White Death, written by Robbie Morrison and illustrated by Charlie Adlard, covers the little known Italian/Austro-Hungarian mountain conflict during the First World War during which avalanches were used by both sides as a weapon of war.
In October 1916 Italian rifleman Pietro Aquasanta is sent to the trenches high in the Trentino mountain range where the Italians, who are allied with Britain and France, are facing the Austro-Hungarian troops who are allied with Imperial Germany. There he meets the brutal Sergeant-Major Orsini who, after the death of the platoon’s lieutenant, has been given a field commission to replace him. As he lived in the mountains when younger, Aquasanta has respect for the dangers that they pose and that knowledge makes him a good scout, however since he had moved to an Italian enclave in the Austro-Hungarian empire before the war he is viewed with suspicion by Orsini. One bright clear day looking down on the trench system below while reconnoitring, Aquasanta sees poison gas drifting towards the Italian trenches and uses grenades to set off an avalanche to both attack the Austrian troops and to disperse the gas cloud.
Recently reprinted by Image in the USA, no doubt on the back of Adlard’s work for the same publisher’s Walking Dead, White Death was originally self-published in the UK by Charlie Adlard in 1998 under the Les Cartoonistes Dangereux imprint with half the 3000 print run in English and half in French so that it could be sold at the Angouleme comic festival. The book came about after Adlard had become increasingly disillusioned with illustrating Topps’ X Files comic and had been experimenting with charcoal and chalk illustrations on a grey background. With the artwork printed on grey paper, the use of the white chalk for the snow is particularly striking. It has to be said this art style tends to limit the artwork to four panels per page meaning that the book could have covered the same story in half the pages if a more ‘normal’ comic strip style had been used, however it sets the book apart from virtually everything else out there both when it was originally published as well as now.
That said this smudgy, almost dirty style of artwork is at times reminiscent of Mike Dorey who worked on many WWII strips in DC Thomson’s Warlord such as “Kampfgruppe Falken” and while not a regular art droid on IPC’s 2000AD due to his work commitments on the concurrent ‘new’ Eagle, Dorey did illustrate some of the earliest published adventures of the character of Bill Savage in “Invasion!”, a character that Adlard himself would illustrate decades later in “Savage”.
While focusing on Aquasanta, writer Robbie Morrison tells the story of this conflict in a series of vignettes covering many different aspects of the lives of the soldiers taking part – from the claustrophobically vicious hand-to-hand fighting to the expansive beauty of the high mountains, from the tedium of waiting for an attack to the intensity of visits to the brothels behind the lines. Perhaps the most telling of these is when Aquasanta, having lived in ‘enemy territory’ before the war discovers that he is fighting someone who he knows and who also recognises him. While such a thing seems unlikely in the fog of battle, it makes for a good plot point allowing the views of both sides to be made known to the reader. Indeed the story never shies away from the horror of war, from the newly arrived soldiers being told to reinforce the trenches with the bodies of their predecessors, to the reaction of badly injured colleague showing his rescuer the stumps of the legs that he now has to live with.
As a bonus feature the book revisits this hospital sequence showing Morrison’s script pages alongside Adlard’s unlettered artwork as well as including a three page prequel originally done for a French magazine showing how the platoon’s lieutenant died.
White Death won’t be for everyone, particularly those who are expecting Adlard’s normally clean and clear artwork, but as a standalone book it covers a little known conflict in a thought-provoking and memorable fashion.
There are more details of White Death on the Image website.
Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard talked about White Death on the BBC News website.
Both Robbie Morrison and Charlie Adlard will at the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in Kendal over the weekend of 17-19 October 2014.
Pages of White Death will be exhibited as part of the Great War In Comics art exhibition in the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal and both creators will be talking about White Death as part of the Great War In Comics panel chaired by downthetubes’ own John Freeman at 10:30am on Sunday 19 October in Kendal Library.