It’s not often I get to read a French political graphic novel that serves as a commentary for the world’s current social class inequality. The poor have too little and the rich have too much. And the middle, well, they struggle to earn what little they can to avoid becoming part of the former. There is disease eating away at society’s ribcage and the overabundance of pleasure and vice characteristic of empires that are about to fall.
Snowpiercer, originally known as Le Transperceneige in France, tackles these subjects methodically. Through Proloff’s (the main character and member of the third class — the lowest class on the last train on Earth) journey, we get to see the horrors of this postapocalyptic class system from one end of the train to the other.
But first, the train. Snowpiercer is the largest train on the planet, originally meant for luxury, but now humanity’s final safe haven. Right as Earth was plunged into a second age caused by chemical weapons, the remaining humans fled into the train, which can run on its own eternal energy (the writer gives an elaborate explanation with all kinds of physics things, but I won’t get into all of that). The rich and powerful live in the front of the train while the extremely poor (mostly due to the fact that they got to the train too late to occupy better cars) live in overpopulated cattle cars.
Inevitably, a class system arose. The tail end of the train isn’t allowed to leave their part of the train, whose exits are guarded by a tyrannical military that’s tasked with keeping the order. Naturally, the front of the train is where the party’s at, full of sex, drugs, alcohol, and real food (everyone else eats bio-engineered meat or harvested mice). All the other passengers are stuck somewhere in the middle. Throw in a cult that worships the train’s tireless engine — “Saint Loco” — and you have a real dystopia on your hands.
Yes, the backstory is complex and not completely developed (after all, this is only the first volume in the three-part series to be translated from French), which makes the intimate story within these pages all the more remarkable. Jacques Lob, best known for his French series Superdupont, spins a yarn, half-noir, half-scifi thriller, that left me breathless.
Proloff’s search for a better life takes him beyond the world he knows, resents, and longs for. What he faces by the end of the novel is the answer he didn’t even know he was looking for — the truth behind the train’s continued existence (it’s been rolling for a very, very long time). Whether he likes the answer is another story entirely.
Jean-Marc Rochette’s illustrations are flawless. The black and white sketches that populate each panel will remind you of the semi-realistic style of the 1980s (the series was originally published in France in 1982). The noir feel is elevated by Rochette’s use of shadow. Interestingly enough, the setting looks a lot more steampunk than futuristic. The world of Snowpiercer is uniquely rendered.
The only thing wrong with Snowpiercer is that it took so long to get an English translation. And even now, the graphic novel isn’t hitting the American market on its own efforts. We finally get to enter the world of Snowpiercer thanks to the Korean film adaptation coming this summer.
Either way, I’m glad it’s finally here, and I look forward to returning to the Snowpiercer when Vol. 2: The Explorers hits stores on Feb. 25.
Snowpiercer Vol. 1: The Escape HCWriter: Jacques LobArtist: Jean-Marc RochetteTranslator: Virginie Selavy