January 18, 2010

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Whiteout Volume 2

Written by Greg Rucka
Illustrated by Steve Lieber
Oni Press

Rucka and Lieber return to the frozen wastelands of Antarctica in this second volume of the series. I really enjoyed volume one and read the second part of this series shortly after finishing the first. I was curious to see how they went about using the world they created without it feeling like a rehash of the first series (a problem crime series can have, as Rucka notes in his afterward).

This time around, there are deadly goings-on at a Russian base, where the contents of the station are a bit more strategic than just scientific information. The US Government would like to know what is going on--and US Marshall Carrie Stetko is just the person for the job.

You see, rogue actions got her banned to the ice in the first place, and if she plays ball with the Feds, this might be her ticket out of Antarctica once and for all. All she has to do is find dirt on the Russians. It's simple enough, until she arrives to find the stakes are a lot higher than she was led to believe.

Now Carrie must wrestle with the very continent she both fears and respects as she matches wits with some of the best the old USSR has to offer, turned mercenary. Can even a former KGB agent make the difference when everything from guns to ice to her own emotions are being used against her? What will Carrie do to see green grass on a daily basis? And what are the consequences if she fails?

Rather smartly, Rucka doesn't try to give us another mystery. He's not out to set up Carrie as the Poirot of the Pole. She's a US Marshall in a backwater jurisdiction that no one else wants, and only extraordinary circumstances can make her interesting to her superiors (and the reader). Instead of giving her simple murders to solve, Rucka significantly ups the risk and places global security in her hands. That's quite a change from running fingerprints.

Now Carrie is turned into a reluctant espionage figure, and the result is interesting. She's still perfectly comfortable on the ice, despite some failings, but her ability to read the spy situations is absolutely terrible. Rucka is willing to make Carrie far more human this time, which is a nice development. My only problem is that I think he may have erred too far in the other direction.

Based on what we know of Carrie in the first volume, I can't see her agreeing to help the Feds no matter how good the deal. She's clearly independent and has learned not to trust her own employers. Why start now? What guarantee does she have? As the story progresses, we get a good reason for her to want to be involved, but at the start, I just don't think it's realistic. Similarly, I don't see Carrie making the mistakes she does with the Russian agent, Kuchin. After working so hard to build her up, it seems like Rucka humbles her here, and as a result, I felt the characterization was a bit off from book to book.

I'd have rather seen Carrie get drawn into this story by other means which would be more in keeping with her distrust of everyone. Similarly, I don't think anyone gets the drop on her, regardless of the situation. But I did like the idea that no matter what, Carrie was not giving up. She fights through the perils of the geography and the terror of mercenaries with the dogged determination she investigated the murder in the first book. She also is the only thing keeping Kuchin alive, as he's apt to discount the power of Antarctica.

It's not like Carrie's going from strong woman to helpless victim or anything. I just came to really like the way Rucka positioned her in the first volume and was a bit perplexed at the decision to weaken her when teamed with a man. There was some balance in them both being out of their element, but I felt like he got the better end it, and that made me a little disappointed in the results.

Rucka's use of Antarctica as a character, however, is amazing. The history of the continent and man's desire to exploit it are front and center in this story. Rucka mentions in his afterward of the idea of Antarctica as neutral avenger, killing not because the mercenaries are evil but because the ice just doesn't like people. That's such a great concept, and Rucka's well-researched insertion of historical information and meteorological fact bring it front and center. Carrie knows that the ice is the King of Antarctica, and no matter what she, Kuchin, and the mercenaries do, that fact will not change.

The story this time is straightforward spy material, with Rucka using a pretty standard post-Cold War trope as the plot. He could have used just about anything, because the story in this volume is about the characterization of those who come to Antarctica and those who choose to stay there, a continuation of the theme from volume one. Nothing in the plot is going to win readers. It's the characters who are the key, and even if I was less happy with Carrie's presentation this time out, I'm still a fan of Rucka's interplay between people, the ease of dialog, and the strong sense of difference he gives everyone, even minor players like the Feds or the mercenaries.

I spoke at length in my review of volume one of Steve Lieber's artwork for this series. I continue to be amazed at what he's able to do when working on a project that excites him. Lieber continues to use the contrast of white (instead of the typical crime/suspense drawing trick of black) to show that it's the snow and the ice which dominates the landscape. Things fade into (or stand out from) the overwhelming whiteness of Lieber's panels, making for a visual that is quite unlike what you normally see in a comic, especially one designed for black and white.

If the last volume featured Lieber making the most of a lot of indoor sets, this time we get to see Lieber explore the great frontiers of Antarctica, and I think he really nails it. Often just by working lines into a white canvas, Lieber shows that once you are past the few settlements in the wilderness, Antarctica is a big blanket of white, even at its most mountainous. He also gives a great sense of either claustrophobia or agoraphobia, depending on the scene. Without being overly intricate, which would have distracted from the story, Lieber makes the world around Carrie live and breathe in a way that helps Rucka use it as a factor in the story.

Once again, I also feel the need to mention Lieber's active posing of characters, particularly Carrie, and the use of facial features to reinforce Rucka's dialog. People's eyes flash, shoulders shrug, and mouths gape in terror at the dangers they face. This story would have been a lot less interesting if Lieber left out even half the expressions he gives the characters.

I did not enjoy the sequel as much as original, mostly because the plot was less interesting and I could not shake the feeling that Carrie was not quite herself. However, that doesn't mean that Whiteout Volume 2 isn't a very good comic. It just means that Rucka and Lieber set the bar so high the first time it was going to be hard to match. This is still a story that plays to Rucka's strengths and features absolutely gorgeous artwork from Lieber. This book is worth reading for the idea of Antarctica as a force of nature alone. It helps that Carrie is quite likable as a character and that Lieber draws her almost as well as Rucka writes things for her to say.

If you liked the first book or Rucka in general, I can recommend this one without hesitation. I'd love to see more in the Whiteout universe, if Rucka, Lieber, and Oni are willing to create it for us. After all, the ice holds many secrets, and Carrie's only cracked the surface of what they mean--or what her new life in exile means to her. Give the Whiteout series a try. You'll be glad you did.