A parabolic parable

I will freely admit my ignorance on all matters bandes dessinées. My first comics were Asterix and Tintin in French (inherited from my Francophone father), so of course I’ve always been aware of Franco-Belgian comics, but my developing obsession with the medium was nourished in its early days by British and American comics (largely British), and I’ve never really made the effort to dig into the history of European comics (which are dominated commercially and culturally by the Franco-Belgian oeuvre).

In the English-speaking world, following early pioneers such as Will Eisner and the underground comix movement of the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of talk about comics for adults in the 1980s, a serious new medium for fiction and other narratives—the term ‘graphic novel’ entered the vernacular and was bandied about excitedly by broadsheet newspapers and other self-appointed arbiters of cultural validity. Then it all fizzled out as the 80s turned into the 90s, and comics ‘for adults’ turned out to mean superhero comics with tits and gore in them, from a mass-market publishing perspective at least. English-language comics are currently experiencing their long-awaited golden age, and its now possible to find an audience for comics on any topic at all, but Europe (as in so many areas) was there a long time before the self-regarding Anglos.

In Europe the arrival of comics drawn for an adult audience coincided roughly with the great political spasms of 1968, and this shift from the juvenile to the mature as the primary area of cultural interest (the Europeans having long regarded their comics, like their movies, as culturally significant) was concurrent with a shift in the productive centre of gravity from Belgium to France. By the middle of the 70s, although many Parisian cultural chauvinists doubtless continued to sneer at them, bandes dessinées were a serious medium for narrative fiction. This is the context in which Le Transperceneige was published in 1982. It only received an English translation in 2014, by way of a tie-in with the Bong Joon-ho movie Snowpiercer, which is a loose adaptation of it. This is no reflection on its importance in the world of European comics however, but a simple consequence of the relatively small English-language market for grown-up comics—although certain Francophone creators have been extensively translated into English, most have not.

Le Transperceneige is an important work of French-language science-fiction, then. This is a topic I know even less about than French comics, so I can’t really comment on the book from that perspective, but Snowpiercer 1: The Escape, as this translation of the original album is titled, is certainly a pretty extraordinary piece of work for its era, in any medium. From a 2020s viewpoint aspects of it are dated, certainly, but the frequently unpleasant sexual politics that are found in the book represent the mainstream values of the day, and they are not presented uncritically by any means. The book takes the end of the 1970s as its point of departure, and it would have to have been pretty utopian in outlook to postulate a near future characterised by gender equality. Snowpiercer is not a utopian work.

The last comic I wrote about here, Aminder Dhaliwal’s Dead End Jobs For Ghosts, postulates a speculative scenario in which the fantastical elements add up to something resembling our everyday world. Although it’s not a satire, Snowpiercer does something similar. Imagine a universe in which the entirety of the human race is confined to a vehicle describing a cyclical path through an environment utterly inimical to life, in which resources are limited and dwindling, in which the distribution of those resources is extremely unequal, and apportioned according to the interests of those who control the means of violent coercion. I am of course, describing the world in which we all live, but in Snowpiercer, the ultimate remnant of the human race is circling the frozen Earth aboard a train, in which the wealthy lead lives of dissipated luxury in first class, while the great unwashed are starving to death in cattle trucks at the rear.

Jacques Lob’s story is a straightforward one, in the classical form of an episodic journey, whose linearity is given physical constraints in the movement from the rear to the front of the train. From what little I know (this translation not having been given any kind of an introduction, sadly), the scenario was developed collaboratively between Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, who drew it—Rochette’s creative investment in the narrative is evident from the fact that subsequent volumes in the series are scripted by different writers, while he remains at the drawing board. However, Lob’s terse, rough-edged dialogue, by which the narrative is largely driven, is central to the world-building: the eponymous train is controlled by precisely the people you would expect to control such a final refuge, and their speech is all too credible. Rochette’s gestural, yet illustratively precise art is presented in black, white, and two shades of half-tone grey. It looks as rough as the dialogue, with no attempt made to pretty it up or polish it, which was exactly the right aesthetic decision for this book. This is not the kind of art, despite its high quality, that encourages the reader to slow down and admire it: instead, with its brash clarity of action, and its well-distinguished, expressive faces, it hurls the story forward with the same sort of directional inevitability as the train, and the characters on it.

Rochette has said that in developing the scenario, he and Lob were more interested in environmentalism than in social justice, although it is the latter which has been more discussed in relation to this work. Bong Joon-ho appears to have taken an interest in the comic for precisely that reason, and it would be hard knowing what we now know to make an environmentalist movie set on a snowball Earth. That’s not the only reason it’s been received with a different emphasis to its authors’ intentions, however: it’s just too perfect an allegory for the society in which it was written, too parabolic a parable, to be taken any other way—if anything, in its entanglement of those themes, it is a demonstration of the absolute inseparability of ecological and social justice. Forty years after its first publication this deceptively fast and dirty dystopian political thriller continues to ask questions to which those in power have never provided any satisfactory responses.

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