Online Edition: Fall 2004

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Transmetropolitan: One More Time

Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson, Rodney Ramos, et al.

Vertigo/DC Comics ($14.95)

by Rudi Dornemann

A comic about a gonzo journalist in a grim but not quite dystopian future, Transmetropolitan has managed to be unique in a field where uniqueness is more often aspired to than achieved. One More Time, the tenth and final graphic novel collection, is too dependent on the rest of the series to stand on its own, but it's a dynamic conclusion to the story that Warren Ellis and his cabal set out to tell—and an apt reminder of just how good the whole is, a case study in how to employ and/or subvert genre conventions and constraints to the best advantage of the work at hand.

During the time he was writing Transmetropolitan, Ellis was also writing a weekly internet column, later collected in the book Come in Alone. In one installment, titled "The Old Bastard's Manifesto," he laid out his credo of how comics should be done. One point rejects the notion that comics' nature is to be an ever-ongoing serial: "The graphic novel," he writes, "is the optimized form of 'comics.' Comics are not 'habitual entertainment' that need to remain static and require broadcasting regularly until death do us part... Comics, like their related media of novels and cinema, must be allowed to tell complete stories."

The average length of these "complete stories"—at least the somewhat quirky, more or less creator-driven sort in which DC's Vertigo imprint has come to specialize—seems to be about 60 to 70 issues. The standard practice that's evolved is to group these issues into story arcs and issue these collections as graphic novels. So there's still a form of serialization going on; however, since graphic novels have a much longer shelf-life than monthly comics, the long-term reader is more likely to encounter Transmetropolitan as a sequence of ten graphic novels rather than a series of 60 individual comic books. Thus, a comic like Transmetropolitan, unfolding over a period of five of six years of monthly issues, has roughly the same pop-cultural life-span as a reasonably successful television show. The process of being collected and issued in graphic novel form is roughly analogous to a TV show being issued season-by-season on DVD.

What sets Transmetropolitan apart from most series—either in television on in the comics—is that Ellis and his collaborators have used the dimensions of the 60-issue/10 graphic novel format to present one carefully constructed narrative. One More Time points up the nature of this long arc by providing a conclusive ending, not only pulling together the various plot threads in Spider Jerusalem's struggle against the President of the United States, but also rounding out the stories of several secondary characters and bringing Spider's journey full circle. Some of the earlier collected volumes contain what originally seemed to be standalone short stories illustrating facets of the comic's future world—vignettes in which both the art and writing are at their most lyrical. In One More Time (and the preceding graphic novel collection, The Cure), however, these apparent detours prove to be necessary parts of the overall story.

Another thing that's unique about Transmetropolitan is the stability of the art team over the life of the comic: penciller Darick Robertson is credited as Ellis's co-creator and sees the book through from start to finish; Rodney Ramos inks the vast majority of the stories; colorist Nathan Eyring and letterer Clem Robins are constant presences. In an industry where art teams tend to shift frequently, this is remarkable. It creates challenges for the artists—there are only so many ways to draw Spider's bald, tattooed, black-suited figure—but it also allows for more nuance, since small changes in a character's expression, posture, and gestures will read more easily against a background of a thousand earlier drawings of the same character. Since we see the world consistently through the same eyes, the comic's world is all the more solid; since characters and settings aren't reinterpreted by different hands, the resulting artistic unity reinforces the strange familiarity of the book's future city setting.

That setting is key to the work's story and success: Transmetropolitan takes place at some indeterminate point in the next few hundred years—far enough into the future to allow some fairly extreme technology but near enough that the recurring tropes of politics, media, and urban life retain their familiar contours. It's worth mentioning here that, give or take the occasional origin story maguffin (e.g., an exploding home planet or radioactive spider bite), there's relatively little science fiction in comics—at least science fiction of the extrapolate - present - social - and - technological - trends - and - imagine - what - life - in - such - a - future - would - really - be - like variety. That Transmetropolitan has a fair amount of such speculation embedded into its setting—and therefore integrated in its plot—is another element that sets the series apart from the usual.

