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White Death

We seem to have a curious relationship with warfare, and by “we” I mean humanity in general. No one appears to relish in the idea of war; there are few who dream of battlefield glory these days and fewer still who have seen war and wish to remain a part of it.

My father was drafted during Vietnam, and I’m thankful that he never once set foot in that country, ending up running communications in Germany at relay stations. He would likely be an entirely different person had he experienced firsthand the insanity of that time and place.

And yet, humanity remembers its wars far better than its peace. We measure our history by war: “The Peloponnesian War,” “Civil War Era,” “Post-WWII,” etc. We call those raised in the ‘20s and ‘30s, who served and lived during WWII “The Greatest Generation,” or at least Tom Brokaw does, and I’m sure there’s more than one of us that remember the term “Cold War Kids.” Our fiction reflects our paradoxical relationship with war, recently in movies and series like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers. The War genre has become entrenched in the American entertainment media, and maybe it always has been.

But there are wars we try to forget and oddly enough, it’s not the wars that were the most horrific (‘Nam has a glut of books, movies, and even comic books covering it), but the ones that are simply overshadowed by other, slightly more “glamorous” wars. The one I am speaking of, the one that the graphic novel up for review concerns is the war that should have ended all wars, but really ended up laying the groundwork for WWII, which ended succinctly all falsely noble concepts of warfare. I am talking about World War I.

White Death, by Rob Morrison and Charlie (Nobody) Adlard is the story of the Italian front during the First World War. It’s 1916 and the Italians are in the Trentino mountain range, holding the line against the Austro-Hungarian infantry. Private Pietro Aquasanta has just been put under the command of Sergeant Major Orsini: an unrelenting bastard of a superior officer that will hold the lines or push them up, no matter the cost.

Aquasanta grew up in these mountains and because of that he knows exactly what to fear. More dangerous than any howitzer was the White Death: an avalanche from the top off any of the mountains that could bury entire platoons, and does so when a grenade is thrown to cause the avalanche. Soon, Orsini and the enemy is made aware of this tactic and it becomes an even worse struggle as the soldiers on the ground need not only worry about the enemy in the trenches, but in the enemy hundreds of feet up.

Morrison’s script is excellent, providing both a first-rate description of the horrifying conditions of the Italian front, as well as a personal look at the characters, keeping the scope wide enough to encompass the war, but small enough to allow the reader to really care about the characters. Aquasanta is an incredibly complex character: a man who hates fighting, but chooses to do it anyway, and does so on more than one side of the conflict. Aquasanta is not some cookie-cutter soldier boy; rather, Morrison has given him the voice of the moralizer, but he has the actions of soldier. The reader can see the Private’s dislike of what he is doing, but he does it anyway, and not for glory, not for honor, but simply because he is a soldier, and soldier’s follow orders. The little ambiguities that Morrison instills in this character make him thoroughly engaging, and he does not stop with the main.

The supporting characters are fleshed out and given their own stories, independent from Aquasanta’s, but all tying into one another eventually. Even the bastard Orsini isn’t a straight stereotype of the glory-hounding leader, as Morrison gives us a hard view of the main while supporting that view in the story. The world around them is harsh enough to call for this kind of man, scumbag though he might be, he is the most likely to survive these wartime ordeals.

The story itself is enclosed, beginning and ending with Aquasanta, but suggesting that the war goes on, as it did. This appears to be Morrison’s first and only foray into comic books, unless this is Robbie Morrison using a shorter version of his name, and he brings to it a level of sophistication that few other writers might think to bring to a war comic. Where other writers might focus too much on the horror of warfare, Morrison brings in humanity and camaraderie to balance it out, later using that same camaraderie to further demonstrate the destructive potential of relationships in thre trenches.

I would like to pat myself on the back for calling this one ahead of time; Charlie Adlard is a truly great artist, and the potential I saw in his work from Nobody is reached and surpassed here. Adlard has done the entire graphic novel in charcoal and chalk, on gray paper, creating a depth and texture that was not present in his line and ink work on Nobody. The hazy effect created by the rubbed charcoal and the whisps of chalk beautifully demonstrates the “fog of war” aspect of trench warfare, and the use of charcoal and chalk when fleshing out snowdrifts and banks makes the snow real, almost touchable, giving it rich texture where regular pencil work would only have large fields of white. His panel work was good before, but with this story, he’s expanded his panel repertoire and uses straight panels, three-page long panels, vertical bar panels, etc. Charcoal effects are what actually spawned gray tonal shading in comics, and it is wonderful to see the technique authentically in effect here.

And Adlard’s facial work only improves in this medium. Where I might have said before that his work was slightly Frank Miller-esque, I’m amending that because the sketchy quality is gone from his work, replaced by a smoother and more emotive style of facial design that reminds me more of Will Eisner and is the precursor to his equally spectacular work on Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead.

This graphic novel is patently excellent; gorgeously drawn and well scripted, Morrison and Adlard have made a great comic, which is something to be said in the current climate of mediocrity in the comics industry, as companies scramble to bring in the younger audience. At $12.95, it is well worth the expenditure and should be on any lover of the medium’s bookshelf.

Robert Sparling

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