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DF Interview: A blizzard of war angst from Robbie Morrison’s White Death
By Byron Brewer
Set in the Trentino mountain range, the graphic novel White Death follows Pietro Aquasanta, who, as a rifleman in the Italian army, returns to what was a realm of wonder adventure in his childhood during World War I, but has now become a sterile world of death and despair.
Robbie Morrison (2000 AD) and Charlie Adlard (The Walking Dead) use “White Death” -- a slang term used to describe avalanches in French and Italian Alpine regions – as a metaphor for war.
Dynamic Forces took a brief sojourn to the Dark Island to speak to the Scottish-born Morrison, and get him rrrrrrrrollin’ on the stark reality and deadly tragedy behind this black-and-white HC OGN.
Dynamic Forces: Robbie, tell us how a popular British writer makes his way from Nikolai Dante to White Death.
Robbie Morrison: I guess moving from the science-fiction adventures of a swashbuckling thief and adventurer in the 27th Century Russian Empire to a grimly realistic war story set in the Italian Alps in 1916 might seem like a wee bit of a jump, but I just aim to try and tell the best stories possible. It's always good to push yourself creatively and try something a little different as well.
Comics are sometimes a little too closely associated with superheroes and science-fiction, but I like to think the medium is more than capable of telling any kind of story in any kind of genre. With White Death, we wanted to produce a strong, powerful, mature story, which could have appeared in any medium -- film, television, prose or comics -- which are as valid a method of storytelling as any of the others. The story's everything, as far as I'm concerned.
DF: Writing for UK’s 2000AD has been a large part of your career. How important has that particular job been with the development of your craft and talent?
Robbie Morrison: 2000AD is a creative juggernaut of ideas, characters and stories and it's great to have been a part of that for almost 20 years now. Also, the anthology format of 5/6-page episodes every week teaches you to write tightly and concisely. There's no room for padding or “decompression” in the “Galaxy's Greatest Comic”.
DF: Tell us the origin of White Death and what it has to do with a project called Les Cartoonistes Dangereux.
Robbie Morrison: White Death is a graphic novel set in a relatively little-known corner of World War One, which has recently been named “The White War”. The Italian Front stretched across the borders separating Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the main battles fought in mountain regions claimed by Italy, part of the Allied Powers, from Austria, allied to the Kaiser. They confronted each other in a conflict strategically similar to trench warfare, but played out in the treacherous heights of the Trentino, Dolomite and Caporetto mountain ranges.
Amongst the soldiers on both side, no weapon was more feared than the White Death, devastating avalanches deliberately caused by cannon-fire, which -- as relentless and remorseless as the war itself -- consumed everything in their path. “White Death” is a slang term used to describe avalanches in French and Italian Alpine regions.
The book was originally published by Les Cartoonists Dangeraux, a collective of UK creators, who were influenced by “bande dessine”, the over-sized graphic album format that is hugely popular in France and the rest of Europe, where comics in general are more respected than in the US and UK. Charlie was already a member and was experimenting with a new art style that he thought might suit a historical project of some sort. We knew each other from working on 2000AD and had chatted about working together on various occasions, so he got in touch to ask if I had any ideas for a World War One story.
DF: How did a Helensburgh-born scribe become interested in World War I’s Italian Front?
Robbie Morrison: It was one of those story ideas that refused to go away. I first became aware of the White War after watching a BBC of Channel 4 documentary about avalanches. It quoted a chilling statistic that, on the Italian Front in World War One, an estimated 60 - 100,000 troops were killed in avalanches deliberately caused by the enemy. To me this seemed to take the inhumanity of warfare to new extremes -- turning nature itself into a weapon of war.
When Charlie told me about the art style he wanted to use -- a haunting combination of charcoal and chalk on gray paper -- it seemed perfect for a story set in a frozen landscape of mountains and avalanches. I started work on the script -- coincidentally while I was actually in Italy, taking the majority of the character's names from a First World War memorial in the town where I was staying -- while Charlie produced preliminary sketches and visuals, including an incredibly powerful opening sequence. I knew after seeing the initial artwork that White Death was going to be something special, very different from anything either of us had done previously.
