White Death written by Robbie Morrison with art by Charlie Adlard. September, 2014. Image Comics, 104 p. $14.99 ISBN:9781632151421.
“For four years, The Great War, World War One, raged across the planet. Millions were sent to their deaths in pointless battles. The Italian Front stretched along the borders of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empires, in treacherous mountain regions. In the last months of 1916, a private in the Italian Bersaglieri returns to his childhood home in the Trentino mountain range to find it no longer a place of adventure and wonder as it was in his youth, but a place of death and despair. Amongst the weapons of both armies, none is more feared than the White Death: thundering avalanches deliberately caused by cannon fire… which, like war itself, consume everything in their path...” — Publisher’s Description
This is one of those rare times when I am a little lost for words about a book. Honestly, I’ve been sitting here for a while thinking about how I wanted to approach this review. White Death was a wonderfully drawn book, with an intriguing story, but I feel that there was something missing — something more I needed, but I cannot put my finger on it.
White Death was written by Robbie Morrison after the discovery of two bodies in the Italian Alps that were identified as young Austro-Hungarian soldiers from the First World War. This is one of the few graphic novels that I know of that deal with World War I, and to my knowledge very few books at all cover this theater of the conflict. In 1915-1916, over the course of five grueling battles, approximately 60,000-100,000 soldiers were killed in the Italian Alps by avalanches caused by enemy shells — The White Death. This is the story of those battles.
Morrison vividly brings to life the despair, heartbreak, and tragedy of war — using the avalanche itself as a metaphor in the sense that it is a terrifying force that consumes everything in front of it without mercy. The raw storytelling, both in the trenches and in the towns and hospitals behind the lines remind us that war, no matter where or when is indeed hell. There is a brother against brother element that you do not generally associate with World War I, but in retrospect, I see how this is true of any war. Also very poignant is the way in which PTSD, or as it was then called – “Shell Shock” was dealt with. Quite terrifying.
What really stood out to me, however, about White Death was the artwork of Charlie Adlard. I am relatively new to graphic novels so this is my first time seeing Adlard’s work, even though I have a huge compendium of The Walking Dead waiting on my bookshelf! As a result I came in unbiased to what he describes in his introduction as nothing less than a landmark book in his career. The artwork was stunning and masterfully done in a way that was able to capture the intensity and horror of war that Morrison put into words. The “charcoal and chalk dust” Adlard mentions in the same introduction to White Death seemed to jump off the pages, even through my e-reader, to make you feel dirty, cold, and sweaty with the troops all at the same time. No other graphic novel has had that effect on me.
My only real criticisms of White Death, and those parts that seemed to have me wanting more were in the fact that I was having difficulty about half way through the book keeping some characters straight in my head, and therefore fully understanding the action and motivations and feelings being expressed. This could be from my own lack of experience with the genre, but I feel that more detail in the story and the art was needed here. Also, there seems to be so much potential to have provided more build up and more continuation of the story. I feel as though we were dropped right into the middle of an epic novel and pulled back out before it was over. This comes from my not knowing anything about this aspect of World War I, and because of White Death wanting to know so much more! In a way then, I suppose it served a purpose.
All in all this was an excellent book, and one that makes it easy to see why it has been listed on a few “essential” graphic novel lists. I highly recommend it to mature young adult and adult readers for the intense story, graphic nature or the art, and the brief nudity and adult themes in a few scenes and panels.
Four out of five stars.
Many thanks to Image Comics, NetGalley, and Robbie Morrison & Charlie Adlard for the opportunity to read White Death in exchange for an honest review.
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