By: Charles Soule (story), Joëlle Jones (art), Dan Jackson (colors)

The Story: If you’re going to mine diamonds from Russia, make sure to ask the Russians first.

The Review: Among Letter 44‘s many unusual qualities, the one that sticks out the most is the fact that it started with the action well underway, the Clarke crew having already closed in on their destination. This meant that the characters had gone past the getting-to-know-you stage and were now too busy dealing with the plot to reveal much about themselves for our benefit. Even so, the series is half a year old, which means it’s time for us to know more about the people we’re working with.

This flashback issue thus couldn’t have come at a better time. Soule wisely chooses not to disperse the attention to the lives of the entire crew at once, instead focusing on Charlotte, arguably the lead of the series, and Dr. Rowan,* the crew member revealed to be MIA in #3. There’s no long-term plotwork here; given that we’re in the past, we already know what this manned space mission being offered to Charlotte and Rowan is about. This issue is pure character work, getting us to more deeply sympathize and admire the cast we’ve grown familiar with.

That doesn’t mean we come away with nothing to take back to the current storyline. That Charlotte was once pregnant and then miscarried the baby definitely colors our understanding of her space pregnancy. Before, it seemed like she got knocked up as a byproduct of the Clarke‘s free love rule and the decision to carry the child to term was more the result of idealism than desire. Now, there’s a definite personal component to the pregnancy: Charlotte didn’t just accept it; she desperately wanted it. Here, she expresses her sense of loss this way:

“You love it so much—you do everything to keep it safe, you would never, ever EVER do anything to harm it, and then your body just…it betrays you. And you have live with it. You have to live inside the body that did something so…so…alien.”

It’s a sensitive, affecting bit of writing from Soule, but it also gives Charlotte’s character arc a poetic resolution. On Earth, her body acted unnaturally to reject the child she so wanted. In the lifeless void of space, where things actually are alien, her body delivers the child she stopped planning for. Can someone say circle of life?

Rowan’s story is less emotionally stirring, or rather, it stirs a different set of emotions. As the only character we haven’t been introduced to, he has to make a greater effort to grab our interest, but he succeeds pretty well on that point. “Badass” is not a word you usually associate with geologists—neither is “asshole,” for that matter—but Rowan is definitely both. How many other Harvard-employed geologists do you know who use their knowledge to find plum diamond stock in a restricted part of Siberia, thus landing himself and his companions (including a rightfully pissed grad student) in a Russian gulag? And how many of those geologists would tell a federal agent to “fuck yourself” after the agent offers to secure his release and wipe his massive debt to boot? Bravo, Rowan, well done.

I am so happy to see a different artist on board, because if nothing else, Jones proves the point I’ve been making since day one of the series, which is a sharper, more streamlined style is the very thing Letter 44 needs to be taken seriously. Free from distracting disproportions and exaggerated facial features, you can simply focus on the story itself. But Jones isn’t just an improvement by comparison; there’s a delicacy to the characters’ expressions and body language that gives them greater potency. Charlotte’s face may look deadened and emotionless, but the simultaneously listless and tight composition of her body reveals the tension threatening to burst within her. Also, seeing Jackson’s colors on a different artist’s work, I can definitively say that he needs to tone down the brightness somewhat; it’s a little too strong for the tone Soule’s going for here.

Conclusion: Some strong, focused storytelling from Soule and much improved art from Jones allows Letter 44 to finally live up to its potential.

Grade: B+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * First name unstated, a somewhat annoying trend on this series.

– Charlotte’s boyfriend leaves her post-miscarriage. Not cool, man.