Book Club / Not Just about Being Cool

Transmetropolitan Vol 1Transmetropolitan Vol 1: Back on the Street
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Darick Robertson

 

 

 

 

 


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

 

Hi everyone.

Oops. Sorry – I know I said we were gonna do Anya’s Ghost. But then when I started to think about what to write for it pretty much all I could think of was: “Hey. You should read this comic. I mean – I know it’s for kids. But it’s actually really good.”

And then looking for something to read on my lunch break I picked up Transmetropolitan Vol 1: Back on the Street.

Then I started thinking it over and seeing how we’re now living in a world that’s now all politics all the time (actually spoiler alert: everything has always been all politics all the time).

Plus: well – (full disclosure) at the end of May: S.M.A.S.H. is coming back to do a special one off panel at the London MCM Comic Con (Featuring: Dan White (Cindy and Biscuit) Kieron Gillen (The Wicked + The Divine) Rob Davis (The Can Opener’s Daughter) Jade Sarson (For the Love of God, Marie!) Kelly Kanayama (Women Write About Comics)) all of us talking about the concept of “Selling Out” and so yeah well – this kinda stuff is going to be swimming in my head for the next few weeks: so why not let you guys swim in there too?

And so here we are.

Oh and something I’d just like to point out before we start – (a little background reading if you will): regular LGNN contributors Emma and Amir have both got previous on this: Emma is going through Transmetropolitan one issue a week on Comicosity which you can read here and Amir wrote a thing for the LGNN (“Spider Jerusalem: 21st Century Superbastard”) which you can check out here.

Sorry for all the preamble.

You still with me?

Ok then. Let’s talk about Transmetropolitan: is it good? Is it bad? The best thing Warren Ellis ever wrote? Or an embarrassing adolescent power fantasy? Or you know – well: some boring halfway point in between?

I will gladly put my hands up and admit that back in the day I was a fan of Transmetropolitan. Like come on: future crazy sci-fines (my mind was blown by the first issue when it turns out the city is just called The City and I was all like: “OMG – they can just do that? Wow. Why didn’t I think of that??”) and yeah – a cool iconoclastic dude kicking down doors and taking names? Saving the world with nothing more than the power of the word? What’s not to love you know? (Thinking over it now tho – I wish that Ellis had taken The City naming concept and just applied it to everything – so you know: instead of Spider Jerusalem he was just called Rebel Man or something…)

Plus well yeah – I did Sociology for my A-Level (ha! That was a mistake!) and for my big essay/dissertation thing I did something along the lines of how listening to Godspeed You Black Emperor could make someone turn counter-cultural. And I mean – shit – just typing those lines and putting myself back into my headspace is pretty much bringing tears to my eyes. Because yeah: the idea that listening to or reading a thing could change someone’s mind is a beautiful thing to me and something that I would love to believe in: and even tho it’s not something that I’ve completely abandoned – I no longer have that fiery fervor burnt into my heart.

Is there a link between the stuff you put into your head and how you see the world?

Well yeah of course. I mean: that is why there’s newspapers right? And the narratives we build in our heads (or should I say: are built by other people with their own goals and ambitions that may not match ours in ways we would like) affect how we see the world. You know: that’s ideology and something that I personally keep finding endlessly fascinating (in a sentence: why do we have the ideas we have?).

Cut to me back in Sociology class with my hand up. I ask the teacher another question. Most probably beginning with “why?” and he sighs and shakes his head and says (again): “That’s really more a philosophical question Joel.” (Which is how I realised that I really needed to do Philosophy – you know: if that’s where the answers were…).

But yeah: reading Transmetropolitan on my lunchbreak this time I was all: well – what purpose does this serve? Isn’t this all just a super powered political fantasy wish fulfilment?

(LOL. I totally thought that I had had this insight all by myself – but then: fuck – when I cut and pasted the link from Amir above I reread his article and then was all like: wait. what? I thought these were my ideas?! But no – turns out Amir had them first and after reading what he wrote I guess I just kinda joined them up to what I already thought and made them into my own. And that right there is how #Ideology works kids).

