SPOILER WARNING: Spoilers for the final arc -- but not the final issue -- of Letter 44 follow.
It's not often you'll find a political thriller, a sci-fi adventure, a modern warfare story, and a deep look at what makes family all in one series. That's the case in Letter 44, from writer Charles Soule and artist Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque, though. As their series at Oni Press wraps this week with issue 35, we take a look back at how it came to this ending (and now that it's on shelves, we can say yes, it's a spectacular finish).
Talking with the writer and artist at the end of their five-year journey, you don't necessarily hear a sense of finality from them, despite the fact that it's all over. Instead, you feel how important and how personal the journey got, something that may have surprised even the creators. Read on to hear about how the end (which was at least partially planned extremely early on) came to be, why Soule included himself in the penultimate issue, and what it meant to bring about the end of the world.
Charles, it’s fun to talk to you again, been a while. So, you managed to end two issues in a row on the same cliffhanger. As your readers anxiously await the final issue … WHY?! Why did you do that to us?! (laughs)
Charles Soule: The main reason is that I didn’t want to just gloss over something significant—in comics, the end of the world often just happens, or the threat is so common that it doesn’t really hit the same way as it would in real life. I wanted to make the end of the world mean something, and so I tried to make it last, and really play out the emotional side of things. That’s why I put myself into issue #34, too—it really does feel like the world is ending sometimes these days, or as if it could. It’s something I’ve absolutely spent time thinking about, and I’m sure I’m not alone. I just wanted to translate that into comics form in a way that would resonate not just because it’s part of the journey the characters have gone on, but our own as well.
You’ve gone on quite the journey here, with the crew, going from subtle sci-fi to all-the-way-out-there. How much of their journey did you have planned from the get-go?
Soule: Pretty much all of it. The details shifted, of course, but I was looking back through early materials for Letter 44 recently, after I’d finished the last issue, just to see how much of my initial plans made it to the finished version. Turns out the basic structure stayed more or less the same—in particular, the inevitability of the ending. I knew why the Builders came here and what they’d done from the start. Sure, there were some decisions that came later—Issue #34, in particular, really was a response to the way things feel at this particular moment in our history—but the skeleton of the story was in place from not long after the story started to see print.
Building off that, then, what surprised you as you were writing Letter 44? What character or storyline shifted a bit as things progressed?
Soule: The World War III stuff was interesting, which hits around the middle of the story. I will say that while “World War III” was part of the original outline, I didn’t have many specifics for it. The key to that was when I realized that it would be particularly interesting if this war for the world wasn’t being fought by competing nations (although of course it sort of was), but by two competing U.S. presidents, both of whom felt they had the best chance to save the world from whatever the Builders were up to. It made everything much more personal and relatable, in a way. To this day, I think there are probably some readers who think that Carroll’s approach to a potential alien threat was completely correct—and honestly, it was a pretty logical way to go. I wanted to make sure that both President Blades and ex-President Carroll had rational reactions to the idea that aliens were up in the asteroid belt. While Carroll’s psyche sort of shatters as the story goes on once he realizes that he won’t be able to maintain control, you can see the chain of events that led him to believe he was making good decisions. I wanted everyone in Letter 44 to feel human and relatively real—even the aliens.
I loved the parallel in the Builders' backstory issue just before the three-part finale here, between the leader speaking to his people and the speech Blades gave to announce the presence of extraterrestrials way back in, I think it was #13? How intentional was that, and why was humanizing the Builders important to you right here at the end?
Soule: It was completely intentional—the idea of issue #32, where we finally learn more about the Builders, where they came from, what they’d done, etc., was to give readers the sense that they weren’t just reading one president’s story (or even two, with Carroll), but three. One of the three surviving Builders was his people’s equivalent of a president/leader, and he was trying to make decisions that he thought were right, just like Blades and Carroll. From our perspective, the Builders were this terrifyingly strange presence—but from theirs, they were just trying to save as much of the galaxy as they could from a horrendous mistake they’d made. I wouldn’t say the Builders are heroes, but you can understand where they’re coming from.
Writing and drawing Charles into the story had to be a trip. What did that do for each of you creatively, to connect you inherently to the story?
Soule: I mentioned my reasons for doing this a bit above, but I will say that it was pretty wild to see not just me, but my office as well. The art above my desk is all what’s actually there, including the first page of Letter 44, which I have framed right in between a gorgeous Jesus Saiz page from my Swamp Thing run and a McNiven/Leisten page from Death of Wolverine. I don’t know how Alberto felt about it, but I thought it was extremely cool.
Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque: It was a fun thing to do. Charles provided me with photo reference, and it was easy thanks to that. Creatively, I think the imagery of the artist creating, no matter what, is more important than the fact that that writer is Charles himself. I guess not all the readers will recognize him, but they’ll still get the idea behind that scene. It was a brilliant idea, and I had a blast helping create it!
