Snowpiercer is a train, 1001 carriages long, circling the globe endlessly while protecting the last remnants of humanity from the fatal (and seemingly self-inflicted) winter that has engulfed the planet. Originally built as the last word in luxury, it now serves as a harsh, dystopic distillation of society where the rich, powerful and corrupt live in the front carriages in relative luxury, the poor and unfortunate (callously referred to as ‘tail rats’) live in the rear carriages in utter squalour, and everyone in the middle carriages simply keep their heads down, trying their best just to keep going.
Originally published as “Le Transperceneige” in 1982, the French graphic novel has finally received a long-overdue translation and redistribution courtesy of Titan Books, and with a big-screen adaptation starring Chris Evans, John Hurt and Tilda Swinton slated for release later this year, the timing could not be better.
The political message of the book is difficult to miss, with the brutality and inequality of the class system emphasised by writer Jacques Lob time and time again. Hardly new ground for the world of sci-fi, sure, but rarely have I seen the premise executed as skilfully and poetically as it is here aboard Snowpiercer. The story is told through the eyes of Proloff, a refugee from the tail of the train who is desperately searching for a better life than the hell he has been forced to endure as part of the ‘third class’.
The dialogue is both well-measured and realistic throughout, and Proloff’s motivations and reactions are all-too human as he gradually gets to experience the inequality of the train’s own ‘class’ system firsthand. The story progresses slowly, following Proloff’s growing companionship with Adeline Belleau, a somewhat idealistic woman from the middle carriages with lofty ambitions of integrating the ‘trail rats’ with the rest of the train’s population.
In spite of the fairly emphatic social statement being made throughout this book, it never once falls into the real of ‘preachy’. Nothing is melodramatic here. Nothing is overdone. The inequality serves as the backdrop, but the experiences of Proloff and Belleau throughout the book provide the heart to the story. And as they find themselves led through the train, layer after layer of this bizzare pseudo-society is revealled to us, making for an utterly compelling read. From the synthetic meat used to feed the middle carriages to the bizarre faux-religion created to worship “Saint Loco” (the train’s perpetual motion engine), almost every page contains a new intriguing story aspect that pulls us deeper and deeper into this world.
The black and white artwork, courtesy of Jean-Marc Rochette, is truly a thing of beauty. Flawless illustrations, realistic-looking characters whose faces show a depth of emotion, and a tremendous use of shadow and perspective to continually reinforce the claustrophobic, linear nature of the train carriages themselves. While his style is very much of its era (as a reminder, this book was originally published over three decades ago, and the only thing to have been changed in that time is the translation from French to English), it fits perfectly into the style of the book, and has a sparse, almost bleak quality that falls into line alongside the dark, futile tone of the story.
Call it an epic sci-fi tale, a sociopolitical statement, or a personal character study of a man who’s so desperate to improve his life that he may have actually forgotten how to truly live; however you choose to define Snowpiercer, this is a book that truly resonated with me, and which gripped me for almost the entirety of its 112-page length. And while the Joon-ho Bong-directed movie has already drawn positive reviews in the areas where it has been released, I somehow doubt it’s going to come anywhere close to capturing the poetic hopelessness of this book. Essential reading for any fans of the sequential arts (comicbooks, to y’all at home), and a book I can’t recommend highly enough.
The writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson (aka Ceej)
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