If you’re a film fan like me, you’ve probably heard about the brouhaha stirring over director Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi thriller, Snowpiercer, based on the French graphic novel, Le Transperceneige. If you’re not familiar, the acclaimed South Korean filmmaker’s latest movie was purchased for distribution in the U.S. by the Weinstein Company who, as is often their custom with foreign films, is cutting about 20 minutes (!) of footage and requiring voice-over narration in order to, in their minds, better suit an American audience. In other words, we’re too dumb to appreciate the film like the rest of the world. Naturally when there’s this kind of buzz about a film, it makes me curious to check out what all the fuss is about. So I was very happy to hear that Titan Books is releasing all three parts of Le Transperceneige under the more tie-in friendly title, Snowpiercer, over the course of 2014, with the first volume available as of January 28.
In the dictionary, under “high concept”, it probably says, “See: Snowpiercer”. No matter how you say it, it sounds too bizarre to be true. Essentially, men waged war, unleashing a new type of weapon that could alter the weather. Unfortunately, the weapon worked too well, and now the entire world has been plunged into a second Ice Age. Everything is covered in snow, most of the world’s population is dead, and the only known survivors are on board a massive train carrying 1,0001 cars, called the Snowpiercer. The train has been equipped with an experimental perpetual motion engine, which magically generates fuel as it burns it, keeping the train going indefinitely on the same loop of track.
Similar to the type of segregation seen on the Titanic, the wealthy are near the front of the train, while the poor live in the back. The front, naturally, is a hedonistic wonderland appeasing any and all appetites for food, drink, drugs, and sex. Meanwhile, the back of the train is cramped, dark, diseased, and starving, with the hundreds of inhabitants living mainly on the few rats they can catch. Somewhere in the middle are roving military patrols, the “Ticket Inspectors” who operate as a police force, and the technicians who keep the life support structures going, including a greenhouse for vegetables, and a room-sized vat of self-replicating living meat tissue suspended in a nutrient fluid (Yum!). Helping to keep many of the citizens in line is the clergy from a newly established religion that believes the almighty engine to be a sort of god, delivering them from the icy death that awaits them outside.
The first volume of the comic takes us through these various strata of society as a man named Proloff escapes from the tail. Normally anyone trying to get from the tail-end is found and killed by the military during their efforts, but somehow Proloff made it through alive. Seeing some spunk in the “tail-ender”, the President of the train has requested that he be brought to the front so that the two might have a word.
I have to admit that when I first heard the premise of Snowpiercer I actually laughed out loud. There’s just so much that doesn’t really make sense about thousands of people living on a train that never stops. Sure, the comic goes to some lengths to explain away some of these WTF? questions, but there’s still quite a bit of wand waving necessary to make the central conceit work. But once you start reading, you just sort of accept everything and run with it as a metaphor for a society segregated into the Haves and the Have Nots. Once you’ve suspended your disbelief, it becomes a pretty compelling story that barrels ahead not unlike the eponymous locomotive, to an ending that leaves you wanting more.
Before I started reading Snowpiercer, I didn’t do any research on the comic beyond what I had gleaned from the movie trailer; so I went into it completely blind. And one of the things that really surprised me about the first volume of the comic is that it was released in 1982. Everything from the stark, realistic, black-and-white artwork to the dialog feels very timeless. Actually, some aspects, like the vat of self-replicating meat, feel almost contemporary as we head towards a future where we can create steak without the use of cows. In addition, the clothes are very utilitarian, which helps it avoid some of the fashion disasters that have dated classic comics of the same era like Watchmen.
Unfortunately, the publication date is also a bit of a detriment for first-time readers like myself. So many ideas from Snowpiercer have been done since – the crowded, post-apocalyptic prison where mankind has reverted to it’s old forms of social value – that it somewhat lessens the impact of the comic. Perhaps one of the latest and best comparisons is Hugh Howey’s wildly popular Wool series of novels, which essentially replaces the train with a silo buried in the ground. But if you go into the comic knowing that it came out long before games like Fallout, books like Wool, and movies like Elysium were even being conceived, it helps set it in the proper literary context and it becomes much more engaging and frighteningly prophetic.
As this is only the first of three volumes of the comic, I can’t say if the entire series is as interesting and fulfilling as the first act. But once you have the tour of the train out the way, the story ends on a note that I really did not see coming and leads to questions that I now have to find the answers to. I can’t wait until Volume 2 comes out in February.