Cue Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.”
Released in January, the first volume of Snowpiercer is exploding with innovation. However, like most return journeys Snowpiercer, Vol. 2: The Explorers doesn’t quite merit the same enthusiasm or thrills as the initial trip. The obvious main reason for this is that original writer Jacques Lob died in 1990, leaving Benjamin Legrand (a prolific French novelist and comic writer himself) the uneviable task of continuing the story. To his credit, Legrand seems more interested in opening up the Snowpiercer universe than merely rehashing Lob’s ideas…for better or worse.
Collecting both issues of the sequel into one volume, this release chronicles life aboard the Snowpiercer 2, nicknamed “Icebreaker” to those unfortunate souls forced to spend their entire lives aboard the craft. It’s not exactly clear why there is another train when its predecessor was supposed to be carrying the entire remains of humanity after a new ice age. (Whether or not you are willing to go with this break in the established premise will largely determine if the story will work for you or not). As the weary travelers aboard the vessel live in constant fear of crashing into the first Snowpiercer – whose tracks their share – a scheming and secretive council of leaders distracts passengers by offering up a variety of dystopian bread and circuses that include virtual reality vacations and constant news updates by a mysterious TV host who never seems to age. Adding to the mounting dread is a group of cultists who call themselves Cosmosians due to their belief that they are actually travelling aboard a spacecraft.
So yeah, maybe your daily commute isn’t that bad after all.
As fears mount, an unlikely love affair develops between Val, the privileged performance artist daughter of the council leader and Puig, one of the titular Explorers who ventures off the train and into the frozen wilderness to recover exotic relics from the remnants of civilization in order to appease the train’s bored elites. Their relationship makes up the emotional crux of the story, despite the fact that they are utterly mismatched. Val spends her days creating VR vacations infused with artsy pretension that are completely tone deaf to the escapist fantasies of the recipients who win the getaways in a train-wide lottery. (A pair of winners comment on how their tropical getaway is marred by an exploding volcano). While readers are left contemplating whether or not to feel pity or scorn for Val, their feelings toward Puig are much clearer. He is a likeable rebellious figure who, like Proloff in the previous volume, serves as an audience surrogate. When a failed ploy by the council to kill him on a suicide mission instead results in Puig becoming a hero, he begins to get answers about the true fate of the first Snowpiercer…ones that unsurprisingly have ramifications for everyone.
Whereas the fantastical events of the first volume unfolded in a manner that felt authentic, the same isn’t true here. There are gaps in the story’s inherent logic that can be attributed to the absence of Lob’s voice, a lackluster translation of the original work , or, worst of all, underwhelming writing. This volume relies more on action and momentum that the cerebral, fittingly glacial pacing of Lob’s work. It’s not terrible by any stretch, just disarmingly different. For every flash of brilliance – an exciting sequence set against the top of the train that pits Puig against some children sent to execute him masterfully rendered by returning illustrator Jean-Marc Rochette (whose style here feels much more refined and dreamlike as compared to the previous work) –there is a feeling of frustration caused by a missed opportunity or creative misstep, most noticeably a third-act contrivance that, spoiler alert, literally takes the story off the rails.
Snowpiercer, Vol. 2: The Explorers doesn’t have the impact or intelligence of the initial journey. What it does have though is a continuation of a truly original premise. Its problems aside, this story still might jar you like a train suddenly throwing on the brakes, staying with you long after you disembark.