But I mean – come on now – the idea that a journalist could be out there saving the world? I mean guys if anything it’s the opposite you know? (see: Journalists as State Functionaries).

But then shoot – I don’t know. Maybe it’s just a story. And maybe it’s nice sometimes to close your eyes and pretend that writing an article would be enough to stop a riot. Or there’s a definitive speech you could make to shut down a religious bigot. That if you could just find the right words in the right order then you too could see through people and know what they were thinking (“You rehearsed that” and etc).

Or just har har – bowel disruptor. (Spider Jerusalem as dirty Doctor Who? Discuss).

What do you think?


AMIR
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum

 

The core of Transmet is super powered political wish fulfillment. There’s no getting around that.

That’s the pitch, that’s the appeal and that’s why there are Spider Jerusalem glasses on etsy.

But if I can go beyond volume 1, i’d point out that it’s a little unfair to leave Transmetropolitan simply as wish fulfillment, as it if were popcorn with flavour powder engineered specifically for people who read The Intercept and complain that The Guardian is Blairite trash whilst reading it 3 times a day because it’s better than basically all the other “big uns”.

Volume 1 is the origin story – where they set out a blueprint of what our hero is. Spider Jerusalem is a journalist who is so bad ass he can affect seismic political change with the power of his words. Everyone with a blog attempt now is the time to stand up and try to lie that you didn’t wish you had that power. Fuck invisibility and super strength – I want the power to persuade people not to vote for a strong and stable suicide pact with a Canary Wharf building permit.

But as it progresses and takes breaks from it’s main political superhero plot, there is a lot of smart, prescient commentary in Transmet. It’s not just about being cool and beating the shit out of establishment whack offs. It’s about how we consume information in the modern age, about it’s disposability about what it does to facts and truth and meaning. It’s about how we engage and consider political candidates, how our bias are built and warped.

There’s a story in one of it’s “breaks” where Spider deals with sexually abused children. And it does standard stuff, he helps them, he’s kind, I think one or two of them get a happy ending. But what it’s more concerned with is not just exploring how civic institutions we naturally place trust in as a result of the social contract can abuse and destroy the most vulnerable in our society – it’s about how the media and world we consume desensitises us entirely to this, enough so we tacitly allow horrors to continue being perpetuated.

Often, Transmet is about bearing witness to how we let our society go to shit in the information age.

It’s appropriate that the image Joel went for looks like Spider kicking through the 4th wall – whenever I read Transmetropolitan that’s how I feel. Like some insane bastard kicked a hole into my brain to remind me to be angry, to fight.

And it works.

I write a passive aggressive letter to my MP and then I play video games until the next time I feel like watching Spider bowel disrupt the orthodoxy.


ROB

 

 

 

Can now be when we talk about ‘Only Forward‘?

There are clearly two big influences on Transmet, which I read with a fevered dedication in the early Aughts, even as its release schedule lined up more or less exactly with my maturing awareness that life is not quite so black and white.

These two big influences are: Hunter S Thompson’s ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’ and Michael Marshall Smith’s ‘Only Forward’. In my opinion the sort of headspace you need to be in to enjoy Transmet, viz. desperate for escape but also full of angst, puts you in the right mood to enjoy the latter but not the former. Thompson’s very impressively informed brand of gonzo means that if you’re not American and up on their system you’re going to feel a bit offput. He also doesn’t do the crazy drug thing enough for someone who loved the Gilliam film but couldn’t tell you who Barry Goldwater was i.e. me at seventeen.

But ‘Only Forward’ did it for me.

Now, I have no real idea how well known Smith’s book is these days, so I am going to assume nothing. It is incredibly difficult to categorise, taking place in various unreal dream cities through which the protagonist more or less tumbles. However, it starts off in a place which is absolutely and completely the model for The City and Ellis can sue me if I’m wrong. The City (that really is what it is called) slowly emerges in the novel as the main character proper. Everyone else is just a cipher for getting you to new and cool parts of it. That is not a criticism. Each neighbourhood has a different crazy theme, and the whole thing emerges in a Jodorowsky spiral of dream logic that then becomes literal dream logic. I think it may have permanently changed my own dreams for the better. Everyone who loves Transmet will love it. Also, one of the neighbourhoods is called ‘Cat’ and it is just full of cats.

