By Matt O’Keefe
Charles Soule is beyond busy. Since Image/Shadowline published his rock fantasy 27 in 2010 he has gone on to write a number of comics from publishers including Archaia, DC, and Marvel. With his creator-owned Letter 44 he made his debut at Oni Press. I talked to him about the political science fiction series, making his way in the comics industry, and how he manages such a heavy workload.
Letter 44 serves to sort of redeem a president who spent billions of dollars on unpopular wars and another who probably won’t fulfill the promises he made to get into office. What motivated you to tell that story?
I felt that it could be interesting to tell a story that’s just a sidestep away from reality – and it doesn’t hurt that it gives readers something they can immediately hook into, as well. I see the “real world” as the point from which we jump off in this series – we all know the basic political history of the last two administrations, so it’s like everyone’s already caught up on the “continuity,” so to speak. Then, we can go to some really cool places with that as a launchpad.
Dr. Charlotte Hayden decided to remain pregnant, despite their mission being most likely a one-way trip. Is that idealism, or something else?
That’s an important question which will be explored in the series. The pregnancy wasn’t planned, but as we learn more about Charlotte and the other members of the crew, we’ll come to understand their decision(s) revolving around the baby. I feel bad for that little kid, though – although it’ll still get to go on an awesome space adventure, which is something!
For being in a medium that offers “unlimited budget” action, Letter 44 really thrives in the smaller moments. Was that a consideration on your part?
Well, one of my big templates for this series is 2001, which I hope comes across in homages big and small – the name of the ship, for example. That film had massive events that were interpreted through a human lens – which, really, is the only way humans CAN experience massive events. Things will certainly get huge in Letter 44, though. I just want to make sure you know and understand the people a bit before we start to put them through the wringer. But I will put them through the wringer.
You said in that you initially planned Letter 44 as a 30-issue series. Is that still the target?
It is. There’s some flex based on how I handle some of the backstory. By the end of the series, readers will know more about the crew of the Clarke, how they were chosen, why they went on this trip, but also how the ship was built, how the secrecy was maintained, and so on. Depending on how big that story ends up being, we could push a little past 30. But I’m expecting somewhere in that neighborhood. I’ve already scripted through 12, and I’ll tell you, a LOT happens in the first twelve issues.
How is the story surprising you as you write it?
Significantly. A group of four characters I introduce at the beginning of issue 7 and expected to never see again ended up becoming a very significant part of the second arc. The pace, to a certain degree. As I mentioned, things get very big very quickly. That was mostly because I knew that extending things out too far might not let me get to the truly big moments for way too long, which wasn’t what I wanted. I want Letter 44 to serve as one gut-punch after another. In a good, entertaining way!
Can you tease what’s coming up?
Let’s see… in the next issue (#3), the Clarke crew has their first encounter with the aliens’ technology, and a major cast member back on Earth has something rather terrible happen to them. Beyond that, we get outside the ship again for a little EVA action sequence, and President Blades realizes that his administration has been more or less under siege since the day he took office. Chills, thrills and spills, just how a good comic should work, you know?
Rumors are out that the series was optioned by a major TV network. Can you comment?
I can, but I shouldn’t. Let me just say that there are people out there who think that Letter 44 could make a great TV show, and some of those people actually have the ability to make it happen I would love that – seeing these characters brought to life would be a pretty amazing thing to see.
Your comics career really seemed to get rolling with 27 from Image/Shadowline. How did you parlay that into opportunities with other publishers?
It’s mostly about networking – getting your work into people’s hands in an unobtrusive manner that doesn’t come off the wrong way. If you’re fortunate, some of the people who read your work will have the ability to hire you for other projects, and that’s more or less what happened here. 27 led to Strange Attractors, which led to Letter 44, and all of that together brought me to the attention of DC and then Marvel. People ask me about pitching a lot – I mostly just tell them to be good, be cool and be around. It might take a little while, but you’ll get there in the end.
Can you describe the pitch process for Letter 44?
Pretty much entirely a verbal pitch. I shared the idea with the then-marketing director for Oni a few years back at C2E2, and he encouraged me to tell it to Jill Beaton, who currently edits the series. She was into it, and we just developed it from there. Finding the right team to tell the story took a while – “casting” it, as Jill likes to say, but I couldn’t be happier with how that all worked out, especially Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque on the pencils and inks. The guy’s a champion, and I expect we’ll be seeing his work for years and years to come, beyond just Letter 44, for sure.
What’s your collaboration like with Jill?
Jill’s great! She’s good at giving helpful suggestions when she needs to, and she’s always there if we need help, but she also knows how (and when) to step back and let us do our thing. Not every editor is able to do that, I’ve found. Letter 44 is a pretty complex series to pull together, and Jill is excellent at make sure things run the way they’re supposed to.
By my count you’re writing six monthly comics, and you still work as a lawyer. How do you do it all?
I have really long to-do lists, and I’m always trying to plan out my time about a week in advance so that I’ll know how to use the hours I do have. Not a lot of downtime, but that’s okay – I make it work. I love everything I’m writing, and running my law business is very fulfilling as well. I also have a number of tricks – I do a lot of “pre-writing,” which involves breaking issues out longhand in one of a bunch of color-coded notebooks I carry around, so that when it comes time to script I already know what’s going to happen on each page, as well as some of the dialogue. I can pre-write anywhere, even for really short blocks of time (say, a subway ride), so when it comes time to actually script I’m not just starting from scratch.
What’s your writing process like?
I generally write about 40 script pages per week, depending on workload. Woven in around that are things like this interview, lettering passes, reviewing art as it comes in, and breaking story for individual issues and story arcs. It’s quite a bit of work, but I’ve developed strategies to make sure it all gets done. I have a coffee shop I like near my house that doesn’t have Wi-Fi (which is crucial – no Twitter, no email…) I’ll take the laptop there, sit down and not stand up again until whatever script I’m writing is done.
The notebooks I mentioned are a big help – anything you can do to not have to sit and stare at a blank screen can be extremely helpful. It’s also just good to get ideas down on paper, because then your mind can start working to refine them in a way that I don’t think happens when they’re still in your head. What else… when I’m stuck on a plot point, I’ll go for a run – it’s usually solved by the time I’m done, because running gets my head into that barely aware state you sometimes need to get your subconscious working properly.
Deadlines are a big motivator. I don’t want to ever be the reason for a production bottleneck. Ultimately, though, writing comics is fun for me. It’s not work in the traditional sense, so it’s usually not that hard to motivate. Best gig going, really.