By: Charles Soule (story), Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque (art), Dan Jackson (colors)

The Story: Stephen makes the worst hiring decision of his presidency.

The Review: It must take a certain kind of genius to write a mystery.  After all, you’ve got to be smarter than your audience if you want to keep them baffled as to where the story is going.  This is a tall order, no doubt, perhaps too tall for a writer who is simultaneously trying to grasp the intricacies of political intrigue and sci-fi phenomena.  As intelligent and ambitious as Soule is, I’m not sure he can really deliver a conspiracy of this level—at least, not in a comic.

Comics tend to move fast, especially in monthly issues.  You’re talking about twenty to thirty pages, which in prose might offer a lot of substantial development, but which is all too easily devoured as a series of static visuals.  But few readers, or writers, for that matter, are willing to endure several months of issues just to get through the beginning of a storyline.  This might explain why, four issues in, we already have the first assassination of the Blades administration.

Attempted assassination, I should say—which is actually worse, if anything.  The timing of Elijah’s attack in a restroom was just too close on the heels of his confrontation with the Chairman* for anyone to overlook, and only Elijah’s death could have kept suspicions impotent for a while.  Allowing him to survive, even unconscious, is a risk.  The theory that he suffered a premature stroke just seems too unusual to hold up for long, and indeed, the good Dr. Montgomery sees through the façade within a few pages.  But Soule took Elijah’s recovery even further by allowing him to come to and retain enough of his mental and physical faculties to communicate with Stephen, which pretty much throws that whole mystery out the window.

Even more troubling is what Stephen gets up to while his right-hand man is out of commission.  Up to this point, we’ve seen Stephen rely heavily on his advisors, but not necessarily more than you’d expect from any president.  Here, he reveals a dependence on counsel that’s a little scary in its degree.  “I need [Elijah],” Stephen says with a distraught expression to his wife.  And he proves it by choosing Michter, Secretary of Defense, as his new Chief of Staff.  There’s no way to describe the choice other than boneheaded.  I’m a political idiot, but even I think it’s insane to have your most trusted advisor be someone confirmedly loyal to the last administration.

With this much disgust as to how Stephen’s running things on Earth, you’re happy to flee the planet and see what the Clarke is up to halfway across the solar system.  I’d say this is where the really juicy stuff in Letter 44 is happening: military and science tensions, random hookups, women having labor in zero-g, first contact with alien-infested asteroids, etc.  You’d gladly spend all your time out here, especially since Soule proves far stronger in his scientific research than his political acumen.  I love that he can show how far ahead the extraterrestrials are simply by their ability to make a perfect geometric shape.  It’s the crafty use of details like this that makes Letter 44 worth reading even when it falls short of expectations.

It’s also what makes the title worth reading in spite of artistic deficiencies.  I’ll gladly admit that Alburquerque has interesting visual ideas—the somewhat haunting image of liquid globules streaming in mid-air from Charlotte’s nether regions, for example—but his garish style of figures just looks off-putting, making it hard to take the proceedings seriously.  He also has little in the way of subtlety.  Check Michter’s predatory grin when Stephen offers him the Chief of Staff position.  It’s amazing that Stephen doesn’t see that immediately as a red flag that he’s doing something wrong.

Conclusion: Letter 44 set itself apart with its dual plotlines, but the minimal integration between the two is weakening the story as a whole.

Grade: B-

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Poor Manesh.  Just as he’s about to score, Kyoko gets pulled off by Charlotte’s impending delivery.  I’m rooting for you, buddy!