Transmetropolitan Vol. 1: Back on the Street

[4 June 2009]

By Ian Chant

It is a product of our hyper-accelerated culture that science fiction, especially of the near future, cyberpunk flavored variety, ages more quickly now than it once did. A friend of mine recently read Neuromancer for the first time, and complained that many of the books more fantastical elements seem almost quaint in the light of the present day. Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis’ violent, vicious, hilarious and horrifying vision of the future remains entrenched in a bleak and amoral future, where human beings are vat cloned as fast food livestock, media buys include subliminal bombs that buy ad space in your dreams and Star Trek style replicators are operated by AI addicted to cybernetic drugs. And yet as science, if not necessarily progress, marches inevitably onward, the world of drug addled outlaw journalist Spider Jerusalem resembles our own more and more every minute.
For every high tech gadget like Jerusalem’s handheld bowel disruptor, there is a device like the feed reader, which is basically just an iPhone with fewer features. Culturally, Transmetropolitan takes place in a world in which the line between news and entertainment is blurred to nonexistence, and in this more than anything else it comes too close for comfort to our own. Handheld devices connect citizens to the digital information stream at a whim, but news worth reading has never been more rare, and just how close this brutal future is to our own world is by turns prophetic and downright horrifying.

Transmetropolitan is fundamentally character driven, revolving around the exploits and misadventures of Spider Jerusalem, a Hunter S. Thompson inspired outlaw journalist perpetually sneering at the world of the future, cigarette clenched between gritted teeth, veins throbbing like tectonic fissures. Spider is accompanied by his long suffering assistant and down to earth foil, Channon Yarrow, one of the most underrated sidekicks in modern comics and among the strongest female characters to grace the funny pages in recent memory.

But Spider and Channon, compelling as they are, are products of their environment, and Transmetropolitan succeeds like few works of fiction in transforming it’s setting into a living, breathing, fully fleshed out character in its own right. From TV programming to the landscapes of the nameless megacity in which the story is contained, every environment is compelling even at it’s bleakest, every channel and alley is just one of a million constantly running arteries of commerce and crime. The devil of Transmetropolitan is in the details, and some of Ellis’ most hilarious jokes, most biting satire and most effective moments of tugging at heart strings (yes, there are a few, even in a book this vulgar and often cynical) are done in the background, just over the shoulder of characters. It’s a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ style of work, and one that demonstrates Robertson at his finest, able to jampack staggering amounts of detail into every panel, creating a busy, bustling sensation that drives the reader from panel to panel. The mood of the art continuously evokes the soul of the city, beautiful even at its ugliest, and a little ugly even where it’s beautiful.

Transmetropolitan gives artist Darick Robertson (The Authority, The Boys) the chance to really cut loose with what is among his finest work. The neon and grime world of the future is rendered with breathtaking and sometimes nauseating clarity, channeling Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner envisioned on overflowing handfuls of LSD and high grade amphetamines. And since Spider, Ellis’ volatile and menacing anti-hero, is almost constantly being shot at, beaten senseless or pummeling a source for information in the name of Truth, Roberston also handles the frequent violence of the series with straight faced glee, recalling Steve Dillon’s work Hellblazer, but with a mile long streak of giddiness and abandon running through it all, glorying in every broken nose and geyser of blood. The first collection also showcases the parade of inkers who worked on the book before Robertson’s world was fully realized under Rodney Ramos, who would go on to ink the majority of the series.

This is sequential art at its most frenetic, and the artwork is a perfect complement to a script that is equal parts intellectual, compassionate, pissed off and profane. While Ellis has a top notch flair for journalistic venom, and Spiders ranting, drug induced, X-rated columns are consistently more entertaining and thought provoking than anything you’re likely to run into while scanning the pages of the contemporary papers of record, it’s his spot on dialogue that makes the book. Rather than a tool for advancing plots, Ellis is concerned with his characters exploring their fantastic world together, and growing closer organically. The characters relate to one another not like characters, but like people, in a refreshing release from the ‘advance the storyline at all costs’ style of writing so prevalent in modern comics. Rather than simply leaping from story arc to story arc, Ellis understands that the world he’s crafting is the beating heart of Transmetropolitan, and isn’t afraid to take an issue off from his main storyline in the interest of crafting a more complete experience for readers. The result is an immersive, page turning read that still whizzes by despite being among the most wordy and challenging examples of the genre.

Fans can thank the renewed popularity of Watchmen for the new lease on life that Transmetropolitan has been granted in a new trade by DC collecting the first six issues of the series. And sure, it’s a blatant marketing ploy. But if you can use a blatant marketing ploy to introduce readers to one of the funniest, smartest, edgiest works of science fiction of all time, then maybe there’s something to be said for them after all.

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