COMIC REVIEW: Snowpiercer Vol.1: The Escape

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‘Across the white immensity of an eternal Winter, from one end of the frozen planet to the other there travels a train that never stops. This is the Snowpiercer, one thousand and one carriages long.’

The set up to this book is simple but Snowpiercer is one of those high-concept stories that simply burgeons with possibilities.  It’s the mother of all ice-ages, and all that remains of humanity live aboard this extraordinary perpetual-motion machine.  Proloff is one of the fortunate few, a survivor; yet he is still trapped.  Trapped in a world where social mobility is directly equated with physical movement; where the wealthy and political elite lead the remnants of humanity through the world from the front carriages, while the poor and dispossessed are sealed off in the Tail to fend for themselves.  Unable to cope with the bleak horrors of the famine-ridden rear carriages any longer, Profloff has risked his life climbing across the skin of the Snowpiercer to escape.  Meanwhile, a small integrationist movement has been developing in the Second Class carriages, seeking to end the suffering of their fellow passengers.  Adeline Belleau is their representative and she tries to meet with Proloff, only to be captured and imprisoned alongside him.  However, the President has pressing reasons to meet them both, so they soon find themselves escorted to the front.  What they hear and witness on the way will begin to reveal dark truths behind their ever-moving home, the frozen apocalypse outside, and the kind of society we live in today.  

I’ve been looking forward to this one since I first saw the previews back in November.  Weirdly, the first things that leaps to mind when flicking though the pages of this French book (translated into English by Titan comics) are the harder SF stories from 2000AD.  Jean-Marc Rochette’s black and white artwork holds much of the character of that venerable British publication, with its fascistic uniforms and plethora of everyday folk crowding the backgrounds; while Jacques Lob’s extreme world-building and darkly satirical social commentary is redolent of the great Tharg’s Future Shocks, thoughtfully spun out to a full-length format.  Although I couldn’t honestly say I fell in love with the characters, I was absolutely fascinated by the concepts Lob and Rochette present us with.  It is one thing to examine human society in a familiar setting, but quite another to see us crammed together in this fashion, unable to escape our own natures or each other for a second.  In artistic terms, of course,  the train is a metaphor for our capitalist society, plunging wildly through the world, heedless of the harshness hidden by walls and windows.  In terms of the narrative, Snowpiercer is not quite the potboiler I had hoped, but nevertheless manages to exceed the confines of a simple revolutionary tale to give us something genuinely thought provoking.

Using Proloff as our window into the world is a smart move.  As a tail-rat, every cultural niche that has developed in Snowpiercer society is new to him, and the explanations he (we) receive feel natural and unfussy.  Adeline’s 2nd Class p.o.v. gives us added texture in contrast to both Classes on either side, as do a fine cast of secondary characters they encounter on the way.  The artwork is clean and crisp, and the panel layouts rarely lead to confusion.  There are sufficient differences between the carriage designs and the residents therein to keep things visually interesting, which must surely have been one of the major challenges for the creative team.  After all, in a linear world, how do you find the wrinkles and corners that make a story interesting?  This is partly achieved through zoning (e.g. carriages for growing veg, breeding rabbits, whoring and snoring); partly through using a pleasingly old-fashioned compartment design, which allows for rooms rather than row upon row of sardine seating; and partly through demonstrating the social pressures that are building up in this claustrophobic environment.  For, regardless of the apparent luxuries aboard, Snowpiercer is a dry powder keg, and it seems more than ready for Proloff’s spark.

Generally speaking, Snowpiercer is great dystopian fiction and it pleases me no end that the comic has been made into a movie.  After a long delay (caused by differences between the hack-happy distributor Harvey Weinstein and the much admired Korean director Bong Joon-ho) the uncut version will now be on (sadly limited) release in US and UK cinemas, so it will be interesting to see how the cinematic vision compares to the book.  Will it manage to retain the bitter flavour of the comic or the liberal attitude to sex found within its pages?  Will the back-story get fleshed out, and will the train convince as a location for the last bastion of mankind?  Critically, will Bong and inject some much needed depth to the characters of Proloff (Chris Evans) and Adeline?  One can only hope so.  In the mean-time, the connection with the film industry has helped Titan’s first print-run of Snowpiercer: The Escape sell out in a flat forty-eight hours.  With Volume 2: The Explorers due out later this month, the time couldn’t be better to hop on board and see for yourself what all the fuss is about.

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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