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Know Your Dystopias: Transmetropolitan

Posted on Monday, February 19, 2018 by Eric

“Point: journalism is not about plans and spreadsheets. It’s about human reaction and criminal enterprise. Here the lesson begins.”
-“Transmetropolitan” Issue #4, “On the Stump”

Those are the words of Spider Jerusalem, a heavily tattooed, usuallyTransmetrolitan book cover medicated, often intoxicated gonzo journalist in the 23rd century.  In an homage to Hunter S. Thompson, Spider shares not just Thompson’s iconic bald head and cigarette holder, but also his passion for mind altering substances, firearms and speaking truth to power.  Spider is navigating a world of corruption and weirdness, and his journalism might be the last hope of keeping the world in the comic book series “Transmetropolitan” from devolving into … an even more dystopian dystopia.

Spider is pulled from self-imposed exile in the wilderness back to “the city.”  He returns to work for his old publisher just in time for a presidential election.  The contest is between challenger Gary Callahan (AKA, “The Smiler”) and the incumbent president (AKA, “The Beast”).  The worst of the two wins the election, despite Spider exposing ties to a hate group.  The battle between Spider and the president is the principal story line throughout the 10 volume series.  This battle is fought primarily through the pursuit of facts and overcoming censorship, but there is violence and loss of life. Eventually a cycle of exposing information only for it to be countered by another cover up escalates until the fate of “the city” and the lives of its inhabitants are at risk.

“But wait,” you say, “how is this a story of the 23rd century?  This could be a contemporary story.   This could be current events!”

True, but Transmetropolitan is most definitely set in the future.  Spider’s first assignment out of retirement is about a secessionist “Transient movement,” people who use alien DNA to engage in genetic modification.  He ends up covering a riot and the violent reaction to it from law enforcement.  Everyone is awash in information (and disinformation) and entertainment.  Spider struggles to rouse the citizenry from their complacency, but they are quite distracted.  The technologies in “Transmetropolitan”are extensions of our technologies today and the perils of these technologies are extension of the perils we face.  This is a cyberpunk, media-saturated 23rd century full of wonders and horrors.  It is  a funhouse mirror reflection of where we are now.  

Transmetropolitan book coverWarren Ellis’s over the top dialogue and characters are complemented by Darick Robertson’s art.  He depicts “Transmetropolitan” with a fitting combination of caricature and expressionism.  Panels where Spider walks  down a crowded street in “the city” are packed with bizarre and hilarious visual details. Action sequences can be both slapstick and monstrous.

“Transmetropolitan” is a funny, profane and grotesque projection of our present into the future.  It seems disturbingly plausible (and the final issue was published almost 16 years ago).  Ellis has spent much of his career speculating about possible futures in comic books, novels and essays.  In “Transmetropolitan” he’s given us a pretty weird look in the mirror and the (anti)hero we just might need.