Published by Vertigo Comics over a five-year span from 1997 to 2002 and collected in a 10-volume series of trade paperbacks, Transmetropolitan transcended the confines of the comic book genre. It was, and remains to this day, a bold and daring cyberpunk masterpiece.
Created by writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson, Transmet is a sci-fi story of political corruption, sex, murder, conspiracy, and technology. It’s All the President’s Men through the temperament of Hunter S. Thompson, with all the venomous, skewed, original storytelling that Ellis is hailed for. At the forefront of it all is Spider Jerusalem, a take-no-prisoners journalist.
Fueled by drugs and anger, Jerusalem believes in only one thing --- the Truth. He has no filter when he speaks his mind, spewing out rants that are horrendous, vulgar, and hilarious. He writes a column for the City’s newspaper, The Word, called “I Hate It Here,” a series of scathing, scorn-fueled, hate-filled editorials that lash out against the flaws of modern culture and the governing establishment.
Assigned to cover the presidential election campaigns, Jerusalem makes it his mission to ensure that the incumbent, Bob Heller, loses. Heller is a far-right radical fascist; the few beliefs he has are grounded in racist ideology, and his political rhetoric is simply “America for Americans.” His rival, Gary Callahan, isn’t much better, yet Jerusalem deems him the lesser of two evils.
Jerusalem befriends Callahan’s political advisor, Vita Severn, and backhandedly endorses her candidate in one of his editorials. After Severn is brutally murdered on live TV, Callahan wins the election on a tide of sympathy votes. Discontent with the cover story issued after Severn’s assassination, Jerusalem uncovers a string of conspiracies and scandals that lead back to the White House. As he gets closer to the truth, new restrictions are placed on the freedom of the press and Jerusalem becomes the target of death squads under presidential order.
Transmetropolitan is a dark, seedy story, full of violence and vulgarities that make it a no-holds-barred mature-readers title. It’s a novel told in comic book form, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Ellis crafts the comic scripts with care, using roughly the first quarter of the series to introduce readers to the City and its inhabitants, teaching us its culture, technology, and social mores, slowly dragging in the political elements and scandals that inform the rest of the story while drawing parallels to headlines that were shocking in the late 1990s and nearly constant today.
In penciling Spider Jerusalem, Robertson has created an iconic figure. Dressed in a black linen suit, oftentimes shirtless, covered in tattoos, and wearing mismatched, multicolored high-tech sunglasses, Jerusalem's sketch is instantly and easily recognizable to comic fans. Robertson pencils the City with incredible detail, packing each panel with an abundance of information, almost to the point of overload. The crowds of a thousand cultures and religions, the saturation of 24-hour media and advertising and technology --- each of these come to life, drawing the reader in as if they, too, were inhabitants of this massive, urban sprawl. You can almost smell the stink of the City, hear the calamity of the densely packed traffic, and feel the shuffle of the crowds around you. Every block of this future city is an amped up Times Square, populated with imagery that is in equal measures both foreign and familiar. It is exhaustingly, studiously real.
When it was first published, Transmetropolitan was a bleak prediction from Ellis about the societal trends threatening to corrupt and curtail freedom. He warned us away from being passive consumers of messages, rallying to the ideals held by a free press that seeks facts, asks questions, generates answers, and holds those in power accountable to the people they serve. Nearly a decade after the final page was closed on Jerusalem’s story, it’s an even more dire warning amidst the collapse of the newspaper industry, as publishers and media outlets continue to eliminate their investigative divisions in order to cut costs and overhead.
Transmetropolitan is a marvelous meditation on pop culture, the loss of idealism to entertainment, the isolating effects of technology, and the supreme importance of journalism within democracy. Edgy and funny, it’s a brilliant satire that, as it ages, hits only closer to home. Infused with righteous anger and indignation, it serves as a warning to readers, a cautionary tale to remind us all that knowledge is power and that we have to stay informed and, more important, never be afraid to question authority.
Reviewed by Michael Hicks on March 17, 2009
Transmetropolitan Vol. 1: Back on the Street