By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist January 31, 2014 at 6:18PM
A train with 1001 carriages circles the earth, carrying the last remaining survivors of an event that has made the planet essentially uninhabitable. And you thought the polar vortex was bad. In this tale, the entire globe is encased in ice and snow, and temperatures are so low that death comes nearly instantly to anyone who dares to find themselves outside (this is known as the "white death"). Welcome to "Snowpiercer." While Bong Joon-ho's film adaptation continues to await a release date, your next best bet might be to pick up the Titan Comics translation of the graphic novel. Penned by Jacques Lob, "Snowpiercer Volume 1: The Escape" essentially sets the stage of what's to come, and while that might indicate a story with little narrative pulse, as it waits to explode in part two, you'd be mistaken.
To ease readers into the world of "Snowpiercer," Lob centers his story around Proloff, a weary man from the tail section of the class-divided train, that sees the well-off up front in spacious luxury cars, everyone else crammed into the back, and armed officers keeping everyone in their place. But the temptations of a better life are hard to resist, and Proloff is caught during a daring attempt to go outside the train in order to move up a few cars. His unauthorized appearance in a new part of the train spurs fears of possible contamination or disease he might be bringing from the back of the train, and soon Proloff is quarantined. But word of his courage begins to circulate, and he's joined by the beautiful Belleau, an optimistic activist trying to bring aid to the third class. However, the duo get much more than they bargained for when the authorities at the very front of the train ask to meet them. Is it a trap? What could they want? What is it about these two otherwise regular people that suddenly interest the largely-unseen powers that govern the train? At any rate, the invitation is too good to resist and so, flanked by military escort, they begin their journey to the head of the train.
Granted, the narrative construct is fairly simple, but it's also tremendously effective. For much of 'The Escape,' Lob is establishing the unique setting of "Snowpiercer," and the rules—or lack of them—that govern those within the train. As the duo journey up to the front, we learn about the religious practices on the train, the rumors that the engine might be slowing down, how meat for eating is produced as well as the seedier aspects of life on board. Perhaps it's needless to say that the world's oldest profession will be always be fresh, and alcohol and pills are an easy escape from an existence tied to the rails. But even if technology has advanced to produce a self-sustaining vehicle that is the lone hope for humans, the concept of humanity among everyone aboard is mostly a foreign notion. Inequality, maintained by force, is a method of control from the old world that is still maintained in this harsh new reality, and so it follows that resistance brews.
Drawn by Jean-Marc Rochette, "Snowpiercer" is presented in stark black-and-white, a fitting artistic approach given the grim setting of this wintery tale. Indeed, color would not have as effectively captured the starkness of the outside world, an unending blanket of chilly white that only promises death. While inside, it's darkness and crowds that are a constant for those in the tail end, while up front the two-tone drawings convey the relatively spacious accommodations of those granted that luxury. Sin and squalor, hope and despair, romance and violence—Rochette's pen doesn't temper the range of emotions that are spread throughout the 1001 carriages. That being said, the illustrator's world can be confusing at times. There is a disorienting sameness to the various officials and military men—craggy-faced, often with facial hair, bundled in uniforms—that it can be difficult at times to clearly understand which character is which. And while Rochette nails the tone of Lob's story, one wishes both the author and artist had taken a breather from the thriller-style pace, to more greatly detail the Snowpiercer itself. It's presented as a marvel and miracle of human engineering, and while we get a sense of how it operates, we get less of a taste the grandeur of the train, particularly up front.
However, I wonder if this would be a complaint I would have had if "Snowpiercer" were presented as a novel. Admittedly, it's a criticism that only came to light after the all the pages were turned in a rather quick succession, with "Snowpiercer Vol 1. The Escape" proving to be a mostly ripping read. It's an engaging and clever take on the usual tropes of the apocalypse/survivalist genre, with an inventive setting and a rather grim assessment of how humans would treat each other even as humanity comes close to becoming extinct. And while I have yet to see Bong Joon-ho's film, just from the clips and trailers it would appear he's made some modifications, which likely serve the purposes of presenting this tale cinematically. But until that movie arrives, the graphic novel will be suitable substitute for those looking to board this futuristic tale. [B]
"Snowpiercer Vol 1: The Escape" is in stores now. "Snowpiercer Vol 2: The Explorers" hits shelves on February 25th.