Book review: 'Snowpiercer: Volume 1, The Escape' by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette

A train that even an Ice Age can’t stop? Oh, it’s French

Sunday 12 January 2014 01:00

Snowpiercer is undoubtedly one of the greatest science fiction comics ever created, and after 32 years the first volume will finally be available in English thanks to an upcoming film adaptation starring Chris Evans, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, and John Hurt.

Just why it has taken so long to reach our shores is no great mystery – costly translation, and the relatively small size of the UK market, has resulted in the European comics industry holding out on many of its treasures. Still, Snowpiercer, or Le Transperceneige as it is known in its native France, is the crème de la crème of influential and important sci-fi graphic works. It is fitting, then, that the English publisher Titan has given this volume the deluxe hardcover treatment, with sumptuous print quality that stands proud alongside other French masterpieces.

This is the story of a near-future world where the remnants of humanity live on board a single but immense train, powered by a perpetual motion engine. The Earth is encased in a bitter Ice Age, induced by a sudden man-made cataclysmic event. The train, one thousand and one carriages long, holds an entire society within – the last society, segregated by class via position. The closer to the engine, the more the bourgeois elite feast and copulate amid the boredom; at the other end, poverty and disease are inescapable. But revolution is in the air.

Told in beautiful black and white, the hardships of this terrifying existence cast large shadows across the endless snow. Proloff, a resident from the very last carriage of the train, has clambered along the outside and smashed into a mid-section carriage, straight into the path of the guards. Many have attempted this suicidal run before, but the icy climate has claimed all others.

Held under guard and booted into quarantine, Proloff is joined by the naïve but well meaning Adeline, a sympathiser to the impoverished tail carriages and campaigner for train unity. Her wish to speak with the prisoner sees her sneak into quarantine, unwittingly casting her fate into the same hands that now guide Proloff. The two are to meet the president of the train, the ruler of the whole of human society. And that means travelling to the very front of the train, past sights that have been denied Proloff since the great winter first began.

Their journey along the enormous train at times has echoes of Dante’s descent into Hell as the duo gradually move up the chain of society; a similarity made all the worse by the realisation that the true horrors lie in the opposite direction.

The novel was first published in 1982, and those dark and cynical years in both France and the wider world are evident in the pessimistic tone of the book, a tone that rings as true today as it did in the 1980s. In fact, a casual reader would be surprised to realise how old this comic actually is; it appears so timeless and undated. Snowpiercer has a great deal to say about class warfare and the fate of the underprivileged, with the train as a striking metaphor.

However, despite that great darkness there are also real moments of humour, emotion, and passion that are surprising and wonderfully realistic – particularly due to the subtle and emotive facial expressions and character work of Rochette. The artist’s style is a curious blend of Western precision with the daring simplicity of Zhu Da’s Chinese paintings, providing the reader with equally well rendered stark landscapes, cramped but non-distracting backgrounds, and individually recognisable characters.

Snowpiercer is perhaps the biggest film of 2014 that no one has heard of, taking its inspiration directly from the pages of this first volume, The Escape, created by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. The book is completely self-contained, but Rochette created two more volumes with Benjamin Legrand after Lob’s death, and while the film most closely follows the plot of the first book, certain elements are taken from the other two books in the trilogy. These other books are due for release from Titan in English in the coming months.

Already released to rave reviews in Korea and France, and smashing box office records along the way, the low-budget film adaptation from the award-winning director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) and producer Park Chan-wook is set to reach UK screens this year.

Whether the film can triumph as soundly as the graphic novel remains to be seen. The beauty and hopelessness of this book stays with the reader long after the final page.

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