Reading Between The Lines in Letter 44 with Charles Soule and Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque (Interview)
Oni Press’ Letter 44 is an intense sci-fi political drama created by Charles Soule and Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque. Soule and Jimenez collide to bring us a grounded, thoughtful and beautifully rendered political thriller set in the midst of aliens and space exploration. We were lucky enough to sit down with writer Charles Soules and Artist Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque about their journey to Letter 44.
Geeks WorldWide: For our readers who may not be aware of you guys, can you tell us a little about yourselves and why you got into writing/illustrating comic books?
Charles Soule: I live in Brooklyn, New York – I’ve been in NYC for about twenty years at this point. I started my professional career as an attorney, but in the last three years or so my writing has taken off, and that’s where I spend the majority of my work time these days. Besides Letter 44, I’ve done a lot of work for DC and Marvel, including a long run on Swamp Thing, Superman/Wonder Woman, the Death of Wolverine event, She-Hulk, a bunch of Star Wars stories, and I’m now the current writer on Daredevil. I write all the time, and I love it.
Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque: I was born and raised and am currently living in Madrid. I’ve been reading comic books forever and always knew I wanted to draw them for a living. I started my professional career some twelve years ago and never have stopped drawing since. I started drawing Bande Dessiné in the French market and then jumped the pond with some short stories for some American companies like Image or Dynamite until I landed on Letter 44.
GWW: I am curious, how did you two team up on this project with Alberto living in Spain and Charles living in Brooklyn, it seems like a big obstacle to overcome.
CS: We have the good people at Oni Press to thank for that. Oni is great about “casting” projects – which means they find the right team to execute the book. In the case of Letter 44, I brought the concept for the series to Oni, and they had already been thinking about trying to work with Alberto on something. So, it was a lucky match, and here we are today, years later! Alberto is one of my favorite collaborators – he’s game for anything, and brings such thought and care to the storytelling. Letter 44 couldn’t exist without him.
AJA: I was lucky to have met Steve Lieber at a convention in Algiers and he invited me over to visit him in Portland. While there, we went to ECCC and he pointed me to the Oni Press direction. There, I met Jill Beaton who was kind enough to check my portfolio and, again lucky me, she liked. She was the one who offered me the chance to work with Charles in Letter 44. I owe a lot to Steve and Jill! I also owe a big one to Charles because he welcomed me from the beginning and he lets me play with his babies… Hahaha.
GWW: In issue 2, what is the deeper meaning behind the scene with Gabriel looking at the painting in the green house? To me, this was an awesome scene. I almost felt like the painting is a bit of a foreshadow.
CS: This is a story that’s one of many long plays in the book – the idea has always been to treat Letter 44 like a long novel, with parts of the story that are teased or foreshadowed in the beginning that pay off towards the end. The answer to your question will be revealed in #26, and has big impacts going forward into the very end of the story.
AJA: I’m currently drawing issue 26 so yep, you’ll get the whole picture very soon. I had a lot of fun figuring out and painting that mural!
GWW: Why did you decide to heavily base the political leaders on the current political environment? It is clear that Blades is Obama and Volcker is supposed to be Merkel; did it come around the same time as the idea about aliens or after you came up with the idea about the aliens?
CS: As I mentioned, I’m an attorney by training, and so I’ve always been very interested in structures of government, and world leaders in general. I think it takes a very specific psychology, almost a form of insanity, to want to rule a nation. I based Blades, Volcker and Carroll on real-world leaders (sort of) because I thought it would be a nice way to bring readers into a big story with a lot of moving parts. My technique with something like this is always to give readers something familiar to help bring them into the story. From there, we can get as wild as we want – which Letter 44 certainly does.
GWW: Charles, What inspired you to write Letter 44?
CS: I’ve always been fascinated by Presidents, and I’ve made a study of their lives and the way they interact with each other – particularly the way they hand off power and the things they do after they leave the White House. So, telling a story with a President as the main character was very appealing to me. I have also always loved real-world space travel – things like the Apollo program and so on. I came up with the idea for Letter 44 when the final Space Shuttle mission was scheduled. It made me sad to think that the US would no longer have a robust program of space exploration, and so I tried to think of something that would get us back out into space in a big way. Finding aliens in the asteroid belt seemed like it would do the trick.
GWW: As a practicing lawyer with a practice, I’m curious, how have you taken ideas you learned in law and applied it to Letter 44?
CS: Oh, so many – especially things about the US Constitution and the powers it actually gives to the President. I try to be as rigorous as I can about points of law and government policy, as well as the technology used to build the Clarke and fly it out to the asteroid belt. Some of that needs to be a little flexible for the demands of the story, of course, but I did a ton of research for the book, some of which was in consultation with NASA engineers and professional astronomers and so on. It’s important to me to try to get that stuff right.
