January 18, 2010

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Whiteout Volume 1

Written by Greg Rucka
Illustrated by Steve Lieber
Oni Press

I'd been wanting to read these books for awhile now and took advantage of some down time on a long trip to sit down and see if the pattern of "I like Greg Rucka when he's not trying to do superheroes" continued for me.

The answer was a resounding yes, as this series about a US Marshall banished to Antarctica is exactly the type of crime/suspense comic that Rucka is really good at.

Our heroine is Carrie Stetko, who was sent to the coldest place on earth because she had an altercation with a prior prisoner back in the United States. Things are quiet, if a bit cold, until an exploration team turns up missing and one member is quite clearly dead.

Now Carrie must work like mad to solve the crime before most of the population of the continent is sent home, leading her across several stations and running into a shadowy British woman who wants to help Carrie--or does she? What, in this wasteland of snow, can possibly be so valuable as to be worth a man's life? And can Carrie and her unlikely partner solve the mystery before time runs out?

Those are the questions that Rucka explores with the reader, playing fair along the way for good measure. I was able to figure out the crime and the reason behind it, along with another crucial part of the plot (which I don't want to mention because it would spoil it for a new reader) a little bit ahead of each revelation. If anything, Rucka might have been too fair--I wouldn't have minded being surprised. There are a few red herrings, of course, one of which I wish had been pursued, as I think it would have added to the mix. But overall, read as a pure mystery/suspense story, this holds up very well, which I guess is no surprise given Rucka's background.

Free of continuity and existing characterization, Rucka can concentrate on the story he wishes to tell, and does a great job of it. Those who have read a lot of Rucka's comics by now will instantly recognize Carrie as Rucka's strong woman who is better than everyone around her. She definitely is the model for Renee Montoya and Kathy Kane. If there's a problem, it's that Carrie, like Rucka's Montoya, is almost too perfect. She figures out the crime, she survives every peril put before her, she overcomes the males who want to get her down. She's the little engine that could, which can be annoying if pushed too far. In this case, Rucka skirts that line but doesn't cross it, though your tolerance may vary.

It's certainly a refreshing change from reading so many weak women in comics, but I feel like Rucka is overcompensating for his fellow creators' flaws. Carrie's only sin is that of overconfidence and a willingness to kill, neither of which harm her irreparably. I prefer my characters, especially in detective fiction, to have more character quirks.

That being said, I really enjoyed the story. It's obvious Rucka worked hard to research conditions in Antarctica, the relationships between the various stations, and what might motivate a person to kill in such a barren environment and a limited suspect pool. There are all sorts of little details included to help you get a feel for the world in which Carrie lives: Life lines because of visibility, the rapid drops in temperature, and the (probably ignored) treaties signed by various nations are just a few of the details Rucka includes to help flesh out the story.

I studied Antarctica a lot in school, so I was easily able to tell how much work went into the background material of the story. Rucka should be commended for taking such pains to make the story accurate to its location and not just a murder set in a cool place.

Taking time to make sure the setting is accurate doesn't sell the story alone, however. Rucka's dialog is sharp and each person gets a distinctive voice. I think he even captures the feeling of what it would be like to be a strong woman among so many men very well, despite being male himself. (Since I am also a guy, I may be totally wrong on this score.) Plus, the idea of both main protagonists being women is pretty neat and rather rare in the mainstream comics world. The narrative flows cleanly from page to page, and there aren't any dead spots, even when we have to go back and get Carrie's origin. By the end of the story, I felt like Rucka had tied up the loose ends without preventing him from revisiting Carrie in a later comic. For me, that makes this a successful crime story.

Most crime books use shadows, but Lieber cannot. Instead, he uses white spots to blur images, which I think is a brilliant flipping of the typical noir feel. While most books fade to black when trying to obscure, in Antarctica, the overwhelming color is white. That doesn't mean he ignores black ink--it's used for effect, too. But the overall idea that the white of the snow and ice can obscure all--even a criminal's tracks--helps to reinforce Rucka's theme of Carrie versus her environment.

I also appreciate the fact that Lieber tries hard to keep the action flowing, matching Ruck's constant movement of the characters. It would be very easy to leave them static as an art tactic (frozen like the world around them), but Lieber instead opts to use movement to oppose the weather outside. In addition, his facial features really sing--Carrie, Furry, Loo, Lily, and even minor characters all emote very well to the reader, leading to clues and red herrings just by the looks on their faces. This is something I've been paying a lot of attention to lately, and Lieber really nails it here.

As he mentions in the afterward, Lieber shines by treating this comic as though it were his own personal sketchbook. He mentions using all sorts of techniques and brushes, and I think that effort comes through. The freedom to do as he wishes unlocked something in Lieber that I hadn't seen before, and I really hope to see again.

Overall, Whiteout is a great crime comic, and would be a very good gateway comic for someone who likes detective fiction but isn't sure about reading a "funny book" or the possibilities they hold for those who like mysteries. Rucka and Lieber combine for a compelling page-turner, and that's exactly what I want from the genre, whether it's text, television, movie, or comic. Rucka's typical favoritism towards his protagonist is here in spades, but it doesn't get in the way of the plot. I can recommend the first volume of Whiteout without any reservations to comics fans and crime fans alike.