The French have given rise to some of the greatest comic book creators in the history of the medium: Hergé, Mœbius, Enki Bilal, René Goscinny, David B., the list goes on. Unfortunately, some of the great French works never make their way to the English speaking market. Such was the case with Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s “Snowpiercer”, until now. The three-volume series recently garnered attention due to the release of the Korean film adaptation, which is set for an American release later this year. To coincide with the release of the film, Titan Comics is finally delivering the long-awaited English translating of “Snowpiercer”.
“Snowpiercer 1: The Escape” is a stern science fiction tale of social inequality and the dark side of human nature. It is book that stems entirely from the period in which it was created, but also one that exudes an air of timelessness. “Snowpiercer 1: The Escape” is a bleak existential tale, way ahead of its time.
WRITTEN BY: Jacques Lob
ART BY: Jean-Marc Rochette
PUBLISHER: Titan Comics
RELEASE: January 28, 2014
While we’ve waited more than three decades for “Snowpiercer” to be translated to English, the history of the book stretches far back, even past its original publication in 1984. Jacques Lob announced the series in the mid 70s alongside the French artists known as Alexis (Dominique Vallet). Unfortunately, Alexis died very early on in the process and the series was shelved until Jean-Marc Rochette came on board in the early 80s. After the conclusion of the first volume, Rochette passed away in 1990, and Benjamin Legrand stepped in to write the two subsequent volumes. Since the initial run, “Snowpiercer” has been considered one of the best science fiction comics every written. It’s rather bizarre that no publisher translated it to English until now, but knowing the history of the book adds certain significance to the reading.
The tragic post-apocalyptic story is set on a massive train of 1001 carriages, known as The Snowpiercer, which endlessly travels around the frozen Earth. The bourgeois reside in the front of the train, while the deprived find themselves in the third-world conditions of the caboose.
The story follows one of the lower-class citizens, Proloff, who is arrested and quarantined after he attempts to escape the horrible living conditions of the rear. Not long after his arrest, he meets Adeline, a concerned middle-class liberal. While her intentions are to help Proloff, their fates are quickly tied as the guards detain her for coming into contact with the possibly diseased Proloff. The guards escort the unlikely pair to the front of the train, where they are to answer to the president himself.
Jacques Lob’s story is simple yet profound. The political and social commentary condemning the class system is not hidden beneath layers of subtext, but rather right in your face from page one. While this is a theme oft explored in dystopic science fiction, Lob’s version is particularly raw and grim. The cars nearest the caboose are crammed with people, and riots threaten to break out at any moment. Lob highlights the squalor as Proloff, accustomed to the horrid living conditions of the caboose, must walk through every single train on his way to the front and watch his world change. As he nears first class, he bears witness to sights he never thought imaginable: up-scale bars, brothels, and extreme paranoia. When Proloff and Adeline finally reach the front, they realize that there is trouble in paradise.
The characters are intricate, empathic, and complex. Proloff is a man who has seen horrible things in his time leading to a detachment from others. While we only see glimpses of his past, it is enough to understand his general apathy and inability to form connections. He has secrets hidden beneath his weathered face, many of which remain concealed. While the main plot is undoubtedly intriguing, Proloff’s relationship with Adeline drives the story forward as well. Lob gives them push and pull moments that add tremendous depth to the narrative. Despite the foreboding tone of the central story, there is plenty of compassion and emotion. As with the best science fiction, it all seems entirely real.
The gray tone of the story is brought to life by the striking black and white illustrations. There is nothing overly futuristic about the artwork (save for the disturbing meat-making scene), and because of that the book an everlasting quality. Jean-Marc Rochette was quite young at the time, but his work is mature and refined. Rochette has said himself that his biggest influences were American comic artists, and you can see that in his style. It often holds a Western aesthetic with the subtle backdrops and focus on facial expressions, but there is a certain European flair that adds to the overall reading experience. Combined with his inking and cross-hatching abilities, Rochette truly brings you inside the despicable world of The Snowpiercer. However, some of the best panels are those that show the train from the outside, moving through the barren white vastness that is Earth. These panels serve to remind that there is nothing left but this train, the final bastion of human civilization.
Bong Joon-ho’s Korean adaptation, starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, and John Hurt, was one of the most critically acclaimed and under-the-radar films of 2013. With the North American release fast approaching, the comic is coming back into the spotlight. Although there are two more volumes, it should be known that volume 1, “The Escape”, is entirely self-contained. The final two volumes are slated for a release later this year.
Titan gives this first volume of “Snowpiercer” the respect it deserves. The translation is solid and the hardcover printing is beautiful. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s well worth the wait.