Monday, February 10, 2014

Comic Review: 'Snowpiercer Volume 1: The Escape'

We’ve been waiting a long time to see director Bong Joon-ho’s English-language debut Snowpiercer. Even though the tedious back and forth between the filmmaker and the Weinstein Company over crippling edits is reportedly done, a release is still likely way off in the distance. And that’s only if you happen to be lucky enough to live in one of the limited number of markets where TWC plans to show the film. Though we may have to sit and stew a while longer before we see the adaptation, the French graphic novels the movie is based on are getting an English translation for the first time. And they are well worth the wait.

Written by Jacques Lob, with art by Jean-Marc Rochette, Snowpiercer Volume 1: The Escape (originally published as Le Transperceneige) is now available for your perusal. After first appearing in 1982, the comics were later collected into a book in 1984.

After the onset of a new global ice age—kicked off by a cataclysmic war—throws the entire world into a deep freeze, the only survivors live inside the cramped confines of a train. Powered by a perpetual motion engine, the Snowpiercer is 1001 cars long, and endlessly circles the desolate wasteland that was once our planet, carrying the last vestiges of humanity. Inside these tight walls, a rigid caste system develops. Near the front are the so-called “golden cars,” where the occupants live in what passes for luxury, with ample food, space of their own, and even windows. At the tail, the third-class passengers are crammed in on top of each other, starving, filthy, full of disease, and bubbling anger.

A severe military force keeps the groups separate, but when a tail passenger named Proloff breaks free, taking his own life in his hands by climbing forward on the outside of the train, it kicks off a chain of events that could change everything. Taken into custody, Proloff, and Adeline, a member of the upper class sympathetic to the plight of the poor at the back of the train, are dragged forward through the nearly endless cars. As they progress, the intensity and urgency of their journey intensifies.

Where Snowpiercer succeeds most is in the world building department. The narrative does a nice job of setting up the hows and whys of this situation, answering questions like how the train can keep going in an endless loop, how the passengers are able to survive without stopping, and even how the world came to be like this. Lob’s story if full of details that solidify the setting and place you right there in the thick of the action.

Within the confines of the train, Snowpiercer creates a layered social system and political structure, with multiple interests competing for power. The military and civilian sides butt heads, scrambling for any advantage, and everyone plays an angle, pumping Proloff for information, gathering intelligence where they can. Themes of religion seep through, as passengers ascribe deity-like powers to the engine, or Saint Loco as they call their mechanical savior. Through all of this, and more, Snowpiercer creates a fully realized world, complete with a rich history—with multiple sides and perspectives—and complex collective structure. It’s a rolling dystopia in microcosm form.

Along his journey, Proloff bears witness to how the proverbial other half lives. People in his neck of the woods live in horrific conditions—just ask yourself where they get food if there is nothing to eat, you might not like the answer. Being alone for even a few moments is the highest form of opulence they can aim for, as illustrated in one particularly harrowing scene. Up front, however, is a veritable orgy, where the wealthy wallow in an existence of base desires and the pursuit of pleasure races unchecked.

Stunning black and white art, full of shades of grey, makes fantastic use of the setting. The illustrations capture the grim, hopeless plight of the passengers, and accentuate the tight confines of the interiors. At the same time the images show off the packed guts of the train, these visuals contrast with the vast, empty expanses on the outside.

No matter what else is going on, with all the factions vying for resources, space, and power, you feel the overwhelming futility of the entire situation. Despite all of the human variables, the clashes, loves, and conflicts, the train just keeps chugging along, indifferent to the woes of the passengers, constantly moving, going nowhere.

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