10.14.2013

Letter 44 #1 [Advance Review]

Letter 44 #1 (Oni Press): I picked up a few copies of the black and white preview edition of this book back in July at SDCC. If commerce is any indication of artistic merit (debatable, I know), then it’ll surely be a hit, since even unsigned copies were hitting the $20, $30, or even $40 mark online shortly thereafter. You might still be able to grab one of those for $10 if you can find that mysterious link at Oni Press. I’m happy to say that I was first in line for the first Charles Soule signing at SDCC and have the first signed copy of the book. It reminds me a bit of when I picked up the first issue of Wasteland at SDCC from Antony Johnston and Chris Mitten, becoming an early adopter of that book and turning several others onto it.

News of Letter 44 spread like wildfire at my LCS, people back from SDCC buzzing about it and others scrambling to nab black and white preview copies and ensure they were Previews Order Form’d up when the color version came out months later. From my little anecdotal corner of the world, the marketing moves that Charles Soule, Alberto Alburquerque, and Oni Press are making with this book have worked very well. It’s also exciting to see that the first issue is officially debuting with a $1 introductory price point to further incentivize new readers with an extremely low risk read. Oni Press understands the need for generating sustainable readership. As was the case with some other books that’ve used this $1 tactic, my advice is always to: A) Buy 3 Copies. B) Gift 2 Copies. C) Keep 1 Copy. D) You’re still in it less than the price of a regular issue. It's win-win all around.

Oh, the book itself, you ask? The book is great! New books have to have a strong pitch, a strong hook, a reason to get people interested, one which motivates them to keep supporting the title when there are so many great creator owned books hitting the stands at this point. I’m usually fairly sensitive to providing spoilers, but what I’ll say here is basically fair game, nothing you wouldn’t have been able to glean from advance reviews or interviews, not to mention the book itself. While Letter 44 does have a great pitch, I think it’ll have longevity because within the space of the first issue, it goes much deeper than the basic pitch, and also manages to up-end a few conventional expectations. The pitch is so pure and clean that I’m surprised pop culture hasn’t used it more: the outgoing POTUS leaves the incoming POTUS a letter, as is the presidential custom, only this letter is a juuust a little different.

The outgoing President of The United States is a thinly-veiled analogue for W. He’s a bumbling inarticulate mess who’s gotten the country knee-deep in a run of foreign wars with little ostensible justification, and has essentially ignored the economy or any social issues. But, the twist is that it’s kind of like Miley Cyrus’ ballyhooed VMA performance. It’s a hot mess, but it’s a strategic hot mess. Letter 44 explains that, oh by the way, the reason I committed us to all of these foreign wars and seemed so solely focused on that was so that military R&D would rapidly advance and we’d have thousands of battle hardened troops to fight what looks like an alien invasion force we’ve detected in the solar system. Nothing else matters. Oh, there also a joint military-science covert space mission en route. Good luck, son. Gulp.

The incoming POTUS is a thinly-veiled Barack Obama analogue, the one who promised all sorts of change and has maybe been slow to enact some of the campaign promises he made, and now has a plausible explanation for continuing some of the same programs and policies of the outgoing. Letter 44 is keenly concerned with the off-camera scenes behind the big moment. In that way, Letter 44 is like The West Wing, if it met Apollo 18, speculative political discourse coupled with rampant sci-fi extrapolation. It taps the relevancy button and never forgets to entertain. It has the complexities of the former (for example, notes about respecting the office if not the man, or the change in perspective once you’re privy to all the secrets and sit behind the big desk), and the thrilling gamesmanship of the latter.

Alburquerque’s art has the inherent warmth in the lines to be able to sell the scenes with all of the talking heads and interpersonal dynamics. It conveys emotions and personalities well, particularly the inking around the eyes. Yet, it still has the hard edges needed to work the sci-fi or military angles as well, capturing all elements of "Project Monolith," which Soule has laid on the board. Letter 44 is grounded, with resonant dialogue and art that's what we call a tonal match in the biz. If, like me, you enjoyed Charles Soule’s Strange Attractors OGN from Archaia and were itching for more of his crisp creator-owned work at the intersection of social ideas and elevator-pitch entertainment, then Letter 44 is the book you’re going to want to eagerly track down. It’s a stunning debut. Grade A+.

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