The Snowpiercer Saga

With the Snowpiercer season 1 finale around the corner, why not dive into the odyssey on which this whole fanchise was built upon ?

The snowpiercer is rolling to the ride, engulfed in smoke, surrounded by the night.
The first Snowpiercer

You know the story, right ? Sometime around 2005, Bong Joon-oh is writing the screenplay for his big break The Host. As seems to often be the case during his creative process, the young filmmaker is wandering through comicbook shops in Seoul, in search of inspiration. This is when the future oscar-winning director stumbles upon a copy of the Snowpiercer, according to himself, he read the whole thing while standing on the ground floor of the library. The story, the setting, everything in the book appeared cinegenic to him. That’s why, exiting the shop with a copy under his arm, Bong Joon-oh went on to meet with producers Lee Tae and Park Chan-wook — yes, Park “Old Boy” Chan-wook. They bought the rights to the comic, they shot a movie, it became a hit in both Korea and France and goes on to become a tv show on US soil. This the story, right ? The whole Snowpiercer Saga.

But…

What if I told you things didn’t go so smoothly ? What if I was to tell you about the real origin of the Snowpiercer ?

But first, I have tell you a bit about the comicbook industry history in France. If there ever was one name you would have to know, it would be René Goscinny. Goscinny was the creator of Asterix and a bunch of other less-known comics but most importantly the editor-in-chief at Pilote, a comic book magazine in which series like Asterix, Blueberry or Valerian et Laureline were first published. In the 60s, Goscinny was like the Godfather of Comics in France, hiring people such as Jacques Tardi, Jean Giraud before he became Moebius, Phillipe Druillet or Marcel Gotlib. But Goscinny liked family-friendly, educative comic book, a mentality still widespread to this day on French soil. And so it came that a schism finally took place which saw most of his stable leaving Pilote to create new adult-oriented comicbook magazines. The most well-known of those would be Métal Hurlant founded by none other than Phillipe Druillet, Jean-Pierre Dionnet and Jean Giraud/Moebius, whom reputation became a worldwide phenomenon.

Enter Jacques Lob who worked at Pilote for a time, not under René Goscinny, though. He’d been an illustrator for other small comic book magazines beforehand and finally landed a job at Pilote with la crème de la crème. Still, back in those days Lob wanted to become an illustrator and it’s under Jean-Michel Charlier‘s guidance, at the time editor-in-chief, that Lob finally embraced the work for whom he would be most fondly remembered, that of a writer. Jacques Lob quickly became an established writer, creating series such as SuperDupont, a French superhero or Delirius, the comic book he wrote for Phillipe Druillet, which is considered as Druillet’s masterpiece.

A page of Alexis’ Snowpiercer

According to Jean-Pierre Dionnet, Jacques Lob had always been obsessed with the rampant urbanism of his days. His frequent trips to New-York and how Robert Moses changed the design of the city during the 70s. This seemed like an obsession to Lob, which first developed a world solely constructed upon large highways with a short comic called Supercar before turning this idea into a serial in Pilote pages with Les Mange-Bitume, roughly translated into the Asphalt-Eaters. It’s also through Pilote that Lob met Alexis, who would go on to become the first illustrator of the very first version of the Snowpiercer. An idea of giant train riding through snowy landscape to escape the end of the world, Lob had been toying with.

Sadly, Alexis passed away, age 31, leaving Lob, 46, with a handful of sixteen pages. Looking back, it’s pretty sure this deeply affected the writer. It would become even more evident when you see how sombre the final product turned out to be. See, I was talking of the comic book magazine boom of the early 70s earlier, this boom led to the creation of a magazine called A suivre, which can be translated to To Be Continued, the concept behind the magazine was to not have short stories, but have real graphic novels separated into chapters that customers would buy, on a regular basis, to get the whole story. Lob and Alexis’ Snowpiercer was supposed to be the golden goose of the new publication that is until one of the creators died of a ruptured aneurism.

