Hello you Sex Puppets, you Filthy Assistants, you New Scum. I'd like to talk to you about my friend Spider.
Is that too forward? Do I sound like I'm delivering a deranged religious pitch to you, knocking on your door at the most inconvenient time possible to ask if you've been saved by Chain Smoking Jesus? Don't worry, Spider's not Jesus, though he did dress like him once (long story). Spider's just a mean little man who wants to tell the truth, and if you haven't had the pleasure yet, now might be the time to let him blow your head open and fill it with fire.
By Spider I mean, of course, Spider Jerusalem, star of the iconic comic book series Transmetropolitan, from writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson. Spider's what you get if you take Hunter S. Thompson and stuff him full of more anger, more drugs and enough profanity to make Quentin Tarantino blush. In the future.
And it's fantastic.
For those still uninitiated, Transmet follows Spider -- a renegade journalist who got famous, fled the city that made him famous, and then got dragged back into it by a book deal -- as he returns to journalism with his column "I Hate It Here," which tracks the various injustices, curiosities and horrors of The City in all their glory. Spider's last brush with fame left him paranoid and sucked of all his writing energy, but when he makes his glorious return almost literally writing a riot to a halt, he finds his blood pumped full of the power of the profession once again.
As a new election looms -- pitting the Nixonesque incumbent The Beast against the seemingly superficial challenger The Smiler -- Spider returns to politics, and finds corruption, lies and even murder at levels even he wasn't prepared for. It's a funnier, scarier All The President's Men, if you rolled All The President's Men around in filth, injected it full of black tar heroin and shot it in the face.
Transmet's been around for two decades now, and if you haven't read it yet, there's a good chance you've been told to read it by a friend or seen it on one of those lists of recommended comics for grown-ups (particularly grown-ups who might not otherwise read many comics). If you've encountered it and still not read it, there's also a good chance it's been on the old to-be-read pile for a while, and why not? What's the hurry in picking up a 20-year-old comic about a journalist?
Well, for a start, there's stuff like this ...
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Oh, dear. Now I've gone and done it, haven't I? I've invoked real-world politics in this amusing little discussion we were having about funny books. My stars and garters, what are we to do now?
Relax, that's what. We're all adults here (if you're not, back away from the Transmet slowly and go read something brilliant-but-age-appropriate, like Lumberjanes), and we're still talking mostly about a work of fiction. Here's the thing, though: The other night I was re-reading this comic with the news on in the background, and Spider's latest column was blocked from publication by White House edict just as I was hearing that the White House Press Secretary had somehow blocked certain major news outlets from a press gaggle. It's hard to divorce the two things in my head now, and regardless of your political persuasion, if you're a sane and reasonably informed Adult Human you have to at the very least know that we're dealing with a president who has a history of playing fast and loose with the truth.
The Transmet fans are yawning in my general direction right now because they've known this song and dance for 20 years. Every time a politician lies or obfuscates or does something even remotely morally dubious, there's an article about the real-world relevance of Transmetropolitan. It's like clockwork, and they multiply like bloody Tribbles. I'm not exactly breaking new ground here, nor am I telling you anything that you haven't already heard in connection with other works of fiction, like 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale, and how they relate to the terrifying Now.
I'm also not suggesting that this is a story about a pure, spotless crusader taking down the forces of evil with his mighty, mighty pen, because Spider Jerusalem is a lot of things, but spotless isn't even close to one of them. He's loud, arrogant, perverse, violent, and often just as happy to please his own ego as he is to write columns in the name of social justice. When asked about his own connections to his creation, Ellis once said, "I wouldn't give that bastard house room." Neither would I. Spider's usually on the side of right, but he often doesn't care what it takes, or what damage he does, on his way to the truth he's so hungry for.
So, what if all that isn't where it's at for you? What if a morally dubious journalist taking on a downright amoral politician isn't enough to hook you? What if you're just plain sick of anything even lightly brushing up against politics? Why should you be reading Transmet?
Well, from a pure craft standpoint, it's one of the best long-running comics constructed in the past 35 years. Ellis writes the hell out of it, slipping compassion, warmth and even vulnerability in through Spider's venom while also making memorable characters out of his assistants Yelena and Channon. The Smiler is one of the most terrifying villains in modern comics, and even Spider's two-faced cat is given fully-realized life in these pages. Plus, in a world full of well-written stories about writers who, as charactes, can't seem to write their way out of a paper bag, Ellis fills Spider's column excerpts with as much fire and thunder as anything else in the book.
Then there's Robertson, who over 60 issues fills every page with detail and vibrance, from densely packed cityscapes to close-ups lit only by computer screens. One of the trademarks of Transmet is its humor, and that comes just as much from Robertson's weird sex shop signs and Nazi Sex Midgets (an actual thing on the streets of that city) as it does from Ellis' words. Their collaboration is seamless and packed with power, giving the whole book an oomph that few series running this long ever get.
Read it for all of that, plus stories ranging from delirious satire ("What Spider Watches on Television") to harrowing ideological warfare ("Gouge Away"). Read it for the insane background art and the adrenaline-inducing columns and the early letters pages that reveal what fed the book, and what the book in turn fed its early fans. Read it because it's fun.
You know what? I'm still thinking about that bloody tweet, so stop reading here, if you must, but here's a final thought about what makes Transmet great, and why now is the time to shove it into your brain as violently as possible ...
Wherever you might fall ideologically, you have to admit that we are living in bonkers times. A man who began his campaign by branding a large portion of Central America rapists and peddling bright red hats with a bad font on them is the president now, and he somehow got there despite a massive popular vote loss. The opposition party is staying up all night, sometimes doing science experiments in Congressional session (yes, that is an actual thing that recently happened while Democrats were trying to keep the floor) just to delay his agenda. People feel emboldened to deface cemeteries because the corpses were, in life, Jews. Even now, as I write this, the president is garnering praise from morning news programs because his joint address to Congress was coherent and calm, because that's where the bar is now. Even the appearance of sanity is greeted with a sigh of relief and a Gold Star.
Is a comic book going to solve all of that? Nah, but here's the thing about comics: They can make their point in Big, Bold Ways while also being tremendously entertaining.
In the 1930s, the world was facing unimaginable peril and millions of lives were at risk, so two kids from Cleveland created Superman, a hero who could drag Hitler in front of a world tribunal and hurl nuclear missiles into space at will. In his first appearance, his very first mass-produced image, Captain America decked Hitler square across the jaw, and because it's what most of the world also wanted to do at the time, it resonated. Inspirational figures work, because their heightened reality gives us a polite shove in the direction of a better world through fun fiction.
Only with Spider, you won't get a polite shove. You'll get a violent kick in the ass, followed by a slap and probably a couple of shots with a Bowel Disruptor, just to be safe. This mean little man with a keyboard will worm his way into your blood like a lab-grown supervirus, and for a moment you'll get a little angrier, a little more eloquent and a little hungrier for the truth ... only you get to read about three-eyed pigeons and what porn's like in the future at the same time.
Spider Jerusalem couldn't exist in our world. He'd die of a drug overdose by the time he was 10, and failing that he'd be in jail for life by 12. He couldn't exist here, so Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson made him exist on paper, and he's all the more bombastic for it. He can't fire bullets of truth from inside his paper adventures, but if we read enough of them, we might summon the guts to, as Spider puts it, "blow the kneecap off the world."