[24 February 2014]
Once humanity reached the very human designated year of 2000, it seemed that our current pop culture pages and screens filled up with all manner of gloom and doom. What caused all this pessimism? Days End is nothing new, of course, but could the mainstream pop culture’s resurgence in the apocalypse be the result of the real life terror of the September 11th attacks (for those in the US, that is—terror is, of course, everywhere in many forms), or the increasing alarm in the wake of climate change, or humankind’s endless war and strife and suffering, or the confirmation that Big Brother is not only watching us, as George Orwell foretold, but he’s playing World of Warcraft with us with one hand as he pilots a drone with the other?
People have been babbling about the end of time since the beginning of time. Our species is incapable of just sitting back and relaxing, comfortable knowing, for those who have it good, just how good we actually have it. Imagining the world ending is a safe kind of fantasy because, deep down inside, many of us don’t think it can actually happen. Still, the reasons dystopias like those in The Hunger Games or The Walking Dead work is because they not only tap into that end times mentality, they also tweak the part of our brains that can’t fathom living without the comforts of the modern world. Food, medicine, space to move around… take those things away and see where we end up. Well, we end up like many people actually really live.
But for those of us who do live relatively well, Snowpiercer takes the end of the world and puts it on a train. It’s a hell of an elevator pitch, akin to the famous “Die Hard on a bus” line that got people to line up to see Speed 20 years ago. Originally published in that not-inconsequential year of 1984, this French series (Le Transperceneige) by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, is seeing its first English translation thanks in part to the success of The Host director Bong Joon-ho’s 2013 film.
Though a success in South Korea, the US release date of the film is mired in controversy ,thanks to the Weinstein Company’s insistence on cutting footage and adding expository narration for the presumed “less sophisticated” American audience. It may be a while before American audiences can see the film, but thankfully, in this and in every instance, there are always comics.
Everything you need to know about the story is in the opening line: “Across the white immensity of an eternal winter, from one end of the frozen planet to the other there travels a train that never stops.” It’s the kind of opening that not only hooks the reader, it impales them. This is a ride you’ll want to take. Right up front we’re presented with the facts of the train: it is 1001 carriages long, and those carriages represent a strict social hierarchy, and there are armed guards everywhere.
We meet Proloff, a man from the tail of the train, where people live huddled together in cramped, cold cars intended for livestock. Proloff braves the outside to make his way up to the more comfortable parts of the train. After he’s captured by guards, he meets Adeline, a member of an aid group whose goal is to help integrate those living in the tail into the more civilized parts of the train. Together they make their way to the very front of the train where they uncover a plot that will benefit the upper class at the expense of the tail section.
Lob and Rochette quickly put us on the train, giving a sense not just of its enormity of but the close quarters, as well. Each scene is either in a corridor or a cabin with characters pushed up against one another for comfort, or to be threatened, or merely out of necessity.
Because the outside world has been ravaged by an environmental catastrophe, we never leave the confines of the train. To venture into “the White Death” is unthinkable. This makes the logistics of the journey problematic. Access to water is no problem, but the job of feeding the population on a never-ending train ride falls to rabbits and mice, all specially bred for the job. Greenhouse cars provide some fresh vegetables. Food is also provided, and made all the more horrifying, by the presence of Mama, “an enormous slab of vat-grown meat, suspended in a nourishing fluid.”
Proloff and Adeline’s journey to the front of the train provides essential exposition for the story, further fleshing out the world of Snowpiercer as they pass through each car. The particulars of class stratification, military organization, and even the sex trade differ from car to car. There’s such a richness to the world that we feel cheated not lingering in one car or another. This makes the end of Proloff’s journey feel sudden and anti-climactic.
The engine, an object of religious devotion among the passengers called Saint Loco, isn’t merely the front of the train or the concentration of its power, it’s also the end. The conditions are different from where Proloff started, but the facts are the same. Like the train itself, Proloff is a survivor, and he learns too late that’s something entirely different from living.