What I think Ellis took from this book was the realisation that people will accept the convention that in the metropolitan environment, the idea of ghettos of weird is completely acceptable. We intuitively accept that mega-cities will involve hundreds of micro-cities. In that case I suppose Joel’s suggestion of Doctor Who is apt, only instead of a Tardis a Spider Jerusalem only needs the Metro to get him to ‘Space Alien Body-Modder World’. Or a city of cats. Or a neighbourhood which is one giant eco-squat. Or or or or….

Anyway, I think ‘Only Forward’ got there first. I don’t want to spoil the neighbourhoods for you any more, some of them are wild.


EMMA
Crown on the Ground
Twitter / Comicosity

 

Hah, Amir’s pretty dead on about the wish fulfillment/power fantasy aspect of Transmetropolitan. Something I went into in depth in my take on the first issue was the lengths that Ellis went in the world building to give Spider the level of impunity that he enjoys. It wasn’t like he just said sod it I’m going to have this guy do all kinds of unrealistic bullshit that would get him run out of his profession and thrown in jail because it’s fiction and I can do that. He sat down and meticulously created a world where that behavior was normalized and ensconced in legal protections via the “journalist’s insurance” that gets used as a major plot point a few times. It’s the same thing with the cancer suppressant drug he takes that lets him smoke without any consequences. It seems like such a quintessentially British thing to write a literal permission slip for the key transgressive thrill of a narrative right into it, like James Bond’s license to kill or Judge Dredd’s judge, jury, and executioner deal.

I was 20 when I first read Transmetropolitan, and it had a pretty profound effect on my political coming of age and path as a writer, which, you know, I think comes as no surprise to anyone. I barely knew who Hunter S. Thompson or Barry Goldwater were at the time, but among other things it made me want to find out. I finished the series weeks after Thompson died, so that last page was absolutely devastating. I wonder if anyone’s talked to Ellis about that. He gets all kinds of comments about things that have happened since that parallel the comic, but I haven’t seen him address having come within a hair of foreshadowing Thompson’s suicide. Either way, I think Transmet is an ideal comic to hand to someone who is a political neophyte, new to comics, or both because it does such a magnificent job of luring you into this allegory machine built to catch you up on the political theater of the back half of the twentieth century.

I’ve been reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland as I return to Transmetropolitan, which is really shining a bright light on the places that the comic just doesn’t hold up on and why I don’t think Transmet would be very well met if it was released as originally presented. The line that opens the new Blade Runner trailer is “Every civilization is built off the back of a disposable workforce,” and Transmetropolitan never reckons with how that applies to the American experiment, which is something you could omit to great acclaim in the late 1990s, but would have incredible difficulty doing now. I do know that Ellis intentionally presents a world without scarcity and the underlying implication seems to be that has something to do with why The City is essentially post racial, but replaying the dramas behind Nixon, Goldwater, Wallace, Reagan, and Clinton without acknowledging the racialized nature of their politics and ascendance does the narrative serious harm, especially if we want to discuss it in the age of Trump.

Rob’s invocation of Only Forward is fascinating, I’d never heard of it, but that description is a tendency of Ellis’ longform work from Transmet to now, essentially. Those kind of purpose built lily pads to hop between is exactly how Planetary and Supreme Blue Rose are laid out as well. I really love that observation of the surrounding characters being ciphers that transport the protagonist and/or reader to new places, not least because I feel validated for coming to the same conclusion, which I focused on for the religion convention issue.


