Book Review : Warren Ellis - Transmetropolitan (1997)
Transmetropolitan is a cyberpunk comic book series co-created by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson that initially ran from 1997 to 2002. It is considered to be a contemporary classic by critics and comic book freaks alike and is often referred to as Ellis' best work. I'm not here to debate that. Transmetropolitan is pretty fucking great. I've spent the last ten months ordering the ten volumes of the series whenever I had a little play money to throw Amazon's way and I don't regret it. I think you should experience it the same way that I did in order to build suspense and keep as many copies of this gem in circulation as possible. Transmetropolitan is a series that deserves immortality for several reasons I'm about to share with you.
So, what's so great about Transmetropolitan, right? Follow my drift: It's the story of a manic author/columnist/public intellectual named Spider Jerusalem, who is forced to leave the mountain hideout he had retired in for several years by threats from his publisher to whom he still owed two books. So, Spider descends upon the City again like Nietzsche's Zarathustra *, claims his old job back at The Word, and starts pounding the streets for material. Turns out his old haunts are going through changes: there is an election campaign going on among the living and Spider's sworn enemy and current president he calls "The Beast" is facing his most serious challenge to date in Senator Gary Callahan, who Spider refers to as "The Smiler." Caught between a rock and a hard place, the City needs Spider like a ship needs a lighthouse in the storm.
I'm pretty sure you see where I'm going with my unsubtle allusions to the ongoing U.S Presidential campaign. Gary Callahan doesn't have anything to do with Donald Trump. He's a hypocrite and a psychopath while Trump is more of a con artist and a self-admitted moron who knows a think or two about entertaining people. In fact, Transmetropolitan was apparently inspired by the events of Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 so Callahan is a lot closer to who Richard Nixon once was to American people. It's convenient to draw parallels with current events, but remember Transmetropolitan started publishing in 1997 and no one right in their goddamn mind thought Donald Trump would ever run for president then. Much less get the freakin' Republican nomination. It's not why Transmetropolitan is important and pertinent in this day and age. It is important because of its sobering, yet hopeful portrait of democracy in a world that often confuses everything for entertainment.
See, Transmetropolitan is technically cyberpunk, but the City really is an allegory for contemporary society and (perhaps unwittingly) the internet. It's even more pertinent now with the growing place internet is taking in our lives than it was in 1997. People have given in to their darkest desires and they can fulfill them for a price if they're looking hard enough. It's more graphic and in-your-face in the pages of Transmetropolitan but there is nothing you can't find if you look hard enough on the web. Spider Jerusalem is an answer to a very pertinent existential question of our time: how do you make a difference? How do you fight a system that's rigged against you?
That is where the writing of Warren Ellis really shines. Transmetropolitan exposes the dependence of elected officials to public opinion and approval ratings through the columns of Spider Jerusalem and their direct effect on the people of the City. In Vol.1 Back on the Street for example, Spider live blogs a riot from the top of a building, which is broadcasted everywhere people can see in the City. The position Spider takes on the conflict and the narrative he creates, the empthy he shows towards the rioting Transient community starts echoing everywhere around the City and causes enough of an uproar for "the Beast" to pull his troops and spare some lives. The message her is invigorating: you're not bound to your voting ballot. Elected officials have to answer to you and not the opposite. Spider Jerusalem is a superhero and writing is his superpower.
The first five volumes of Transmetropolitan are super pertinent and life-affirming. They should be a mandatory reading for every young and forming mind in democratic societies. It affirms the power of communication in the age of entertainment. Spider has a strong and original personality, a sense of spectacle and superhuman writing skills, which makes him a trusted and beloved source for people seeking unfiltered truth. Vol. 7 to Vol. 9 are a bit of a lull in the series and this is intimately tied to Warren Ellis' obsession with the Hunter S. Thompson parallel. While Ellis is biding his time and winding up the final confrontation between Spider Jerusalem and Gary Callahan, Spider turns into a bit of a parody of himself. He does really weird, obnoxious things like licking a bowl full of poisonous toads to get high because it's something Hunter S. Thompson could've done. While Spider is obviously inspired by the legendary inventor of Gonzo Journalism, I believe he grows into something of his own in the first five volumes of the series. Something purer and more conceptual. Spider Jerusalem is the embodiment of an idea: integrity. He evolves into something closer to Fight Club's Tyler Durden than the initial inspiration for the character.
I will leave you with a question: is it Utopian to believe someone like Spider Jerusalem can eventually exist? After all, he's more of an idea than an actual human being. He has one unwavering goal and self-destructively fuels on hardcore drugs in order to achieve it. What would he become in a world that bombards people with information like ours? I don't have a clear answer for you, but the purpose of Transmetropolitan is to carry the hope that it's possible to change the system from within if you understand how it works. It was an absolute feast at times for an egghead like me. Sometimes confronting your enemy is not how you change things. Sometimes you have to beat the bad guy at his own game and the game of power in the 21st century is entertainment. Transmetropolitan is a smart, fantastic, important, accessible and super entertaining comic book series and it is out duty to make it live forever and to learn from what it tells us.
* I believe the parallel was 100% voluntary in Warren Ellis' mind too.