By Erik Grove
This week’s column is a special treat for me. I met Charles Soule briefly at the Emerald City Comic-con a few months ago. He was gracious with his time and agreed to answer some questions for this column. Soule is an inspiring creator. His comics are consistently good, his work ethic is enviable and above all else he’s a friendly, humble and sincere guy. He’s a star on the rise with high profile comics at both Marvel and DC (an uncommon feat) and a smash-hit with Letter 44, a creator-owned work published by Oni Press. The 7th issue of Letter 44 is due in comic stores this week with the first collection following close behind in July. I heartily recommend you get all of it and remember to ask your comic shop to order you the future issues of Letter 44 because it’s a great book and you want to be able to smugly tell everyone that the comic was better when it’s the next big comic book TV show.
Before I get to the interview questions, I want to take a moment to talk about the value of proofreading before you embarrass yourself with one of your favorite comic book writers. You see, I mention above that Letter 44 is released through Oni Press. I know this, have always known this and have also known that Letter 44 was pitched to Oni (for the purposes of my question below). I love Oni Press. Oni Press is my awesome comic book publishing Portland-area neighbor. High five Oni Press! Still, when I typed up my questions for Soule, my brain and typing hands staged a coup and I wrote the name of a different publisher.
When I did my editing pass my brain was apparently too busy whistling a jaunty tune of its own creation to warn me of the egg that was soon to collide with my unsuspecting face. So I sent the questions. Here’s the first takeaway from this: never trusts your traitor brain – do two editing passes. Soule replied to my questions and he corrected my boneheaded error but he did so casually and just moved on because he’s a nice guy that’s probably made a mistake before. So here’s the second takeaway: nobody ever intends to make a typo or word association glitch but it happens anyway. You can’t always be perfect but what you can do is be cool about it when someone else messes up. Soule being a class act in response to an embarrassing gaffe is something I’m going to remember and respect for a long time. Food for thought, Internet.
But I prattle on too much. Without further digression, I give you Essential 8 Questions with Charles Soule!
Erik Grove: Let’s dive right in to Letter 44. How long did this idea gestate with you? Where was the spark of inspiration?
Charles Soule: I had the idea on New Year’s Day 2011, I believe. I was down in Cape May, New Jersey, which is a cool beach community down on the shore, and went for a walk on the beach. The idea popped into my head almost fully formed – the seed of it was to think about what could get the US to move back towards an active schedule of manned space exploration, which I had been thinking about because of the impending end of the Space Shuttle program and the cancellation (or at least the scaling back) of the planned missions to the Moon and Mars.
I thought that the discovery of an alien intelligence in our solar system would probably do it, and then it was about building up the other side – which was how a US government might react to this information, assuming they got it first.
Once I had the idea, I immediately started outlining to see if the idea was “sticky,” as it were, and the rest of the pieces fell into place quickly. I knew I had something worth pursuing. From there, it was about finding a good home for the book, getting an artist, all the normal things you do as you’re ramping up to get a creator-owned comic into the world.
CS: It didn’t change much at all. The verbal pitch went to Oni, actually, which became the ultimate home for the book. I discussed it with Jill Beaton at C2E2 in the spring of 2011, I believe, and then I would say it was something like fall of that year that we decided to go ahead. These projects have a long lead-time, as you might expect.
The original pitch was basically a somewhat longer, more detailed version of this: “A new President comes into office and reads the secret letter left on his desk in the Oval Office by the former President. It says, ‘hey, man, good luck – being President is a tough gig. It’s going to be particularly hard for you because we discovered aliens in the asteroid belt seven years ago and didn’t tell anyone. Surprise! P.S. we sent up a manned mission a few years back to see what’s up there – they’re close to finding out the truth. Take care of them, they’re all heroes.’ The story has two threads – one is the President down on Earth realizing he has to deal with all this and can’t be the kind of leader he thought he would be, and the second has the astronauts in space getting close to meeting their aliens in their increasingly rickety, thrown-together spaceship.” That was pretty much it – I had some artwork from the very talented Matthew Childers, who didn’t end up working on the final project but whom I was very happy to collaborate with on that initial set of image.