LOZ
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum

Can I first say “Rob Price fuck yeah!” as another fan of MMS back in his sci-fi days. I reread ‘Only Forward’ last year and was delighted by how much I had forgotten because it meant I could rediscover it again. You get a lot of comedies that occasionally get serious (like Red Dwarf’s ‘Back to Reality’ or Terry Pratchett’s ‘Thud!’) but you rarely get serious books that manage to have so many jokes that don’t spoil or break the fact that they are serious stories. ‘Only Forward’ manages it, ‘Transmetropolitan’ doesn’t. (side note, for bringing up ‘Only Forward’ I would quite happily do you right here in front of everyone else but were we to ever meet I would restrict myself to buying you a pint of whatever you found palatable and refusing to make eye contact)

Ahem, anyway, Transmet. I know someone who refused to read Transmet because, in Issue 3, at the climax of the action, Spider is writing his column and it’s being printed on a large screen so the great unwashed of the city can stand and read it live and there’s no pcitures to accompany it and it looks so old-fashioned. And yeah, it’s a problem that comes back again and again. Many people have said, but Cory Doctorow is the one I’m most familiar with, so let’s tar him with the brush of quoteworthyness, that science-fiction isn’t about tomorrow, it’s about today, and old science-fiction is, when you look back at it, about yesterday’s today. The City and the world of Trametropolitan’s tomorrow doesn’t make much sense. Why do newspaper’s still exist, at least when the newspapers of ‘Transmetropolitan’ are something that your grandma would recognise as a newspaper? Why is every sexual prediliction catered to and accepted, including at times it’s implied rape, except paedophilia? Why are politicians so straight-laced and expected to be morally clean and pure? Because Transmetropolitan was never about now, but the nineties when it was written. But a fun game is always looking at sci-fi and seeing what it gets right and wrong, whether it’s Isaac Asimov’s ‘Caves of Steel’, Spielberg’s ‘Minority Report’ which predicts driverless cars but not smartphones, or Transmet.

Spider is a problematic character and that’s putting it mildly. I assumed his rare and uncurable brain disease was a stand-in for punishment for his heinous behaviour but he gets to survive that so maybe it is just to put a little extra fizz in the final chapter. Spider is a problem because he often loses his way, he is right often by virtue of the other guy blinking and, like Miller in ‘The Expanse’ has the memory of a handily dead woman to spur him on. Although he has bouts of awareness of how terrible he is, he never tries to confront this, he is never made to confront this and at the end of the story has had no measurable personal growth at all. Still, Tyler Durden was a prick as well and yet for some reason people want to emulate him.

Still, Ellis is a good writer, so it’s funny. This came out, I think, pretty much at the same time as ‘Preacher’ (possibly a little later), so was pretty special in keeping the creative team together through the time of a project. I think it might be worth having this as a discussion of the run as a whole because I’m not sure there’s often much depth to individual arcs?


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

 

Transmet is one of those comics / books that works best when you’re young right?

I mean just looking at what people have been saying so far: Rob = “There are clearly two big influences on Transmet, which I read with a fevered dedication in the early Aughts, even as its release schedule lined up more or less exactly with my maturing awareness that life is not quite so black and white.” and Emma = “I was 20 when I first read Transmetropolitan, and it had a pretty profound effect on my political coming of age.”

That’s the good stuff right? That’s part of the reason we read and listen to music and etc: to have our viewpoints changed to be opened up to a wider world that we weren’t aware existed before. Profound effects.

And shit yeah – if you’re reading this and you’re in your teens or early 20s then I’d recommend going to your nearest Library and getting Vol 1 straight away and falling into the world of Spider Jerusalem right now. Because you know – it’s good stuff. And it feel important and powerful and all the rest.

But being selfish and self-obsessed I want to know what it means to try and read and Transmet as someone older and (maybe/hopefully) wiser. I mean: you know – now I’ve matured into my worldview and am no longer rocked by the idea that *gasp* maybe the people in power don’t have our best interests at heart (unless of course that person is Jeremy Corbyn who kinda looks like he does: but oops – maybe we shouldn’t go there?).

