Charlie Adlard and Robbie Morrison Talk White Death, Walking Dead, and More!

We speak with Charlie Adlard and Robbie Morrison about their World War I graphic novel as well as Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and X-Files

Though both Charlie Adlard and Robbie Morrison occupy prime spots of real estate as laudable creators of fine comics, a lot of their most successful endeavors seem to have — at least on the molecular, behind the scenes level — a link to the bold World War I story that they joined to tell back in the late 90s. White Death is that book and it is, up to now, one of those books that only the cool kids know about. It’s one of Adlard and Morrison’s “deep cuts,” but thanks to a reprint from Image Comics (that is available now), the fan masses will have a chance to get a look at the brilliant soldier story with the stunning and experimental art from the fellow who has written Judge Dredd and the guy who draws The Walking Dead.  

In this exclusive interview with the creators of White Death, we spoke separately to Adlard (via phone) about whether the US market is primed to receive this very European book, being inspired to try something different with his art and avoiding complacency on The Walking Dead. For Morrison (who we “spoke” to via email), we delve into the research required to craft this tale, what inspired the story and the challenge of finding Peter Capaldi’s voice in his current on-going Titan Doctor Who comic.

Den of Geek: You say that your original focus was on the European market, I guess because it would have had more acceptance there. Now it’s going a little bit wider, you’ve got Image Comics involved — what is it about the comic marketplace that’s changed now, or is it that you and Robbie have both attained a level of notoriety that it makes you feel like your work can get more exposure now?

Charlie Adlard: It’s no secret that obviously, being the artist of The Walking Dead has helped certain projects see another lease on life and obviously it’s very fortuitous that we’ve hit the 100th anniversary of World War I as well. There’s a lot of handy coincidences happening this year.

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It hasn’t changed considerably, but I think the market has changed a bit. That [change] is partly due to publishers like Image, primarily, who have pushed more interesting material out there. I mean, ten years ago — and certainly at the time when we were creating White Death — the market was even more dominated by superheroes and their like rather than they are now. I mean, they’re still dominant, but there is room in the American market for other products to breathe.

I still firmly believe that this book is a European book. It’s got a European sensibility, not just in the setting but in the feel of the thing and the way that the story is told. Just the way that we obviously wanted it to look and everything. It’s just everything that the European market is geared up for and the American market isn’t. And that’s no insult to the American market, it’s just the way it was. It was born from our love of French comics at that time and we did kind of lean towards that.

As the internet has grown, people have been able to expand the parameters of what comics they’re searching for. I know people that are more into French comics, they’re more into Moebius, people that wouldn’t have know that these things existed 10 or 15 years ago. Do you think that has helped to make the US market a little bit more sophisticated?

Adlard: Yeah, I’d like to think (laughs)… I’d like to think that’s true. I think, yeah, I think you’re right. Because of the advent of the internet and everything that comes with that, people have been able to see this stuff a bit more regularly because it wasn’t being published in English. Even here, in the UK, it wasn’t being published in English. Merely 21 miles across the English Channel from France; it seems absurd that this material, aside from the obvious things like Tintin and a bit of Heavy Metal stuff and obviously Moebius, that was it. There was nothing. Even in our country, we’re missing out on this vast, vast market. The French are less…how should I put this? Less reliant on the technology. They still prefer the actual physical material. It’s just odd to see french comic books as downloadable material…

Not just as a downloadable book, but also just…if you’re a small shop, your eyes are a little bit more open to the things that are around the world because of the internet now. Even just the buzz factor of being able to hear people talking about these comic books so that you can order them as a paper book. I didn’t mean for it to sound like it was just as a digital downloadable book, I think it’s also just the awareness of these things because of the internet, because the community has… I mean previously, you’d walk into a comic book shop and it was small. You had two or three people to talk to and that was that. Now you have two or three thousand people on twitter or whatever and you can get educated about books that are available.

Adlard: Yeah, yeah, oh totally. In that sense, it is a great new world. Like I said, hopefully White Death will fit into something like that anyway. I dont really have anything to add — I agree (laughs).

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You’ve spoken before about how this was something that came up after you left the X-Files book with Topps. Was it more just the challenge of pushing yourself to do something completely different as well as honoring some artists and some work that you were passionate about at that time?

