Pulp Consumption: Transmetropolitan

The hot property of the moment in the nerdosphere is The Boys, because of Amazon’s adaptation currently streaming on Prime. I’m going to sit on it for a bit simply because I’m trying to adhere to the old principle of “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I will revisit that property in a couple of weeks, when I can try to be a bit more objective.

[While you wait for that, my short take is you should read the comics series.]

So, instead I’ll tackle an older comics property, but one that was also a satirical takedown of contemporary society: Transmetropolitan.

Cover of Transmetropolitan's first trade paperback. Spider Jerusalem, a bald man in a black blazer with no shirt wears mismatched sunglasses and holds a smoking cigarette while standing on a decrepit city sidewalk.

Warren Ellis, one of DC Comics hottest properties during the Vertigo era (and no slouch as a writer today), is no stranger to discussion between Matt and I, and has been mentioned in other articles, most recently in the discussion on the Castlevania franchise. Well, he’s back featuring for us again, as he was the creator and writer of Transmetropolitan. I can’t really sing his praises enough to justify more than a simple “Read Warren Ellis,” so that’s all I’m going to say about him. Read Warren Ellis.

Transmetropolitan is the story of Spider Jerusalem, a gonzo journalist in a future US where gene splicing leads to humans taking on alien characteristics, where the future of news seems like yesterday’s history to us, where a heroic independent journalist tries to sink the censored narrative of a corrupt populist President whose goals are self-aggrandizement and personal gain. Spider Jerusalem is a Hunter S. Thompson analogue, immersing himself in the stories he writes about. He knows many of the main players in his stories personally. Some are old friends who’ve lost their way, but others have always been scummy lowlifes. Not that scummy lowlifes are necessarily antithetical to Spider’s personal friends list, as he certainly moves about the underclass with personal connections, but his tastes are decidedly more upscale, and the fees he charges for his writing elevate his economic status well above the average citizen.

If you read the Wikipedia page, the first sentence describes the series as being “cyberpunk transhumanist,” two buzzwords that still get bandied about today in popular culture. It seems like every day we move a little closer in the direction of the future described by Ellis and wonderfully illustrated by Darick Robertson.[1]

Picture of Spider Jerusalem shaggy-haired and bearded, stuffing a statue of a sumo wrestler into the trunk of a taxi.

The first collected trade paperback of Transmetropolitan seems like a string of one-off stories as Spider comes back into the world of journalism after a five year break from modern life. The first issue has him with long shaggy hair living a hermetic life in an isolated hut in the mountains, but a mishap with a shower leaves him completely hairless. That’s notsomuch a character trait that says much about him, as the rest of his existence is pretty well unclean, including drugs, alcohol, womanizing, prostitution, and general lifestyle habits that a prudish person might consider degenerate. If he wasn’t right about the politically corrupt machinations of the ruling class, you’d likely consider him to be an enemy of the state, which works to the advantage of those in power, leaving Spider on the margins.

That’s about where I’ll leave off story bites because it’s worth picking up the TPBs and reading on your own.

While the series is clearly an inheritor of pulp from a literal standpoint (comics following on from pulp magazines), the visual thematics are more akin to someone like William Gibson or Neal Stephenson. That’s not to say the pulp connection ends at the printed medium, because the cataloging of the underclass as it deals with corruption, particularly by those in uniform, has clear antecedents in the hard-boiled detective works of the 1930s and 40s. Realistically, if you strip out the cyberpunk aesthetics, Transmetropolitan has more in common with Chandler, Hammett, or Gardner[2] than anything Bruce Sterling or Cory Doctorow have produced.


[1] Keep Darick Robertson in mind, because when I do finally write the article about The Boys, he’ll pop up again.

[2] Gardner is mentioned in William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, and has been mentioned by us in the past.

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