Filthy Assistance: Revisiting ‘Transmetropolitan: Year of the Bastard’
In the 1990s, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson foresaw a future of twisted behavior, renegade politics, and uncontrollable technology in Transmetropolitan. We’re revisiting the series book by book, because in a time of unrest and uncertainty we could all use some Filthy Assistance.
It’s election season in book three of Transmetropolitan, "Year Of The Bastard," and the worst sicknesses of politics are bubbling to the surface. There’s reactionary monsters in suits, there’s heartbreak for Spider, and there’s the hot question of the moment: which politician in Transmet most resembles the current US head of state, and is the answer less obvious than it appears?
I sure know this feeling. (Hey, let’s refight the Democratic primary and the election another 50,000 Goddamn times.)
“Year of the Bastard,” written by Ellis and drawn by Robertson, with colors from Nathan Eyring, inks by Rodney Ramos, and lettering by Clem Robbins, opens with Spider doing everything he can to steer away from politics --- and that's the most sympathetic I’ve ever found him. But he knows he can’t fully get away, as he sees a political debate on TV and finds himself offering play-by-play, like he’s watching sports. As bad as he wants out --- and he wants out badly enough to leave an entire city after the last election --- it’s in his blood, like mercury poisoning. It’s no coincidence that his pusher is who gets him back into electoral politics.
Literalizing the term “political junkie” is a bit on-the-nose, but so much of Transmet’s exaggerated vision of the future has come to pass that it feels apt. We live in a world where addiction to the Internet --- literally, to information --- is a thing, and that’s all a political junkie is. There’s a note of disdain to the term, someone who is using and is in turn being used, keeping hooked on political news without fully becoming involved. More people intensely follow politics without taking the leap into activism than we’d like to admit.
At this stage, we know very little about the Smiler --- the only thing we know about him is “he can defeat the Beast,” the sitting President that Spider reduced to a nickname. We know nothing about the political parties that the Beast and the Smiler belong to, both bleached of any trace of semblance to the current two-party system in America. All biases about who belongs to which party are mostly ours.
There’s hints that the Democrats are meant to be the Smiler’s party and that the GOP is the Beast’s…
... but that goes out the window with Heller, a candidate fighting the Smiler for the nomination in the Party in Opposition, whose rallies conjure the worst of the racist rump of American politics that has never fully faded and is now on an upward swing.
(As an aside, one of the most cunning details in Transmetropolitan is defining the parties in relative terms --- their proximity to power --- rather than giving them a specific name, much like all dates are “X years ago” rather than a specific number. It creates the sensation of a future that is unmoored, that could happen at any time, and that itself has nothing solid to it.)
If anyone in Transmetropolitan is a direct analogue for current politics in America, it’s Heller, but the key is that Heller winds up simultaneously a nonentity and the most illuminating thing about the Smiler. As Spider’s investigation and dedication to “the truth, no matter what” we find out that Heller is inextricably tied to the Smiler if for no other reason than political expedience. Heller hands over his delegates and, in return, gets a loyalist in the White House. It’s Transmetropolitan, so it’s a politician grown in a vat, since that’s the only way to have a clean past, but the quid pro quo still exists.
Just by existing, by being popular, Heller becomes normalized. His politics, in drips and drops, become mainstream, culminating in a running mate and direct White House access. The door that Heller’s hatred walks through is held open by design, and that design is in part the Smiler’s. This showcases how morally bankrupt the Smiler is, because the one thing in politics that never changes is what you wake up with fleas when you lie down with dogs.
The Smiler is described as having “Third Way” politics…
... which is defined differently depending on whether you talk to Spider, his new assistant Yelena, or Vita Severin. It’s defined differently because it doesn’t mean anything on its own. The Smiler gives space to Heller because, while winning in politics is an important thing, to the Smiler it’s the only important thing. The Smiler loves to be a winner, and he hates losers. People often point to the Beast to describe the current POTUS, but I think the Smiler is a more apt comparison.
This sequence is illuminating due to the strength of Robertson’s storytelling, choosing a stead drip feed of panels that either show the Smiler in isolation, floating in the white void of the comics gutter, or in reflection in Spider’s glasses, as the mask slips and he turns ugly on us --- not physically ugly, but ugly in his soul, before he remembers the mask and it snaps into place so suddenly it leaves motion lines.
Year of the Bastard also introduces --- and reintroduces --- other women to the series, with Spider’s new filthy assistant Yelena, who has a very ill-advised tryst with Spider that only accelerates the love-hate-but-mostly-love-to-hate relationship she has with him. It showcases that much like Vita with the Smiler, Spider’s persona has a seductive quality to it --- so much of Spider is instantly quotable and turned into a meme, accelerating the return to fame that he so desperately wants to avoid. Spider’s persona is fame via hatred towards all, and is in many ways the opposite of the Smiler’s --- probably, in part, why he grows to hate the Smiler so much.
The return of Channon in the role of bodyguard to Spider is also welcome, letting a sympathetic character take some air out of Spider’s persona, while still having him be sympathetic. She’s a little older and wiser than Yelena, and sees right through Spider’s bull; in contrast with Yelena who seems ready to disappear into her too-large clothes, she’s tall and self-assured. She’s one of those characters that’s great on her own, but brings out the best in others via contrast, and having her show up at what appears to be Spider’s moment of triumph has a nice narrative neatness to it.
But --- again, like the current POTUS --- the Smiler’s counted out a little too early, and in one of the series’ most shocking moments, he climbs back on top over the body of Vita Severin, the only person in politics Spider loves.
The series never makes this a point of personal animosity between Spider and the Smiler, steering carefully around the notion of fridging, but it’s clear that this devastates Spider; one of the tie-in collections of Spider’s columns shows Spider literally at a loss for words, unable to turn in a column due to his grief. He’s human after all.
The election rolls on, as life-crushing and inevitable as an avalanche, and it all comes to a head in The New Scum, the Smiler’s less-than-affectionate nickname for the voting bloc he wants to steal away from the Beast, without giving thought one as to what they’re like as people.
And now, your Moment of Royce.
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