Or to put it another way: is Transmet just a gateway drug? Like: once it’s opened your world and shown you the way – what’s left?

fucking vampires

I have a big list of books for the LGNN book club. You know – as in: books to talk about in the future. And two books that I’d love to chat about are the two that Warren Ellis is doing at the moment: Injection and Trees. I’ve only read the first 2 volumes of each but I really really love them and I think they do lots of cool complicated stuff but in way that makes it look super easy. Like: just to pick an obvious example: both of them (so far at least) kinda forgo the thing where there’s one main character that the world revolves around (yeah I’m looking at you Spider) and instead opt for the large cast of characters where there’s not really one main protagonist. And you know – well – politically speaking: I kinda think that’s both important and good. Like often the conversation that tends to be had around pop culture is how we need to have the main character not be a straight white guy again. Which – you know is something I mostly agree with. But then also: I think that if we’re going to change stuff and make it better – maybe we should stop it with the stories where it’s one main character against the world. Because well – narcissism is a disease – and maybe we’d all be better off seeing ourselves as part of a community of people as rather than just well: the person that the universe revolves around?

But then again you know: Injection and Trees probably wouldn’t be as popular as all that. Because: well yeah – they’re kinda new and not everyone has grokked on to them yet but also even tho they’re both cool high-concept sci-fi things: they’re nowhere near as immediate as Transmet. Because – fuck – Transmet has this cool outlaw journalist with a gun that makes people poo themselves. Which (and I’m not saying this in a bad way because who doesn’t like candy?): but it’s candy.

And shoot – maybe there’s no way to thread the needle between making something that is cool and people want to read and something that helps to – how should I say it? – raise political awareness and tunes our brains to better frequencies?

Like: I remember getting pissed off doing English Lit where they talked about books making arguments about the state of the world. Because I was like: well – if you have a point to make about the world – then why don’t you just write an essay about it so you can do it properly? (Once again: yeah yeah – I ended up doing Philosophy because obviously). But I guess thinking about it now – stories aren’t really arguments so much. But they are points of view. Every story contains or is based around or will just show you a worldview. (Transmet is angry and rebellious and pissed off at the world) and yeah – maybe the benefit of reading it as a kid is that the worldview will seep into your own and when you read the comic you’ll end up seeing the world thru Spider’s red and green glasses. I just wonder what else there is in the comic if you’re already wearing them.


LOZ
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum

I’m keeping this brief for now because I hate trying to type on my phone but I see the primary use of Vertigo as was as ‘introducing virgins to…’. Are you a teenager who is having sneaking suspicions that religion is shit? Read ‘Preacher’. Are you a teenager who likes aliens? Read ‘Invisibles’. Are you a teenager who doesn’t understand why people who say “All lives matter” are rightly called scumbags? Read ‘Transmetropolitan’ but don’t worry, it’s got jokes about shitting yourself too.


EMMA
Crown on the Ground
Twitter / Comicosity

 

That’s kind of my journey right now, coming back to Transmet both in the context of Trump, Brexit, and all that and also just returning to it a decade after I first read it. You can only ever read something for the first time once, but I don’t think how I’m seeing it now is too different from how I’d look at it for the first time. A big thing for me is that I’m seeing flaws and gaps I couldn’t appreciate back then, but I’m also catching great stuff that I didn’t have the background knowledge to appreciate the first time around. Like Fred Christ and just how much of his portrayal and role in the comic is seemingly drawn from Charles Manson.


LOZ
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum

Interesting. How so?


EMMA
Crown on the Ground
Twitter / Comicosity

 

In basic terms, Manson was a pimp who got into the hippie scene with delusions of grandeur and used the same kind of manipulations he did as a pimp to build a following of young women he used to insinuate himself into the lives of famous people, like Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. Just like Christ. Manson also frequently said his name as “Charles’ Will is Man’s Son,” implying that he was Jesus, which could be part of where Fred Christ got his name from, or it could be entirely coincidental. It feels like the kind of strange detail Ellis would pick out.

What really got me thinking about it was watching the David Duchovny lead cop show Aquarius about the months leading up to the Manson family murders. Most of what’s depicted with Manson is easily verifiable as close enough to the truth to be a meaningless distinction, but there is a side plot about him pimping girls to prominent California Republicans that I haven’t had the time to figure out is based in reality or a fabrication. If that last part really is just a fabrication, it’s an interesting coincidence given that The Smiler’s presidency unravels because of Christ procuring Transient sex workers for him.