While I was working on the script, Charlie actually also paid me one of the nicest compliments I've had as a writer. After I sent him the scenes in which Francesco Cadorna visits the wounded Alberto Diaz in hospital, Charlie called me up to say he had a tear in his eye after reading them because they were so moving.
DF: Who are some of the protagonists in White Death?
Robbie Morrison: The lead character is Pietro Aquasanta, an Italian rifleman, who, in the last months of 1916, returns to his childhood home of the Trentino mountain range to fight in the First World War. He very quickly discovers that it is no longer the realm of wonder and adventure he remembers, but has become a place of death and despair.
Almost as dangerous as the enemy is Lieutenant Orsini, Aquasanta's ruthlessly ambitious commanding officer, who has no qualms about sending his men to their deaths in order to advance his own military career. The battle of wills and clash of ideals between Aquasanta and Orsini's forms the spine of the narrative as the war unfolds around them.
DF: How did White Death come to Image Comics?
Well, apart from the fact that Image currently publishes some of the most consistently interesting books on the market, Charlie has been involved with them for some time. He's working on some zombie thing or other. I keep telling him it's doomed to failure and will never go anywhere, but he still stubbornly persists with it.
Seriously, though, as Charlie already does The Walking Dead with Image, they seemed like the perfect publisher for the new US edition. We also have new editions out in France from Delcourt and Spain from Planeta. I always thought we were a little ahead of our time when we first published the book, because the market for Original Graphic Novels was nowhere near as strong as it is today.
DF: What was it like working with Shrewsbury's own Charlie Adlard, who is also known, as you say, as the artist on The Walking Dead comic?
Robbie Morrison: As well as being a master comic-book storyteller, Charlie is genuinely one of the nicest guys you could meet, in or out of the comics industry, so it's always great to work with him. I'm obviously biased, but I think White Death is one of the best things Charlie's done. It's a departure from the style he's become known for – an example of an artist pushing himself creatively -- but still retains the storytelling skills that make The Walking Dead such a huge success.
Charlie not only captures the grand spectacle of the high-altitude locations, the numbing reality of life in the trenches, the desperation and brutality of hand-to-hand combat, and the thundering power of the avalanches, he also portrays the subtler emotional interplay of the characters in moving and poignant detail.
DF: White Death predates The Walking Dead. Are you a fan of Adlard’s later works?
Robbie Morrison: Oh, aye, I'm a huge fan of Charlie's work and look forward to hopefully working with him again when he gets this zombie thing out of his system. Joking aside, though, let me put it like this, Charlie's one of the few artists who could convince me to read and enjoy a zombie comic, because normally I hate anything to do with zombies.
DF: Your story is quite a stark and realistic one, especially with Adlard’s fine art style in chalk and charcoal. What would you like today’s reader to take away from your story?
Robbie Morrison: Of all the projects I've worked on, White Death is possibly the one that remains closest to my heart. I'm immensely proud of the book and hope we manage to say something about the horror and futility of war, and the cruelty, compassion and camaraderie of those trapped within it. It's a dark tale that was produced not only with a passion for the material, but for the medium of comics and what we think it's capable of.
DF: What is next from writer Robbie Morrison?
Robbie Morrison: At the moment, I'm embarking on some mind-boggling adventures in time and space as the writer of Titan Comics and the BBC's new Doctor Who: The 12th Doctor comic-book series, which ties in nicely with Peter Capaldi's arrival as the new Doctor.
It's illustrated by artist extraordinaire Dave Taylor (imagine Doctor Who drawn by Moebius!) and we aim to capture all the thrills, chills, humor and sheer wonderment of the TV series, while taking full advantage of all the storytelling possibilities the comics medium has to offer. And to throw in as many “hide-behind-the-sofa” moments of terror and heart-stopping cliffhangers as possible.
Dynamic Forces wishes to thank Robbie Morrison for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. White Death is a 104-page black-and-white hardcover graphic novel that will be in comic book stores on September 3rd -- today!
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