Adlard: Oh absolutely. Drawing it in the style that I drew it in was almost a complete reaction against what I’d been doing for the previous four or five years professionally and it’s no secret that I had a pretty bad time on The X-Files — especially the final year, so, yeah by the time I came out of The X-Files, for such a young guy, I was fairly jaded already with the industry. I felt like I made money off The X-Files. That’s also no secret, so it was a good opportunity to kind of put my money where my mouth was and really try to push myself and see what I could do with this medium and not try and do it in that that traditional way. The sort of predictable way. I really wanted to…yeah, make people sort of sit up, hopefully.

You’ve been doing The Walking Dead for about 10 years now, I assume you’re in a better place. Because this is a more mainstream book, do you feel a need to want to challenge yourself to do something that is out of your comfort zone again? To just go outside of the box from what people have become accustomed to? Is there something on the horizon that’s going to be, not like White Death, but something completely different?

Adlard: I think most artists you talk to, I’d like to think, want to challenge themselves all the time because if they just find that they’re just repeating the same old stuff over and over again, what’s the point, almost. So yeah, for me I like to keep The Walking Dead fresh. One of the reasons that I’ve been on The Walking Dead for so long is I’ve been able…I mean I’m lucky because I’m fast as well, but I’ve been able to take on other projects to keep the spice of working and doing comic books alive for me.

So I’ve got nothing coming up that’s as crazy as White Death is and was back then and I’m not sure if I’ll ever go that sort of left of field again, but who knows? Certainly I might see something that inspires me. I might pick up a certain bit of equipment and find that I can use it in whatever way.

At the moment, I’m carrying on my love for European comics. Sorry to sound like a broken record but Robert [Kirkman] and I are actually working on a new project called The Passenger which Robert re-announced at San Diego this year because we announced it four years ago and it kind of fell by the wayside somewhat. That’s a science fiction thriller, but it will be drawn fairly traditionally but in a European format.

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I’ve persuaded Robert to try and try his hand at that kind of storytelling and after that, I’m actually working on a good fun book called Vampire State Building which is, well it’s fairly self evident what it’s about but it’s for Soleil (who was bought by Delcourt), the publisher who also published my other French book, Breath of the Wendigo, a few years back. But again, that will be different in terms of…well, when I say in terms of style, it basically…whatever equipment I choose to use dictates my style. I always think I draw in the same manner, but whether I choose to use charcoal, a pen or a brush or whatever…it’s a specific set of marks, so obviously that dictates how I draw    but my actual process is always the same.

So this year, there’s a couple of things to keep in the pipeline that keeps The Walking Dead fresh for me and then angles me to sort of see another…(laughs) the long road in front of me with The Walking Dead still continuing because I can actually do these other things.

Now what is it inside The Walking Dead book itself that you’re able to do to keep that fresh? I assume it can’t just be outside projects that drive you to continue doing it, it has to be something inside the book or else I’m sure it would feel soul sucking. What is it about that project itself that you’re able to keep going back to? What keeps that fire going internally with the book itself?

Adlard: It’s very simple really: it’s the love of storytelling. And if it’s a good story, I enjoy drawing it. People ask me…I think one of the most absurd questions that actually a writer can ask an artist, bizarrely is, when a writer approaches an artist and goes, “Well, what sort of thing would you like to do? Would you like to do science fiction? Would you like to do horror? Blah blah blah.” And you go, well, no. I want to do something that’s good. I don’t care whether it’s science fiction, horror, drama, musical or whatever — musical comics, that would be interesting — but you know, I just want it to be good, I don’t care about the genre. So that’s what fires me up about The Walking Dead — the fact that Robert can still push out really really great scripts and if I get a great script, I’ve instantly got the inspiration.

It’s got nothing to do with getting bored with the characters because Robert’s constantly keeping them fresh for me and for him. Because, as a writer, I’m sure you can ask the same question, “Why do you keep coming back to these characters?” So it’s exactly the same for an artist. And honestly, it’s got nothing to do with the money. If I woke up one day and thought, “Yeah I’m really bored with The Walking Dead, everyday’s starting to become a bit of a chore,” I wouldn’t be on the book. So, it’s a testament to Robert’s writing skill and how he keeps it fresh that inspires me as well to draw the thing.

