Transmetropolitan and sticking the landing

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Transmetropolitan is a difficult series to recommend and yet it’s one of the best things I’ve read in comics. There’s a lot of bad language, violence, sex, drug use, technological fetishism, bowel disruptors, two-headed cats and journalism. The main character is a bastard, and is also a deeply compassionate human being. If you stick with him, he’ll make you smile, then cringe, then smile again.

I’m a big fan of 50-60 issue series, long enough to develop a world, have notable side issues, and mysteries that are revealed gradually but not glacially. Transmetropolitan has a five year arc told over five years of comics from 1997-2002. In some ways it is very of its time, while in others it was quite prescient. But more than anything it’s a story that unfolds gradually, and that comes together to a satisfying ending, something difficult for any author, but doubly difficult in a monthly medium like comics.

Transmetropolitan tells the story of Spider Jerusalem, a gonzo style journalist in a 23rd century cyberpunk trans-humanist future. After five years away, Spider is called back to “the city” to fulfill the last two books of a five book publishing deal. The city is a mash of cultures, fetishes, technologies and architectures, constantly evolving and living in an ever present “now” with little memory of the past. Spider first decides to cover a transient movement in the Angels 8 district, a story that ultimately leads to his live coverage of police brutality bringing the riots to a stop. This earns him both fame from the public and the ire of city officials.

But the majority of the book’s arc has to do with two presidential administrations, the Beast and the Smiler, and Spider’s adversarial relationship with each. The Beast is a pragmatist who will only do the bare minimum necessary to keep at least 51% of the people happy and alive, and the Smiler is a man who wants power only so that he can use it for his own whims.

I don’t want to say a whole lot about the particulars of the conflict, but suffice it to say there are highs, lows, conspiracies and satisfying showdowns throughout. The best part is that ideas and concepts introduced in early issues are important and relevant to the conclusion. Everything feels like it has unfolded organically and inevitably to the conclusion Ellis and Robertson planned.

I’m not going to lie. It took me two reads of the first volume before I decided to go any further, with about six months between those readings. It took a deep discount and coke rewards points for me to buy the second volume, even after liking the first volume much better on a second read. There’s a lot of early world building. And the language and “colorful metaphors” (as Spock would say) are a barrier (though weirdly satisfying in later moments). This series is not for everyone, probably not even for most people. But you owe it to yourself to at least give it a try if it sounds the least bit interesting.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Transmetropolitan and sticking the landing

  1. You can’t just drop a phrase like “bowel disruptors” in there and expect me not to ask about it.

    • Spider’s preferred choice of weapon, especially early in the series. According to Wikipedia it causes instant and painful loss of bowel control. It has a lot of creative settings including “Fatal Intestinal Maelstrom” and “rectal prolapse” something you don’t really want to contemplate after reading its definition on Wikipedia. I did mention this is a filthy book, right? Fortunately, depictions of victims of this weapon are never graphic.

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