Comics You Should Own – ‘Whiteout’

Well, Greg Rucka certainly did a nice job on his first comic, didn’t he?

Whiteout by Greg Rucka (writer) and Steve Lieber (artist/letterer).

Published by Oni Press, 8 issues (Whiteout #1-4 and Whiteout: Melt #1-4), cover dated July – November 1998 and September 1999 – February 2000.

Some SPOILERS ahoy, but not too many! And remember that you can click on the images to enlarge them!

Ultimately, it’s not really about the mysteries. In so much of mystery fiction, the mystery takes over and subsumes everything else, and very often, the mystery isn’t all that compelling anyway. Comics ought to be a great place for mysteries, because artists can draw things in the background that the writer doesn’t need to mention and readers might miss, only to spot on a second reading. In prose, writers have to call attention to things with words, which the readers will pick up on, but in comics, the artist can do the heavy lifting. So why there aren’t better mysteries in comics remains a surprise to me, and Whiteout, Greg Rucka’s first comics work after he had written several novels, doesn’t really join the pantheon. The second mini-series isn’t even a mystery, while the first is a compelling story but not a great mystery. That’s not the point, however. Whiteout succeeds so wonderfully because Rucka, in his first foray into comics, gives us Carrie Stetko, the first of his many compelling female characters and the one that might be the easiest to take, because Rucka’s creations hadn’t yet become a bit calcified as “strong female protagonists.” Don’t get me wrong – Rucka is a very good writer, and he’s always interesting and often great, but like another great writer, Warren Ellis, it feels like his protagonists are cut from the same cloth a bit. That “cloth,” so to speak, is Carrie Stetko, and it’s why, even re-reading this series after having absorbed so many other Rucka women, she remains a terrific character.

We’re introduced to Carrie on the ice in Antarctica, when she’s called in to retrieve a frozen dead body. She’s a U.S. Marshal, and the only law enforcement around, and Rucka quickly gives us a good sketch of her character: her boss doesn’t particularly respect her (he’s in Hawaii, though, so it’s not too big a deal), she doesn’t have many friends and the men all think she’s “frigid,” she killed someone in the past that she probably shouldn’t have, she hates churches, and she likes getting under people’s skins, possibly in order to do her job but also possibly because she doesn’t really know any better (and doesn’t care). This is all within the first few pages of issue #1, and Rucka does a good, naturalistic job of giving us these clues about her character. Steve Lieber also does nice work with Carrie – she’s cute but not beautiful, which would also become a bit of a template for Rucka women. Lieber gives her a functional, short haircut, and while she’s not fat, she’s certainly not rail-thin, so she looks like a regular woman (Lieber gets to draw her fully naked in Whiteout: Melt, and there’s nothing “fantastical” about her body). She tracks the body and the victim’s companions from McMurdo base, which is American, to Victoria station, which is British, and there Rucka introduces his second interesting female character, Lily Sharpe (not too on the nose with that name). Sharpe appears to be the equivalent to Carrie’s marshal status, but it’s clear early on that she has her own agenda and her own secrets. Carrie and Sharpe end up having a good relationship, notable for its lack of drama – yes, Sharpe keeps things from Carrie, but not to the point where it disrupts the investigation. When Sharpe is introduced, Rucka makes a clever point about the lack of female leadership in Antarctica – Carrie doesn’t know that Sharpe is a woman, so she naturally assumes the person in charge is a man. It’s a clever little point to make without being too obvious about it.

As I noted, the mystery isn’t too difficult to figure out, even for the reader. On page 7 of issue #1, we realize a character is up to something shady, and only a few pages later we see another character acting shifty. Neither character is hidden, so we know who they are. When Carrie gets back the information about the victim, we already know she’s behind, so Rucka isn’t making it hard for us to put the pieces together, even if it takes Carrie slightly longer to do it. As I wrote above, that’s really not the point. Rucka is doing a hard-boiled noir story, just one set in an alien and inhospitable place. So Carrie has obstacles to overcome that a “normal” setting wouldn’t present to her. The fact that she’s a woman is just one of those obstacles. Rucka uses the standard scares of hard-boiled noir to obscure the more interesting observations he’s making about Carrie. At the end of issue #1, Carrie and Sharpe discover the killer as he’s finishing another murder. He tries to run, and he and Carrie struggle. In a normal murder mystery, this would be exciting, sure, but this takes place in Antarctica, so when the villain cuts Carrie’s guide line, she’s lost in a blizzard, even though she’s very close to shelter. As she puts it at the beginning of issue #2, a “whiteout” decreases visibility to inches, and you can’t even see where the sky or ground is. Carrie finds shelter, naturally, but she can’t get purchase on the opening, so she has to take a glove off to get into the shack. Her fingers immediately freeze, and later she has to get her index finger and ring finger on her right hand amputated. So a simple fight between the hero and villain takes on much more horrific implications, simply because of where the story is set. In the second series, she and her partner chase men across the ice, and there’s no cover for any of them, which adds a weird element of danger to it all. Plus, they have to be careful of crevasses, which Carrie knows but no one else does.

