WARNING: This post contains vulgarity in quotes from the source material. Some of Spider’s more colorful metaphors have been omitted, but conventional swear words (S, F, etc.) are depicted as originally written. Also since this is a post about a comic that started in 1997, I’m not especially careful for the spoiler sensitive, as a discussion of the plot is necessary in many places.
“Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that’s all you need. Aim it right and you can blow a kneecap off the world.” ~ Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan Issue #3)
I got into this marathon diary of Transmetropolitan (Transmet) because somehow binging The West Wing didn’t seem to be the appropriate tone for our current election season. But in truth Transmet bumps up against another Sorkin property, The Newsroom. The first half of volume 1 is focused on outlaw journalist Spider Jerusalem’s version of Will McAvoy’s “What Makes America Great” rant from the first episode of The Newsroom:
To back up, for the last five years Spider has been “up the mountain” after fame has made it impossible for him to write in the city. Spider is content to spend the rest of his days isolated from the rest of the world, but for a nagging editor who demands he write the final two books of a five book contract he signed years ago, or face being sued into destitution. The first issue is largely spent showing the contrast between these worlds, and these two Spiders. Spider begins as an isolationist, army jacket wearing, hair down past his butt, hillbilly, but by the end of the issue has assumed his city persona (in part due to an accident with the shower singeing off all his hair):
Spider takes a job at The Word, the city’s most prominent newspaper, under the direction of his old friend and editor Mitchell Royce. His first column focuses on the transients, a group of humans who have chosen to change their DNA with that of an alien species (who look like the typical “grays” we see in sci-fi). They are no longer content in their human bodies, and wish instead to become their true identity, in this case an alien species. The transients have specific needs that the Civic Center is unwilling to provide, and so the transients (under the direction of a former band manager, Fred Christ), congregate in the Angels 8 district and declare their desire to secede from the city. The non-violent movement is quickly marred when someone pays off a few transients to start a riot, which gives the Civic Center the excuse they need to respond with deadly force, with Spider caught in the middle beaming the story out to the public from the roof of a strip club.
This situation has parallels with trans-gendered rights. The transients want equal treatment by the Civic Center, opportunities to get jobs, accommodation for changing dietary needs, basic “human” rights and equal treatment. Trans-gendered Americans have faced discrimination in the workplace, in the military, from businesses, and even from using the bathroom of their gender. But in the case of the transients, it’s the case of a civil rights battle gone wrong, escalating tensions between protesters and police.
Admittedly, Transmet is written from a strongly anti-authority viewpoint, as we see both in Spider’s behavior toward people in authority, and the cop’s eager enthusiasm to use violence. The acts of violence that happen in the police shootings of today and in the riot response of Transmet may both come from a place of fear for a cop’s safety. But in Transmet there is an enjoyment of violent behavior by the cops, an animistic jungle mentality, as if they were looking for an excuse rather than acting for their own protection. But given the number and character of police involved shootings in the world today, it is important to consider if implicit bias, or even an inclination toward violent behavior is involved.
Spider’s McAvoy moment is in his account of the violence below. Unbeknown to Spider, his editor has sold the live feed of his column (equivalent to a live tweet session being re-tweeted today), putting Spider’s words on screens around the city. While Spider recounts the violence and how it came to be, he turns the situation back on the reader and raises the issue of their accountability in the situation:
“Enjoying this? You like the way I describe disgusting shit happening to people you probably walked past in the street last week? Good. You earned it. With your silence.”
“I’m sorry. Is that too harsh an observation for you? Does that sound too much like the Truth? Fuck you. If anyone in this shithole city gave [a damn, though stated far more colorfully] about Truth, this wouldn’t be happening.” ~ Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan Issue #3)
Spider’s live feed actually affects the real world, forcing the Civic Center to recall the cops. This is the thesis of Transmet, that someone getting the truth out there can change the world. And that our own desire not to listen to the truth is what is responsible for a lot of the awful things that happen in the world.
Personally, I find myself more in the camp of not listening to the truth, not out of a desire to live in my own reality, but more born of the need to live my life on a day-to-day basis at all. The majority of the time spent not with wife or work is spent on writing my next non-fiction book, which requires a lot of heavy math research and programming time. I don’t make a lot of room in my head for the terrible things happening in the world, and I certainly don’t do a lot to go out into the world and try to change them. Individually this isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but when all of us do it then the world becomes a darker place. It’s the old saw of “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Spider’s no saint, and he certainly isn’t politically correct. He doesn’t see the transient movement so much as a matter of identity, but more as fashion choice. He uses violence when he feels it appropriate to get to the heart of a story, beating his way past barricades. But the motive for much of his seemingly abhorrent actions seems to be to get this movement to take what they’re doing seriously, to warn them of the consequences of their actions and how others will perceive them. If the Trump campaign has taught us nothing it has taught us that we are not as tolerant as we think we are. People are still scared and are looking for someone to blame, and in this story the transient movement just made themselves easy targets for that blame.
The rest of the volume centers around stories designed to introduce us to the world of the city, something that will continue into volume 2. In a moment mirroring Hunter Thompson’s (on whom Spider is partly based) encounter with George McGovern in a bathroom, Spider finds the President (who he refers to as “the beast”) in a bathroom as well.
“The Beast” is clearly patterned after Richard Nixon, an enemy of Thompson, and Spider has a rather unique way of speaking truth to power during the encounter (through the use of a bowel disrupter, a favored weapon of Spider’s). We’ll get into “The Beast’s” philosophy of governance when we cover volume 4, but this little tidbit from earlier in the story caught my eye on a second read:
Candidate Trump has been similarly accused of using funds from the Trump Foundation to buy paintings of himself and to settle legal disputes to the point that the New York attorney general ordered the foundation to cease soliciting funds. Trump is hardly alone in this, and one does wonder if at some point the distinction between money for the campaign and money for the candidate will be as finely drawn as it is now. Trump’s a little more despicable in that these were charitable donations, but the song’s basically the same, just the lyrics are different.
Issue 5 finds Spider spending the day watching TV, buying “Air Jesus” sneakers, calling into talk shows, and being hit with a subliminal “ad bomb.” Commercials in our dreams is a truly frightening notion. Issue 6 is the weakest of the volume in my opinion, as Spider has his own “Jesus in the temple” moment at a convention for new religions. Transmet doesn’t have much to offer on religion other than seeing it as another area to distrust authority, but thankfully it isn’t really the focus of many issues.
To be honest, the Spider of early Transmet is more cartoon than person. There are glimpses of the Spider who we come to know and love by Volume 3, the moment on the roof is a defining one for the rest of the series. But I found myself having a difficult time deciding whether or not I should go forward after this point. I read the first volume, put it down for about six months, read it again, then devoured the rest of the series in short order. It has a lot of things running against in content and violence at first, but as Warren Ellis (the author) got a better handle on Spider’s character rather than caricature, we begin to see a driven man willing to do whatever it takes to get the truth out to people. And we see the best of what sci-fi has to offer in dealing with the issues of today in a future setting. That’s why this series is one of my favorites, but not one I keep on my shelves instead living only in the digital recesses of my Kindle.
Hell, Patrick Stewart liked it so much he wanted to play Spider in a TV/Film adaptation (sadly never to be), and he wrote the intro to Volume 5. If it’s good enough for Picard, it’s good enough for me.
We’ll continue with the marathon probably Tuesday with Volume 2, Lust For Life.