Whiteout Compendium by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber. Oni Press, 2017
9781620104484. 240 pp.
Gene: We’re talking about the Whiteout Compendium, but we only read the first story in the book. The second half was originally published as Whiteout: Melt.
Sarah: Right, our book club is just covering Whiteout.
G: This book was made into a film.
S: I have not seen it.
G: Starring the lady in the vampires vs werewolves movies.
S: Yeah, that one.
G: Why haven’t you seen the movie?
S: There’s only one copy left at my library system and I don’t want to wait for it.
G: I don’t remember it being great, but I’m curious about it. Maybe I’ll watch it again. They have this thing called streaming now.
S: I’ve heard about that!
G: For about $3 you can probably make it happen. That’s just a guess.
S: It’s interesting to think about a movie, because the protagonist Carrie Stetko is such a difficult person it would be hard to create her in a movie. Especially as a woman. I feel like guys can be movie antiheroes, or difficult, but women can’t.
G: I felt like she looked wrong in the movie, because the woman who played her (Kate Beckinsdale) is so pretty. The character in the graphic novel is so tough and normal looking that I just wanted her to look a little more like that without having to be some big, buff action hero.
S: Stetko is physically small but has so much presence and power.
G: Not to take anything away from Kate Beckinsdale, who I do enjoy in movies.
But the weird thing is that the book you brought is tiny and has a Steve Leiber cover featuring snow and Carrie Stetko pulling her way through it and the ice. My old copy has a Frank Miller cover that’s black and white and looks straight out of Sin City. The book that I have has chapter art– the original covers for the series, which were all by different artists. Here’s the Mike Mignola (Hellboy) cover. These are not in the Compendium.
S: I really like that the flashbacks are done in a kind of pencil sketch, so you can tell when she’s remembering.
G: Pencils? Or is that a more lightweight inking? It’s hard to tell. But the difference is great. There’s a lot more texture.
S: Crosshatching instead of black blacks.
G: And that’s part of a flashback about what got Stetko exiled to Antarctica.
You need to give the pitch as you always do, because you’re better than me.
S: Stetko is a U.S. Marshal in Antarctica, in this town that in the on season has thousands of people, but in the off season only has a few hundred. There are areas of the continent where different countries’ scientific stations are located. She’s working at the American one.
G: There’s a map at the beginning of the second chapter.
S: She’s at McMurdo. She did something terrible, which got her this “plum” assignment at the ass end of nowhere, where she’s been for about four years. And she weirdly fits in even though the ratio of men to women is crazy, like 100:1. It’s worse in the off season. She gets treated really badly.
G: It’s worse than being a man working in a library.
S: Exactly. (laughing)
The story opens up with a murder on the ice. They can’t tell who it is because his face has been destroyed.
G: And they can’t do an autopsy until he thaws.
S: Which could be a long time!
G: It’s her and the Doctor she calls him Furry, the medical examiner. (He does not wear a tail.)
S: I used to work at a place where people did a season at McMurdo, and they all looked like that, all the guys grow beards, everyone looks even more heavyset than they are.
G: As they’re trying to get the body off the ice, he accidentally snaps one of the hands off the body. It seems like an idiot move.
S: It’s not really a locked room mystery, because people fly in and out, but it’s a small town, and someone there is a killer. So it’s a great claustrophobic mystery, made more intense by the fact that the weather outside can kill you really quickly.
G: The fact that his face is missing means he was murdered.
S: He didn’t just die of cold.
G: There are five guys who disappeared, no one knows to where.
S: And they eventually determine that the corpse is one of the missing U.S. guys, so it’s her jurisdiction.
G: But she also makes the point that people go missing all the time and are simply never found, because of where they are.
(Looking at Leiber’s drawings of Stetko, I think what bothered me in the move was she didn’t have freckles.)
S: She ends up working with a woman who shoves her way into the investigation, a British woman, Sharpe, at Victoria Station.
G: How does the mystery develop? She’s looking for a pilot, because there’s an indication that people have been going in and out of the base. The clock is ticking — she has a murder to solve before the season is over and most people leave, and her boss is on her to do it quickly. If she doesn’t figure it out now the murderer will get away, and her job is on the line. And the guy who is the closest to being a suspect is an American pilot who might have known something about the American corpse.
S: She goes to look into the missing British guys, and Stetko is suspicious of the woman at Victoria Station because she’s not a scientist or support crew, so what is she doing there?
G: She seems to be not exactly law enforcement, but she has a gun, which isn’t allowed.
S: And at Victoria Station there’s a great scene where Stetko has to go into a smoke-filled lounge full of guys watching porn on the TV, she’s in a place where this is normal workplace behavior.
G: There is a scratchy looking TV.
S: They go outside to interview the two British guys. To get there they have to clip onto a guideline, because it’s snowing out. And if you get turned around they’ll probably find your frozen body 3 feet from shelter because you couldn’t see it through the whiteout.
G: This book was lauded for this, and there are a lot of things I love about the art, but I love the page where they first go on the guideline outside. Everything is gray and dingy and snow-covered. Leiber probably did this by slashing ink around and making it white, or using white ink, but it looks so damn cold. I love the screen tones, too. He uses drawn lines and tones for texture. This was the first place I really understood that’s what the artist was doing outside of manga.
S: And in the afterword he apologizes to his wife for all of the ziptone in their bed.
G: That’s old school. That’s the stuff you had to cut out with an X-Acto knife. I wonder if you can still buy it.
But I love the textures. And this extends to the flashback scenes you were talking about. Stetko is bleeding on the floor, and there it’s all just washed out ink. Wow. I have no idea if it’s digitial or analog.
But back to the story. They get to the end of the guideline to meet the British guys and —
S: Totally dead. Faces smashed in.
G: And there’s a guy there with an ice pick who’s just finished doing that.
S: Everyone is super covered up because of the cold. So it’s almost not weird that he’s unrecognizable. It adds to the level of scary. He comes at them.
G: It’s silent. It’s so great.
And then he cuts the guideline and Stetko is lost outside in the snow.
S: I felt like it wasn’t heavy handed at all. If you lose the guideline you’re dead. A fact you need to understand, reader, because you don’t live at McMurdo. And then it’s cut. It ratchets up the tension.
G: And (minor spoiler) Stetko survives, but she’s far from unscathed. And that trauma brings what happened to her back home right back to the surface.