In a way, the Snowpiercer Saga could have ended there. It was a work of love, Lob had undertaken, in this first version, the story centred around a young woman called Couetsch, the name of Lob’s wife, who had to go up a never-ending train after the end of the world. Through this journey, Couestch would be accompanied by a talking bear. This isn’t exactly the Snowpiercer we know, this was not the Snowpiercer which seduced Bong Joon-oh. After Alexis’ death, the Snowpiercer Saga took on a darker turn.

This is all because the editor in chief of A suivre at the time, Jean-Paul Mougin, didn’t want the project to disappear. The man deeplyt believed in the potential which hid behind the project and so, as if they were making a feature film, a casting for illustrators began. Famous names have been cited when talking about those tries most notably were François Schuiten and Benoit Loisel, both illustrators would go on to become pretty damn famous in France comic book history and still Lob, probably more affected than he let on, refused every artists which were proposed to him.

A page of Schuiten’s Snowpiercer

Somewhere around 1981, Jacques Lob himself contacted a young illustrator named Jean-Marc Rochette. According to Rochette, it was an odd choice since he was mostly known for working on a trash comic book named Edmond le Cochon. Jean-Pierre Dionnet, in his postface to the Snowpiercer, thinks it may have been Rochette’s engagement for the respect of animal life that led Lob to contact the unprepared young man. A weird kind of fight convergence. Still after a few months, Lob seemed happy with the work his illustrator put up. Listening to Rochette, nowadays, you can hear him state how scared he was at the time, to be trying to get a realistic drawing right, on his first big break for a major publication. In a way, he now thinks the terror he felt at the time, having to deliver twelve pages of the Snowpiercer per month on top of the nine he owed for Edmond le Cochon, can be felt through the pages, through every drawing.

Jean-Paul Mougin really did believe in the Snowpiercer, enough to put it on the cover of A suivre for its #58 issue, which contained the second part of Rochette and Lob’s Snowpiercer. And truth is, the series got famous enough to sell a lot of magazines, before being packed into a single graphic novel and still having good sales. France had discovered the Snowpiercer.

According to Rochette, even though the comic garnered a few awards and a lot of positive criticism in mainstream media, he didn’t really get how important the comic book came to be. Still, two years later Jacques Lob became the first and ONLY writer to ever get the Grand Prize at the Angoulême Festival, the largest comic book convention in France. Some say, Jacques Lob’s past as an illustrator was the main reason why he got through. Some would state that the success of the Snowpiercer may have played a part in all of this.

Four years after his Big Win, in 1990, Jacques Lob passed away. Taking with him his Grand Prize, his Snowpiercer, every piece of fiction he ever wrote for us, readers, at the age of 57…

Rochette’s Snowpiercer. The Real Deal.

During his lifetime, Jacques Lob rejected two offers to make movie adaptations of the Snowpiercer. One of them being brought forth by Robert Hossein, one of the biggest producers in the biz in France at the time. Rochette, who was not here during the exchange, thinks that Lob had his creation way too close to his heart, like a father trying to protect his child, what he considered his best accomplishment. This may be true if we take into account that despite the publishing error which stated The Snowpiercer might be continued — A to be continued was imprinted in the final page of the comic in place of an actual the end during its inital serial run— Jacques Lob also rejected every offer to give the Snowpiercer a sequel. Meanwhile, Jean-Marc Rochette decided to get away from the comic book industry for a while and concentrate more on his paintings.

There existed a man, though, who had worked as a first assistant director on French movies set. This was before he made a movie with Phillipe Druillet who then introduced him to the French comic book elite. His name was Benjamin Legrand and he would go on to work with Jean-Marc Rochette at least a few times. Most surprisingly, while Lob was still alive he once asked Legrand to write a movie adaptation of the Snowpiercer for a movie producer. A project that did not go through, according to Legrand, there even was a third adaptation project which failed because the producer who owned the company which bought the rights decided to split up.

