Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Reading: Transmetropolitan (****/****)

Title: Transmetropolitan
Writer: Warren Ellis
Artist: Darick Robertson
Letterer: Clem Robins

I figure I should start a ratings system for these things. Four stars (****) is the highest, zero (-) is the lowest.

I'm also going to break my own rule here and post about a series before finishing all current issues. Transmetropolitan finished its run in 2002, and the rest of the series is waiting for me at the library; but I find that I just cannot contain myself. I want to leap onto tall buildings and hold this book up to the sky like Moses. I want to accost random people on the street and force them to read its pages. I want to get a three-eyed smiley face tattooed on my butt.

In case you haven't picked up on it yet, I really, really, really like this series.

I think a fair chunk of that adoration springs from a childhood spent reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The two works share a wry, cynical view of the world tempered by a weary kind of love; mankind, they seem to say, would be a wonderful thing if we weren't such a bunch of apes.

The protagonist of Transmetropolitan is Spider Jerusalem, a futuristic journalist who looks and acts like Hunter S. Thompson by way of Ford Prefect. He lives in a cluttered, filthy metropolis that's over-populated, over-stimulated, and under-informed. Jerusalem aims to fix the last of those problems with biting commentary that, surprise surprise, could just as easily be aimed at our current version of America.

Dystopian narratives are a dime a dozen, but writer Warren Ellis really put the work into this one and it shows. At first glance it's an imaginative playground, fun but harmless, until Ellis starts to pick it apart in his newspaper columns, examining each piece of the puzzle until we can trace its roots back to our own social triumphs and failures.

As our tour guide, Jerusalem is a misanthrope full of cigarette smoke, drugs, and cheap coffee who nonetheless is one of the last kind souls around. Driven to find "The Truth," he often champions the weak, the poor, those who this society (and ours) has neither the time nor the inclination to care about. No one is safe from Jerusalem's barbs (the name is obviously meant to evoke some kind of religious prophet, a situation that Jerusalem would probably both hate and love). He despises abusive authority figures most of all, and police brutality is a common thread, as is the incompetence or outright evil of our political leaders. Much of the main plot is driven by Spider Jerusalem's public duels with presidential candidate The Smiler. Jerusalem amasses enemies like a figurine collector, each more treasured than the last; but fate demands that sooner or later, it'll catch up to him.

Transmetropolitan is beautifully, wonderfully, refreshingly free of some modern prejudices. When a (beautiful, professional, Asian) woman turns down Jerusalem's advances by explaining that she's a lesbian, Jerusalem's only response is a rueful, "Oh, well," then some self-abuse of his dick (and not the way you think). As others have noted, Ellis is -- be still my heart -- a well-respected gay-positive figure in the world of comic books, and it shows in his work. (Apparently Ellis also created a gay superhero couple, Midnighter and Apollo. I've never been that big on superheros -- generally BECAUSE I knew there would be few queer- or female-positive storylines to be had in that line of comics -- but I'm gonna have to check it out.) If racism, homophobia, and sexism were bullets, Ellis would be like Neo in the Matrix, bending and twisting to dodge those motherfuckers. If any of them have scored a hit yet, I haven't noticed.

Nothing is done casually in Transmetropolitan. Everything has meaning, even (especially) the acts of violence that Ellis uses sparingly and gives actual weight to. I read thought in every single panel of every single page, and that is a rare thing indeed.

My absolute favorite parts of the series, though, okay, the things that have me all gleeful: Channon Yarrow and Yelena Rossini, the two assistants that Spider's newspaper provides for him. Admittedly, Channon's introduction is as a stripper and Yelena's is as a monosyllabic sourpuss; but we go on to discover that Channon was stripping her way through journalism school and is also a physical badass, and Yelena is just as whip-sharp as Spider Jerusalem. They both start out hating him, but come around to being his only loyal allies, while still having their own lives and goals. And best of all, they're shown to be friends with each other, frequenting male strip clubs, laughing as they run through the rain, and beating the shit out of small-time journos who try to stiff them out of payment for an interview with Jerusalem. Individually they are great, refreshing female characters; together, they are awesomeness personified.

I've read through the first four collected volumes and the first issue of volume five. I almost don't want to read further; I want to always imagine Spider, Channon, and Yelena cooped up in their apartment together, Spider spitting his prophet-poison from high above the city while Yelena rolls her eyes and Channon beats the crap out of some assassin out to get Spider.

Don't kill my dreams, man.

Listening to: "Souretsu" by Shiina Ringo
Reading: Volume 5 of this
Playing: "When the Levees Break" by Zep

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