[REVIEW] Transmetropolitan

The winter holiday season and the first weeks of the new year are, unfortunately, crunch time in my current employment situation. As a result, the blog has suffered a bit over the past couple of weeks with breaks in what had been a fairly regular posting schedule. (Then again, maybe I’ve just decided to embrace the “semi” aspect of this blog’s title.) I can’t promise that intermittence will change in the immediate future, but I don’t want to leave Semigeekly dormant, either. While I endeavor to remedy my irregularity, then (wait, huh?), I’ll try taking brief looks at some of the geek-related media to which I’ve been exposed during my time away. 

                                                                       

A friend was kind enough to lend me the first four trade volumes of Transmetropolitan, a comic series many consider to be Warren Ellis’ magnum opus. Published during (and much of the reason for) the height of Ellis’ popularity around the turn of the millennium, it tells the story of Spider Jerusalem, a gonzo journalist in the not-too-distant future. Forced back into the frantic urban lifestyle of overpopulated mega-metropolis The City after a hermitage in the wilderness, the seemingly misanthropic Spider reclaims his role as the sole voice of reason and truth in a hyper-commercialized, hyper-sexualized culture oversaturated by mass media (imagine the modern West amped up on blow). The world of Transmetropolitan is one in which technology outpaces any attempt to comprehend its ramifications, in which presidential candidates genetically design artificial running mates and human personalities abandon their bodies for free-drifting nanite swarms. It’s into this setting of deeply ambiguous questions about foundational ethics, privacy, security, poverty, politics, and even personhood that Spider injects his sardonic commentary with all the indignant vulgarity he can muster. At its most basic level, it is a story about journalism, about the writer who opens the eyes of the world to the truth as he sees it.

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Transmetropolitan is certainly not for everyone. At this point, I’m not sure I even like it. Occasionally, its tirades against social ills start to sound a little too much like personal ranting (I found this tendency particularly prevalent in the issue addressing religion). What I do respect, however, is the book’s originality, its conceptual depth, its cultural critique—in short, its ambition. Every other page brings with it some bold new expression of futurist imagination or social insight. Amazingly, despite its coarseness and its unflinching engagement with distasteful and oppressive realities, it carries a persistent undercurrent of hope. Behind its distractingly crass language and graphic content lies the heart of character who lives his life as if radical change can be made even when every revelation he uncovers conspires to convince him otherwise. Transmetropolitan is the story of a lone voice in the wilderness, injured, dirty, and hateful as the rest, crying out that there must be some better way if only people would wake up.

I’ll leave you with a taste from what is arguably my favorite issue (#8). In the future, people cryogenically frozen during our time are obligatorily revived by City Reclamation.  Mary, a news photographer from the 20th century, is one such person. Her head unfrozen and her brain molecularly repaired, a new body is thrown together for her per the details of her life extension contract. Nano-constructed from H2O and dirt in what looks like a grungy water heater, Mary wakes on a cold, concrete floor to the apathetically-delivered news that her husband died far from home and was not preserved. Near catatonic with shock from her glimpse at the new world outside, Mary is whisked away to a Revival Hostel, a glorified internment camp housing others of her kind. Provided third-hand clothing and a wooden bunk, she spends her nights listening to the moans and screams of those around her and her days wandering the alleyways of a world that has no interest in or place for her. Mary’s story is a powerful analogy for the disrespect and disregard so many of us hold toward the elderly and the profound knowledge and experience they carry with them. It’s also a great example of the non-sentimental poignancy Transmetropolitan can achieve in its best moments.

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For those at all offended by, well, anything, I’m not sure I’d recommend Transmetropolitan to you. Warren Ellis wrote another title, however—Planetary—that I’d urge anyone with even a passing interest in comics or genre fiction in general to read. A story about a team of superhuman “archaeologists of the weird” uncovering the secret paranormal history of their world, the series reads like some bizarre mash-up of The X-Files, an encyclopedia of comic book history, and a TED conference on theoretical physics in the year 2200. It’s chock full of deconstructed homages and mindbending ideas about the nature of reality. You’ll definitely get more out of it if you’re steeped in genre lore, but don’t let a lack of familiarity scare you off. Planetary can be appreciated on a few different levels, and it was without a doubt one of the best reading experiences I had last year. Maybe I’ll write more about it in the future. In the meantime, you can read the entire series in a beautiful hardcover omnibus edition released just this week!

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