Filthy Assistance: Revisiting ‘Transmetropolitan: The New Scum’
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.
In the fourth volume of Transmet, "The New Scum," the election turns upside down, the storytelling shifts to accommodate a traumatic event, and we settle the question once and for all: is the current POTUS the Beast, or the Smiler?
The first thing that leaps out about The New Scum is the shift in storytelling.
The pace is more deliberate and the book is quieter, with several pages of silent vignettes showing the simple mundane reality of life in the city. Citizens with that blank stare someone gets when they’re in the middle of doing a job they’re gotten used to, showing how garbage takes on new value in a post-nanotech world where raw matter and access to a maker is the big class yardstick.
It’s around this time that Ellis started experimenting with decompression in many of his stories, to varying degrees of success. In Transmetropolitan, it works the best, for two chief reasons.
First is the strength of the setting created by Ellis and Robertson --- along with Rodney Ramos, who started to take over more of the artistic duties in addition to inking, and the colors of Nathan Eyring and the lettering of Clem Robins. We’re far enough in that the City is established and the plot can slow down a bit to just let the details be the story, switching to a more documentarian style (as fits a comic about a journalist.)
The second is a happy product of storytelling, as Spider is in shock over the death of Vita Severin, and after the death of someone you care about, time seems different. Smaller details emerge, and the larger picture fades away as you struggle to process the weight of loss. Spider is clearly in mourning, even if he only shows it when in private --- as in public, he finds himself drawn more into fame, which is a power structure all its own and the last place a journalist speaking truth to power wants to be.
Because Spider is that kind of journalist, he gets back on the beat, watching a Christian revival stoning in the street, anti-technology crusaders shutting down everyone’s phones and credit cards (which, amazingly, does not earn them a punch in the nose, as anyone would do to someone who ruined their credit cards several miles from home) and remarking how everyone around him is able to think about anything besides the election. It seems voter apathy in the future is as bad as in the present.
Of course, there are many reasons people don’t vote --- many people can’t, or can vote but have commitments they can’t get out of, such as a lack of paid leave from work or needing to be there for sick or underage family --- and the way these people would vote might benefit certain parties, leaving certain other parties with an incentive to block programs that might help them. It’s brought up several times that gerrymandering is alive and well in the future --- a perfect topic for Transmetropolitan, given that the gerrymander got its name from a political cartoon about a salamander-shaped block of districts in Essex County, Massachusetts, named after Governor Elbridge Gerry.
And many others still look at the choices they’re presented with and ask why they should bother, with all the institutional inertia that’s ensured that these are the choices they have to choose from. Considering Transmetropolitan's position of “they’re all scum,” it’s not hard to sympathize with. Spider himself burnt out on politics so badly that he left the City entirely, so not even he is --- or will be --- immune to the desire to shut it all out.
Far away from Spider, Channon and Yelena are taking him down a peg, discussing his sex life…
… so we got to see Spider Jerusalem’s sperm and his o-face. Thanks, Ellis and Robertson. Your contributions to human culture will endure for generations.
But they relay an important message to Spider: a one-on-one with each major party’s candidate for the presidency. Here the differences between the Beast and the Smiler --- how each relate to Jerusalem, and how each relate to our own politics --- are made clearest.
The Beast meets Spider with his pants and belt off, telling you a great deal in a single page. Everything about the Beast is relaxed, apathetic and tired. Everyone on the Secret Service detail is going through the motions; everything about the Beast says he’s never going to change his mind on anything, or for anyone. The Beast doesn’t care.
Spider hates that, because deep down, Spider’s contempt for people is born out of a belief that they could be better and choose not to be, and the Beast is ugly, living refutation of all of that. The Beast will die the Beast. The Beast was practically born with stubble and whiskey on his breath. There’s no persona there at all --- no act. The front that Spider puts up is the entirety of the Beast’s character. He’s apathy writ large. He had to be an incumbent politician --- he embodies the notion that the way things are is as good as they can be.
The Beast may be a lack of promise, but the Smiler is nothing but promise --- all empty promises. A smile that crosses the uncanny valley straight into unnerving geniality. When Spider smiles, it’s because he’s happy --- even if he’s happy because he has someone behind the eightball. Callahan smiles for no reason, then stops smiling suddenly, then starts again. His behavior swings like a corpse at the end of a rope. Being in the same room with him, you’d think he wasn’t all there, and then, at the very end…
… Spider realizes he underestimated him.
A big part of why I feel that the current POTUS maps closer to the Smiler is, in part: he won. All his opponents underestimated him, just like the Smiler. The hero of this comic knew, going into the election, that he was slimier than a jellyfish’s armpits, and he wins. Spider fails to stop him, just like everything that was supposed to guarantee that the current POTUS would never set foot in the Oval Office collapsed like straw faced with a flamethrower.
But more than that: one thing the POTUS is not, is apathetic. His persona is closer to the Beast’s, but a persona is just a persona. His actions are rooted in pettiness, small-minded revenge and grudges held against Those People, whether they’re people who have personally wronged him or people he’s read about that are Bad Dudes (not the Bad Dudes that rescued the President from the Dragon Ninja clan, a different set of Bad Dudes.)
He doesn’t act like the world can’t be changed. It can. He just wants to change it by burning it down to sticks and ash. Which is monstrous and sick and wrong --- but it’s not apathetic. And that’s why the Smiler is the villain and the Beast fades away to nothing --- just like Longmarch did after losing his election, reduced to nothing more than a soundbite.
The shock on election night is palpable, with Spider and his friends --- lonely islands in the know, in the midst of a City that all voted for the Smiler --- chucking grenades in the air out of sheer frustration and rage.
The volume is rounded out by a couple of one-shots from Vertigo’s winter-themed specials that aren’t tied in intimately with the plot, but do feature some terrific storytelling, showing Spider along in the whiteness of winter --- or the whiteness of panel space --- emerging from winter in the abstract to winter in the City, and waxing poetic about his favorite season.
We move into the next presidency one winter at a time, and in two weeks we’ll be back with Lonely City, as everyone in Spider’s circle starts bracing for the hit. (Boy, I know that feeling.)
And now, your moment of Royce.
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