A few years back, I had picked up a graphic novel because it stood out boldly among others on the display shelf. A bald, cigarette-smoking tattooed man was standing on the edge of the roof of a skyscraper and looking up with a wicked smile. Even odder were the shades he wore: one lens was a circular red while the other was a rectangular green. I think, perhaps the reason I bought it was the title – which it shared with Irving Stone’s biography of Van Gogh – Lust for Life.
The very same day, I read it and made a mental note to get my hands on the entire series. Some time, after that, I did manage to get them all. Then, over a period of two days, I read 60 issues – an epic that had taken the author and artist 5 years to accomplish. That is how gripping Transmetropolitan is.
Created by Warren Ellis (author) and Darick Robertson (artist), Transmetropolitan is the story of a gonzo journalist in a dystopian liberal future where sex, drugs, violence and consumerism are rampant – ‘postcyberpunk’ to jargon lovers.
An interesting feature of the setting is that Time itself is anachronistic; there is no mention of what year it is. Instead, people measure time in terms of how much of it has passed till date in relation to a particular subject. For instance, a memorial in the City reads “…here 26 years ago” and the ‘26’ is a digital clock which keeps climbing.
Opening with a rude telephone conversation between protagonist Spider Jerusalem and an editor demanding he make good on book contracts, the reader is quickly introduced to Ellis’ no-holds-barred style of writing which is well enhanced by Robertson’s in-your-face art.
The first couple of pages don’t give the reader a moment’s breathing space. While the compulsive writing pulls you to the next frame, the intricately detailed art entices you to stare at the frame a moment or two more. The pure energy that Spider exudes is contagious; add to that his sheer unpredictable actions and nihilistic attitude; and you have a hero who is truly by the people and of the people.
What I love about the art is Darick’s attention to detail. The frames are huge and crowded with signs of consumerism. If you look carefully, you’ll be able to read most of the signs too. Almost every one of them sends out a message that is funny and ironic. A park bench, for instance, has a warning sign saying “This bench turns red hot from 11 pm. to 6 am” (I might not have it down verbatim, but you get the drift) – a very direct take on how the better (richer) part of society doesn’t allow the homeless to sleep in public parks.
The first two volumes of the series concentrate on Spider’s First year in the city. They’re a series of one-shots which look at various facets of Spider’s life – his assistants, his past, his moods, his mind, his attitude. This also helps the reader get familiar with the City, which remains unnamed, but a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty in one of the later issues would suggest that it’s New York City.
The second year onwards, the story begins to take a focus. Spider gets drawn into a web of corruption, murder and political deceit where he becomes the public and personal enemy of the President (of the United States) and uses the only weapons he has against the regime: the Press… and a ‘Bowel Disruptor’ (no prizes for guessing what it does).
The story, in itself, is great. On the surface, it’s got all the makings of a thriller that keep readers riveted. But what’s more interesting is what lies underneath. While Ellis’s City has loads of futuristic gadgets and in just about every panel you’ll find some mutant freak – from the ‘Foglets’ (people who’ve converted themselves into clouds of nanomachines) to the multiple-eyed birds that are flying around – you’ll be hard put to find a significant difference from society as it stands today.
Surprised? Okay. Let me start this article over again from a different perspective.
“Welcome to life in the future. New drugs. New booze. New sexual perversions. Sex change is a thing of the past… you can go ahead and change your species if you’ve a mind to. People live longer because medical science has advanced to the stage where they can replace everything but the brain… and if your body is dying, they can just grow you a new one. And if you choose to die for a while, they can simply chop off your head and place it in cryogenic freeze and have you revived as per your instructions – with a brand new body and all your memories intact. It’s a place where people are so lost that a new religion springs up every hour with a new explanation and revelation on how you should live your life and why you should hate everyone else who doesn’t. Oh, and instead of a lot of weird piercings and tattoos, most people prefer to add extras to their anatomy – extra breasts, genitals et al.
But don’t worry – not everything has changed. All that stuff was just the change of scenery. Poverty and bad parenting are still the leading cause of child prostitution. Policemen continue to be corrupt. Money is still power. Minority rights violation and anti-semitism are still very much the rule. The media continues to be the subject of political hegemony. And politicians still play dirty.
Yes, you should feel right at home. Welcome to Transmetropolitan.”
See what I mean? This is what the story is about. It’s about today’s society, not tomorrow’s. And no, I’m not reading too much into it. I thought I might be, but then I came across this interview with the author. In his own words, he uses “science fiction in its Wellsean frame as a social fiction, using the future as a tool with which to examine the present.”
Transmetropolitan is Ellis’ view of the world today and what’s wrong with it. It’s his way of saying “why do we put up with it?!”
But don’t think that this is a dark story with a sombre ending. It’s actually quite a traditional comic book where the Hero (which Spider undoubtedly is) does indeed provide a source of hope.