JOEL
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken

 

PLUG: I’ve been getting ready for the S.M.A.S.H. talk we’re doing at MCM this Sunday and so my head has mostly been filling up with thoughts of “selling out” (which is the topic we’ll be talking about). I’m not trying to brag but Dan White, Kieron Gillen, Rob Davis, Jade Sarson and Kelly Kanayama have all sent me their 2 minutes pitches and it’s been very cool & interesting reading them all (altho I’m kinda nervous of my biases showing when it comes to talk about it – but erm hopefully it should be ok?)

ANYWAY – it’s got me thinking about Transmetropolitan especially especially the bit in volume 3 when Royce is on the phone trying to convince Spider to write about the election because:

“You’re running the risk of making your audience feel betrayed.
And an betrayed audience stops reading.”

Add that to Loz’s comment above about how Spider Jerusalem isn’t made to confront what a terrible person he is: and well the question that’s lodged in my head is: what exactly do people want from their entertainment?

Or: other people?

Or (oh my goodness): themselves?

Like: on the one hand Spider Jerusalem is no kind of role model. He’s crazy, drunk, unhinged, lonely and often very very mean. But obviously: he’s also fucking great. You know: if someone wanted to do a list of the “Coolest Comic Book Characters of All Time” (i’m not going to google that – because I bet there’s probably like a dozen of them already) but Spider is probably in the top five right? Him and Batman fighting it out for the top spot.

And shit – at the risk of sounding terminally unhip (lol) – But seriously: why do we venerate this behavior? Or hell – if not venerate – why do we read it?

I mean: because of who I am and the type of life I’ve lived and the way I think: the stuff that I like is the stuff that’s challenges me – that doesn’t doesn’t give me what I want: but is difficult and lights up parts of my brain in cool strange ways but then (oops) at the time: isn’t so weird and bizarre that I can’t make it go inside my head in the first place (sorry everyone – not a David Lynch fan).

Because yeah – even tho I’ve read all of Transmet and I think it’s good. I’m sure if I would consider myself as a bona fide fan. Like: it was that thing where I basically just used to read it in Libraries and so never really read them in order or got to the until (this was about six or so years ago): the people in charge of Islington Libraries let me order some comics for the collection and I was all like: oh cool – let’s plug the holes in all of the series.

And well yeah: it’s good. But here’s the thing – Transmet never really feels like it messes with me enough. The audience is never betrayed. But for my money: a little bit of betrayal can be an interesting / fun thing you know?

yeah

Like: there’s a bit that I haven’t got to yet where they turn Spider into a cartoon which is kinda cool and funny – only I’m not sure how deliberate it is that it only kinda underlines the fact that Spider Jerusalem is already a cartoon. And no: not just because he’s in a comic. But because everything is already rammed up to the extreme. Hunter S Thompson on crack etc Like: I’m reminded of the end of Scott Pilgrim (SPOILERS) where Scott was basically a self-obsessed jerk to everyone around him. Like shit: what would Transmet be like if it could do the same thing? (Oh wait – does it do the same thing? Like I said: It’s been a while since I read it…)

Ah. But then again: I don’t need or want my art or entertainment to be moral. I don’t need Spider to realise what a terrible person he is and repent and learn to be a better journalist. And truth be told – all in all I think characters doing things which are wrong is more interesting than characters doing things which are right (maybe I should whisper this part: but Captain America as a bad guy? I mean: that sounds interesting at least… But then: I’m very much not in the target market).

And yeah – with the whole selling out and stuff: is that how we want to see ourselves? As target markets? Do we want our comics made just for us? Like the terrible secret of Transmet maybe is that for all of his offensive drinking and swearing and smoking and drug-taking – Spider Jerusalem isn’t really that offensive at all. You know: it’s the kind of thing that the mainstream can sanction. Because the bad guys are politicians and pornographers – and that’s just business as usual right? Like The Beast and The Smiler are the faces of evil. And they have their motivations and what they want – as opposed to: I don’t know – maybe the whole system being flawed and bad. And you know: that bit with the kid with the skin disease or whatever. I mean: I dunno – is it good that we’re gawking? Like: you know – maybe there exists a version of Transmet that’s more like The Wire or Studio Ghibli: where there are no good guys or bad guys – just everyone with different points of view (I mean: we do kinda almost get there with The Beast and his trying to keep the 51% alive: but then my worldview tells me that actually most evil politicians are just in it for the money / naked self-interest and find it hard to even understand the existence of other people: because that’s all we all are: blinded by our upbringings – existing in a world where we only really know – what? – 100 people at most?).

