Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette
Snowpiercer the film, starring Chris Evans and directed by Joon-ho Bong, should be released in the UK sometime this year. By all accounts from abroad, it’s one hell of a great action movie, with some inspired direction and performances.
The graphic novel the film is based on, Le Transperceneige, was first published in French in 1982, created by the writer of this volume Jacques Lob. The second volume coming later this month, The Explorers, was written after Lob’s death by Benjamin Legrand, and published in France as two volumes, L’arpenteur (1999) and La traversée (2000). I can’t clarify this anywhere online but I have a vague recollection of reading somewhere that the film adapts just this first volume.
I was really looking forward to Snowpiercer; a fast, stylish Euro-thriller with a difference, a closed room thing, all the action contained onboard the fabled Snowpiercer, an enormous train, one thousand and one carriages long, a final shelter for the remnants of humanity, protected from a cataclysmic new ice-age that devastated this near future Earth. What I actually got was something rather different.
The Snowpiercer is travelling non-stop round a frozen planet Earth, conditions outside fatal within minutes. Inside, the train is humanity in microcosm, the elite living in splendour at the front, near the Snowpiercer’s fabled, practically deified engine, all the way to the rear, where the lowlife living in the tail have been sealed in, the train fearful of infection or uprising should these miserable souls ever mix freely with the rest of the carriages.
“Tail fucker” Proloff has risked all to get out of the awful conditions of the tail, crawled along the outside of the Snow Piercer, moments away from freezing death, just to fall into the hands of the security forces, who swiftly and brutally let him know just how welcome he is…
Word of his escape from the tail reaches those in charge, Presidential orders are issued to escort Proloff to the front for questioning, to decide just what threat the tail may hold. Proloff’s joined in his journey to the front by Adeline Belleau, a fresh-faced naif, part of an aid group campaigning for the integration of the sealed tail with the rest of the train. They genuinely seem to think this is going to happen. They may be the only ones onboard who do, as everyone else considers the tail a pointless weight, many already talking of jettisoning it at the next opportunity, those voices getting louder and more vehement as more realise that slowly, almost imperceptibly, the Snowpiercer is slowing down. The sheer mass of those 1001 carriages simply too great, even for the miraculous perpetual motion engine so few have even seen. When all life onboard is threatened, mass-murder becomes so much easier to consider when you can’t see the victims, better yet when you begin to consider them sub-human.
There’s the the crux of both Snowpiercer’s storyline and its theme, the science fiction aspects subsumed to the socio-political and the behavioural.
This isn’t an action adventure story with serious issues attached as an afterthought, this is dystopian speculative fiction with an action adventure element thrown in for good measure, telling of the elite and the downtrodden, those in power and those without, and it’s Proloff’s journey through the train that allows Lob and artist Rochette to touch upon the ideas of class, society, inequality, and the behaviour of confined populations under stressful circumstances.
The nature of life aboard Snowpiercer is detailed very well, with little touches littering the pages; Proloff’s amazement at seeing real coffee once more, his reaction to being quarantined and isolated, the rarity of being alone something to cherish and enjoy, greenhouse and synthetic meat cars providing sustenance, illicit liaisons taking place in darkened carriages to relieve the tension and the boredom of life onboard, toilet cleaner re-purposed and refined, narcotised as another way to get away from the grim existence.
But as bleak as these sections of the train may be, Proloff’s merest hints at life in the tail show that this is absolute luxury in comparison, segregation and confinement effectively damning all in the tail, escape impossible, he hints at depravity and despair, food gone, a desperate population turning on itself, behaviourist’s rats at a critical population density.
Meanwhile, through Proloff and Adeline we observe just how the haves spend their time, drinking massively diluted booze, fucking their lives away, the only thing to take away some of the boredom.
So many questions are left unanswered, which is actually a good thing, the new ice-age may have been created following a climate changing bomb, but we’re never exactly sure, the Snowpiercer’s pleasure cruise origins are mentioned but the question of just why it was ready and waiting to become humanity’s last refuge is never answered. The vagaries around the details merely add to the mystique, serving to further isolate the action from reality, emphasising the closed in nature of it all. This is, in the end, all about the train as a model for reality, a model for society, this is speculative fiction paraded as science fiction, and all the better for it.
It feels rather fresh, even though the comic is three decades old by now. Probably something to do with the universal feeling of the poor and the disadvantaged being shafted by the ever more corpulent ruling classes, whilst those in the middle are encouraged to look down rather than up for someone to blame. Something we’re all seeing a little more of nowadays. Seems the folks onboard the Snowpiercer are about as “all in this together” as we are.
It’s a really well constructed conceptual piece, the high-concept idea selling the book, the social commentary and the speculative fiction aspects of it keeping me around and interested, journeying through the carriages gives us a glimpse of the sickness of this society, Heart Of Darkness meets Orwellian nightmare of a society going into freefall.
Thing is though, something here simply didn’t click for me. I wanted to enjoy it far more than I actually did, wanted it to be something that cleverly mixed the profound and the thrilling, but it simply misfired along the way. At first I thought it was that Lob’s writing, so concerned with moving along the carriages and making socio-political observations along the way that it was simply too light on character. And yes, Proloff is a mere cypher, the mystery man from the tail, whilst Adeline is relegated to mere accessory, love interest, occasional victim to be rescued, nothing more (having said that, all the other women in this story are there to be leered at, prostitutes for the men in the forward carriages, so Adeline gets off somewhat lightly). However, I got to the fascinatingly downbeat and unexpected ending and realised that it wasn’t the lack of characterisation that dissapointed, it was the lack of depth to Lob’s ideas. Snowpiercer is simply too short to deliver the sense of scale he’s going for, a mere 110 pages to describe, and then deconstruct a society? Oh, it may be a glorious attempt, but just needed that little bit more.
Artistically I’ve very few issues, Rochette’s art shares comic genes with familiar UK names, a little Dave Gibbons here and there, an awful lot of David Lloyd throughout, but Rochette’s stark black and white imagery also has aspects of Alex Toth and Jacques Tardi in there as well, his spare backgrounds allow us to concentrate on his all of whom have a downtrodden, grimy look, their time on the train etched into their faces. Thing is, the pace of the story doesn’t encourage lingering, so I’ll pull one beautiful bit out for you…
That’s just simply beautiful, the stark black and white, the lighting, the figurework so spot on. Even better when you really, really get up close…
Chalk this one down as a nearly but not quite. I may have built it up too much, may have been wanting something from it it could never deliver. In the end it’s a good slice of realistic sci-fi, future fiction, and a concept that nearly, but not quite, carries the day.
However, I’m very much in the minority here, and Titan Comics have already gone back to print with Volume 1, with Volume 2 being released at the end of February. As always, what do I know?