A look into cyberpunk comic book series 'Transmetropolitan'

Friday, 14 February 2014 - 11:30am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA

“Where’s my f***ing column?” - Mitchell Royce, City Editor, The Word

My editor is a relatively nicer person, so she sends gentle reminders instead. But then, I’m generally nicer too. Mitchell Royce, instead, had to deal with Spider Jerusalem.

Before we get into the cesspool of political, social, drug- and violence-fueled journalism that is Transmetropolitan, a little history lesson. In the mid-1960s, Hunter S. Thompson moved from San Francisco to a home in the hills outside Aspen, Colorado, which he called his “fortified compound.” In 1972, he came down from the hills to cover the Presidential election campaigns of Richard Nixon and George McGovern for Rolling Stone, which would eventually be combined and published as Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. He would also write some viciously critical pieces on Nixon, a man he described as “evil in a way that only those who believe in the physical reality of the Devil can understand it.”

It is the year No-One-Quite-Knows, in the City-No-One-Knows-Which, and America is a hyper-technological, yet horribly dysfunctional, country governed by a President who believes in tough love. Spider Jerusalem, a famous journalist, has fortified himself in a compound in the hills and spent all his money on pharmaceuticals and ammunition to keep neighbours and animals away. When a publisher he affectionately calls “the Whorehopper” reminds him of his contractual obligation to produce two books, Spider must make his way back into the City and find something to write about.

The Future has 3D televisions, holographic hoardings, genetic modification, organ farming, cryogenic preservation, lots of recreational drugs, extreme technological body modification, voice-controlled “makers” not too different from 3D printers, a plethora of religions, and ubiquitous data streams known as “feeds”. The Future also has rampant consumerism, corruption, censorship, murder, child prostitution, active discrimination against minority and under-privileged communities, and a vast urban population that doesn’t give two tugs of a dead dog’s cock [sic] about anything other than themselves. (About that last one: Warren Ellis is a genius in the art of expletive invention, and Spider Jerusalem is his muse.) In other words, the Future is the Present, with technology.

Ellis sets his story in a world where access, ability and permissibility of extreme behaviours contrasts viciously with resentment, rejection and discrimination of those behaviours. It is a world devoid - or disregardful - of history, given to immersive and extreme experiences while insulated from their consequences, and resolutions of conflicts are swift and brutal. Ellis and Robertson’s world is William Gibson’s world in ultra-HD. But with Democracy.

Spider is little more than a garrulous, foul-mouthed crank until Ellis gets around to giving him journalism to do, in the form of a live-streamed report of a politically motivated riot involving the police and the Transient community - a group of body-modifiers currently in the middle of a transition between human and alien genomes/bodies. The Transients are a marginalized community with limited opportunity for social integration - an obvious surrogate for our real-world trans/intersex community - ruthlessly manipulated and exploited by a greedy, upwardly-mobile “leader” named Fred Christ.

Ellis uses Spider as a channel to showcase the City for his readers, giving Darick Robertson an opportunity to draw a variety of set pieces and unusual action sequences, taking Spider around to trash a convention of religions, visit a series of Reservations - isolated spaces which recreate and maintain outdated civilizations and cultures (and one particularly wild futuristic one), and a visit to watch his assistant/bodyguard Channon Yarrow’s tech-fetishist boyfriend “download” from his human body to a “foglet” of sentient nanoparticles. Along the way, he also befriends Mary, a “revival” - a cryogenically frozen human who has woken up in a future and is unable to adjust to the change.

Before long, Spider is charged with covering an election, whether he likes it or not. The incumbent President, a Richard Nixon lookalike nicknamed “the Beast” by Spider - a name so popular, the President says, that even his children call him that - is up against Gary Callahan, a Tony Blair-esque upstart with a grin that earns him the nickname “the Smiler”. After having previously ambushed the Beast with a bowel disruptor - arguably the greatest weapon of all time - Spider proceeds to turn on the Smiler’s campaign.

Spider Jerusalem’s version of journalism comes from the immersive no-holds-barred school that birthed Hunter Thompson and H. L. Mencken, and he uses a variety of tools to acquire the information he seeks, including but not limited to beating up his sources (Fred Christ), disrupting bowels (various), eavesdropping with source gas (the Beast, the Smiler) and hacking computer systems (the Government(s)). And when the Smiler, having won his election on the back of a sympathy vote gained from his political director’s assassination, passes a censorship order preventing Spider from criticizing the government, he is quick to jump onto an outlaw feed, The Hole, to continue his avowed mission of taking down the Smiler’s Presidency.

Ellis spares no opportunity to comment on a number of incumbent behaviours through his protagonist. “When I tell her I’m going digging,” he says, “she thinks I’m looking through the press releases,” before explaining to his filthy assistants, Channon Yarrow and Yelena Rossini, how investigative journalism really works, (among other things, “It’s when we commit really good crimes.”) and defines “monstering” - to hound, abuse, interrogate and otherwise ruin the life of a public figure in the name of journalism - with a veiled dig at paparazzi.

The primary political arcs are interspersed by Spider’s observations on the City, his own life, drug-fueled psychedelic interludes involving television, fabulously illustrated by a number of top-flight guest artists (including Lea Hernandez, Frank Quitely and previously-mentioned Eduardo Risso), and one particularly heartbreaking single-issue tale titled Business, about 11-year-old children forced into prostitution by a system unable to care for them.

The final year of Transmet’s run involves a Spider on the run with his assistants, feverishly racing against time, the Smiler’s government resources, and a degenerative mental disease, as he puts together the evidence he requires to prove that the Smiler had orchestrated a series of murders, including that of his family, for political gain (Note: this isn’t really a spoiler.), not to mention the misanthropic notion that he should be President solely because he can fuck with the people he hates. And to get the hell out of the City and back to the mountain.

Transmetropolitan is, as with much of science fiction, cyberpunk, alternate history, and other genre fiction, a look at the world we live in through the lens of an imaginary world. The major political arcs highlight the curse of modern democracy - the choice between two evils, and the consequences of the choices we make. The language is one of cynicism and despair, of the frustrated journalist who has seen it all and can’t do squat about other than to write about it. The minor arcs, one-off stories and mini-episodes take some time off the political trail to look at the City, its people and their lives, their prejudices and their corruption and their self-absorption and blindness to the inequities of their social and political structures.

All that should sound familiar to us as we head into one of the most divisive elections in our country’s history. We have our own Beast and Smiler - let’s call them the Butcher and the Prince. The two opposing sides both have cynical and hypocritical politics our worst nightmares couldn’t conjure up. And a society with all the distractions, self-absorption and social disparity we could possibly ask for. The City could well be India in 2014. Whether we’ll have a better go of the future remains to be seen. If you gave two tugs of a dead dog’s cock.


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