I’ve had a very strange experience/reaction to Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis’s series that satirizes politics and the media. In fact, I have so many thoughts about the series, that I’m going to keep this review rather short — in an attempt to prevent myself from going overboard. One thing that bears stating at the start: this series has only become more relevant; and, while it can be a bit of an uncomfortable read at times, it is brilliant.
Before I get in to my review, here’s the synopsis for the first book (out of habit, and as a reference point):
After years of selfimposed exile from a civilization rife with degradation and indecency, cynical journalist Spider Jerusalem is forced to return to a job he hates and a city he loathes. Working as an investigative reporter for the newspaper The Word, Spider attacks the injustices of his surreal 23rd century surroundings. In this first volume, Spider ventures into the dangerous Angels 8 district, home of the Transients — humans who have decided to become aliens through cosmetic surgery. But Spider’s interview with the Transients’ leader gets him a scoop he didn’t bargain for. And don’t miss Spider’s first confrontation with the President of the United States… in a men’s room.
I read the series as the ten collected editions, which were first published by Vertigo between 1998-2004 (they have since been re-issued a couple of times, most recently with the covers at the top). Each book contained flashes of genius, whether in terms of highlighting and/or satirizing the ugliness of American (and maybe a bit of British) politics, the venality of the media and the symbiotic relationship between the political and news spheres.
It was also more… ugly, than I was anticipating. This is, of course, based not only on Ellis’s approach to storytelling, but also the fact that he’s addressing some of humanity’s worst tendencies. Each book, I ended up giving 3* on Goodreads, but at the same time, I would give the entire series a 5*. It really pays off when you read it all, and you see that there is method to Spider’s madness, as well as a long-game in addition to the shorter story-arcs the series is comprised of. Some of the more insane elements mellowed in the later books, as the end game drew nearer, but there were plenty of moments throughout that were uncomfortable to read. They were, however, easily overshadowed by the brilliant commentary sprinkled liberally throughout. One chapter/issue in particular was a powerful, slow-burn punch in the gut, covering the ways in which children are abandoned not only by governments, but by society as a whole.
Spider Jerusalem and his two “filthy assistants” are gonzo outlaw journalists, and the former (a seriously unhinged Hunter S. Thompson-esque caricature) is willing to step on anyone in power in order to unearth the truth, get his story out. Unfortunately for Spider, the corrupt politicians and corporations have pretty slick, entrenched and powerful media and PR operations of their own. He takes on two presidents, each of whom would have been considered total cartoons pre-Trump, but now have acquired an extra sinister aspect. (Yes, I know Trump et al haven’t done anything as bad as these guys — that we know of — but, damn… the series’s verisimilitude inched closer to reality in November 2016.)
As I mentioned at the top, this series has become ever-more relevant over the past few years. With Citizens United, the growth of social media and the veritable, distracting smorgasbord of media available (near-)instantaneously in the West… well, this series packs quite a wallop. Through the antics of his protagonists, Ellis’s series lays bare our addiction to instant-media and entertainment, not to mention our proclivity to dismiss “serious” information for infotainment.
The characters are flawed, three-dimensional and fascinating. Even though he’s frequently a dick to those around him, you root for Spider because of his righteous crusade.