BOOK REVIEW: Snowpiercer, Volume 1 by Jacques Lob

REVIEW SUMMARY: The first volume of Snowpiercer, The Escape, is a grim and gritty post-apocalyptic dystopian allegory that carries on the best traditions of the genre. The story’s only weak point is a cliffhanger ending that serves as a lead-in to volume two.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The apocalypse has come in the form of a global ice age. The last remnants of humanity eek out a tenuous existence within the claustrophobic confines of a thousand-car train that never stops. A single passenger has escaped from the tail-section of the train, where starvation and disease runs rampant, in an attempt to find a better life for himself. As he is escorted to the front cars to be judged by those in power, he witnesses the corruption and indolence that has warped the train’s social hierarchy, threatening the continued survival of everyone on board.

MY REVIEW:
PROS: A nostalgic window on a favorite genre of the eighties; action-packed; great tension; vivid imagery; cutting social commentary; absorbing storyline.
CONS: One-dimensional characters; lack of development of the protagonist; the cliffhanger ending.
BOTTOM LINE: If you grew up on the post-apocalyptic films of the eighties, whether it was The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Max, Night of the Comet, The Quiet Earth, or Terminator, you’re going to love this comic. Written in 1982, this comic embraces all of the genre’s best conventions.

Snowpiercer is a hidden gem of the comic medium that has been winning landmark awards for decades. In fact, it may be the single best comic you’ve never heard of, because until this week, Snowpiercer (or Le Transperceneige), has only been published in French. However, with a film adaptation by Korean director Bong Joon-ho already achieving blockbuster status in both Korea and France, Titan Comics is finally releasing an English translation.

Oddly, enough, the timing of the release couldn’t be more auspicious. The literary themes addressed in Snowpiercer have never been more relevant: man-made environmental catastrophe, the ethics of lab grown meat, disease among those living in poverty, social inequity, religious fanaticism, and the disparity of the social distribution of wealth. Were it not for the rocking eighties-style illustrations, a reader could swear this comic had been written in response to today’s news headlines. It’s truly incredible (and maybe just a little depressing) how well this comic’s storyline has aged. I suspect that critics will be hailing it as a “classic” in no time.

Snowpiercer follows the journey of Proloff, an inhabitant of the tail-section of the train, who has escaped into third class by daring the cold of the outside world and breaking into one of the forward cars through a window. Proloff is immediately captured, interrogated, and quarantined by guards, but Adeline Belleau, a social activist and “tail-section sympathizer,” tricks her way into quarantine to meet with Proloff. Soon after, the guards are ordered to escort the pair to the front of the Snowpiercer, where the ruling class dwells. The comic’s story unfolds during the course of that forward journey. Together with their guards, the unlikely pair make their way through the mighty Snowpiercer, moving from car to car, each of which is occupied by an increasingly affluent segment of society. On their way, they witness first-hand how the members of each social class live their lives, how the train sustains itself, and how discontent the passengers of the train are growing with their circumstances.

Snowpiercer is a dark, but powerfully told story. It’s very easy to draw parallels between Lob’s Snowpiercer and Brave New World. Like Huxley’s masterpiece, the power of Snowpiercer doesn’t lie in the fanciful, futuristic technologies or the looming dangers the characters face, but rather in the psychological nuances that gradually unfold as the author examines the politics and implications of human nature at its worst. Both stories are superficially simple tales layered with allegorical commentaries built atop ridiculous premises – genetically engineered classes and a world contained within a train. However, both stories starkly lay bare the social implications of real world issues in a manner that encourages re-reading.

In spite of its heavy subject matter, Lob never strays into the melodramatic and his character’s dialog never crosses the line into “preachy” territory. Jacques Lob’s script (translated by Virginie Selavy) reads very naturally, completely free of the hyberbole of a typical American action comics. However, it also never slows down. From the first page, which depicts Proloff’s brutal beating at the hands of a soldier, Snowpiercer’s pacing is frenetic, ratcheting up the tension with each passing page and train car. The pacing is so swift, and the tension so constant, that it’s difficult to image not reading this comic in a single-sitting.

If the story has a weak point, it’s that the fast pace of the story allows very few chances for character development. Proloff remains an enigma, by accident or design, from the opening page to the conclusion. Adeline, meanwhile, remains true to her one-dimensional role as a naïve human rights activist throughout the story. These characterizations, however, do not diminish the compelling nature of the story, but rather serve to emphasize the allegorical nature of the telling.

The artwork of Snowpiercer is perfectly in step with the story’s subject matter. Drawn in black and white, the artwork is stunning. Jean-Marc Rochette skillfully portrays the horrors of the train, from the ghettos of the tail section to the debauchery of a social class with a stark efficiency that renders the subject matter simultaneously absurd and grotesque. At times, his characters verge on caricatures, even as they march through increasingly claustrophobic environs, facing increasingly horrific revelations. The artwork is expressive, gritty, and perfectly representative of the era in which it was drawn. The line work of this comic could only have been drawn in the eighties, and that’s a large part of its charm. Rochette’s work is evocative of American classics of the eighties, such as Dave Gibbons’ work on Watchmen, David Lloyd’s work on V for Vendetta, and Frank Miller’s work on Sin City. And coming from a fan of those masters, that’s high praise, indeed.

All things considered, Snowpiercer is a page turner that comic and science fiction fans alike will find to be an engrossing read.

The film will almost certainly be the must-see films of 2014, and there’s a good chance that it will be considered a science fiction classic, but like other comic adaptations that came before it, such as Sin City and Watchmen, the film adaptation is unlikely to match the sheer narrative power of its source material. So, order your copy now and tuck it away until after you’ve seen the film, lest you be the nerd who (once again) emerges from the theater bitterly disappointed.

2 thoughts on “BOOK REVIEW: Snowpiercer, Volume 1 by Jacques Lob”

    1. Sadly, no, otherwise I’d have posted a movie review as well. I have seen the trailers and an extremely extended preview composed of pirated footage posted to a video site by a fan just after the Korean release.

      The visuals of the film bear little resemblance to the comic. It looks as if Bong Joon-ho has kept the essence of the storyline and entirely re-framed the physical setting from the realistic train cars of the comic into an ultra-futuristic fantasyscape. I can’t blame him either. Today’s audience expect big budget films to come with big budget FX.

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