It didn’t change all that much from pitch to execution – as I said, I had a pretty strong vision for this one from the start.
EG: Letter 44 focuses on the president of the United States and his cabinet. There’s obviously a political element to the book and the two presidents seem awfully familiar in a lot of ways to figures in recent US history. Would you say that the politics is just a backdrop to a very grounded science fiction story or is the science fiction element a backdrop to a story about politics? How much West Wing do you want there to be in Letter 44?
CS: I think it’s very much a Reese’s peanut butter cup situation. Both flavors are very present in the story, and I would hesitate to land too fully on one or the other. Ultimately, though, L44 is a science fiction story, and that side will probably start to become more prominent as the book runs into future issues, particularly the second arc and beyond.
EG: Your productivity is pretty impressive. You write a lot of comics, run every other day, maintain your own law practice and still find time to reply to interview questions. You’ve been asked about it often enough that you wrote a blog post about how you do it on your website. Your steps for success seem reasonable and level headed. I’m wondering how much trial and error was in involved in figuring out your formula? When I read the post it seemed like the sort of system that a lot of lawyers I’ve known had to master to get through some of the tougher parts of law school. Do these skills go way back for you or have you had to adapt to them more recently?
CS: I think the skills to be able to do this came from law school and the early days of my legal career. I also studied Chinese as an undergraduate, and that certainly didn’t hurt – I’ve been put in (or put myself in) a number of situations where I’ve had to be able to do a lot of work very quickly that still (hopefully) maintained a high-level of quality. I learned how to approach a huge workload in a way that allows it to get done while still letting me maintain my own life on the side – or, really, interwoven with it. It’s definitely a pretty prodigious amount right now, even I’ll say that, but as I’ve said in the past, look at the opportunities I’ve been lucky enough to receive. I am thrilled to be able to tell these stories, both on the creator-owned and the company-owned books. If there’s something else I should be doing that’s a better use of my time, I haven’t found it yet.
EG: I was surprised when I saw on your Wikipedia entry (did you know you had a Wikipedia entry by the way? what’s that like?) that you got your degree in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and that you had a focus on Chinese language and history. Do you have an interest in exploring Chinese history in your comics work? This really seems like a fascinating area that I haven’t seen mainstream comics tackle with all that much success.
CS: It’s pretty strange to have a Wikipedia entry – it felt weird to see it, that first time. I haven’t looked at it in a while, although I probably should check it out and see if it’s up to date. It’s odd in general to become better known in the wider world, actually. I tweeted something about some upcoming plans not long ago, and while I was there, doing my thing, someone I’d never met came up to me and introduced themselves – they said they’d come out in order to meet me. It was very cool that someone would go to that effort just to say hello to me, obviously, but it also made me realize that things are changing a bit, and I might need to think about my public versus my private life in a different way than I have previously. I don’t want to overstate this – I’m not Angelina Jolie – but it’s something that’s been on my mind.
Anyway, China – yes! I love Chinese history, and the language itself is one of my favorite things I’ve ever learned. I wish I had more time to practice, honestly. I have a novel that’s set in 400 AD China called The Land of Ten Thousand Things I plan to do something with very soon, and I have a creator-owned project set in a post-apocalyptic South China Sea that also has a lot of China elements. I was just in China last week (Hong Kong and Macau, specifically), and it’s a part of the world I put into my work whenever I can.
EG: One of your other passions is music. Do you listen to music when you’re writing? Do you have a playlist in mind for your comics? What do you typically listen to? Any great music tips for readers?
