I recently watched the Weinstein released and Bong Joon-ho directed film Snowpiercer and as those of you who heard my thoughts on the film know, I was very curious to explore its origins. The movie was based on a groundbreaking French graphic novel of (roughly) the same name, Le Transperceneige. I had the opportunity to read both volumes of the English translation of Snowpiercer, and boy was it a thing.
Volume 1 : The Escape / Volume 2: The Explorers
Let’s start with some important backstory. The first volume was written by Jacquis Lob with art by Jean-Marc Rochette, and was originally published in 1984. It is this volume that is often considered groundbreaking. The second volume was written by Benjamin Legrand with Jean-Marc Rochette returning to provide the art, and was published after the death of Jacquis Lob in 1990. As a result, there is a distinct difference between the two works.
Volume one of Snowpiercer is good; although not what I expected. It feels dated; imagine reading 1984 and comparing it to the works of such dystopian novels as Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451, which in my opinion did what Orwell was trying to do, but better. That’s how i feel about Snowpiercer Volume 1.
The story takes place during an ice age where the last of the human survivors live on a train named The Snowpiercer. The massive train’s track spreads around the continent while its perpetual motion engine ensures that it will never stop. The train is 1,001 cars long, and the culture of its inhabitants is a rigid one, secured by the military for the benefit of the elite that live in the front portions of the train. There are first class citizens, the second class citizens, third-class citizens, and those that live in the tail.
Our story begins with the detention of Proloff, a member of the tale section, and Belleau, an activist from third class advocating for the integration of the residents of the tale section into the rest of the train. We follow the two as they are moved to the front of the train to meet the president of this strict liner class system. Along the way we get to explore the many parts of the train.
The book is strong and it is easy to draw parallels to a lot of things we are experiencing today, but there are a few things notable weak points to this version of the Snowpiercer story (compared to the sequel and film versions). For one, we never get to see Proloff or any of the other tail members in the tail of the train; we are told how horrible it is, but we are never shown it. I also took major issue with the Proloff and Belleau relationship and how quickly it developed into a romantic one. It seemed like they only just met before they were making it while locked away.
The comic itself has some issues as well; I did not really find the art very memorable, though I can’t deny that the harsh lines and details fit the Snowpiercer‘s theme of deconstructing the truth very well. It was also hard to follow the passage of time through the book, and the flow between panels often was difficult to follow. Sadly, a few lines of dialog did not seem to translate well. All and all, I would advise you to skip Snowpiercer Volume 1 – and why you might think that was the end of it – I decided to read the second volume anyway, and let me tell you, it was worth it.
I would argue that Snowpiercer Volume 2 is brilliant, once you can get past how silly its premise is. In The Explorers we find that there is a second massive train, called “The Ice Breaker” that is bigger and better equipped and full of a group of people called “The Explorers” who have the ability to adventure outside the train for limited amounts of time.
So, yes, once you get past the fact that there was a second train on this track that the original Snowpiercer did not know about, The Explorers becomes everything The Escape wasn’t. We finally to get to take a look at the people living in the tail section and see their burdens and hardships. We get a look at the crazy religions of the train, and a deep understanding of the politics of the Ice Breaker.
The art is haunting and dreamlike, which is fitting as the story of Puig Vallès focuses on the idea of false hope and illusions. The second volume feels more of a visual and thematic inspiration to the film than the first volume did.
My favorite part of the entire story is the ending of volume two which is haunting.
As a combined work, I’d give Snowpiercer a Near Mint; the role of the first volume to the story as a whole is important, and the book is a classic, but it’s the second volume that truly deserves your attention.