The first thing you notice when you open up the graphic novel White Death is the artwork: charcoal and chalk on gray paper, it’s more like something you’d see on a museum wall than in a comic book.
The second thing you notice is that reading this book is going to be a very emotional experience.
Writer Rob Morrison’s opening captions set the situation up as best as can be: “The Great War. The war to end war. The Italian front. The Trentino mountain range. 9000 feet about sea level. Treacherous site of hostilities between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.”
Enter into this armed conflict newly conscripted soldier Pietro Aquasanta. An Italian, he was living in Hungary and joined their army when Italy was still neutral in the war. When Italy began to fight and captured Aquasanta’s unit, they offered him the chance to fight for his own country. He agrees -- and within five minutes of arriving at the front, one of his old Hungarian friends is dying at the end of Aquasanta’s bayonet.
Just one of the endless horrors of war.
There are more to come.
While on reconnaissance, Aquasanta witnesses a gas attack heading towards his squad. To protect them, he throws grenades at a snow bank and sets off an avalanche. The gas attack is dispersed, the men are saved, and many Austrians are killed. The White Death.
It’s the beginning of a war of avalanches, caused by both sides. And yes, this method of warfare is historically accurate. Morrison’s introduction cites statistics that say as many as 100,000 men were killed by deliberately set avalanches on the Italian Front. It’s a horrifying way to die.
But for Aquasanta and the other men in his company, the snow is just the beginning. War is going to take them where humanity is but a whisper, but where human beings excel as killing machines.
Morrison weaves a complex, powerful tale here, based on historical fact. He sees war as a terrible “waste of life, and the corruption of youth and innocence.” He creates believable, understandable characters, and we watch them fall, live, die, laugh and harden.
Adlard’s artwork here, as mentioned earlier, take a fine arts approach, and the results are fantastic. His art is emotional and powerful, personal and inspired.
The book isn’t perfect. Perhaps because “White Death” was originally run as a serial, the pacing is sometimes a bit off in the collected edition, with scenes not always flowing together perfectly. Adlard’s art is amazing, but some of the characters look too much alike, and it’s hard to distinguish them from each other. That also interrupts the flow of the story.
But those are minor weaknesses. “White Death” is am ambitious work, the result of strong and mature creators. It’s haunting. You won’t forget it.
Three and a half stars.