White Death

By Robbie Morrison & Charlie Adlard (Image Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-632151-42-1 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Unmissable and Unforgettable… 9/10

More than a century after the conflict ended, the First World War still has a terrifying grip on public consciousness and remains culturally relevant.

For years I’ve been declaring that Charley’s War is the best story about the Great War ever created but while I remain convinced of that fact, there are plenty of strong contenders for the title and it’s always worth seeking out fresh viewpoints and visualisations. This particular moody masterpiece originally emerged as kind of transcontinental self-published venture by writer Robbie Morrison (Nikolai Dante; Judge Dredd; Doctor Who; Batman) and illustrator Charlie Adlard (Judge Dredd; X Files; Astronauts in Trouble; Batman; The Walking Dead) who initially crafted the international bestseller under the guise of Les Cartoonistes Dangereux in 1998.

It was subsequently rereleased in 2002 by AiT/Planet Lar before becoming this luxurious hardback and digital tome in 2014. It presents a stunning and moving saga of a largely overlooked theatre of that conflict and offers in addition commentary; biographies; a short vignette created as a prelude to the main story and used as a promotional device in French comics magazine Bo Dois, plus a feature detailing the process from original script to finished art. This last is a particularly fascinating inclusion as illustrator Adlard devised a whole new way of delivering comics narrative for the story…

The tale itself is simple and straightforward: based on truly horrific events during what was known as “the White War” and fully contextualised in Morrison’s introductory notes.

It’s 1916 and on the Italian Front, the war against the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (allied with Germany) is as stalled, tedious and horrifically murderous as the trench warfare in France and Belgium, even though it’s being fought across the Alighieri plateau in the mountains of Trentino.

Added to the usual horrors of the conflict are crushing cold, constant mist, fog and snow and the extreme likelihood of being crushed and smothered once the bright sparks shelling each other realise they can also trigger avalanches just by aiming a little bit higher…

Into this mess trudges new recruit Pietro Aquasanta. He grew up in these mountains, but sees little to engender fond feelings or happy memories. Firstly, his status is suspect since he used to soldier for the other side, thanks to the Empire’s conscription policies and the Allies’ habit of taking absolutely anybody – even enemy combatants – who can point a gun.

Secondly, even though he’s now an Italian fighting for his homeland, most of Aquasanta’s comrades are fools, the generals are callous idiots and his immediate superior – sergeant major Orsini – is a fanatical war-loving bastard who will do anything to keep the killing going. Still and all, even solitary outsiders like Pietro can’t help seeking companionship when life is so visibly brief and death looms over everything like a million-ton white shroud…

And as the campaign progresses the turncoat advances simply by not dying…

Leavened through mordant trench humour (I guess the clue is in the name), peppered with painfully human moments of tragedy or unwavering friendship and capturing the numbing horror of ceaseless struggle against the elements, environment, other humans and one’s own self-destructive demons, White Death is a compelling comics classic to be savoured and shared.
© 2014 Robbie Morrison & Charlie Adlard. All rights reserved.