When I decided to take on White Death for review, I had zero knowledge of the book’s premise. I had assumed it was going to be a badass tale of the legendary Finnish sniper Simo Hayha, who shares a nickname with the title of the book. Well, we all know what assuming leads to. As I read the introduction I wasn’t necessarily disappointed, but rather caught off guard, which is a good thing and allowed me to come into the story completely unfamiliar and not knowing what to expect.
Robbie Morrison’s script chronicles an Italian battalion fighting on the Italian front of the Austro-Hungarian border during WWI. The story focuses primarily on Pietro Aquasanta, a rifleman for the Italian Army during the push through the trenches of his homeland of the Trentino Mountain range. The title White Death comes from a common nickname given to avalanches in the French and Italian alpine regions that were often triggered on purpose to use as a weapon.
White Death changed the way I will read comics – period. It has given me a whole new list of expectations and guidelines that I will consider when reading comics because of the immense amount of craftsmanship Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard put into this book.
The quality of this book surpasses anything I’ve ever seen before in a comic. Adlard mentions in the introduction that his career could be, “…divided in two halves – pre White Death and post White Death” and this was the first book that allowed him to “do my OWN thing.” Well, I’m glad he was able to do his own thing because the art in this book is phenomenal. I don’t mean “good for comics” like a lot of backhanded remarks the comics medium receives. I mean the art in this book is awesome to the fullest, truest extent of the word – inspiring awe.
Adlard uses charcoal and chalk on gray paper. The contrasts of bright white chalk and smudges of smoky charcoal-black are ominous and seem to litter the pages with impending doom, yet evoke glimmers of natural beauty. He uses the tools of the medium perfectly to invoke exactly what he wants the readers to feel. Bright white mountains and breathtaking nature scenes are offset with horrific images of war. The charcoal smudges capture the grimy appearance soldiers no doubt had while fighting in the trenches. You can even see the texture of the paper within the panels that gives the story a tangible feeling, even though I was reading it digitally.
Morrison’s script uses the scenarios of back and forth trench warfare to point out the futility of war, using phrases like, “It’s all the same” describing how both sides use dead bodies to fortify the trenches. While on surface level such comments may seem like typical wartime talk of meaningless and hopelessness, it requires reading between the lines to dig up what he’s really saying, that both sides are the same. The people are the same. The horrors are the same. Are there truly sides? Does it even matter?
He uses Pietro to illustrate this point.
Pietro was living in the Austrian province of Istria and the beginning of the war while Italy was still a neutral power. After Italy joined the war he was captured and was offered (because he was Italian) to join the company and fight against the Central Powers with Italy. This plays into an important plotline of the story that questions loyalty and the triviality of choosing sides in a war. He’s a man with no distinct loyalty, just a man with a gun being told what to do regardless of uniform.
The pacing of the story can sometimes feel slow and usually that would bother me, but I think it reflects well of the war. Action-filled, devastating fights are punctuated by moments of calm, waiting, and recuperation. There are recurring scenes of men on leave, spending time with prostitutes that show how the war has changed the men throughout each leave. We’re brought back to reality by heartbreaking and emotionally intense hospital scenes of sick and dispirited men, facing tragic injuries. These scenes resonate with the attitude of hopelessness, where men would rather die and be left to freeze than live with dehumanizing injuries.
The end of this rereleased hardcover edition includes a short promotional bit for the story that keeps adding to the pile of reasons to dislike Orsini, the acting Lieutenant. While it isn’t entirely necessary to the story, it does serve as a platform to make some ludicrous points about pride. I’m not talking about patriotism, I’m talking selfish pride and talks of earning medals, which will become abundantly clear after reading this book that Orsini is a coward with a delusional sense of what pride means.
The amount of research to this book by both Morrison and Adlard speaks volumes to the dedication these two have to the craft. Morrison’s emotional script and Adlard’s wonderful balance of subtlety and drastic panels will leave readers feeling captivated and slightly suffocated by the power behind White Death.