Start with a decadent setting, like Airstrip One, the Capitol in the Hunger Games or Rome at its worst. A place where sex, drugs and pop religion have rendered the population mindless and vapid, letting the government stamp on and exploit them at leisure.
This situation has been conjured up many a time before, challenged by its outcasts, its downtrodden, who confront the evils of their rulers head-on in a thrilling revolutionary battle. As I alluded to in my Hunger Games review, this formula has been redone many times to the point where making it fresh and exciting is an important challenge.
So how to refresh this plot? How do you confront these themes and acknowledge their subtleties, the lack of moral absolutes? How do you examine it from the inside, and get at what it really means to live in such a world?
You send in a journalist. Better yet, send in a gonzo journalist.
I recently achieved a breakthrough in my assault on the mysterious world of comics with volume one of Warren Ellis’ and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan. If Hunter S. Thompson had lived in a cyberpunk future, it might well have been like this.
For those of you who don’t know who Hunter Thompson was or what cyberpunk is, I shall expand….
It’s some hundreds of years in the future, and the setting is the City, a hedonistic meat grinder crowded with people fed a constant diet of legal drugs, sex, violence and consumer goods. Political corruption, religious proselytizing and vapid advertising are everywhere.
Sickened of the superficial existence and unable to “get at the truth anymore,” renegade journalist Spider Jerusalem has spent the past five years living in squalid, blissful isolation in the mountains. However, he has an outstanding contract to produce two books. Menaced with a lawsuit, he abandons his fortified and booby-trapped hideaway and returns to the City. He needs a job, and stages a commando raid on the Word, whose editor is an old friend. With that, he starts trawling the City for his first story. A slum district of the City his threatening to secede, its population, a subculture of people blending their DNA with those of aliens, essentially locked inside by a bullying and repressive government. Spider can see exactly what kind of horrors this is going to bring about, and uses the only weapon he has. As he says, journalism is like a gun. You can only fire it once, but aim right, and you can blow a kneecap off the world.
Thus begins Spider’s new battle with the hollowness of City life, the lies of government and society, and his demanding editors, who saddle him with a student and personal assistant as his foil.
Transmetropolitan is a product of the Dark Age of Comic Books, debuting in 1998, which as I mentioned in my ElfQuest review, was a time when superficial gore and exploitative sexuality was pretty thick on the ground. Indeed, upon first inspection of Transmetropolitan, I suspected this was precisely what I was dealing with (randomly alighting on the image of Spider flashing an evangelist and screaming “Read my scripture!” was not a promising start).
Further consideration found this story more worthy than I had feared – and a good thing too, given what comics cost, but that’s another story…
Transmetropolitan is certainly gritty, but it doesn’t lack for depth, which is the main problem with a lot of things trying to be ‘gritty.’ The thing that first surprised me about Spider is that while he is most definitely a parody of Hunter S. Thompson – drugged out of his mind, foul-mouthed, rude, misanthropic and distressingly heavily armed – it rapidly becomes obvious that, like Thompson, he has genuine insight and compassion for the poor benighted sheep around him. His descents into raving violence are born, as often as not, of genuine anger at injustice, as opposed to the superficial selfishness that pervades much of the society.
My second pleasant surprise was that, far from the relentlessly grim and oppressively dismal story (a la parts of Sin City) I had been expecting Transmetropolitan is really funny.
It’s dark, cynical humour but I laughed really hard at some points. In one part, Spider spends the day watching television to write about just what place it has in the City life, and without him uttering a word, I was laughing myself silly watching him, frame by frame, slide narcoleptically from his chair.
As over-the-top as the City seems, the more you think about it, the more believable it starts to feel. We’re currently living in an age where consumerism pervades everything, advertising is inescapable and there’s so much information floating around that getting at ‘the truth’ seems well-nigh impossible. A lot of the technology is also very plausible, and while its predictions aren’t quite as dead-on as some, it gives all this a realistic texture which is the mark of great cyberpunk. Then again, William Gibson and Philip K. Dick usuallygo maybe 50 years into the future, not 300…
Spider’s assistant, journalism student, part-time stripper and foil Channon gives him a chance to explain his worldview to someone and thus to us, and to her credit she holds her own quite well in the presence of her psychotic boss, and there’s genuine respect between them, even if it’s swimming in vitriol.
I look forward to seeing where Spider Jerusalem’s adventures take him, but I wanted to put the word out because it’ll take me forever to get through them all. It is a superb story. It’s quite vulgar and definitely not for the under-fourteens (although you may know some youths made of sterner stuff than I do) but it’s a fine expression of the positive side of the Dark Age of Comics and a well-rounded, deep story in general. I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes. Feel free to join me!
“I don’t have to put up withthis shabby crap! I’m a journalist!”