But maybe I’m babbling and none of this makes sense. I am interested tho in what other people want from their entertainment. Do you like the way Transmet panders to your sensibilities and righteous indignation? You know: everyone loves the Truth right?

The Truth and Bowel Disruptors.

Oops. Hey guys. Sorry. Me again.

I kinda just finished reading the whole of the Transmet run. And I have thoughts.

The main big thought that grew and grew as I made my way through it is – erm: is Transmet kinda apolitical? You know: for a series about The Truth and politicians and etc: it doesn’t really seem to have a political viewpoint other than: drugs and smoking and being a dick is cool.

Like: earlier Amir referenced the issue with abused children (which holy fuck: is really super grim: because well – abused children). And as I was reading it I kept waiting for the stuff that Amir said: “not just exploring how civic institutions we naturally place trust in as a result of the social contract can abuse and destroy the most vulnerable in our society – it’s about how the media and world we consume desensitises us entirely to this, enough so we tacitly allow horrors to continue being perpetuated.” Because well yeah – that’s the good stuff. That’s the true stuff.

Only that’s not what happened in the issue I read. In the issue I read it kinda skirted around those ideas and then ended up with this speech on the last page (and keep in mind kids: the ending is the conceit): “It’s got nothing to do with poverty or the failure of society or any of that. It’s got everything to do with the responsibility of making a human.”

Like: shit. I don’t really want to get into the ins-and-outs of social policy or whatever. But I think it’s fair to say that the idea that it’s the parents responsibility to raise their kids right and all the stuff outside of that (how the system works, how much money people have, how much time they have to look after their kids etc etc etc) has nothing to do it is actually pretty darn reactionary and right-wing and – most importantly – DUMB.

Which I guess is the point where I started to sour a little on Transmet and started to see it for what it was. This apolitcal machine that you can feed your own beliefs into and not really encounter any pushback (and pushback is important you know). Or like: to put it another way – I mean: if you were a rabid right winger Trump fan or whatever: is reading Transmet really going to make you question anything you believe. Like: with the only exception of that Strong Man Heller speech. You too can laugh along with Spider’s antics and his fight against The Beast and The Smiler.

And yeah: those guys. I mean – I think it’s telling in the extreme that we never really get any sense of The Beast or The Smiler’s politics because you know – that would wreck the apolitical illusion right? If The Smiler announced some actual polices or did anything apart from being eviiiiiil then Transmet might be forced to pick a side. But then if it picked a side it’s no longer broadly applicable and accessible to anyone who wants to read it. And yeah yeah: fine I get it. It’s good to make things that can be read by lots of people. And I don’t begrudge Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson their success (Warren Ellis is a cool writer – read Injection and Trees if you haven’t already! and well Darick Robertson can draw ok I guess? LOL): but I think it’s a mistake to hold up Transmet as a political series when it’s really anything but. I mean Spider is just Batman in different clothes and a more shitty attitude and The Smiler is just The Joker. And you know (and this is the really telling bit I think but also SPOILERS): the bad guys get their comeuppances due to the fact that one is a paedophile and the other slept with a prostitute. Which is notable for two things: firstly – again: it’s got nothing to do with their polices or politics but rather is because well: having sex with children is the worst thing anyone can do. Like: shit – if he wasn’t a paedophile does that mean that everything else would be ok? And also well – in the terms of sex with a prostitute thing: I mean Transmet is a world where people can turn into gas and the police dogs can talk – but he still can’t imagine a world where sex work and sex workers are decriminalised? That’s kinda sad.

