By: Charles Soule (story), Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque (art), Guy Major (colors)

The Story: Everyone stay calm, and try not to die until oxygen is restored.

The Review: I don’t know what this says about my childhood, but I distinctly remember that my first exposure to aliens involved a lot of old-school TV: the Coneheads from Saturday Night Live, Spock on Star Trek, and Worf on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Even as a kid, I found it puzzling that so many supposed aliens were basically humans with a lot of makeup on.  Now I see it as evidence of the difficulty people have in seeing beyond their own experiences.

The characters in Letter 44 all, to a certain degree, grapple with this same difficulty as they try to wrap their heads around the outer space visitors hanging out in the asteroid belt.  In explaining to Stephen why the Carroll administration took the steps that it did after the initial discovery of the foreigners, Dr. Portek offers a highly logical and straightforward analysis that’s still infected by all-too-human reasoning.  A big linchpin in his argument for defensive action is, “[i]f they wanted to learn about us, they would already be here talking to us.  Exploration and anthropology do not require constructs the size of the moon.”  But isn’t this an entirely terran framework Portek is using?  Who’s to say how an advanced species would approach its studies?

At least some among the crew of the Clarke recognize the tension between their preconceived notions of how things operate and how a completely different race would do the same things.  In response to the massive structure they encounter in the belt (dubbed the “Chandelier”), Pritchard cautions, “We can’t assign human preconceptions to this.  For all we know, this is how they build sewage treatment plans.”

“Or temples,” adds Gabriel.

And there has to be something to the fact that despite overtly intruding into the aliens’ space, the Clarke has suffered little more than a power outage brought on by the oversensitivity of their own equipment.  Surely, if the aliens have been aware of humanity’s presence in the system (as Dr. Portek hypothesizes), they’d be able to spot a low-level spacecraft floating towards them from millions of miles away?

When it comes to extraterrestrials though, it’s hard for anyone to suppress the paranoia, especially if one is already suffering from a weakened grasp on reality.  Willett is going to be a real problem for the Clarke.  Unlike the sensitive and centered Jack Overholt, Willett is prone to melodrama (“Fuck that.  I’ll take a pill rather sit waiting to die.”), trigger-happy (“I think we’d have a hell of a time killing it, even if we use the Big Gun.”), psychologically vulnerable (it’s revealed that he’s been taking meds and has suffered from delusions before), and a bit of a bully.  After a rather scary incident outside their craft where his antics nearly doom Kalani to the vacuum of space, he says rather ominously,

“Manesh, you’re a smart guy.  Think this through.  My rifle had a misfire—you know how poorly tested this gear was.  We’re safe now.  No big deal.  I think we’ll both be a lot happier if we leave this situation outside the ship, don’t you?”

With so much potential for excitement out in space, the political intrigue Stephen must face on Earth seems positively banal, as even Stephen observes.  Even without the competing storyline, Stephen’s conflicts aren’t all that complicated or profound.  He’s an idealist; most of his military advisors are not.  Therein lies the inevitable, cynical, and thoroughly predictable tension.  All that’s left is to see who can outmaneuver the other.

I continue to maintain that Alburquerque was not the appropriate choice for this series.  With a script that begs to have its political, scientific, and philosophical overtones taken seriously, putting an artist more suited to Spider-Man to work is not the greatest idea.  His depiction of overweight characters, in particular, are cartoonishly comical, and the pointed, almost shrunken features on everyone else is hardly better.

Conclusion: If we can only get an artist with an edgier, more sophisticated style on this series, it may have the potential to be a hit, but as is, the intelligence in the writing is a worthy attraction on its own.

Grade: B-

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Woah, woah, woah—people don’t know who the dad of Charlotte’s baby is?  Looks like someone has been finding different ways to deal with space loneliness!