I was recently given the chance to do a series overview of Transmetropolitan for the Graphic Novel Reporter website. I've long been a fan of this world created by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson , so I was excited to once again lose myself in this work for a couple of days, working my way through the ten graphic novels. Originally published by Vertigo in magazine-format over a five-year span, from 1997-2002, it ran for 60 issues. I had started collecting the trades back in the early part of this decade and was blown away by it all--the acerbic wit and sarcasm, the biting social commentary, and the harsh themes reflecting on modern society, stepped up to the next degree and filtered through a rough futuristic setting with cyberpunk aesthetics. I had fallen off the comics bandwagon years before, but somehow came across this series and was instantly drawn back in and turned into an addict. The story's themes are built off the same rotten foundation of American politics that we grow ever more accustomed and desensitized towards, told from the viewpoint of a rogue, snarky journalist, Spider Jerusalem. Jerusalem is one of the most iconic characters in comics, a journalist in the mold of Hunter S. Thompson and Howard Beale, a reporter who is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. His goal is the singular pursuit of the truth, fueled by his hatred for the City and it's corruption, it's tyrannical police and it's two-faced politicians, and the willful ignorance of its inhabitants.
Reading through it all again for a second time, I was struck by how timely it still is, even though some of the political references are based off the sexual foibles of then-President Bill Clinton. It's a very prescient work, one that has stood the test of time and will likely continue to do so for many more years to come. The story is crafted with care, the characters fleshed out nicely; there's a lot of world-building within Transmetropolitan that really helps to sell the story, that makes it feel like a real, worn-down, lived-in city. Illustrated by Robertson, this care and attention to detail, coupled with the brilliant storytelling skills of Ellis, make the best case for elevating the work beyond the usually simple-minded interpretation of what comic books are, and sells it as an honest work of literature. This isn't trite cape-and-tights heroics--far from it. The hero and villains are easily recognizable, deeply flawed humans. It may be crude and rude on first blush, riddled with the occasional gross-out gags, but the mastery of foul language really is a work of art, and each chapter only serves to reinforce the novelistic approach towards the story.
It was an important piece of work when it hit shelves during the Clinton era, but given the recent developments in American politics and the shifting attitudes in society, it
seems even more "of the moment" now than it ever did. It's a work that can fit in easily during any era, simply because of the nature of the beast that is American politics. The endless hunt for the truth amidst political corruption will always be timely, regardless of whether or not it's the abuse of powers of Nixon, the post-9/11 policies of Bush, the numerous scandals of Detroit's ex-Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, or the current dust-ups over Homeland Security and TSA regulations versus civil right and privacy protections, and even the arguments surrounding First Amendment rights for Julian Assange's WikiLeaks over the release of classified diplomatic cabals.
Ellis knows that words are weapons, that a simple turn of phrase can create powerful enemies who will spare no expense in retaliation, where the truth becomes artillery in a guerrilla warfare conducted across the public sphere. Spider Jerusalem spares no expense in his command of language, and his editorials viciously attack his targets, exposing their hypocrisy or downright villainy. He's a high-tech muckraker of the highest order, and although he hates the City he lives in, there is a foundation of optimism beneath his wrath and scorn. There is a hope that his words can make a difference, that his columns can force change by making the people who read his work realize they have power. He knows the power of journalism and the emboldening effect of that institution. There will always be corruption, and the free press is the last safeguard we have to protect us, to challenge the establishment and question authority, to ensure that those given power (or those who take power for themselves) are held accountable. The journalistic standard may be the only warrior truly standing between democracy and tyranny.
With his pencils, Darick Robertson creates a richly detailed city, filling the nooks and crannies with pop culture references, futuristic advertisements, and subtle graffiti urging the City's overlords to "Free Steve Chung." It's a minor nod, but one that helps to breathe extra life into the City, a niggling detail that gives it a lived-in, populous atmosphere. It's a bit of an Easter egg that receives a great pay-off in the final issue of the series, with a headline in The Word, the City's most notable newspaper, saying that Steve Chung has finally been freed. You get the sense that some empowered vocal minorities helped to push the issue into the forefront, and the news-writers that picked up the story helped to bring the cause deep into the public consciousness, fixing another social ill. Thematically, it further reinforces the importance of journalism and its effect upon society, the last great arbiter between the checks and balance of society versus institutional powers.
Given the state of today's investigative journalism, a field constantly under attack by fiscally minded corporate overseers looking to cut costs, it's a deadly prescient indictment from Ellis' 1997, or even 2002, perspective. Newsrooms across the nation have been forced to eliminate their investigative divisions to save money, evacuating the departments and firing reporters in the hopes that the budget can be trimmed enough to last another quarter, another year. It takes time and money to run these investigations, and there's not always tangible results at the end of it. Expensive though they may be, they are vital to society. These wonderful muckrakers work to keep the politico's in line, bringing to light the injustices and double-standards of the so-called elite. Where would America be without Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein who cracked open Watergate, or M.L. Elrick and Jim Schaefer who exposed the tower of lies within the office of a Detroit mayor? These guys are working-class heroes with a calling, and society owes them and their ilk more than it will ever know or acknowledge. They did amazing work in exposing corruption and bringing their respective subjects to justice. These are the guys Transmetropolitan is really about, and the supreme importance of the work they do in safeguarding our society.
Transmetropolitan isn't just about the wrongs and the failings of society, or the corruption of its leaders. It's not just about a journalist with a politician in the cross-hairs, and a national scandal that grows seedier and more horrifying with each revelation and implication. It's about the power of the human voice, and its unbending will. It's about truth, in all its ugly, grotesque, and, ultimately, very necessary forms. It's one of those books that simply has to be read, the kind that will get under your skin and piss you off, and then give you hope, or at least make you hope that there's someone still out there like Spider Jerusalem, somebody to keep the wolves at bay.