So the setting provides some of the thrilling parts that make this an unusual story, but Rucka is much more interested in Carrie and even Sharpe in the first series and Aleksander Kuchin in the second series. Rucka, as I noted, sketches out Carrie very well over the course of the first few pages, and then spends the rest of the two series deepening her character. He places two women in positions of authority in the first series, and while nobody comments on it overtly, the undertones of sexism throughout the series are very interesting. We get that with her first interaction with her boss, who berates her over the phone in a way that it’s hard to believe he would do were she a man (he might be angry with her, but I doubt he would call her “fucking useless” if she had a Y chromosome), and on the same page with the men gossiping about her in the cafeteria. When Sharpe lures Carrie to Victoria station, the radio operator questions her motives, again in a way that doesn’t seem likely if Sharpe weren’t a woman. The doctor at McMurdo is Carrie’s friend, but he has a bit of a paternalistic attitude toward her – it feels like the relationship a father might have with a daughter, but again, it feels like he thinks Carrie needs protecting, even though she’s a grown-ass woman and a trained marshal. In issue #2, we find out why she’s been exiled to Antarctica – she was guarding a prisoner who killed women, and when he broke out of his handcuffs, Carrie killed him. Rucka packs a lot into those few pages – Carrie asks her boss if they can keep the killer in jail, and her boss tells her no, but as she points out, her boss is not the killer’s “target audience,” and the killer clearly wants to get at Carrie in a way he probably wouldn’t want to get at her boss, but in just a few panels, it’s clear the boss has no interest in helping out. Then, when Carrie kills him, the villain has already knocked her boss out, so Carrie saved his life. It helps explain his pettiness in the first issue, because he’s clearly uncomfortable with the fact that a woman saved him, and her exile to the bottom of the world is part of that. It’s well done by Rucka, and he keeps it just enough in the background that it doesn’t interfere with the story.

The second series, which features a heist and then, essentially, one long chase scene, has less room for this, especially as Carrie is paired with a man who respects her, and when he eventually shows his true colors, it’s not because she’s a woman, but because she’s an American and he’s Russian. Aleksander is a good character, but we don’t get as much about him as we do even with Sharpe. Carrie begins the story in Christchurch, on vacation, and they send her back early not because they are punishing her, but for the opposite reason – she’s the best chance they have to recover whatever was stolen by rogue Russians from a Russian base. Aleksander is also trying to recover whatever it was that was stolen (it’s unclear early on), and so they work together, and he’s not terribly put out by the fact that she’s a woman. Eventually they have sex, and it’s not clear if it’s because Aleksander really likes her or if he’s hoping she’ll trust him so that he can leave her and chase the bad guys by himself. Probably a bit of both, but the hoary trope of the two people having sex and then one of them leaves before the other wakes up is so hoary that Rucka probably didn’t mean it as a comment on Carrie’s gender. Still, when both Aleksander and Carrie catch up to the bad guys, one of them comments on how stupid it was to send a woman, especially because one of the bad guys is portrayed as someone who enjoys raping women. Rucka doesn’t have to bring that up, but it does show, once again, the casual contempt someone like Carrie has to deal with, just because she’s a woman.

The two stories work as simple adventure/mystery/thrillers, too, and a large part of that is because of Lieber. This was relatively early in his career (he was 30/31 when he started working on Whiteout), but it’s impressive how technically proficient he is. He’s always had bold, thick lines that give his art a grounded feel, which serves him well when he’s drawing superheroes (they add gravitas and realism to the art) but work particularly well in a harsh, tough landscape like Antarctica. He’s not a one-trick pony, though, as he varies his line width and strength nicely so that his people are a bit softer, which contrasts beautifully with the conditions outside. When they’re wearing protective gear, they look almost armored, and gradually they peel off roughly inked parkas and boots to reveal the all-too-human inside, which makes things like Carrie’s desperate attempt to get out of the cold at the beginning of issue #2 all the more harrowing. He uses Zip-A-Tone a lot, and he told me he would scratch at it with an X-Acto blade in some spots, which of course makes it a bit rougher. The Zip-A-Tone (I love Zip-A-Tone, by the way) adds another layer of texture, and Lieber usually uses it with gray tones to break up the stark black and white. He also, he told me, used a toothbrush to spatter white paint or black ink on top of it, another interesting technique that makes the artwork rougher. With regard to the white paint, this allows the snow to look far more naturalistic than if he had drawn lines to indicate snow. We see these techniques quite well in the first few pages of the book, with the Zip-A-Tone providing breaks in the clouds to make the sky look overcast, and the “snow” obscuring the corpse, Carrie, and the doctor:

When Lieber goes into flashback, he’s a bit sketchier, which isn’t a new technique but still works nicely. By Whiteout: Melt, which is a year on in his career, his line work is even stronger, and his inking, especially of, say, Carrie’s hair, is more subtle, so that her hair flows a bit more nicely. The brief (two-page) sex scene is terrific, as it appears he’s using charcoal to achieve a beautiful, almost idyllic effect, one that is undercut by the fact that Aleksander is (probably) planning to abandon Carrie. The effect is also in stark contrast to the outside world, which Lieber still draws starkly despite using some Zip-A-Tone and shading.

