I Hate it Here: ‘Transmetropolitan’ and the Election Season
Mmmm... election season. The time of year when total fabrications and superstitions are tossed through the air like footballs at photo shoots. When absolute morons strut handed-down opinions around like they can actually form thoughts, and people who say things really were better in the 1950s aren't openly laughed at and informed that they're just racist. Local elections are just behind us, but that's for stuff that doesn't matter, like water purity, and the right to wear sidearms to nude beaches. The primaries and the big show are quickly on the way, and there's no better time to read Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's Transmetropolitan (out now in new collections from Vertigo Comics), and remind yourself that the twisted grade-school freak show of our elections could be a lot worse. Spoilers follow.Welcome to The City! It's actually called The City! Probably because all the other names were taken, or maybe just because it's cool and totemic! We never really find out! Ha ha! It's probably a conurbation of New York, D.C. and a couple other eastern cities, thousands of miles across, populated in the high eight digits, and overall just a massive, squirming cross-section of hundreds of genetically-modified races, mutant religions, and ravenous political motivations. The modern American metropolis blown up and wigged out on steroids and speed, shot several hundred years into the future. How far into the future, we don't know. We never learn what year Transmetropolitan takes place because no one in The City knows what year it is! Ha ha!
Written by Warren Ellis with art by Darick Robertson, Transmetropolitan is a study of modern day politics, media, religion, consumerism, social injustice, and corruption filtered through the distorted sci-fi of classic 2000 AD. The City is one of the most complete examples of proper world-building in comics, a nervy clash cultures, classes, and ideologies moving to the twitchy soundtrack of constant motion, rendered by Robertson with a weirdly minimalistic approach. It is a setting saturated with images and ideas that had never been seen in comics, and explored by a protagonist whose insides bleed at the thought of returning there.
Our protagonist, Spider Jerusalem, is a gonzo journalist cut from the same cloth as his apparent real-life inspiration, Hunter S. Thompson: disdainful of authority and those who give it to them, willing to risk his safety for the story, more interested in the truth than the facts, buzzing at a cellular level with every drug known to man, and holed up in a fortified compound in the mountains. Forced to return to The City after a five year absence and cover the Presidential elections, Jerusalem is the romping, stomping avatar of HST, Warren Ellis, and every outraged voice disgusted at government-sponsored social injustice.
Immediately, Spider is embedded in the weird struggles of City life, covering a trans-human riot, neglected revivals from cryogenic preservation, sham religions, and evading an assassination attempt from his ex-wife's frozen head. His column, "I Hate it Here," makes him a star, and naturally, he hates being a star. Before long he's forced to cover the elections and endorse a candidate, and as usual, it's like picking between an anthrax-infested slab of donkey meat and a pile of sentient dog turds that give you chipmunk rabies.
The incumbent President is The Beast, whose corruption, self-service, and abuse of power has bankrupted the country and practically eliminated social programs in The City, widening the gaps between classes, deregulating industries, and offering no assistance to the poor. The name was given to him by Spider in the elections for his first term, and it was so apt that no one in The City, the media, or even the man's own children ever refers to him by anything other than The Beast. The Opposition Party candidates are Bob Heller, whose right-wing hate rhetoric will win him "gun country," but never The City, and Gary Callahan, whose cheery optimism and promises of "a new way" seem to lack conviction. Jerusalem calls him The Smiler.
Spider hates The Beast so much that after he was elected to the presidency, Jerusalem's response column was the f-word repeated eight thousand times. He would do anything to oust him from office, but everything about The Smiler is fake. The only thing to like about Callahan is his political director, the sharp-tongued and attractive Vita Severn. She also knows that The Smiler is fake, but she argues for the lesser of two evils, and trusts her ability to get him to affect real change. Without endorsing Callahan, Spider sends votes his way by bringing attention to Severn and her conviction, eventually earning her a level of celebrity that threatens Callahan's. And as Spider digs further into the truth behind The Smiler, Severn, Jerusalem, his Filthy Assistants and even The Truth become vulnerable.
Though Spider exposes a major scandal involving The Smiler's running mate and their ties to Senator Heller's right-wing hate group, Callahan wins the election off of sympathy votes after the public assassination of Vita Severn -- an assassination he orchestrated. To his horror, Jerusalem blames Severn's death and Callahan's landslide victory on himself. Rightly so. As readers learn very early, Jerusalem's guerrilla journalism has its consequences, and its victims. He's so focused on finding the truth, he's willing to use people, even the scant few he cares about, to get the story. And Spider, a character with real richness and depth, nearly crumbles under the hard choices.
The following three years send Spider on a tear through the foundations of Callahan's America, battling censorship, media blackouts, a militaristic police force, and the erosion of personal freedoms. That might not sound like a lot of action, but this isn't the measured investigative journalism of All the President's Men, with Spider's assistants Channon and Yelena slowly going through voter registrations. It's attack journalism, with bowel disruptor guns, every possible variation of the f-word, and numerous steel-toed boots to the guts of the oppressors.
When The Smiler orders D-Notices -- government-mandated censorship -- on Spider's stories and shuts down his paper, "The Word," Jerusalem goes underground, posting his articles to "The Hole," an anonymous news feed that essentially predicted WikiLeaks. Ellis's prescience doesn't end there - The Smiler's reduction of internal structure leaves The City vulnerable for a massive "ruinstorm," a weather event that kills thousands, and leaves thousands more without help. Yes, that does sound like Hurricane Katrina.
Transmetropolitan's one-of-a-kind mix of extreme sci-fi, insane humor, hard politics, and even harder violence make it a great read. The messages the book imparts make it a classic. Whenever you do step into the voting booth to make those big decisions, you would be wise to remember Spider, and consider what he might do. Then take a shit on the ballot box, kick an official in the balls, adorn your naked body with "I Voted Today!" stickers and go celebrate democracy like a true patriot.