I Hate It Here
That’s the title of the column that gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem writes in Warren Ellis’ comic book series Transmetropolitan. In it he chronicles his continuing crusade against a corrupt and unjust world. A world in an America of the future, a future different from and yet still similar to our own. Transmetropolitan ran from 1997 until 2002, and while much of it can be and was probably intended to be read as a commentary on contemporary society and politics, it remains a powerful and insightful work twenty years later. It portrays a society in which most people keep their head down and try to make a living, a world where people consume media at every moment and yet ignore the real problems in the world. A place where the poor and disabled are segregated away from view, where those whose lifestyles differ from the norm face discrimination and hatred, where politicians lie and toy with the lives of real people, and where the press is silenced by those who fear it. Transmetropolitan portrays an American that is has always existed and seems all the more real now.
It may seem that in describing the world of Transmetropolitan I’ve created a rather bleak image in your mind, and at times it is bleak. At others though, the story of Spider Jerusalem and his continued journalistic exploits can be inspiring, funny, emotional and uplifting. It begins with Spider being called back from a drug and alcohol filled mountain side cabin by the need to fulfill his contractual obligation to publish two books. Returning to The City, a mega-city located in an unspecified part of the United States, he begins working for his old editor Mitchell Royce as a columnist at “The Word”, The City’s largest newspaper. From here Spider along with his assistants Yelena Rossini and Channon Yarrow, begins writing about the inhabitants of The City and the myriad of lives they live.
At first Transmetropolitan features a variety of one-off stories, in one Spider visits a community of people called Transients who use alien DNA to modify themselves into a new species and documents the brutal police response to their protests against discrimination. In another Spider watches the thousands of television channels available to the people of The City, with programs as varied as “Anthrax Cat”, “Sex Puppets” and ads for sneakers that let you walk on water called “Air Jesus”. In the backdrop of these anthology style stories is the continued narrative of the upcoming presidential election. As the series continues it follows this thread with Spider and his assistants working to expose the corruption and crimes of the two presidential candidates.
It’s here that the series goes from being merely very good to being incredible. The incumbent president, almost exclusively referred to as “The Beast”, and his challenger “The Smiler” are embodiment’s of all that is wrong with modern politics. One is a law and order politician who seeks to use the problems of society to divide people and create fear, and the other is an amoral power-hungry man who wants to be president solely to hurt those who have wronged him. As the series continues past the election and towards its conclusion it offers a powerful portrait of the society and people who are shaped by their corrupt and dishonest leaders. It looks at the power structures that hold down those who would dare try to change The City.
In many ways Transmetropolitan’s closest cousin thematically is The Wire, both revolve around a city and those that live it. Much like The Wire, Transmetropolitan explores both those who want to make a difference, to push back against a corrupt and broken system in order to help those hurt by it and those who benefit from and enable that same system. It’s this idea that is echoed in the title of Spider’s column, “I Hate It Here”, a distaste for the world as it is and yet despite all the cynicism of the series, the implicit belief that it can be better. The conclusion Spider and Transmetropolitan reach is one and the same, that it is truth and exposing the misdeeds of those in power that will help us to create a better world, even if only marginally. This culminates in the climax of the series, a triumph of reporting, journalism, truth, bravery and public will on par with any in fiction.
Outside of its expertly written story, Transmetropolitan is spectacular, its dialogue is memorable and leaps off the page. The art work is gripping and truly sucks one into story. It is at times dense with memorable images and other times stark and simple. The action portrayed within its pages feels visceral and gritty. The art beautifully compliments the themes of the series, showing The City as a foreign and frightening place to a woman awoken from cryogenic preservation, emphasizing the poverty and forgotten nature of ghetto, and above all bringing us into the mind of Spider Jerusalem.
Writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson explore fascinating ideas and themes about a world close enough to ours to be recognizable but far enough away to seem alien. Among these are the aforementioned Transient movements, an explosion of new religious movements including one in which people upload their consciousness to a cloud of nanocomputers, and places know as cultural reservations in which people from traditional cultures including Mayan and Tokugawa Japan live. The series touches on important subjects such as LGBT issues, corruption, the influence of the media, censorship, and ethics in ways that are both subtle and mature while never ceasing to tell a compelling story.
Above all of these ideas the one I find myself thinking about most when my mind turns to Transmetropolitan is that of the “New Scum”, an idea that Spider coins in “I Hate It Here”. The idea that there is a group of people left behind by the system, ignored by politicians and told what to believe. That there is a large portion of society who the game is rigged against, the silent people, who won’t be remembered by history except as statistics. The idea that these people, most people, are important, valuable, and should have their stories told. The refugees, the students, people who work long hours just to get by, people who are being left behind, the nameless and faceless in the crowd and who just want to be represented and heard. Maybe this has always been a constant idea, a constant group of people, maybe each generation has its own “New Scum”, and yet in today’s political climate where groups and movements that reflect the idea of the “New Scum” have come to the forefront it feels oddly prescient. Transmetropolitan is not only one of my favorite comics but also one that I consider among the best but even it can’t give us a blueprint to follow to solve the grievances we as the “New Scum” have. No instead it offers us only advice, that we the “New Scum” have to decide for ourselves what kind of society we want instead of allowing others to decide for us and to continue to exploit us.
In the end Transmetropolitan leaves us only with the words of Spider Jerusalem:
“These are the new streets of this city, where the New Scum try to live. You and me. And here in these streets are the things that we want: sex and birth, votes and traits, money and guilt, television and teddy bears. But all we’ve actually got is each other. You decide what that means.”
Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Darick Robertson