What is it about a war comic that made this the right vessel for this kind of art?

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Adlard: It was always a very odd process coming up with White Death, because the process was — and this is a very unique process, I’d be surprised if any other writer/artist team have ever done it this way — but when I first thought about the possibility of indie publishing (as a part of the collective) the initial seed that I had in my head, for some reason, [was] the three page sequences in the beginning and the book end sequence at the back in my head already. That was there. That was a given. So six pages were already written, it didn’t have to be, no idea where the setting was time wise, it was just a zoom in on the skull, zoom out on the face. I had the technique in my head already and a notion that it would just kind of suit a war story and that’s all I gave Robbie. And then, of course, Robbie came up with the meat of everything else.

I made a conscious decision, for instance, that the chalk only had to apply to the snow…so I didn’t want to do any sort of shading or sort of highlights on the face or anything like that. Or if you were in an interior, I was so tempted to put a few highlights on the surfaces of tables or something like that. I was giving myself a set of rules that stylistically, the snow would be the only thing “in color” which I just thought, as a design point of view, works really nicely with the book.

Robbie, Charlie told me that he basically gave you the beginning sequence and the end sequence and you filled in the meat. Can you talk to me a little bit about building this story together?

Morrison: White Death is set in Italy, in a little-known corner of World War One, which has recently been named “The White War.” The Italian Front stretched across the borders separating Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the main battles fought in mountain regions claimed by Italy, part of the Allied Powers, from Austria, allied to the Kaiser. They confronted each other in a conflict strategically similar to trench warfare, but played out in the treacherous heights of the Trentino, Dolomite and Caporetto mountain ranges.

Amongst the soldiers on both sides, no weapon was more feared than the White Death, devastating avalanches deliberately caused by cannon-fire, which – as relentless and remorseless as the war itself – consumed everything in their path. ‘White Death’ is a slang term used to describe avalanches in French and Italian Alpine regions.

I first came up with the idea for the story initially after watching a TV documentary about avalanches. It quoted a chilling statistic that, on the Italian Front in World War One, an estimated 60 – 100,000 troops were killed in avalanches deliberately caused by the enemy. To me this seemed to take the inhumanity of warfare to new extremes – turning nature itself into a weapon of war. In my head, the image of the avalanche became a metaphor for the war itself, this unstoppable, uncontrollable force that started from a fairly small incident – the assassination of a man that most people hadn’t heard of – and escalated beyond all imagination into a conflict that decimated the world.

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It was one of those story ideas that refused to go away, though I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with it until Charlie called up one day. He’d been experimenting with a new art style that he thought might suit a historical project and asked if I had any ideas for a First World War story, which, it just so happened, I did. Even better, the art style he described to me over the phone – a haunting combination of charcoal and chalk on gray paper instead of the standard comic-book pencils and inks – seemed perfect for a story set in a frozen landscape of mountains and avalanches.

As well as being a master comic-book storyteller, Charlie is genuinely one of the nicest guys you could meet, in or out of the comics industry. I’m obviously biased, but I think White Death is one of the best things Charlie’s done. It’s a departure from the style he’s become known for – an example of an artist pushing himself creatively – but still retains the storytelling skills that make The Walking Dead such a huge success.

I started work on the script – coincidentally while I was actually in Italy, taking the majority of the character’s names from a First World War memorial in the town where I was staying – while Charlie produced preliminary sketches and visuals, including an incredibly powerful opening sequence that was immediately incorporated into the story. I knew after seeing the initial artwork that White Death was going to be something special, very different from anything either of us had done previously.

Robbie, were you apprehensive about writing to such a unique style?

Morrison: The basic mechanics of comic-book storytelling remain pretty much the same regardless of different styles of artwork, so I didn’t take a radically different approach to the writing and certainly wasn’t apprehensive in that respect. In practical terms, to get the necessary level of detail into the artwork, Charlie had to work on a larger scale than normal and I had to write slightly less panels per page than normal. This gives the story a slightly different sense of pace, but seems to suit the subject matter and also allows the imagery to have a greater impact.

