Plausibly grim

I found my way to the Snowpiercer comics by way of Bong Joon-Ho’s excellent 2013 movie, but they are legendary in their own right. These pioneering adult bandes dessinées, despite their fanciful science-fiction setting, are distinguished by a gritty and low-key style that was rarely found in comics in 1982 when the first volume was published. This is a world in which good guys are readily compromised by circumstance, violence is messy and unpleasant, sex is a negotiable commodity, and human nature is an ineluctable obstacle to social progress. In the first volume, Jean-Marc Rochette’s scratchy and kinetic art is a good match for the aesthetic of the narrative, and the central allegorical conceit, which is that the last remnant of the human race is trapped on a train hurtling around the frozen earth on a mission to outrun its seemingly inevitable demise. This core idea is in fact extremely silly, and barely qualifies as science-fiction: for some reason the speed of the train acts as a counterbalance to the low external temperature, and if it stops for too long its passengers will die. However, if you’re willing to swallow that, the rest of the world-building is grimly plausible.

In this second volume, The Explorers, we find ourselves on another train, the Icebreaker, which lives in constant fear of a head-on collision with Snowpiercer, whose inhabitants are believed to have succumbed to the cold while its locomotive hauls it onwards. So far so good, but if I’m honest it’s a fairly thin excuse for a sequel. There is no real outstanding question from the first volume that this book sets out to answer, and no unexplored implications of the scenario that its characters and narrative could be said to illustrate. The original was written by Jacques Lob as a kind of political allegory, although he claimed to be interested more in environmentalism than in social justice when he was writing it—the confines of the eponymous train clearly stand in for the limited resources of the earth, and the themes of confinement and scarcity are very obviously intended to represent the condition of the human race in late industrial capitalism. Benjamin Legrand’s follow-up is a less political affair altogether, and although Lob’s characters are no less cynical, this narrative has a much less of a moral centre to it. We have a handsome, macho hero, who is quite cheerfully corrupted by the regime at the front of the train without any complaints about the suffering he and his fellow second-class passengers endure—the story seems to have the values of a Dirty Harry movie, in contrast to the more or less overt socialism of the original. Rochette’s art is no less expressive, although here he opts to shade his striking inks with grey washes, but there is rather less for him to express. That being said, it’s a very enjoyable read, and a convincing expansion of the world established by Lob’s script. Volume three is about as hefty as both of the first two put together, so I’ll look forward to finding out what kind of terminus Legrand takes the story to.

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