The best part of Lieber’s art is probably the way he portrays the faces of the characters and their body language. Non-verbal communication is always crucial in comics, because it can be such a superb weapon in an artist’s arsenal, as they can express so many things without bogging down in prose. Lieber does this almost immediately, as Carrie rolls her eyes when her boss is berating her and then almost crumbles when he calls her useless and tells her he’s going to fire her. This is a brilliant two-panel sequence:

There’s a lot of that kind of thing in the book. When Carrie manages to get out of the cold, there’s a superb wordless panel in which she can scream in pain, and Lieber nails her pain and terror. When her boss dismisses her concern over the prisoner she’s guarding, we get the contempt he has for her from his face, not his words. Sharpe has a tic of pushing her hair behind her ears, and Lieber makes sure she does it more than once. When Carrie recognizes that she’s been wrong about a crucial part of the mystery, her face is full of confusion and sudden insight. In issue #3, when she faces off against the dude who can close the station, we get his rage and hers matched, with Carrie standing several inches lower than he, until she gets fed up and smashes his face into her badge, showing her authority. When she releases him, Lieber draws him contrite and nicely cowed. When Carrie finally demands that Sharpe tell her what’s going on, Lieber does very good work with Sharpe in a few panels where she weighs the pros and cons of revealing what she knows. In the second series, Carrie goes through a whole range of emotions when the government is trying to convince her to return early to Antarctica, and Lieber does a wonderful job with her anger, her cynicism, and her acceptance. When she decides to have sex with Aleksander, she goes through a whole list of reasons why and why not in her mind, and while Rucka writes about it, Lieber’s drawings bring it home:

All of these little things make the book a richer reading experience. Rucka’s stories are good thrillers, and his subtle commentary on the way things work in the world, plus the setting, make these comics more interesting than a generic adventure. But Lieber’s art is a big part of why it works – his fights feel real, as he takes the time to consider how fights between people dressed in bulky clothes would work, so they feel more brutal and difficult, because no one is moving all that well. The people look real, as if they’ve been in a tough situation for a long time and the world has beaten them up a bit. The body language of the characters deepens Rucka’s theme, as it’s clear the men of the stations don’t respect Carrie and Sharpe as much as they would a man, and it has made both women far harder and sharper (sorry) than they probably would have been if the world were fairer. It’s a very good example of the art making the story better, and both make a impressive gestalt.

Both creators went on to bigger things, but this remains a career highlight for both of them, and it’s annoying that so many people – comics readers and non-comics readers – know it from the mediocre movie that melded both stories into a big of a mess and completely miscast Carrie (I like Kate Beckinsale, but man, she was miscast). The comics are so much better, and while Rucka has gone to the “damaged female protagonist” a lot in the past two decades, it’s hard to find one better than Carrie Stetko. The eight issues have been collected into a nice compendium, which you can get at the link below. If you’ve liked anything by these creators in the past 20 years, you will definitely like Whiteout.

Hey, look, there are archives! Fancy that!

7 Comments

    1. Greg Burgas

      Tom: Well, I’m not a casting director, but Lieber thought Clea Duvall would have worked. She was a bit young at the time (21/22), but I think she would have done better than Beckinsale. It’s not even that Beckinsale is a bad actor, but she’s too pretty in the movie. If they had been willing to “ugly” her up a bit, maybe she could have worked!

      1. There’s a crappy 1981 TV movie, The Intruder Within, that’s set on an oceanic oil rig. I was pleasantly surprised that while the female lead (Jennifer Warren) is attractive, she’s not so beautiful that I couldn’t believe she’d be working on an oil platform.

  1. Eric van Schaik

    What is going on with you? 😉
    I’m not complaining about a new entry so soon.
    Maybe a new Flippin’ within a few days? wink wink nudge nudge 🙂

    Indeed good stuff Mr. Burgas. I’ve got both of them in trades years ago.

    Last thursday my girlfriend moved her cat to my place. I’ve got 2 cats already and we were a bit worried how it would go, but fear for fights was unnecessary.
    This speeds up her coming to live with me.

    1. Greg Burgas

      Eric: Well, when there aren’t any new comics for six weeks, I can read some back issues! We should have a new Previews post this week – we’re remarkably speedy this month!

      It’s good that things are going well with you. I love how your girlfriend moves her cat in but not herself yet. Taking it slow! 🙂

    1. Greg Burgas

      Yeah, this was the first time I noticed Lieber – I had some issues of Hawkman that he drew, but that was when I barely noticed most artists, but by this time, I was actually paying attention, and dang, it’s good art!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.