resource, and I’m also able to draw on some resources to get the Washington-based part (mostly, hopefully) correct. This isn’t the sort of book I can just write off the cuff, although the more I learn, the easier it gets.
Alburquerque: Yep, those chats are quite helpful to figure some things up despite the fact that Charles is quite accurate in his research. He sends me over a lot of visual references, from pictures to videos or websites I couldn’t find that easily. Mostly everything is based on an existing thing when we talk about space things although nothing is “real” up there. My vision for this book wasn’t sticking to reality 100% when drawing spaceships but to make something that could exist in the next 10 to 20 years. For Earth is different, though. I can’t re-imagine the White House but finding reference for that one is easy!
Geek: What have been your major inspirations and influences for this series?
Soule: You probably got some of this from the first answer, but for me, it’s 2001, Apollo 13, West Wing, 24, the actual NASA space program, real-world events of the last eight years or so, hard sci-fi from guys like Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen Baxter and Larry Niven, and a million other things.
Alburquerque: Alien, House of Cards, 2001, Solaris… There’s a ton of movies and TV series that help with the visuals. Also comic-books, mangas and french BDs. I’m a big comic-book reader too so I get influenced a lot by many artists artists. For example, for the space designs I got highly influenced by an exhibit that took place in Madrid some months ago. It consisted on a bunch of background paintings, sketches and designs for several anime movies like Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion, etc. As for my storytelling influences…well, I’d need too much time and space to recite them all.
Geek: And finally, any hints you can drop to let the MTV Geek audience know what to look forward to?
Alburquerque: I don’t want to spoil anything but I can tell you that I had a lot of fun drawing the zero-g scenes. I’m a great superhero fan and that was my way to draw some superhero poses in this book. Also, I loved drawing a double page spread in issue 2 with a lot of action, tension and big guns.
Soule: We do find out what the aliens are building, and what they’re doing here – and we find out somewhat quickly. I don’t want to spin this out forever. There are constant, game-changing reveals and events that happen throughout the series, and no one (and no planet) is safe. If you like your books filled with big ideas, cool characters and whiplash plot turns, then Letter 44 is the story for you!
Letter 44 #1 hits comic shops on October 16th.