INTERVIEW: Jean-Marc Rochette, Artist of SNOWPIERCER

Jean-Marc Rochette is a German-born French illustrator best known for his work in children’s literature. In 1979, he began a career in comics when he collaborated with Martin Veyron on the series Edmond Pig. His career in science fiction began when he succeeded designer Alexis on the post-apocalyptic comic series The Transperceneige, scripted by Jacques Lob.

A film adaptation of the comic directed by Bong Joon-ho (The Host) and starring Chris Evans (Captain America, Avengers) will be released in the U.S. later this year under the title Snowpiercer. The movie will be preceded by a release of an English translation of the original comic series from Titan Publishing. Volume 1: The Escape will hit shelves January 29, 2014, with Volume 2: The Explorers following February 25, 2014.

Synopsis: Coursing through an eternal winter, on an icy track wrapped around the frozen planet Earth, there travels Snowpiercer, a train one thousand and one carriages long. From fearsome engine to final car, all surviving human life is here: a complete hierarchy of the society we lost … The elite, as ever, travel in luxury at the front of the train – but for those in the rear coaches, life is squalid, miserable and short. Proloff is a refugee from the tail, determined never to go back. In his journey forward through the train, he hopes to reach the mythical engine and, perhaps, find some hope for the future.


SF Signal: Let’s start from the beginning. Could you briefly explain the plot of Transperceneige to our readers?

Jean-Marc Rochette: After a climatic catastrophe, the earth is frozen. In this new ice age, what’s left of humanity survives in a train, a huge train with one thousand and one wagons. The remains of society are divided by class, the rich at the front of the train, the poor in the tail. This is a story of a man of the tail section, who tries to reach the front, in order to learn the secret of the machine.

SFS: How did you become the illustrator of Transperceneige?

JR: This is a strange story. At the beginning, there was another artist, Alexis. He was one of the best, his funny style was a little bit like that of Jack Davis – a pure virtuoso! Unfortunately, he died very young, at only 31. As he drew the first version of Transperceneige, he completed 17 pages of the story – it was in 1977. After that, Jacques Lob, the creator of Transperceneige looked for another artist, and eventually, he chose me. It was unexpected, because at the time I was still very young: I was only 25, and above all I was only known for my underground comics, such as Edmond le Cochon, a story which looks a little bit like Fritz the Cat by Robert Crumb. I had no experience of realistic drawing, so why me? Even now I don’t know, maybe it was my destiny…

SFS: Outside of your work as an illustrator, are you a fan of the science fiction genre? Do you have any favorite authors in the genre?

JR: I am a great fan of the science fiction genre, but I am not an expert of science fiction novels, as I prefer to watch movies. But if I have to choose one novelist, that would be probably be Philipp K Dick, a genius of this genre.

SFS: Are there any role models who’ve helped shape your overall career as an illustrator? Specifically, where did you draw inspiration for your work on Transperceneige?

JR: I am definitely an admirer of American comics, from their beginnings until now, through the golden age of Hopper, Dirks, Segar, Herriman, and so on.

But speaking of the science fiction genre, I am a big fan of Richard Corben, such a master! I have a friend, Fershid Bharucha, who was one of the first editors of Corben in France. We worked together at the same studio in 1982, while I drew Transperceneige. Thanks to Fershid, I saw a lot of Corben’s work, it was amazing! But, above all, Fershid was the only editor of Alex Toth in France at this time, and I can tell you that this artist is the best, nobody comes close!


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SFS: Did your work on Transperceneige pose different challenges than other work you’ve illustrated?

JR: As I told you, it was my first realistic work. I had little experience, so all was difficult for me: the inking, the lettering, the perspective, the anatomy, especially since I am an autodidact. I went to no art school. I learned on the job, and the whole profession judged me after every issue in the magazine A suivre. That was a huge challenge for a beginner…

That was the first difficulty. The second one was that this story was especially difficult to do, as we are always on the train, with very little space. That means the viewer is almost always near of the action, so how to avoid making it boring for the audience? I was young and less aware of that, and maybe it was for the best. In French we say “Aux innocents les mains pleines“…”Fortune favors the innocent”.

SFS: I understand that your work is predominantly divided between children’s books and your work on comics. Which do you prefer? Has your work in either field influenced your work in the other?

