One of the best things about having a comic book podcast is that often times, I don’t have to wait to find suggestions for comic books to read. In fact, most times people crawl out of the woodwork to suggest things for me to read and I’m more than happy to oblige.
Thus is the case with today’s read pile entry which was a book suggested first to me by Johnny G., Pint O’ Comics podcast host and semi regular guest star on GotS. Back in January when we first had Johnny as a guest, he was talking about his love of comic book writer Charles Soule, which whom I had read some of his work such as his Darth Vader series and some of his Daredevil.
It was during this conversation that he first talked about Charles Soule’s independent series over at Omni Press called “Letter 44”. His passionate description of a newly inaugurated President of the United States finding out that there’s been a secret government project to investigate a mysterious alien presence that has set up shop in our solar system, including an experimental space mission peaked my interest.
So I did what any rational human being would, I vowed that I would take him up on his recommendation and read at least the first trade of Letter 44 before years end. Yep, no half measures for me. As a podcast host that makes a living recommending books for others to read, it would not be kosher of me to not walk the walk as it were, and actually take other comic book readers opinions to heart.
So here I am with this week’s read pile, a review of the first trade of “Letter 44” entitled Escape Velocity. Thanks again to Johnny for giving me the idea, and make sure you check out his podcast weekly over at Pint O’ Comics!
President Elect Blades is about to have one hell of a first day in office. Campaigning on promises to fix the previous administration run by outgoing President Carroll which includes involving the US in two foreign wars that were deemed unnecessary by Blades, things take an unexpected turn when he finds a letter simply addressed “44” written by his predecessor.
The letter explains that mid way through his presidency, the US received reports that a mysterious alien presence was setting up shop in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. No contact could be made with whatever decided to move into that part of our spatial “backyard” so a secret space mission was put together to send 9 astronauts, some scientists some military to investigate and bring back any intel they could.
Now 3 years into that journey, the crew of “The Clarke” have finally got to their destination and can begin their first contact with these unknown creatures from the depths of the cosmos. Meanwhile, as the astronauts are making their preliminary exploration, Blades gets wrapped up in high stakes political intrigue on Earth as he faces off again the military industrial complex set up by to run not only the space mission, but the wars on Earth as a testing group for the weapons and tactics we will eventually use against the aliens if they come knocking.
Blades wants to come clean with the American people in hopes the country will rally together to meet the potential threat together. Others aren’t so sure though, especially when the astronauts discover what might be being built way out there in the void of outer space, is a colossal gun…with it’s trigger aimed squarely at our planet!
Things I Liked:
Although all the high stakes political intrigue of President Blades and his fearless Chief of Staff’s quest to unravel the truth about the possible alien invasion and get the country back on course, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. There were more than a few “Obama vs. Bush” moments in this that were nice call backs to the real life decisions made by both presidents during their terms in offices and that did allow the story to be rooted in some sense of reality. However, in the current political climate, I’ll be honest in saying that politics in general is the last thing I want to read about.
Comics are about escapism for me, and these CNN style cloak and dagger capers are just not my bag. However, going along the same lines, what is escapism for me is any good sci-fi story. Just stick a bunch of astronauts and shoot them into the unknown and you’ll have my attention every time. In fact, I couldn’t help of thinking about Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama novel when was reading about this first trade.
You got a strange alien craft entering our solar system for the first time and a lone space crew being sent out on a mission to make first contact. When they finally get there though, they find technology so far above their thinking that it’s hard to make heads or tails of things. Throw in some weird organic yet robotic type lifeforms seemingly performing some sort of maintenance instead of your traditional bug eyed aliens for the true first meeting, and complications arising from pretty much humanity’s inability to communicate or even understand the organisms or their purpose.
You even got those same astronauts mixing it up in non monogamous communal relationships as a way to show they have “moved on” in terms of traditional western cultural stigmas and values.
Yep, it’s a really great retelling of this decades old exploration story, even if it was done as more of an homage than an exact adaption. Regardless of how you slice it though, it worked for me, and I would have much rather spent most of my time with the crew of “The Clarke” then waste one more page back down on Earth.
Things I Didn’t Like:
Well, I might as well admit it. I did not care for the art at all in this book. I don’t want to sound critical of Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque, but I just can’t help it. It really did in some ways ruin what I thought was a pretty great little story.
It seemed like everyone was strangely disproportional from as far back as the pencils, what with strange elongated faces and musculature, harsh jagged ink lines on clothing, and pained expressions abounding.
