I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, but I never finished reading WHITEOUT when it came out as four separate issues. I always figured I'd wait 'til I had all four and then read them. And I just never did. I did, however, pick up Oni Press' TPB compilation of this excellent four part series by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber. There's nothing nicer than having the whole story between two covers. Makes it much more enjoyable to read. And so that's what I did this past weekend.
WHITEOUT is the story of the first mysterious murder on Antarctica. We follow around the American Marshal who's put in charge of investigating the murder, and full-scale mayhem erupts. OK, it's not full scale. It never reaches the cliché sci-fi summer movie thing where planes start crashing into buildings, blowing up everything, and causing massive amounts of CGI to spew across the scene. Heck, it's sedate by comparison. It's a combination of man vs. man and man vs. nature.
And it works wonderfully well.
Rucka creates some real three-dimensional characters. You can read between the lines here and guess that Rucka has all their backgrounds sorted out before he begins writing, even when he doesn't explore them all out in the open. Carrie Stetko, the lead character, gets points for being one of those heroes the author loves so much that he makes her completely miserable, and gives her an incredibly tough backstory. The murder plot unfolds at a nice pace, details all come together in the end, and there's still room for character development.
It's rather well researched. I imagine some of it is writer's conceit and plot device, but from what little I've read and seen about the area and what is presented here, it all seems plausible.
Steve Lieber is just as important to this book as Rucka. For starters, he draws real people. Sure, he can draw a super hero yarn just as well as anyone else, but he tends to excel at stuff that's slightly more grounded. WHITEOUT is four issues of real people talking and getting into trouble and flying from station to station. You get real emotion from these characters, living as real and as normal a life as you'll get from a bunch stationed at the southern-most point of the world.
Most impressive, perhaps, is the fact that the people don't all look alike and aren't easily confused. In the absence of the comics shorthand that is superhero costumes, Lieber has to concentrate on actual physical characteristics. We're not dealing with a pack of cloned super-buff bodies. Stetko is a short, sassy, confident, tough-talking thing, as compared to the British agent she ends up working with, Lily Sharpe. She's a taller, blonder, almost Bond Girl who's still drawn appropriately proportioned.
In addition to all of this, Lieber gets to exercise some of his artier nature. It's not all straight black and white linework. Yes, it's all black and white. And I'm not trained well enough to tell you what some of the stuff Lieber uses here are. But I'm guessing some charcoal and pencil work. There's some zip-a-tone type stuff. (I know, I know. It's not zip-a-tone. It's the same idea though, isn't it?) Grey washes. Some work without varied line weights. And, of course, there's a bloody lot of white out used in here for snow effects.
I asked Lieber about this. He responded:
"It is zip-a-tone, sort of. Homemade zip-a-tone to be specific. I make my own zip by xeroxing a real sheet of zip onto a sheet of sticky-backed transparency paper. And there's a little bit of pencil, but what you're probably looking at when you refer to charcoal is grease pencil, also known as "china marker." It's a waxy, crumbly pencil, kind of like a crayola crayon. I use both black and white grease pencils. And, yes, tons of white paint."
There's one other thing I think deserves mentioning. Those of you who've been reading this column for awhile know that I'm a firm believer that the lettering can often make or break a book. It can make a book an enjoyable read, or it can make it a real chore. It can set the tone as being light and fun or dramatic or dense.
Steve Lieber does his own lettering here. He does it really well. One of the great things about an artist doing his own lettering is that he can set the eye moving in the direction he wants. There's no confusing balloon orders used in this book. And the balloons aren't an afterthought to the art. The two are done with each other in mind. It's a strong argument for having artists letter their own work. They teach it at Lieber's alma mater, the Joe Kubert School. (Then there are those, such as Don Rosa, who believe that being a cartoonist also means writing the stuff you draw, and inking your own stuff. That's just to show you the diversity of opinions we have in this little industry.)
Also, the lettering is done by hand. I'm convinced of that. But I had to check it to make sure. It's strange. The lettering felt natural when I was reading the book. Computer lettering generally still sticks out like a sore thumb, even the stuff based on people's real handwriting, such as is done with TELLOS. Lieber's lettering is strong and consistent when it needs to be. He also varies it, however, with the dialogue to reflect what is being said. He also used a few different fonts, to differentiate between the thought of various characters. (Rucka uses an omniscient POV for this, bouncing back and forth between Lily and Carrie's thoughts. It's generally frowned up in short story writing. It's OK in novels to a certain degree, but should only really be used by experienced writers, at the risk of making things a confusing mess.)
Finally on the topic of lettering, there's one thing I noticed while flipping back through the book. Rucka doesn't use too many sound effects. I can think of a few reasons for this, but I don't know for certain which one Rucka was thinking of. I'll stick with the more meritorious reasons, because I think it's a deliberate decision:
The first one is that it adds a sense of realism to the book. When people think "comic book," the first thing that comes to mind is the 60s Batman TV show and "POW BAMM CRASH." Keeping away from that, the reader believes they're reading a novel or seeing something happen in real life.
Secondly, it's a reminder of the conditions down there. I can't vouch for them. I've only been snowbound in Maryland, Vermont, and Northern New Jersey. But you know that stillness and quietness there is to the air when it's snowing? That's how I felt when I was reading this book. Sure, if someone's bashing you over the head, or if a plane is landing a hundred feet from you, you're going to hear a sound. But the atmosphere is better maintained with the lack of sound effects.
Throw in some covers from Frank Miller, Dave Gibbons, Matt Wagner, and Mike Mignola.
It's a pretty package and the only color to appear in it is the red used on the cover and the bluish-gray used on the back cover.
There's a sequel in the works, which was just solicited for September, called WHITEOUT: MELT. I'm looking forward to it.
To recap: WHITEOUT. By Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber. Published by Oni Press. ISBN #0-9667127-1-4. $10.95 US / $16.95 Canada (because the USA's last best defense against Canada is the strong dollar conversion from our side. =)
Go get it. Read it. Enjoy it. And come back here next week.