JR: The beginning of my career was in comics, so I can say that I am above all else a comics artist. I learned to draw by creating comics. The children’s books and also the painting came later, but these new experiences improved my comics, offering me more artistic liberty, and a new approach, thanks some other cultures, like the Chinese painting for example, where I learned, that the speed of drawing a line could give it life.

SFS: If you could illustrate absolutely any science fiction novel on the shelves today as your next project, which one would you choose and why?

JR: I am currently working with Benjamin Legrand, the second writer of Transperceneige, on a new project, the sequel to Snowpiercer. But if I have to choose another fiction novel, may be that would be Ubik by Philipp. K. Dick. Why? Because it is a masterpiece, very strange, like a leap into madness.

SFS: I understand that Transperceneige was first published in 1982 in the magazine A suivre If you were being asked to illustrate Transperceneige today, do you think that you would approach the work differently?

JR: I was a young beginner, and now I am almost an old artist. No comment. But I think that thanks to the mangas, and in general the asiatic school of drawing, a new pace is possible in the comics, with more action. I would like a pace like that. But the old French school had plenty of charm. We can’t go back, though – it is often a bad idea…

SFS: Did you have any idea when you were initially working on this project just how relevant the topic of climate was going to become?

JR: Absolutely no idea, but I knew that we would encounter some problems, but what kind? Lob knew…not me.

SFS: Outside your work, are you a big fan of comics? What are some your favorite comic titles, and are there any series that you currently follow?

JR: I used to be a big fan of comics, a little less now.

My masters were Noel Sikles, Frank Robbins, Alex Toth, Richard Corben, and in a funny way, Elder, Uderzo, Crumb. Morris, Hergé…and many others.

But now I am a little away from the comics world. The last comic I bought was Blast by Larcenet, a very good French artist, and I like very much also Mazzucchelli, this guy understood Toth well.

SFS: How do you think the French comic industry stacks up against the U.S. comic industry?

JR: The French comic industry is very strong and comics are very popular in France. It is may be the only thing which works in that country at the moment. The French comics have a big audience in France but, unfortunately, not yet abroad. I think it is not the case for the US comic industry, which has a big audience everywhere, like the Japanese comic industry. This weakness of the French comic industry was obvious for Moebius. I read an interview with him about that.

SFS: I’m more than a little ashamed to admit it, but when the trailer for the upcoming adaptation of your comic, Snowpiercer, was released, I was shocked to discover that it was a comic adaptation. (I’m pretty sure your book would have made my high school French much more enjoyable.) As a comic aficionado, I’m now losing sleep at night wondering what other gems I’ve been missing out on as an American. As Transperceneige is certainly going to leave readers wanting more, could you recommend any other French comics that haven’t made it to the states yet?

JR: From the old guard, Forest, Gillon, Poivet, Druillet, Moebius, Tardi, and in the new generation Blutch, Larcenet, and certainly many others, but none as good as Alex Toth, and Richard Corben!

SFS: Everyone over here in the U.S. is very excited about the film adaptation of Transperceneige coming to theaters later this year, but as a hardcore comic book geek, the foremost question on my mind is “just how faithful an adaptation is this going to be?” Have you seen the film yet, and how true to the source material does director Joon-ho Bong stay?

JR: Bong Joon Ho is a big fan of comics. For example, while we were together in Prague, he gave me a book about the story of Czech comics. He knew perfectly the comics art, and he knew how to adapt Transperceneige, because he knows the difference between a comic and a movie. He kept the spirit of the story and the drawings, and he followed them in his own way. This was a big challenge, and he did it! And a big applause also to Chris Evans, who did such a great job!

SFS: How did Transperceneige get a film adaptation in the first place?

JR: Miraculously, in 2005, Bong Joon-Ho read Transpeceneige by chance in a tiny bookshop from Seoul. He read the whole book in that place, and immediately he decided to make a film based on it. It was a pure madness – an old French comic made into a world blockbuster. It made no sense, but he did it.

SFS: Did you have a chance to collaborate on the film with director Joon-ho Bong?

JR: Oh yes, and it was a great moment for me. In Snowpiercer there is a painter in the tail section. This man draws all he sees – he is like the memory of the poor. Bong Joon-ho asked me to do the drawings, with just a recommendation that the drawings should be wild and dirty. That was perfect for me – director Bong is a real friend.

SFS: Can we look forward to seeing more science fiction from you in you in the near future or are you done with the genre?

JR: Absolutely, I am working with Benjamin Legrand on the sequel to Snowpiercer, and a good science fiction story is all I want to draw, it makes me feel free!