The Issue: Cold And Alone In ‘Transmetropolitan’ #8 [Sci-Fi Week]
Welcome to The Issue, where we look at some of the strangest, most interesting, and most distinctive single issue comic stories ever to grace the medium. For Sci-Fi Week at ComicsAlliance, we’re looking at one of comics’ best single issue science fiction stories.
Transmetropolitan writer Warren Ellis is probably the king of the single-issue story. His fondness for the format — most likely a result of starting out on British anthologies like 2000 AD and Deadline — has led him to write a number of series constructed entirely out of standalone issues, including Planetary, Global Frequency, Fell, Secret Avengers, and Moon Knight.
While Transmet isn’t quite structured that way, the series is absolutely packed with memorable one-off issues. “Another Cold Morning” might just be the best.
Coming relatively early in the run — it’s the eighth issue of sixty — “Another Cold Morning” is the story of Mary, a photojournalist from the 20th century who gets cryogenically frozen, and wakes up in a future so distant they’ve stopped keeping track of the year. A place of cloned human meat, alien DNA-infused body modification, and a kids’ TV show called “Sex Puppets.” The world of Transmetropolitan, brought to feverish life by Darick Robertson.
That’s not where the issue begins, however. We open with a gorgeous double-page splash of San Francisco Bay. It’s a rare step outside of The City, a setting constantly teeming with filthy detail. By contrast, this spread — wordless but for the title credits, with a lens-flare corona of rainbow around the sun courtesy of colourist Nathan Eyring — is sparse, quiet, contemplative.
There’s the same sense throughout the issue’s first section. Set in the modern day, it tells the story of Mary’s old age and eventual death, but with a tenderness and dignity you might not immediately associate with Transmet, a comic about a sweary hard-drinking gonzo journalist with a ray gun that makes people defecate themselves.
Of course, like the consensus memory of Preacher — a contemporary and fellow Vertigo title — as a font of graphic violence, sex, and gross-out humour, that’s overly simplistic. Transmet and its star alike understand that you need both sides, the dirty jokes and the moral underpinning, for either to have a real impact.
It’s this contrast that powers the issue as it transitions into the future. The jumble of images that follow — a leaflet offering “Used Porno Clones”; two werewolves being recorded as they hump up against a fire hydrant; trodden-in dog feces smeared across a screen in the pavement — aren’t uncommon background details in an issue of Transmet. But we’re seeing them through Mary’s eyes, for the first time, and the change in tone means we feel the future shock along with her.
Mary’s aren’t the only eyes we see this issue through. It’s a story being told by Spider Jerusalem, the aforementioned bowel-disrupting journalist. His articles are frequently used as a narrative device in Transmet, but “Another Cold Morning” is the first time an entire issue has been presented as a piece of Spider’s writing.
It’s a technique that gets pushed later in the series. There are issue-length monologues from Spider on anything from death, to the history of The City, to winter. “Business” (#40) follows the investigation of a particularly harrowing story on child prostitution. “21 Days in The City” (#26) and the “I Hate It Here” and “Filth of The City” specials strip the format back completely to a string of unconnected single-page images accompanied with article fragments.
But “Another Cold Morning” is the first time we get to read a full Spider Jerusalem article, and that means it needs to prove that Spider is as good a writer as the story tells us he is, someone capable of stirring unrest in a fairly apathetic public. It’s a tricky challenge, which has tripped up many writers before. Do you remember Karen Page’s article from the end of Daredevil Season 2? Are you wincing at the mere mention of it?
Like a good journalist, Ellis finds a human story to tell. He finds the people — not just Mary but the Reclamation civil servants who bring her back — and uses them as a way into a tough subject. The “Revivals” who, after being defrosted, are pushed to the fringes of society.
They’re not a metaphor for any single marginalized group in the real world, but parts of their story — a government doing the bare minimum to keep a group of vulnerable people alive — are certainly familiar. The most obvious comparisons are homeless people and people with disabilities, but the way Revivals are pushed aside by a public uninterested in the past is also reminiscent of our treatment of the elderly population. The graffiti telling Revivals to go “back to your freezers” points to the anti-immigration “go home” rhetoric that was recently stirred up in my home country by the recent Brexit referendum.
It’s a pretty upsetting list of topics, taken from the too-frequently brutal world that we live in.
He hardly appears in the actual panels of the comic, but “Another Cold Morning” shows us the source of Spider’s rage: the brutal unfairness of the world, both his and ours. It’s what powers his writing, and his larger than life bowel-disrupting antics, and is a large part of why Transmet revels in the disgusting details.
Within all that, though, the story — both this issue’s, and Spider’s — manages to find moments of beauty and wonder. Not only in Mary’s 20th century past, but among the future-shock chaos: a group of kids playing gleefully with a foglet that is creating roses out of thin air. The marvel of a cloning vat creating a human eye from “only water and jelly”. The unexpected tenderness of Spider kissing Mary on the forehead.
Underneath it all, there’s a sense that Transmet, and Spider, and his creators, really do have faith in humanity. As this issue shows, though, they understand that this doesn’t mean shying away from the uglier details. There’s no light without shade, no beauty without… well, maybe there is some beauty without two werewolves humping against a fire hydrant.