Posted by Joel Shepherd
So I was told I HAVE to read Warren Ellis, and if I’m going to read Warren Ellis, I HAVE to start with Transmetropolitan, because it’s like, totally weird and totally cool.
And it is. Well cool anyway, I don’t know about weird... but that’s probably just me, politics and sociology is my thing, and like a pig in the proverbial shit, I felt right at home. So much at home, I thought it deserved another write up, we politics-nuts should stick together.
What Transmetropolitan is is a great peice of ‘60s nostalgia transplanted quite comfortably into the future. Retrofuturistic... retrofuturama... whatever, the eggheads who make up fancy words to label stuff better described as ‘cool’ have a name for it, when you take the past and project it forward. Drug-addled, street-rioting, sex-crazed ‘60s times works far better for me in this respect than Edwardian, steam-powered Britain, I have to say.
Our hero is Spider Jerusalem, a man whose utter disregard of social norms is mitigated only by the fact that his times don’t appear to have any. He’s a walking reconstruction of ‘60s gonzo journalism, where a few headkickers declared war on this notion of journalistic objectivity, and the writer removing himself from the text. Spider is his text, literally, he’s ink-covered head to foot, and exploding with opinions on absolutely everything. He’s violent, rude, cynical, and lots of fun. He got famous writing a few books, then hated the fame so much he preferred a drugged stupor for five years instead, and has now reentered the real world from financial necessity.
But Transmetropolitan isn’t really about Spider, it’s about Spider’s relationship with his reality. Spider’s opinion is that he’s the only real thing in it, and he might be right. This explains why he feels justified in smashing everything he doesn’t like, literally or in print. When everything and everyone else is fake except for you, a truth-seeking crusade justifies you to do pretty much anything you like. But readers cheer for him because a lot of Spider’s reality really is messed up, even by his standards.
His ‘city’ is a great, black comedic metaphor for the future, where everything bad about our current world is inflated and grotesquely caricatured -- Terry Gilliam fans think ‘Brazil’, only without the Orwellian oppression. ‘Brazil’ was a warning of the dangers of bureaucratic oppression, while ‘Transmetropolitan’ warns of its opposite, and the loss of moral judgment that comes from mistaking exploitation for freedom. In ‘the city’, anything goes, so long as it makes someone a buck, or grants them some kind of power (usually the same thing, but not always).
The irony here is that while the gonzo journalism that inspired Transmetropolitan was supposed to be wild and free, here the comic itself is very tightly structured. Warren Ellis doesn’t lose himself in a pot-haze of psychedelic musings, he tells a series of very neat stories with professional efficiency. The method to the madness is that Ellis has constructed a world that allows him to sound off on all the things in this world that infuriate him, and then embody that fury in the character of Spider Jerusalem, who plays out every writer’s ultimate fantasy -- of righting great wrongs with the power of truth through words. Or just kicking the shit out of them, whatever.
I’ll even forgive the setup its left-wing pretensions, because a lot of these things are left wing pretensions -- every capitalist is evil, every religious person a fraud, too many personal freedoms cause the breakdown of civil society, etc. Because there’s an overlap from that kind of leftism into the kind of libertarianism where I feel more comfortable, and indeed it’s one a lot of leftists took in the early ‘70s in moving from left to right -- a suspicion of group think and revolutionary movements in general, and a dawning awareness that tyranny was still tyranny whether it wore a business suit or togas and flowers. An ideal that you matter, not us. Us doesn’t count for shit, because you can’t control us, ultimately you’ve only got power over you. Spider doesn’t wait for anyone’s approval, he is what he is and if people don’t like it, too bad. He’s a celebration of individualism in the face of systemic unreasonableness, and a rejection of systems of all kinds. Don’t trust the system. Trust yourself. Then be worthy of that trust. And it’s one of those rare things a large chunk of both left and right can agree upon.
There’s not many writers who get into this stuff, the conflicts between every individual and his or her society. It’s pretty core to everything I write about, the sad fact that all human psychology tends toward consensus with one group or another, and at some point in most societies, the individual stops thinking and the group takes over. We all do it. It’s just that in the real world, unlike this comic, we can’t yell in its face and shoot it with a bowel disruptor weapon.
at 8:30 AM