Like: I guess I could go into a big thing here about sex work and etc: but honestly: I’m out of my depth and I don’t know enough about the subject and also: it’s all complicated and thorny and maybe the kind of thing most people don’t want to think about it – which I guess is my final point: like Transmet and Spider both fetishise and worship this idea of The Truth but – in my experience at least – The Truth is knotty and difficult and complex and the kind of thing that most people don’t want to think about. While The Truth in Transmet is much much simpler. The Truth in Transmet is that the bad guy got someone killed and sleeps with children and that’s how we know they’re a bad guy instead of anything else that might put the audience to sleep. Which yeah ok. Whatever I guess.


LOZ
Peckham Library Graphic Novel Book Group
Barbican Comic Forum

Transmit is not a comic about politics it’s a comic about power and the abuse of power, whether by the state or by the individual, whether that individual is The Smiler or Spider and the way he treats almost every human being he comes in to contact with (it’s noticeable that possibly his single genuine friend on the planet is the Revival, Mary, who is one of the most powerless people in the story).

This is why Spider finds himself so torn up at the end of the second year, he has the Beast, who he couldn’t stop getting elected but has at least managed to taint so much that everyone hates him but then finds that the man running against him is somehow worse. Because although the Beast is, from what little Spider or Ellis tells us, a terrible human being on a world of terrible human beings, he seeks power to enact what he believes should be done for (/to) the country, sort of like if Donald Trump was intelligent. The Smilers crime is to have no principles and to wear ideology like a costume only as long as it helps him and to seek power so as to use it to accrete more power. And Spider finds himself sorta endorsing the Beast because at least he stands for things, even if they are wrong and vile.


EMMA
Crown on the Ground
Twitter / Comicosity

 

At the risk of sounding like Nick Spencer, non partisan is, I think, a better term for what you mean than apolitical. Transmetropolitan is absolutely political but neither Spider, nor Ellis’ puppet strings come out in favor of a given ideology. The Smiler’s arc is about the slick marketing and grooming that went into Blairite Labor and Bill Clinton, hiding the truth behind the wave of neoliberalism they unleashed.


AMIR
OH DEAR GOD WHY Presentations
Twitter / Barbican Comic Forum

 

Emma – literally took the words out of my mouth.

…Admittedly in a more eloquent manner with less references to people being severed.

I think the idea that just because a story actively eschews responding to policy detail of the day it doesn’t mean it isn’t political. To me, this simply means it’s often more interested in commenting on the process of politics than the substantive detail of it. How power works and the relationship between citizens and the state may not be what Andrew Neill blusters through on Daily Politics on a bi-daily basis, but it is the core of how we’ve developed politics and governance as ideas. Those notions and how they relate to a mad allegory on the evolving form of the media in the digital age (from, notably, a late 90s early noughties, dial up perspective) are axiomatically political.

Also – the humour in Transmetropolitan is brilliant. It’s what makes it so compelling. Just as much as we’re told to follow Spider as a hero, we’re constantly reminded that this is an insane, perverted Peter Pan of a man with a bowel disruptor. In terms of a story about politics and power – how much more apt can you get than a joke about a journalist cornering a president in a toilet with a bowel disruptor? It’s important that Spider constantly veers between a figure for the audience to treat with political admiration and personal disdain – he’s a pitiful man but an important journalist. It undercuts the story being a massive boring preach fest.

Imagine if Transmetropolitan wasn’t basically about a time transplanted, souped up Hunter S Thompson 2000X. Imagine if it was about Woodward & Bernstein or Seymour Hersh If it was about a seriously admirable journalist whose flaw was “something something drinking problem/ bit of a coarse dick to colleagues due to a tragic backstory we’ll reveal in volume 2”, it would be fucking boring. Look at Spotlight, which was a great fucking film. They even had one of those characters, but they still needed to make them share equal stead with a bunch of different and equally explored characters to make them and the story tolerable. Anchoring the political exploration in an insane pervert whose also an impossibly effective journalist

To me – the hilarious awfulness of Spider Jerusalem, the surprisingly prescient dial up era parables of the oncoming storm of digital journalism and the power surge fantasy of an impossibly effective journalist taking on the modern era of vaucous personality politics are what made Transmetropolitan so bloody good.

I mean I’m probably sick, but I just wandered onto Google image search looking for a different image of Spider and this made me laugh:

read my scripture

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