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Snow Piercer Vol. 1: The Escape Review: All Aboard the Apocalypse
Political tensions rise, a big war takes place, nuclear bombs are dropped, the earth is savaged, and survivors have to group together in order to survive. This is an old story, told time and time again in its various forms and often used to deliver commentary on our society today. But as the adage goes, there’s no such thing as a new story, only a new way of telling it. And with Snow Piercer, writer Jacques Lob and artist Jean-Marc Rochette have certainly found an inventive and gut-wrenching way of doing so.
After a bomb was dropped, the Earth was locked into an everlasting winter that devastated the planet. Seeking some form of hope, the survivors of the disaster boarded the Snow Piercer, a train spanning the length of one thousand and one cars, powered by a presumably unstoppable engine.
Loaded with greenhouse cars, businesses, bunks, and a plant housing a continuous supply of meat, the train is completely self-sufficient, feeding all of its passengers and keeping everyone on board alive and relatively comfortable. That is, as long as they’re toward the front. Originally, Snow Piercer was a train designated for the rich and powerful, fully loaded and ready to accommodate the most privileged in society. But when things went to hell, some of the lowest in society rushed the train in hopes of boarding and finding refuge aboard. In an effort to keep things separate, the poor were packed into the tail cars while the privileged made their homes in the third, second, and first class sections of the train.
The story of Snow Piercer opens with a man named Proloff escaping from the tail cars, trying to find a place where he can be alone and retreat from the dismal conditions of the back. When he’s taken prisoner and questioned for his actions, he meets Adeline Belleau, a young human rights activist who wants to help the people in the tail cars and make things equal for all passengers on board. Together, the two uncover a disturbing secret: the train is slowing down, and many are calling for the tail cars to be released in order to cut off extra weight and tone down the burden on the train’s engine.
Many intense sequences and moments of action are found throughout the story, but Snow Piercer is less of an action thriller than it is a human drama. At its core is a scathing commentary of social structure and the privilege of the upper class, as well as the upper class’ complete apathy toward those in a lesser position. Political and military leaders use the plight of the passengers to improve their positions and social standing, many struggle to help those in need obtain equal status with their higher class counterparts, people turn to religion and worshiping the train engine in order to ensure that their lives will continue, and all the while, the Snow Piercer continues to move onward, unchecked in its eternal venture.
The continuous movement of the train is constantly eluded to throughout the book, which I interpreted as an assurance that, no matter what disaster might befall us, the will to survive will always persevere. And disaster does strike. Once word gets out that a tail car passenger and a young activist have been taken prisoner by the higher ups, riots break out in the cars, people begin to question their station, and a mysterious plague begins to infect the passengers aboard the train.
While everything falls apart, both Proloff and Adeline continue a forward journey aboard the train, attempting to reach the front and learn the truth behind Snow Piercer’s tiring engine. The two work well enough together, but the story insists on throwing a love angle in there that is both unearned and awkward. There’s no chemistry between the two, and the fact that they’ve only spent a few days together does nothing to make the reader appreciate their growing relationship. Instead, it just feels cliched.
They are solid characters on their own, however. Adeline is a middle class passenger who has good intentions, but really has no idea what life is like for the less fortunate riders in the passenger cars. When she meets Proloff, he beings to reveal the horrors of the train’s end and helps her understand why he’s so hesitant to talk about it. He’s a pragmatist and a brooding man whose demons have clearly shaken him, and although we never full appreciate his motivations, it’s still compelling to see what Proloff will opt to do next as they face all manner of obstacles on the train.
The part of the story I found to to be the most fascinating, however, was the class warfare angle it took with the apocalypse. Too often, stories of the apocalypse place all of their characters on the same equal playing field leveled by disastrous events. In Snow Piercer, class structure has persevered through the apocalypse, mirroring our own world and the conflict between the fortunate and the beleaguered. Many of the statements made by the military and political leaders are harsh and cold, and the attitude the different passengers have toward each other strike a little too close to home in their execution, especially in the turbulent times of unrest in the classes we find ourselves in today. Rochette’s art does a great job of preserving this mood, using dramatic shading, thick lines, and an overall grungy feel. Which is fitting, considering the characters in the story and the plight in which they find themselves.
The apocalypse is always a bleak setting, but adding in themes of the issues and problems that we face in our normal world today only makes Snow Piercer a much more dramatic and poignant ride. It’s cerebral, it’s entertaining, and it’s brutally honest, making it a powerful and damning message about our modern society when all hope is lost.