Like the train where all its action takes place, the story of Le Transperceneige (Snowpiercer in English) flows smoothly through the book's 110 pages. Written in 1982 by Jacques Lob and Benjamin Legrand, and illustrated by Jean-Marc Rochette, the three-volume sci-fi graphic novel is set in a post-apocalyptic world blanketed with snow and ice. All that's left of mankind lives on a train 1,001 carriages long, "coursing through an eternal winter, on an icy track wrapped around the frozen planet Earth."
The graphic novel will soon be made into a highly anticipated film adaptation called Snowpiercer, and Titan Books just released a hardcover version of the first volume under the same name, translated into English for the first time ever. For a story that was written over 30 years ago, it doesn't read like a graphic novel with dated references, thanks in part to the timeless themes: people of different social classes thrust together in a ruined world where conflict is inevitable. The flawed (read: human) characters are people we recognize, and the graphics convey emotions that remind us of the grim world they're living in. We got the chance to ask Jean-Marc Rochette a few questions via email about his illustrations, the process of translating the book for English-speakers, and his other artistic endeavors. The artist's responses have been translated from French.
Could you tell me a little bit about your artistic background? How would you describe your style?
I come from Grenoble, a city in the Alps. When I was young, I used to visit the museum in this city, and I was very impressed by [Chaim] Soutine, [Gustave] Doré, and many others. But in 1975, painting in France was completely has-been, though at the same time comics flourished, especially underground comics, such as the work of Robert Crumb, Richard Corben, and so on. I was 18 years old, and I was a perfect autodidact, but I tried my chances in the comics industry... and rapidly found my place, My first "success" was Edmond le cochon, which was kind of like the French Fritz the cat.
The story of Snowpiercer began like a tragedy.
Crafting my style was a long process because I didn't want to have a "style." I wanted to do my job, which is to serve a story. I tried to find an effective style in order to express the different feelings that we can find in a novel. But I have three very important masters: Zhu Da, [Francisco] Goya, and Alex Toth. My style is a mixture of these three great artists.
According to the biography on your website, Le Transperceneige (Snowpiercer) was created in 1982 when you were 26 years old. How and when did you meet Jacques Lob, and what inspired both of you to create this story?
The story of Snowpiercer began like a tragedy. Alexis (Dominique Vallet), the first artist of Snowpiercer, died in 1977. He was only 31 and very talented, more specially in an humorous style—a little bit like Jack Davis of Mad. The first version of Snowpiercer was less pessimistic, more poetic, almost a fairly tale. Over a period of four years, Lob tried to find a new artist for his story, and he finally met me in 1981. He knew that this story was for me.
As a young illustrator, what artists inspired you? Did you study other illustrators that worked in graphic novels?
As I said, Zhu Da, Goya, and Alex Toth. But more precisely in regards to realistic comics, I would say Noel Sickles, Frank Robbins, and Milton Caniff. I like the strength of their inking, the clarity of their compositions, and the purity of their styles.
How does the art in Le Transperceneige compare to your other work?
Le Transperceneige is the axis of my work during 33 years. I did many other things: books for children such as the Purple Coyote, illustrations for classic books such as L'odysse of homere and Candide of Voltaire, some underground comics during my youth, and now paintings. But Snowpiercer is my greatest success. I am well known for this one. I am like a singer with his hit. Above all, I had the chance to work with a great story, which speaks to the people.
I think Snowpiercer is a grey world and that color is a luxury. This is a gift from God, and in this world there is no more God.
When deciding to publish the novel in English for the first time with Titan, did you ever discuss adding color? Do you think color would change anything about the novel?
No, there was never question of colors. I think Snowpiercer is a grey world and that color is a luxury. This is a gift from God, and in this world there is no more God.
Were you involved in the filmmaking process?
Just a little. In the movie Snowpiercer there is a painter—the painter of the poor—and I created all the paintings for this artist. It was very stressful to draw in front of the camera…stressful but exciting!
If you had to align yourself with 2-3 other illustrators (past or present) in terms of style and emotion, who would they be?
I would say Wilhelm Busch, Noel Sickles, Alex Toth, and Richard Corben for graphic novels; Gus Bofa, Doré, James Gillray, and [Honoré] Daumier for illustrations; and Goya, Corot, Soutine, Rembrandt, and Auguste Ravier for paintings.
Are you currently working on any other projects that you want our readers to know about?
I am working on the sequel to Snowpiercer, and I am finishing work on an exhibition of "abstract" landscapes for the museum of Meudon in Sept. 2014.