The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 26 | Whiteout Vol. 1 review

Leaving Proof 26 | Whiteout Vol. 1 review
Published on Friday, May 27, 2011 by
Whiteout Vol.1: The Definitive Edition
  • (Oni Press, 2007; 128 pages; reprints Whiteout #1-4, originally published July–November 1998)
  • Writer: Greg Rucka
  • Artist and Letterer: Steve Lieber
  • Cover Price: $13.95 US
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Greg Rucka is one of those rare writers in the comics industry who has been fortunate enough to have found a niche in superhero comics that played directly to his non-superhero genre roots and writing strengths (although to say this was all due to “fortune” does Rucka discredit, since he pretty much carved out that niche himself). Before breaking into the mainstream comics consciousness with DC’s critically acclaimed “superhero police procedural” Gotham Central, Rucka was primarily known for his work on Oni Press’ Whiteout and Queen & Country. And before that, he was writing  the pulp/noir Atticus Kodiak novels. Many genre novelists have since tried to replicate Rucka’s crossover success (Gregg Hurwitz, Duane Swierczynski, and Victor Gischler are the first three names to come to mind), but in my opinion, none have been able to garner the (well-deserved) critical and commercial success Rucka has. Part of this is timing, of course, but a larger reason for this is also because Rucka is a very engaging writer, whether he’s working on a comic book or a crime/noir paperback.

Released in 1998 by Oni Press, Whiteout was Rucka’s first published comic book work. As far as industry debuts go, this is about as strong as any I’ve seen in the last two decades. Paired with the excellent Steve Lieber on art and lettering duties, the first Whiteout mini-series was a bona fide tour de force for the rookie tandem, garnering “Best Writer,” “Best Penciller/Inker or Penciller/Inker Team,” and “Best Limited Series” nominations during the 1999 Eisner Awards.

Superficially, and apart from the unique Antarctica setting, Whiteout seems like a fairly by-the-numbers whodunit: Censured US Federal Marshal Carrie Stetko, exiled to a post in McMurdo Station, stumbles upon a rare Antarctica murder. The investigation leads her to a number of other Antarctic outposts, as Stetko follows leads, chases down suspects, and finds more murders;  before finally catching up to the mastermind behind the string of killings on the ice. The plot isn’t particularly sophisticated, Rucka (deliberately?) telegraphs the identity of the murderers fairly early on, but by keeping the story relatively straightforward, Rucka is able to focus on characterization and dialogue, and boy, does it pay off. The main cast consists of fully realized characters who are funny, intelligent, insecure, and sympathetic all at once. Throughout the story, Stetko is a mess of self-doubt, still seething over the infraction that led her to an assignment in a figurative and literal no man’s land. Once on the trail of the killers though, she becomes a nigh-unstoppable force of nature that can only be slowed down temporarily by a circumstantial conspiracy of murderers and the bitter Antarctic cold. Rucka’s Stetko is that rare strong woman in male-dominated comics fiction that neither panders to adolescent over-sexualization nor serves as a blatant male lead character surrogate (unlike some other male writers’ ideas of what a “strong woman” is).

1990s Hawkman penciler Steve Lieber’s art is, in a word, amazing. The polar setting is a perfect showcase for his black and white line work, and he displays a great gift for sequential visual storytelling, endowing his figures with an articulate and consistent body language as well as unique and expressive faces. His judicious use of screentones made me nostalgic for the days before digital colour separation and Photoshop. Excellent stuff, and a must-see for any prospective artists looking for contemporary black and white “indie” comics art that can stand up to the best of the mainstream and superhero artists in terms of technical craft and execution (too often, the “indie” or small press label becomes an excuse for readers to view shoddily drawn comics with a less discerning eye).

In Whiteout, Rucka explores themes that he would later re-visit in the much more popular Oni Press title Queen & Country, the Whiteout sequel entitled Whiteout: Melt, and DC’s Gotham Central, perhaps most obvious among them being the use of a strong, non-stereotyped, female character in the protagonist’s role. Rucka is much, much more than DC’s go-to guy for lesbian superheroes and “superhero noir.” He’s a solid author in any genre, who crafts incredibly well-rounded male and female characters, writes believable and intelligent dialogue (without falling into the “see how clever I am!” trap), and makes solidly entertaining comics. And really, what more can a comics reader ask for?

Highly recommended.

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Post-script 1: A film adaptation of Whiteout starring Kate Beckinsale was apparently released in 2009. Haven’t seen it myself, but by all accounts, it seems to have been an unmitigated disaster, and was one of the biggest box-office bombs of 2009 (according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, it cost $35 million to make and the total worldwide box-office gross was only a little over $17 million. Ouch). It was universally panned by critics, too, with a Metacritic score of 28 (out of a maximum score of 100). I guess not having Rucka have anything to do with the screenplay really hurt it.

Post-script 2: Newsarama has the first 33 pages of the trade paperback available for free viewing online, if you’re the “try-before-you-buy” type.

Post-script 3: There are some superficial similarities between Whiteout‘s Carrie Stetko and Smilla Qaaviqaaq Jaspersen, the protagonist from the 1992 novel Smilla’s Sense of Snow by reclusive Danish author Peter Høeg. I didn’t see fit to mention those similarities in the review though, as they seem purely circumstantial and coincidental to me.

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