Transmetropolitan vol. 1: "Back on the Street"
Medium: comic
Year: 1997
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Darick Robertson
Format: Issues 1-6
Website category: Comics
Review date: 24 July 2023
It's famous, with fans including Patrick Stewart, Robin Williams and Darren Aronofsky. I saw it on the shelf, so I read it.
Unfortunately (in 2020, long after finishing this series), Warren Ellis was accused of sexual coercion and manipulation by roughly a hundred women. I've no idea if he'll ever work again in comics. (I'm not aware of anything like that about Darick Robertson, though, who also drew "The Boys".) I mention all that because it would be weird not to, but I'm here to talk about Transmetropolitan. Well, its first six issues.
What's it about, then?
It's about an explosively vulgar misanthropic cynic called Spider Jerusalem. "Antisocial" doesn't even begin to cover it. He puts out a cigarette in someone's eye. At the start of the series, he's a hairy mountain hermit who uses intelligent smartguns, ebola bombs and proximity mines to barricade himself away from the human race. He swears like it's his superpower.
He's also a journalist with an unfulfilled book contract. If he doesn't want his arse sued off, he's got to return to hell (aka. the city) and get back to work.
He's a Hunter S. Thompson for the 23rd century. His world includes Russian security werewolves, idiots who implant alien DNA into themselves and hypno-adverts that play in your brain while you're asleep. For us, though, now, he's been overtaken by real life. When Ellis was writing all this, politics was bland and politically correct. Bill Clinton, Tony Blair... that era's political scandals seem almost quaint in hindsight. What was absurdly hyperbolic abuse in the 1990s has become almost normal discourse in the age of Brexit, US political deadlock, penis size references by presidential candidates, etc. and at times even feels sensible. Spider's rant to the US President is, today, simply a prediction of Donald Trump.
Similarly, he's not even pretending to be an unbiased journalist. Guess what was launched more or less when this was first published, but has since become the most-watched U.S. cable network? Fox News.
Transmetropolitan's still fun, though. My main worry as I was reading concerned whether its narrative would have a direction. There's a two-parter in issues 2-3 that feels meaningful, but otherwise it's basically Spider Rants While Behaving Badly. The only question is what topic he'll vent about this time. This is entertaining, up to a point, but the series wouldn't have survived had it stayed like that. (Fortunately, it didn't. Spider will get more deeply involved with presidents and elections.)
Very occasionally, Spider shows greater depth. He definitely cares about journalism, even if his definition of it involves bile and chain smoking. He gains an assistant and does indeed start teaching her (his idea of) the trade. At one point, he even apologises to her for saying something hurtful, which was weird and felt like seeing a cat apologising to mice.
It's a good book. It's certainly a massive departure from the superhero stuff Ellis had been mostly writing until this. It made me laugh (e.g. hairy-Spider's full body shave in issue 1) and when we eventually read his journalism, it's as lacerating as the series had promised. Spider's explosively memorable. So long as you're not expecting much of a storyline at this early stage, this one lives up to the hype.