CS: I listen to music constantly, whether I’m writing or not. I have a few different “levels” of music that I use, depending on what I’m doing. If I’m just working away, I like the online stream for KEXP, an incredible independent radio station out of Seattle. You can find that online at kexp.org. They play just about everything, and it’s all great. When I’m running or doing something like that, I use a rotating playlist with uptempo stuff – lately I’ve been enjoying bands like Frightened Rabbits, Augustines, the new Hold Steady… hook-based, anthemic bar rock, pretty much. When I’m writing, and really need to get into that flow state headspace, I’ll do wordless music, often film scores. The Zimmer soundtrack to Man of Steel is excellent for that, as is the Daft Punk score to Tron Legacy, and M83’s score to Oblivion. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dustin Wong and Steve Reich, as well as Philip Glass – they’re all minimalist composers who use a lot of repeated motifs that build on one another. It’s a nice balance, because it lets me feel like I’m listening to something that isn’t just a drone, but doesn’t distract me from whatever I’m trying to imagine for the story.
EG: Back to Letter 44, with issue 7 you’re doing a special one-shot with Joelle Jones. What can you tell us about it? What else is coming up in Letter 44 that readers should look forward to?
CS: Letter 44 #7 is the first of a series of planned interstitial issues, where we step away from the main story to focus on the backstories of two of the Clarke astronauts – see how they were recruited for the mission, why they went, things like that. In issue 7, we see the stories of Charlotte Hayden, the leader of the science team, but also Cary Rowan, the mysterious fellow who has been mentioned repeatedly but not yet seen. I’ve kept it a little subtle in the issues, but the Clarke mission originally went up with nine astronauts. Now, however, there are only eight – which means something happened between launch and “now” to one of those guys – Rowan. I’m going to keep teasing out Rowan’s story for a bit yet, but you’ll get a nice introduction to him in #7. There’s a big scene set in the Popigai crater in Russia, which is more or less an asteroid crater literally covered with diamonds just sitting on the surface that Russia’s been sitting on for decades, not letting anyone visit (or mine). (It’s a bit more complex than that, of course, as I’m sure armchair geologists will mention in the comments, but it’s still a damn cool setting for a story, even if I do take just a bit of poetic license with it.)
Then, with issues 8-13 we jump back into the main story, which is AWESOME. My goal with L44 has been to make it extremely fast-paced. I don’t want to drag things out. Every issue has a gamechanger in it, which expands the scope of the story and flips what you thought you knew on your head. This is not a small story, and I think we’ll see that very quickly indeed.
The first trade is out in July, and it looks incredible. It has this gorgeous partially reflective cover, and the design is amazing – it almost looks like a star chart. I love it, and I hope that anyone who’s been trade-waiting will check it out and then start following the series monthly. Letter 44 has been doing very well for an indie series, and I hear from retailers that more and more people are finding it and adding it to their pulls, but we can always use more readers! Even with everything else I’m doing, I’m giving this one my all, and I really hope it will be one for the books.
EG: Finally, what’s coming up that you’re excited about that you’d like to mention? Do you have any other projects you’d like to talk about? What comics from your peers are coming out or coming up that you’re looking forward to reading?
CS: The Death of Wolverine mini with Steve McNiven for Marvel was just announced this past weekend at C2E2 – I’m incredibly excited about that. Talk about epic. I also have plans to do some cool things with my Strongman series (the first volume of which came out from SLG back in 2009) that I should be able to talk about soon, not to mention more totally new creator-owned projects and hopefully progress on the novel front. As far as comics from my peers, I’ll read anything Matt Kindt, Jeff Lemire, Ray Fawkes, Scott Snyder, Ryan Browne or Jim Zub put out – but there are so many good books right now. I just learned that Mark Waid is doing more Empire – can’t wait for that, for one. I feel like we’re all very lucky as comic readers right now – we’re in the middle of a renaissance, there’s no doubt about it.
Erik Grove is a writer living in Portland, OR. You can read his fiction and much more at www.erikgrove.com and follow him on Twitter @ErikGrove. He’s also absolutely available to be the mascot for Oni Press or any other comic book companies or really awesome taco trucks as long as they supply the great big fuzzy suit and it’s not too hot that day.