I mean, I understand it was in outer space, but no single panel seems to sum up my feelings on the art that the scene were have sex. Not so much the actual sex part, but this weird foreplay dance move thing you see below:
I mean there is nothing loving or erotic or anything about that panel. All the unnecessary lines, the contorted painful looks on their faces, the headlock he’s got her in. I will say I can not draw worth a damn, but I’m also going to say if I could, I wouldn’t draw a sex scene like it. It looks all mangled, like a nasty human car crash.
And most of the rest of the book is the same. It’s like a bizarre cross between a uber realism and an anime style which never quite gels for me.
This is very sad because I did like some of concepts for drawings, like the cover of issue #6 with the reflection of a newborn baby crying in a mirrored astronaut helmet. But even with that, I thought the baby’s head was way too big and dramatic, which detracted from the overall image which was a super neat one.
How much did this art drop the grade of Letter 44 you’ll have to wait to see in my closing comments, but I will say, that it definitely didn’t do this story any favors.
As I mentioned previously, the space parts of this book really did remind me a ton of the classic science fiction book “Rendezvous with Rama” by Arthur C. Clarke. I mean maybe this entire book is supposed to be an homage, especially given the name of the spaceship is called “The Clarke”. However, whether it was on purpose or not, I thought I’d take a few moments with the Fun facts section to talk briefly about this masterful novel from which I think a number of great ideas presented in the book might have had their impetus.
Rendezvous with Rama was first published back in 1973 tells the story of mankind’s first recorded interaction with an alien spacecraft, the aforementioned Rama, which is a massive cylindrical ship which houses its own very unique ecosystem. From a Cylindrical Sea, which is just a mass of water that circles the entire middle of the ship, to strange lightning discharging cones, to semi organic crab like automatons, the craft defies most of the attempts for the human explorers to understand it.
And as mysteriously as it enters our system, it mysteriously exits after performing a slingshot maneuver around our sun and using the gravitational force to hurl itself along towards the Magellan Cluster. And although the humans gained some understanding through the limited time they had to study it, Rama leaves them with more questions than answers.
Although some have criticized the book for it’s severe lack of characterization, it won a slew of awards in 1973/1974 and is now considered one of the must read books from not only the Arthur C. Clarke bibliography, but science fiction in general. It’s emphasis on realism and the notion of aliens being by definition “unknown” and therefore potentially insanely cryptic is one of it’s define hallmarks.
I personally can recommend the book if you’ve never had a chance to read it. It’s not terribly long at 256 pages, and does have some pretty great little set pieces which can make for terrific summer reading.
It’s hard to judge a story like this one on just the first trade. I feel like this is a epic space adventure yarn that needs to spend most of its time just getting through the story exposition and setting up the universe all the characters live in rather than actually delivering on high octane stellar action. And for that you have to wade through quite a lot of backstory at points before you get to something exciting.
I mean some might say that the entire 5th issue of the book what with Blades’ FBI task force being sent to arrest for the alleged part he played hiring an assassin to nearly kill Blades’ Chief of Staff was incredibly thrilling, but again I came for a space book not a spy/military book, so those parts fell on deaf ears for me.
In terms of the actual space stuff, it was neat seeing the garden interior of the actual alien craft and the attack by the pyramid type robot “gardeners” was fairly exciting. However, because we spend so much of this book focusing on Blades and the politics on Earth, we really don’t get a chance to flesh out really any of the astronauts. And that’s a shame because some of their interpersonal relationships are staggeringly complex.
Like the chief scientist, Charlotte Hayden, is in some sort of 4 way poly-amorous committed relationship with Col. Jack Overhalt, Major Gabriel Drum and chief astronomer Donald Pritchard. All the dudes seem perfectly fine with this arrangement and in fact when gives birth to a child and it turns out to be Gabriel, all the other dudes decide to raise it together as all of its fathers. This isn’t exactly unheard of in human culture either, as some South American tribes to this day still practice “village parenting”.
However for western readers for which this book is being aimed, this could be viewed as being at odds with “traditional values”. Again, not that I had a problem with it as I do view it with something close to fascination, but still it’s just presented and never really discussed or fleshed out. And that’s a shame for a topic as intriguing as what would happen to a group of humans on a dangerous 3 year mission millions of miles away from home, and what kind of society structure they would develop.
But instead we get more of the politics on Earth which is in my opinion no where near as interesting. But maybe that’s just me. Who knows?
But yeah between that and the artwork which I mentioned before never really jived with me, I really wasn’t super impressed with Volume 1. I’m going to give it one more trade before I write off the series though, so hopefully volume 2 packs more space age punch.