Transmetropolitan: A Closer Look

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Every once in a while, a satirical work of graphic fiction is released that speaks to its readers at a basic yet intelligent level, and still offers the fantastical element of the comic book format. For many, the most memorable of these has been Transmetropolitan.

At the helm of this 60-issue series is Warren Ellis, joining the league of ‘mad Brits’ like Grant Morrison and Mark Millar in the comic book world. Telling the tale of Spider Jerusalem, an enflamed journalist seeking the truth in an overpopulated and corrupt world of the future, Transmetropolitan put Ellis on the map, which he followed up with other big-sellers such as the ever-popular Authority and Global Frequency. Darrick Robertson, best known before Transmetropolitan as an artist/creator with Malibu comics, provides the artwork and amazingly enough, sticks around for every issue during the entire 5 year run.

The series kicks off to a great pace. In fact, the first several issues were some of the most memorable and DC wasted no time in getting the first Transmetropolitan trade collection out to stores after the book was moved to its new Vertigo imprint. Under threats by his editor to fulfill the remainder of his contract with the paper, Spider Jerusalem begrudgingly returns to the city after 5 years of isolation from the modern world. We’re introduced to Spider’s (read: Warren Ellis’) over-the-top yet sincere hate for society as he physically and verbally assaults passers-by all in the name of just cause. Before he even starts his first assignment, you lose count of the number of flashed genitalia and upright middle fingers.

Even more captivating than Spider’s character is the most important supporting role in the whole series: the city itself. Rather than doing a homage to Blade Runner or other works of popular science fiction, Ellis and Robertson together created arguably the most stunningly diverse and honest mirror of human population in any medium. In Transmetropolitan’s cityscape, there’s more than your neo-punk, flying-car fare: people can imbed traits into their genetic makeup, giving them everything from different eye colors to cell-phones in their eardrums, micro-cameras float the wind, tracking activity with omnipresent accuracy and information bombs impregnate minds with data like forced advertisements. The chilling thing behind all of this is the fact that it portrays so well the values of our current sprawling metropolises, it doesn’t take a huge stretch of the imagination to believe this might be what the future actually holds for us.

Transmetropolitan’s opening story arc follows Spider Jerusalm on his first assignment and really shows the reader he’s more than just a case of pent-up aggression. When a neighborhood comprised mostly of half-human, half-alien transients declare themselves an alien colony rather than a part of the city, Spider promptly uses his trademark shakedown skills to uncover the truth behind it. At the story’s intense climax, the neighborhood’s residents are ruthlessly beaten by a city riot squad as Spider sits atop an overlooking building, delivering his column via live-feed and reproaching the public for their civic indifference. The sense of journalistic flair that we get from Spider throughout the series reflects Ellis’ own interest in journalists, including British pop writer Chris Roberts and the drug-induced Hunter S. Thompson of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame. Throughout his 10-odd years in the industry, Warren Ellis has become known for his own biting commentary work in comics journalism: he wrote for ComicBookResources.com, co-founded and consulted for ArtBomb.net, and founded DiePunyHumans.com, among other blogs in digital and printed form.

Spider Jerusalem is joined early in the series by his new assistant Channon, a rough-and-tough former stripper assigned to him by his editor as a protection policy. An understated character in my opinion, she has a recurring back-story involving the men who just treat her as a sex object. Channon’s character in itself is a sublime twist on the ordinary woman’s struggle to find her worth. In this world’s version, the ordinary woman’s ex-boyfriends include a guy who leaves her for a cloud of sexed-up electronic dust particles and a corrupt, half-alien evangelist. After getting her heart broken one too many times, she goes on hiatus from the series to be replaced by Yelena, a reserved and brooding young journalist. When Channon returns, the two seemingly opposite women more often than not bond in their mutual disgust of Spider. All in all, the girls remain our protagonist’s dependable (though begrudgingly so) cohorts in his quest to expose the truth.

Over the course of its run, Transmetropolitan does a great job of exploring the city in all its facets. Spider is militant - but very open-minded - and as an observer of human events finds himself taking advantage of the modern world’s infinite diversity. During these brief escapes from the main storyline, we’re exposed to Ellis in his creative prime when Spider Jerusalem pays a visit to a religious convention, but ends up wreaking havoc among scam artists (complete with a Jesus-like overturning of tables, a nod to the Book of John).  He discovers a shelter for the cryogenically-frozen who’ve been thawed out to find a world too bizarre for their senses to handle. In man-made reservations, he observes people who’ve escaped modern society to start over and develop archaic cultures behind the walls of a virtual world.

Like a supplement to his inquisitive discoveries is another type of experimenting. Yes, the drugs. Meds, jumpstarts, hallucinogens, and pills of every shape and color—Spider does them, so much of them, in fact, that his health becomes a major cause of concern by the end of the series.

The political front is really the driving force behind what goes on in the book. The media, various organizations, celebrities, and the public itself are always at the end of Spider’s big stick, but the politicians that run the country and have a hand in the notorious city ‘civic center’ are usually his end targets. Transmetropolitan begins with The Beast, an alcoholic working man’s Nixon who has bad blood with Spider, in the presidential office. Yet, when The Beast loses in the election to ‘The Smiler’, a creepy caricature of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Ellis takes us on some very interesting political maneuvers. A lose-no-face, play-for-keeps politician, The Smiler and Spider Jerusalem trade blows back and forth, reflecting the unbelievable things public figures would do to maintain their position in the eyes of the public. Probably the most laudable thing Ellis conjured up was The Smiler’s habit of killing off everybody close to him when his ratings are low to get sympathy points in the polls. With the 2004 elections right behind us, it’s hard to ignore the fact that a President can slip on marks of intellect, moral standard and due diligence, but doesn’t dare lose his ability to be empathized.

The artwork of Transmetropolitan is one of those things few people can agree on. I’ve had conversations with people that didn’t like Transmetropolitan because the artwork was inconsistent and lacked the fluidity of other Vertigo titles. Conversely, a lot of people loved Robertson’s ability to illustrate both grimy and beautiful environments in the series. I admit, I found the art a little sloppy compared to other artists at first, but over the course of the book, however, you start to understand how Roberston’s artistic range is the perfect match for the diverse backdrops of the city. His style is far from post-apocalyptic, yet not even close to being ideal-futuristic, and that’s what makes the city into a hyperbole: it’s an insane circus, but a completely believable one.

And just as Robertson is able to create the entire world around our characters, Ellis does the same in narrative. Much like in works such as Planetary, Ellis gives everything character and a sense of history that make his writing immediately engaging. Throughout Transmetropolitan, we’re exposed to vignettes of people’s lives in the city: a boy who feels guilty for sexually abusing his sister throws himself in front of a train, traumatizing the shocked train driver for life; mental hospitals ship patients out to hostels due to high costs, causing a dense population of crazy people walking the streets, many of which are interviewed by Spider himself; an adoption clinic worker fears attacks from pro-abortionists campaigning against overpopulation – these few examples make it clear that the setting of Transmetropolitan is a crazy mixed up world and we see it from all angles.

Spider Jerusalem is a true-to-life personification of frustration for what we see around us. Ellis once said in an interview that apart from the main storyline, some events of the series were a reflection of what was happening to him on a certain day. All in all, Transmetropolitan is one of those rare gems of social satire that manages to be wickedly entertaining yet completely sincere at the same time.

- Jon Sukarangsan



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