Working in an office full of guys makes it easier than ever before to engage in guilty pleasures. High on the list are our weekly tradition of watching Zero Punctuation and the huge number of comic books in the bathroom. I've been gradually working my way through Transmetropolitan, a really intriguing series that channels Hunter S. Thompson by way of Philip K. Dick. As I keep on insisting, I'm not a "comic guy", but I guess I'm becoming more of one every year. Four years ago I had never read a single comic (excluding from newspapers or the internet) - now, I've read the complete "Sandman," "Firefly," "Bone," "Watchmen," and started on "Dark Knight" and "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen." So I can no longer claim TOTAL ignorance of the conventions and tropes of the comic medium.
On the other hand, I have no illusions: I"ve just been reading the best. Much like anime, I have an inflated opinion of the medium due to the fact that I blissfully ignore all the mediocre and poor work out there.
That said, "Transmetropolitan" does wind up towards the bottom of my list of comics - but that's the bottom of a very exclusive set of company. At its best, T manages to be funny, horrifying, prescient, and thoughtful, all wrapped up into one immoral package. At the worst, it feels a bit unfocused and overly reliant upon shock humor. All together, it tells a really compelling story, with copious digressions that help flesh out the fictional world.
Probably the most unique thing about T, in comparison to the other comics I've read, is its political bent. It isn't political in the same way that, say, Doonesbury is, commenting on particular issues and politicians in our own time. Instead, it's political in the way that 1984 or Gattaca are... it deals with theoretical situations, but with such gravity and realism that you can't help but think about how we should act in our own world to deal with or prevent that vision of the future.
It's a little creepy to read T and realize that it started in 1997. So much of it seems to mirror our own experiences in the oughts... the way we were lied to, abused, how we clung to brutish policies and persons who promised to keep us safe. Thinking back to 1997, when the Cold War was long dead and we seemed to be embarking upon a prolonged period of peace and prosperity, it took a lot of creativity to envision a powerful nation devouring itself. Warren Ellis did so, and for better or for worse, this was the result.
The main character is one Spider Jerusalem, and calling him a copy of Hunter S. Thompson is an understatement. This is a good thing, of course... HST is a larger-than-life personality, and one of the most entertaining forces to ever emerge from journalism. Spider shares HST's predilection for drugs, his gatling-gun diction, his vaguely left-libertarian outlook, his self-deprecation and aggression, his constant smoking.
There are differences. For starters, SJ is naked most of the time. He also loves cats and hates dogs. HST seems to be a regular loner, occasionally accepting company from an interestingly psychotic sidekick. SJ professes loner-dom, but is fortunate to lead a posse of Filthy Assistants. I wish I had some Filthy Assistants, too.
SJ aside, my favorite character was probably Mitchell Royce, Spider's editor. Like a lot of other characters, he smokes multiple cigarettes at the same time, and has a wonderful world-weary attitude that perfectly fits the stereotypical editor, while his dialog retains enough of an edge to engage entertainingly with Spider's shenanigans. I also enjoyed Spider's Maker, although sadly it ceases to be a character after the first book or two.
The Beast and The Smiler were both great villains. I kind of got the impression that The Smiler was originally imagined as a kind of Bill Clinton - someone who seems friendly and is quite deceptive. I may be over-reading into it, though, and by the end there isn't much resemblance to be found. I do like the general sense of reversal one gets when reading the series - very reminiscent of The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."
The main political plot thread is quite interesting. Page by page, though, there are more side stories than main stories, and these really run the gamut in quality. My favorite passages from the whole run are included here - among the very best is the incredibly surreal and hilarious "Spider Watches Television" sequence. Others just seem to be taking up time. I never really got into the whole Transient subplot, and was usually bored any time Fred Christ was on the page.
Oooh, gotta mention the art. It's really remarkably rich and dense. The artist does a phenomenal job at bringing The City to life, with all that that means. Any given street scene will be jammed with more graffiti, syringes, piercings, concrete cracks, filth and depravity than you can really fit into your brain. On the rare occasions when they visit a reservation or other "outside" location, the sheer beauty is even more moving in relation to the ugliness we're used to viewing.
I'd never recommend this as a first comic book series to someone looking to get into the scene, but I'd certainly nod in approval to someone looking for an interesting comic to read. It almost goes without saying that this is an incredibly R-rated, violent, sexist, and purposely offensive piece of work, but also one that should entertain people looking for an edgy glimpse into our dark potential future.