The film is already a smash hit in Korea and France, the uncut dystopian thriller earning rave reviews, and in January the award-winning French comic will be published in English for the first time, thanks to Titan.
My French however is not so much bad as it is non-existent, and I painstakingly worked through the French edition with the help of google translate and a French dictionary. That I still loved it is, I think, testament to the greatness of the comic, and when Titan offered their new English translation to me to review, I Snoopy-danced with glee across the room.
Needless to say, the comic is even better now that I can read it properly! I must confess, I am a little in love with this book.
Created by Jacques Lob, who is perhaps most famous for Superdupont, Le Transperceneige was first published in 1982. Originally to be drawn by Superdupont collaborator Alexis, the artist sadly passed away not long into the project. The book stalled for two years until Jean-Marc Rochette came on board for art duties.
It is, to my mind, one of the greatest sci-fi comics ever written. In all there are three albums/volumes, with only the first, L’échappe (The Escape), written by Lob which also stands alone in regards to story (and is the basis of the film – as far as I am aware). The second and third volumes, L’arpenteur and La traversée (The Surveyor and The Crossing) were published much later in 1999-2000, written by Benjamin Legrand with art by Rochette.
Across the white immensity of an eternal winter, from one end of the frozen planet to the other, there travels a train that never stops.
This is the Snowpiercer, one thousand and one carriages long.
This is the last bastion of civilization…
In a near future world, covered by ice and with the climate completely inhospitable, an unimaginably long train traverses the landscape. The book opens with harsh words – “You lousy tail-fucker! I’m gonna break you!!!!” – and violence, as somewhere in the middle of the train soldiers beat a man on the floor with the butts of their rifles. The man is from the tail, from the end of the train, desperate enough to have climbed along the outside of the carriages to try and escape his situation.
Held, shaved, and interrogated, Proloff is treated as a curiosity – it’s clear that nobody knows what life is like at the end of the train, and Proloff is not in a sharing mood. Fearful of contagion the soldiers lock him away, and he is soon joined by Adeline Belleau, a tail-sympathiser who has blundered into his quarantine. Word comes down the chain of command – their presence is required at the front of the chain. And so their journey begins.
How did the never-ending winter come to be? Why did the perpetual-motion train just happen to be equipped for all these people? How was it decided who got onto what part of the train? And how long has this lethally enforced class system been going on?
I’ve underlined the barebones of the premise, but it is the complexities and political nuances that turn this book from an entertaining diversion into a classic that demands multiple re-readings. Like the very best of sci-fi, it isn’t the futuristic or fanciful technologies and dangers that are important, but what effect they have on the fragile human psyche and the even less substantial scaffolding of society.
At a glance the issue of class tensions represented by such physical connections and separations may seem a tad on the nose, but with very few glimpses into the awfulness of the tail end – save for some very memorable and visceral flashbacks – Lob focuses far more on the struggles within each class, particularly the largest majority of all: the middle carriages. With the added tension that this is not simply one strand of society but the entire remains of the human race, one extra person at the front of the train – Proloff – tips the entire balance of humanity. The results of this happening at the other end of the train at an earlier point in time are only hinted at, but those familiar with the experiments of John B. Calhoun (referenced in The Filth, and of which I was reminded of at the weekend) can perhaps guess at the outcome.
As you might expect from a story where so much happens within constrained spaces and repetitive backgrounds, much of the story is told through facial expressions. Thankfully Rochette’s subtle and emotive work here is absolutely compelling – perhaps explaining just why I was able to follow the story so well in the French edition. In contrast to a lot of French comics that I’ve read, the backgrounds are sketchy and minimal, while the characters are portrayed in a fairly realistic manner – despite many of the soldiers looking quite similar, it is impossible to confuse one for the other, such is the attention to detail.
Told in black and white, and a million shades of grey, the book is deceptively stunning. And those sound effects! That shading! Ah me, I cannot express how wonderful the art is in any kind of manner that would truly do it justice in a simple review. Just click on the examples I bring, and see for yourself. I see this comic in colour in my mind when I recall panels and sequences, I hear the train when I picture it.
Proloff remains an enigma throughout, and yet somehow he is more than just a cypher. The reader comes to care very quickly for this underdog and his haunted expressions, and for the naive yet stubborn Adeline. But what I find most striking about this book, reading it now in 2013 some thirty years later, is that it has not aged at all. It could have been written this very year.
This is a dark, dark book that does not shy away from just how ugly human nature can be. But it is also punctuated by moments of such emotion and passion that are both completely surprising and wonderfully realistic. Anger, joy, grief, lust, laughter and violence – people are incapable of avoiding each of these even at the end of the world.
The film, when it comes out in the UK and US, may well be one of the must see films of 2014. I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people. But nothing can match the original work, which I’ve been wishing on to these shores for quite some time. So no excuses – go and order your copy!
Retailers can order Snowpiercer vol. 1: The Escape from November PREVIEWS (order code: NOV131240), and it published January 29. Snowpiercer vol. 2: The Explorers will be available to order from December PREVIEWS, published February 25.
Laura Sneddon is a comics journalist and academic, writing for the mainstream UK press with a particular focus on women and feminism in comics. Currently working on a PhD, do not offend her chair leg of truth; it is wise and terrible. Her writing is indexed at comicbookgrrrl.com and procrastinated upon via @thalestral on Twitter.