As the story went on, the sci-fi elements got wilder and wilder, how did your working relationship’s growth help you as the story expanded that way?
Soule: The main thing is that over time, it became clear that Alberto could and would draw whatever the story needed, which was really liberating for me as a writer. I knew that the book would get more and more apocalyptic as it went on, and while apocalypse doesn’t always mean “huge”—here I thought it probably would. Knowing that Alberto would be willing to go there with me, and that he’d nail it, was wonderful. And as we’ve seen, he did indeed nail it.
Alburquerque: I think that thanks to the strength of our working (and, at this point, personal) relationship, it doesn’t matter what the story brings, we trust each other to the point of knowing we’ll resolve the situation in the best way possible. We always say it, this is not a story easy to tell, definitely not easy to draw, but we have a way of working that leads to dialogue at every point, even when we need to change things. I believe that makes our team stronger and our story better.
Alberto, drawing the end of everything is one heck of a task. #33 brought us a very intimate, personal look at the end of Earth, and you progressively “ate away” at your panels. Where did that approach come from, and what did it mean to have that slow growth?
Alburquerque: Charles had this idea of The End obliterating Earth and how it’d look from Earth itself, like a burning paper. I storyboarded the issue with this idea in mind, and we came to the effect you see in the issue. Some people were waiting for it, some others just decided to keep with their lives, some others didn’t even know … It’s an overview of all of these possibilities and how people would face The End. Charles and I were worried and excited about this issue; it’s a concept that I don’t remember seeing before, and we didn’t know how the readers would take it. I think it works, though, and people got it, so I’m happy about that. From the artistic point of view … it was a challenge to keep limiting the usable space for me to show things so, as the pages went on, I had to plan very carefully what I was showing in those tiny bits. Charles helped a lot with the script, of course, but then I had to put it all together so it wouldn’t look awful.
There’s just something about President Carroll, about the way you draw him, that through the course of this entire book I never wanted anything more than to punch him (or see someone punch him) square in the face. How long did it take you to find and capture the look of the character that wound up really being the Big Bad in a significant way?
Alburquerque: As most main characters, I always draw some sketches first with different facial features, always according to the descriptions Charles provides me. Then, between Charles, the editors, and me, we decide which one is the most fitting for the story. I really think that we did a good job with Carroll, because what happens to you happens to a lot of readers I meet during signings … Carroll is their most hated character, and some of them ask me to sketch him for them just because of that!
Getting to draw both a sci-fi adventure, a modern warfare, and a political thriller comic in one book is rare -- basically only this and maybe Ex Machina a few years back that I can think of! What did it mean to you to be able to stretch your art in so many directions, and, if it’s possible, did you have a favorite subgenre that you got to play with?
Alburquerque: Artistically, it’s a constant challenge. You can never rest or have an easy issue. I have to face complications in every one of those genres: how to move the camera so long conversations don’t get visually boring, how to make the sci-fi part look cool but not too far into the Star Wars/Star Trek kind of sci-fi, how to draw two armies facing each other with new technology and give it the scope it needs … It’s not an easy series to draw, and I think that’s the reason it’s so fun. As for my favorite subgenre, I’d say that playing with characters in space is the most fun. It gives me problems that no other genre gives me (like how to make zero gravity look good in a comic book page) but it has so many possibilities that it’s really fun to play with them.
Tease the final issue of Letter 44 the best you can -- how much about the end will we really see/learn, what goes into making a satisfying ending of such a rewarding story, that sort of thing.
Alburquerque: It’s difficult to tease the end without spoiling anything … I liked the end that Charles came up with. It makes good sense and closes the story without closing the door completely. We’ll learn what happens with the Clarke crew, with President Blades, with Astra … so most questions get answered while some others remain open to interpretation. I’m sad to end the story, to finish this five-year-long adventure, but it’s a very good ending!
Soule: I think we’ll learn quite a bit. It was a balance for me between providing a satisfying, real, earned ending, but also not trying to answer every single question raised by the book. We learn what happens to pretty much everyone, but the ending also leaves some things open. It suggests there are things we still don’t know, and maybe won’t ever know. I took a deep breath before I started writing Issue #35, because people love this series, and I didn’t want to let them down—I didn’t want to let myself down. I think we did a good job, though—especially Alberto, who had to jump through some real hoops on this one. If the Letter 44 voyage had to end (and I think it did—this was where the story needed to go) then we could have done a lot worse. I’m just thankful to everyone who helped us get here, from editors to publishers to readers and everyone who tried the series and spread the word about it. That’s what I’ve heard more than anything else—that it’s a big hand-sell for retailers—which means people are going out of their way to put it into readers' hands. I can’t tell you how much we appreciate that—it’s amazing. Here’s to the next journey!