Snowpiercer, a series of graphic novels by Jean-Marc Rochette, Jacques Lob, and Benjamin Legrand, has only just been released in English thirty years later, but its critique of late capitalism remains potent. In fact, the optimism of the premise – that humanity would find some way to survive a climate disaster, even in a compromised way – seems quaint today. Rochette, Lob, and Legrand seem to have intended Snowpiercer as a warning, but reading it now it feels more like a lament.
Set in a hazy future where an unnamed climate disaster has left Earth frozen and uninhabitable, Snowpiercer concerns a 1,001-car train that houses what’s left of humanity, speeding ceaselessly around the planet. The titular train is, naturally, divided into classes, with the front cars reserved for the privileged (and all the expected indulgences) and the rear cars densely packed with the rest, competing for resources and fighting pointless battles about the fate of the train and the supposed benevolence of “St. Loco,” the train’s deified engine. Regular televised messages from religious, political, and military figures serve to suppress any call for addressing the inequality, as do the soldiers who patrol the rear cars. In the first volume, a denizen of the rear attempts to escape to the middle cars but is caught, and quarantined when he is suspected of carrying plague. A middle-class aid worker takes an interest in his case, as does the government, and so begins the journey from tail to head.
Lob and Rochette’s metaphor is far from subtle, but that obviousness works in their favor. What plot exists is mostly negligible, and the characters are only interesting in their relationship to the organization of the train’s society, and what they have to say about it. The authors are rightly more interested in packing as many details and references to the the political and social conditions of the world, particularly the West, in the late 20th century. For instance, one car contains a large organic self-sustaining semi-organism called “Mother” that supplies the passengers with a meat substitute – the allusion to factory farming and processed food couldn’t be any clearer if they’d labeled the car with a grinning clown face and a large capital M. The effect is a richly detailed and claustrophobic world that reinforces it’s critique with every successive car, as our protagonists draw ever closer to the engine.
But the largely flat characters and lack of story momentum mean Snowpiercer isn’t always the most engaging read. Volume two, written a decade after the first volume by Benjamin Legrand (Jacques Lob died in 1990) largely apes the original story – a rebel is first arrested, then turned into a political pawn, begins a romantic relationship with a higher status woman, and together they proceed to the head of the train to learn the truth about it’s existence – but adds flourishes of backstory and unique characterization. It also benefits from heightened stakes, as we learn that the train in volume two is a sister vessel to the original, now abandoned Snowpiercer, and its inhabitants live in perpetual fear of colliding with it. I admit that the second volume reads more like an American comic, where the first is decidedly European in its satirical tone and attention to message over narrative (just as I admit that there are plenty of counter-examples to rebut those generalizations) which might explain why I enjoyed reading it more, but that doesn’t mean the one is better than the other. In fact, I think Titan is mistaken to have released them separately, as each volume draws on the strengths of the other.
I suspect the reason for publishing the story in two volumes is the change in authors, and also the dramatic shift in Jean-Marc Rochette’s art. The Rochette of volume one is all about strong, agile line work, packing every panel with details, conjuring a dirty, cramped world filled with desperate people. His inking is deliberate but not heavy, like his contemporary in the American mainstream, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. But in volume two Rochette switches to a softer, hazier line, with watercolor-like washes and shadings. Everything is more expressive, more surreal, and the large panels depicting the Snowpiercer (or Icebreaker) racing across the landscape, visual icons of the series, become visual haikus, fragile and stunningly minimal. That moodiness suits the second volume’s grim climax, and gives the second telling of the story a mythic quality, as if the events are being recalled through a collective memory.
The occasion for Titan’s English translation of Snowpiercer is the recent film adaptation by director Joon-ho Bong, best known for The Host (the aquatic monster horror movie from 2006, not last year’s Stephanie Meyer adaptation.) The film has was released around the world in 2013 and the first half of 2014, but is being held up in the US by its distributor, The Weinstein Company, which is threatening to edit it down without Bong’s participation. The trailer looks incredible, but it suggests that the adaptation is very loose – key concepts and situations have been borrowed, but the story and characters seem to be original creations. It looks to be more action-oriented, which should make for a more exciting film, but hopefully not at the expense of the despairing tone of the source.
Similar Reads: Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson; any number of Judge Dredd comics by various creators; Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo
[A review was requested and a review copy provided.]