Still, after both Legrand and Rochette were unable to finish a series, called le Tribut, they made for A suivre during its twilight years, both creators decided to try and get The Snowpiercer a sequel. Having worked at least two times together, they agreed quickly on what they wanted it to be, what expansion they would add to the frozen wasteland Jacques Lob had given them as an inheritance. The duo decided to try and create a trilogy. Sadly, even though the first opus got good reviews, the release of the second tome came when during a union strike and through the window went every plan for a third tome.

Because this is the Snowpiercer we’re talking about, a creation which have never been easy. At this point, Rochette began to think that his sole great book would simply be forgotten, a gem of the past, destined to die with those who enjoyed it during the 80s.

A page taken from The Snowpiercer tome 2 by Rochette

We got this practice, here in France, I don’t know if it exists in other countries. After a certain amount of time, the editor of a publication turns to the author and ask him if he wants to buy every book of his that have not been sold. If the creator is unable to buy the book back, the publication gets pounded, reduced to dust. According to Legrand, this is what happened to The Snowpiercer sequel. During the time-frame Casterman, the editor, contacted him to know if he wanted to buy back every book, they received a letter from Korea stating someone out there wanted to buy the rights to make a movie adaptation. Once again, the destiny of the Snowpiercer had been in peril, and something, somewhere had saved the never-slowing train. Still this may not be the more interesting part of this story.

You see, for Joon-oh to have picked up the Snowpiercer in a Korean library is really no surprise. According to the director, he always liked trains, the cinegenic feel of it and the class warfare which serves as a backbone for the whole Snowpiercer saga is part of the essence of every Bon Joon-oh there ever was. No, what’s interesting is that Joon-oh should never have been able to pick a copy of the Snowpiercer, for the rights to publish it were never bought from Casterman before 2006, and Joon-oh bought his comic in ’04. A pirate copy of the French comic-book is what graced us with the Snowpiercer movie adaptation.

After that, the story is more well-known. The Snowpiercer became a big success and Korean and French soil, got a private release in the U.S. Still, this enabled Rochette to make a new Snowpiercer comic-book, named Terminus. A TV channel acquired the rights to transform the movie into a TV series, with its own bunch of problems, seeing the first showrunner had to be replaced during production and the producers got Scott Sinister Derrickson to step away from directing the pilot after they disagreed with his original vision. Still, Rochette used, once again, this tv show as a step to get a prequel to the Snowpiercer published. You see, before the movie and everything came along, Rochette had stepped away, a second time, from the comic book industry and moved to Berlin to try and get his painting career off the ground after all the frustration he had felt during his time in the comic book industry.

It appears the publishing saga behind the Snowpiercer was as tough as thetale itself, a fable of the last bit of humanity fighting in a metal train on a road to nowhere, a tale of death, class warfare and despair but, by now, you may know the words it goes like this : Across the immensity of an eternal winter, from one end of the frozen planet to the other, there travels a train that never stops. This is the Snowpiercer, one thousand and one carriages long.

Sources:

[1] Histoires du Transperceneige, Nicolas Finet, Casterman

[2] Les premières bds osées de Jacques Lob

[3] Du Transperceneige au Snowpiercer, Snowpiercer DVD Ultimate Edition

[4] De la feuille blanche à l’écran noir, Snowpiercer DVD Ultimate Edition

[5] Lob Story (in French)

[6] Postface to Le Transperceneige by Jean-Pierre Dionnet

[7] Postface to Terminus by Jean-Marc Rochette

[8] L’incroyable histoire du “Transperceneige”, BD adaptée au cinéma

[9] “La Vie d’Adèle”, “Snowpiercer” et “Quai d’Orsay” : quand le ciné…

[10] “Snowpiercer” Is The Best-Selling Korean Movie Ever Shown In France

If you liked this paper you may also like The Making of Renaissance, an animated cyberpunk thriller set in Paris and released in 2006 ; or if you want to learn more about another adaptation, in this case of a manga, you can check Tsutomu Takhashi and Ryuhei Kitamura’s Alive.

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