To be sure, a great deal of the city that's Spider's loathed and beloved home is an exaggerated version of New York, often satirically so. This is a world where artificially intelligent home appliances can become addicted to drugs, where you can buy cloned human flesh fast food, and where you can modify your body at the level of DNA to become literally alien. But Transmetropolitan's future isn't just a more extreme version of the present. However magical the technology, Ellis is careful to enmesh its use in concentric circles of cause and effect—for example, while Spider can break open a capsule of "source gas" that will allow him to walk into an interview without any visible recording devices and still transmit the conversation to nearby recorders, the politicians who are his quarry are capable of blocking the transmission, if they happen to be watching for it.

Another sign of Ellis's science-fictional savvy is his being unafraid to take the trend of minaturization—what Buckminster Fuller used to call "ephemeralization"—to extremes, even when such extrapolating leaves him without a gadget or prop. This is a risky move in a visual medium. It doesn't seem too radical when Spider's assistants take pills that will give them a "cancer trait" so that they can smoke with impunity, but when he uses a "phone trait" so that he can make phone calls without the aid of a mechanical device, we see conversations in which the only reason we know that the people talking in adjacent panels are talking to each other is the conversation itself. This technique requires intelligent and attentive readers—and shows that Ellis and Robertson expect and encourage such readers.

Such expectations are a far cry from the level at which most superhero fare is pitched, but that doesn't mean Transmetropolitan has nothing in common with superhero comics. Later in "The Old Bastard's Manifesto," Ellis writes: "Rip from their steaming corpses the things that led superhero comics to dominate the medium—the mad energy, the astonishing visuals, the fetishism, whatever—and apply them to the telling of stories in other genres." In Transmetropolitan, he puts this strategy into action. Spider Jerusalem doesn't dress in tights, but with his black clothes and tattoos, his appearance is nearly as iconic as any superhero's. Spider's glasses, with a rectangular green lens and a round red one, are so recognizably part of his image, and so perfect for merchandising, that one scene in the comic has Spider stumbling into a crowd of his fans who've bought replica glasses. And it isn't hard to see Spider's assistant Yelena and bodyguard Channon as sidekicks in the classic superhero comic mode—at least on the surface, since Spider often addresses them as a mentor. The relationship is more complex, however, since Ellis makes it quite clear that Spider would be unable to function without the women's support.

Another superhero comic staple is the arch-nemesis, a role filled by the politician Spider nicknames "The Smiler." In name and appearance, The Smiler echoes Batman's arch-enemy The Joker—and with a bit of imagination, one can see Transmetropolitan's plot as a riff on Frank Miller's re-envisioning of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. Both comics follow the return of a main character who had retired from the world in which they were previously active; both Batman and Spider are afflicted with a life-threatening illness near the end of the story; both comics feature an urban milieu that's central to the action, but end in an idyllicized non-urban retreat. Where Miller intercuts a chorus of television news talking heads as a counterpoint to his vigilante's activities, Ellis's hero has a more intimate connection to the wash of television images which he alternately culls, contributes to, or recoils from. In terms of "mad energy," Spider is presented as both verbally and physically kinetic—we don't just see him pacing in writerly fashion, but running down the street on the roofs of cars, or dashing up to a rooftop to dash off a column. Yet ultimately it's Spider's words and what they represent that charm—he is, after all, a writer, and words are both his livelihood and his lifeblood.

This brings us to what is perhaps Transmetropolitan's crowning achievement: aware that an information age calls for information heroes, Ellis and his collaborators present a vision of the journalist as hero. In a time of highly publicized story-fabricating scandals and the increasing partisan polarization of news, the journalist as a character who's not only sympathetic, but potentially heroic, is more and more difficult. Still, that's what Transmetropolitan delivers. Spider Jerusalem is cynical enough to see through the spin, half-truths, and disinformation, but (beneath his crazed/manic/gonzo exterior) still caring enough to act. The stories he uncovers—with their glib, hollow, ruthless politicians, their extremes of degradation and insulated privilege, and their lifelike sense of ambiguity—are both wildly fictional exaggerations and naggingly true to life. The plot, of course, is constructed so that Spider can save the world—or lose it—but he has no special powers beyond the ability to see the world and communicate his vision. In One More Time in particular and Transmetropolitan as a whole, Ellis, Robertson, and their talented crew demonstrate that they also have these abilities—and that they, too, will use them in the service of the truth.

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Fall 2004 Table of Contents