GWW: Did you do any research on actual US policy or any actual events that made you want to write Letter 44?
CS: Yes. I have an entire bookshelf devoted to the history of the US Presidency as well as the space program. Everything is designed to feel as real and legitimate as possible, to give it impact.
GWW: Charles, Who are the main characters of the story? It feels the main character on Earth is President Blades, but I am wondering who is the most important character in space?
CS: That’s a great question. Blades and Carroll are the most important characters on Earth, I think, although everyone has their chance to shine. In space, I think Charlotte is the story’s emotional core – she tends to be the person driving things forward. However, it really is an ensemble piece. They all have their moments.
GWW: How do manage to balance your life as a comic’s writer and a lawyer? You are currently writing at least 6 books, how are you able to manage all of these ideas and plot lines and does being a lawyer ever interfere.
CS: It can be challenging, of course. I just try to stay incredibly organized. I use a lot of lists, and I have evolved a number of techniques to keep me on track. For instance, I have a different notebook for each book I’m working on, which lets me keep all my ideas for each story in one place. Does life get in the way sometimes? Of course – but I just do my best. It helps very much that I enjoy practicing law and love writing. Neither are too much of a chore for me, really.
GWW: Is the General based off anyone from your real life? He gives me a very uneasy feeling and I feel as though the military is a bit corrupt.
CS: Not specifically, but he’s definitely a composite of the type of character we’ve seen in this role in other stories. I try to work within genre templates but also give each character their own twist or feeling that will make them stand out and not seem like something we’ve seen a hundred times before.
GWW: What was the decision behind basing much of the book within our current political climate. Why not set it further in the past or in the future. What is the importance of choosing #44?
CS: It’s just to give an easy entry point for the reader. We all know the current world, because we live in it. I also wanted to write a story about today’s space technology, because I think it’s fascinating, and amazing new things are being developed all the time. I wanted the story to feel like it could happen right now – it would seem more immediate and accessible for the reader.
GWW: Charles, I don’t know if this was intentional, but I noticed a contrast between life and death. Young and old. I noticed Francis has a more conservative set of values and Blades has more a progressive and optimistic attitude. Was this intentional and what do you want the readers to notice about this?
CS: I tried to write these two characters so the readers could see what they wanted in them. I also wanted to make it clear that being President is an incredibly difficult job, no matter what political side you claim as your own. Being the President transcends all of that – or it should. It’s funny what people see in those two. I’ve heard all sorts of different interpretations.
GWW: What do you want readers to take away from reading Letter 44?
CS: Whatever they bring to it, really. I’m just the writer – the best stories take on their own life, and I hope that’s the case with Letter 44.
GWW: Alberto, what drew you to Charles’ story and how did you chose the art style for Letter 44?
AJA: As I said, Jill proposed me the project and it was such a strong concept that the only possible answer was jumping right in. It has it all!!
GWW: In your art, I feel you do a good job portraying the story’s ever looming fear. The fear of what could happen in space and the fear of what can happen on Earth. In comic books, it’s hard to know what to illustrate. How do you decide on what you are going to illustrate and what you leave for the reader to image?
AJA: Charles helps a lot with describing the scenes. Then I always try to give it my vision, to make it mine some way. I think that the readers are very clever and that they can read very well between the lines so I don’t need the necessity to show it all every time. What I think that can be understood, I don’t show but always if it serves the story. My main obsession is to make the story easy to read and understandable at any moment.
GWW: Which cover art is your favorite? What was your favorite scene to illustrate?
AJA: I was really happy with the Phantom variant we did for issue 1 and, from the regular series, probably the one for issue 6 is my favorite (baby Astra inside the astronaut helmet). As far as scenes, I love the zero-g scenes they allow me to play with the characters and their anatomy in such a fun way.
GWW: What was the hardest part in illustrating and writing in Letter 44?
AJA: Drawing Letter 44 is a constant challenge! It’s hard to draw sci-fi and then you jump to political plots and it’s not easy either… Every single aspect of the series is complicated but it’s so stimulating for me as an artist that I enjoy every second!
GWW: What do you want readers to feel when they look at your artwork?
AJA: I guess that every artist wants the same thing, to have the readers like their art… I’m not different there i know it’s impossible to please everybody but at least I want them to know that I try my best in every single issue, that I try to get better as an artist with every page.
GWW: As a fun question, for both of you, what is each of your favorite comic series to read right now other than your own?
CS: There’s a lot out there that’s just fantastic right now. I look forward to Saga and The Walking Dead every month, and I really enjoyed The Auteur, a series also published by Oni Press.
AJA: I read a lot of different books either from the French and the American market. I tend to follow artists/writers that I like more than series but some of the latest reads I really enjoyed are Rumble, Blacksad, Spider Gwen…