Review by Frank Plowright
For twenty years after it raged World War I was referred to as “The Great War”, and when considered now the prevailing imagery concerns the horrendous suffering of ordinary soldiers in the muddy trenches. However, in other areas there were equally inhospitable conditions, and White Death concerns the Alpine regions of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. There were trenches there as well, but explosions were kept to a minimum for fear of unleashing the white death. An avalanche had no respect for political ideology, and would sweep down to devastate allies and enemies equally.
Robbie Morrison’s script examines a campaign during the winter of 1916-1917, the viewpoint that of Pietro Aquasanta, a man caught between two nations, considering himself Italian, but an Austrian resident when conscripted. He switches allegiances to his natural inclination when captured, serving under a fatalistic Italian commander not expecting to survive who eventually suggests the use of avalanches as a tactical weapon. He notes heavy enemy casualties will result, while considering there’ll be little danger to the squad setting them off, and ignores the warning that once set off an avalanche can’t be controlled.
White Death is a grim and melancholy tale, and illustrated as such by Charlie Adlard using charcoal on grey paper for a distinctive look. He achieves a remarkably thin line, enabling him to give the soldiers haunted, battleworn faces. At times the expressions lunge a little too far into wide-eyed gurning, but the status quo is a reflective sadness. The decision to only use white for the snow is limiting, as a few highlights applied here and there would vary the tone a little, as well as better representing the sheer reflective brightness of the snow, even in winter.
The ring of authenticity applies to the battle details as it does to the cast, where despair is the prevailing mood. Even the sole break from the mountain trenches, a trip to a brothel, has a bleakness to it. It leaves White Death as perhaps not a graphic novel to be enjoyed, but certainly one to stay with most readers.
First published in 1998 by independent collective Les Cartoonists Dangereux, White Death has been a slow burning yet durable success, the most recent Image edition the third.