The one thing I do regret is that I encounter real figures from the period, including Ernest Hemingway, who wrote A Farewell to Arms had to cut a few sequences from my original outline. I had planned for our fictional characters to after his experiences as an ambulance driver in the same conflict, and Mussolini, who was a war correspondent on the Italian Front. Unfortunately, for reasons of time and space (and money, as the book was basically self-published first time around), I had to cut them out.

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While I was working on the script, Charlie actually also paid me one of the best compliments I’ve had as a writer. After I sent him the scenes in which Francesco Cadorna visits the wounded Alberto Diaz in hospital, Charlie called me up to say he had a tear in his eye after reading the sequence because it was so moving. Why a war story and why this war story? Also, can you tell me if you felt a weight and a responsibility to the ghosts who fought in that war — a feeling that you were telling their story?

Morrison: While I am an advocate of never letting the facts get in the way of a good story on some occasions, but White Death certainly wasn’t one of them. When you’re dealing with something that cost so many lives, affected generations of families and changed the nature of world as it was at the time, I think you do have a responsibility to make it as historically accurate and as realistic as possible.

First off, it’s all too easy to forget the past. As time passes, the earth-shaking events of the First and Second Worlds Wars become less of a reality to each successive generation. The very fact that it’s now the centenary of World War One – and that no one who fought in the conflict now remains alive – is, to me, exactly why we do still need to tell stories about it.

War encompasses the best and worst of human nature, and – in what appears to be an increasingly fractious world – perhaps we can learn some valuable lessons about how to live in our own times the bravery and sacrifices of ordinary people in the past.  

Of all the projects I’ve worked on, White Death is possibly the one that remains closest to my heart. I’m immensely proud of the book and hope we manage to say something about the horror and futility of war, and the cruelty, compassion and camaraderie of those trapped within it. It’s a dark tale that was produced not only with a passion for the material, but for medium of comics and what we think it’s capable of.

Can you walk me through your research process on this?

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Morrison: This was in the days before the internet was such a massive resource, so it meant lots of old-fashioned research – days and days in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, reading anything I could find on the subject, scrolling through micro-fiche and watching old documentary footage. A combination of research and imagination helped us to capture not only the grand spectacle of the high-altitude locations, the numbing reality of life in wartime, the desperation and brutality of hand-to-hand combat, and the thundering power of the avalanches, but also the subtler emotional interplay of the characters as they try to survive.

Certain aspects of the story grew out of the research. For instance, Pietro Aquasanta, the lead character, is first drafted into the Austrian Army, and then taken captive when Italy joins the war and ‘offered’ the chance to fight in the Italian Army. He effectively ends up fighting on both sides, sometimes facing enemy soldiers who were once his comrades, which was something that happened frequently in the border regions.

What did you and Charlie add to this edition of the book that will make it stand out to people who may already have an edition?

Morrison: The new edition is an over-sized hardcover with a striking new cover from Mr. Adlard, heartfelt new introductions from both of us, a script-to-art feature that shows the behind-the-scenes process of putting the story together and extra artwork.  

With the Doctor Who comic project, how many scripts do you have in the can and what can you tell me about the process of getting the Capaldi Doctor’s rather unique and biting “voice” down?

Morrison: Well, more than one person has cheekily pointed out that they hired a dour angry, irascible Scotsman to play the Doctor and a dour, angry, irascible Scotsman to write the comic, but I’m a nice guy, really. Honest.

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No, seriously, while I obviously hadn’t seen anything of Mr. Capaldi’s performance, I was given a few pointers as to how he was going to play the role and what the dynamics of the relationship between him and Clara would be. Beyond that, it was mostly down to gut instinct – I wrote the scripts the way I imagined he would do it, the way I hoped he would do it, even. I’m a few issues in at the moment and the first year of the series is outlined and approved. Titan and the BBC seem happy with the way it’s going and I’m looking forward to seeing the first issues hit the stands. Expect as many ‘hide-behind-the-sofa’ moments of terror and heart-stopping cliffhangers as possible!White Death is available now at comic book shops and at book shops via Image Comics.

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