It’s become somewhat fashionable, now that we’re actually living in a cyberpunk dystopia, to compare current events to Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan. And to be honest, it’s been a while since I took a look at the book, a comic that changed how I felt about so many things (journalism, cursing) the first time I read it.
It felt like a good time for a reread. I felt I could take some time and a fresh eye and look at the story for those similarities, to see if the regular, periodic comparisons were accurate or if they were just nerd hyperbole. I was impressed at how quick a read it was: the story wasn’t lacking depth, but it was visually concise and told everything the reader needed to know through snappy dialogue, rather than narrative infodumps. With that in mind, I think that some of the comparisons are reasonable (bone-chilling and terrifying and reasonable at the same time), but for the most part, it’s not a direct transposition to current events.
The real world is so much worse.
For those of you who haven’t read it, Transmetropolitan was a series written by Ellis, pencilled by Robertson and inked by Rodney Ramos. It was published by Vertigo from 1997-2002. It followed Spider Jerusalem, a Hunter S. Thompson-if-he-was-British analogue, as he returns to a fictitious cyberpunk City from self-imposed exile, and brings down two Presidential administrations by preaching truth and creative filth to his enthralled audience.
It’s very much a product of its time. It starts out being very much a “pox on both your houses” condemnation of the U.S. political system as a whole, back when that still made sense to do. And it quickly shifted to concerns about civil liberties at a time when the United States (and NATO allies) were waging war without Congressional approval (during the two month bombing campaign of Kosovo); laying the philosophical foundation for an invasion of Iraq in attacking Saddam Hussein’s (in hindsight fictional) nuclear ambitions; the contested mess that the 2000 election turned out to be; and 9/11 and the march to the global, ongoing, perpetual war on terror (and rollbacks in civil liberties) that followed.
It’s a fantastic comic that holds up well as a story for a number of reasons. It’s cyberpunk without the genre’s trademark dinge: Robertson, Ramos, and colorist Nathan Eyring deserve a lot of credit for making a future packed with information overload, but not obscured by smog or gloom or perpetual rain. It’s also genuinely funny. Angry Warren Ellis is gifted at turning the combination of rage, foul language, and body parts into something beautiful. It’s also appropriately cynical, and I think this is where a lot of the comparisons to the present day come from.
No regular character save Jerusalem himself is particularly idealized, though there are generally bright lines between “good guys” and “bad guys.” And even still, Jerusalem takes a beating. He’s monomaniacal, driving people out of his life because of his dedication to his work, and he’s understood to have been an oblivious, insensitive dipshit who has ruined more than a few bystanders lives prior to where the comic picks up. No institution (save one – we’ll get there) is sacred, either: government officials, the police, TV, and democracy itself all catch hell throughout the series. Jerusalem’s unflinching, skeptical eye amplifies the stories of the voiceless at the expense of a self-serving political establishment that will do anything, including regularly murder, to retain power.
That’s where the problems show up.
The only place where Spider (and through him, Ellis) pulls his punches is on the media. There is an acknowledgement that the corporate media is a problem, that the concept of profits before absolute truth inevitably slants coverage. But it’s cursory, and the media is redeemed (or as redeemed as one can get in this comic) by the end when they’re disobeying censorship orders from the Smiler in order to broadcast footage of riots he caused in The City and getting the ball rolling on his inevitable downfall. The media comes through as admirable, pushing through their compromised status because they still cling to the ideals of Truth.
And that’s really the biggest problem with comparing Transmetropolitan with our current situation. Ellis and company operated in a world where Truth was still a thing one could capitalize, some ideal that society collectively agreed on because of piddly shit like visual evidence or scientific consensus. They had no reckoning with a world where the Oxford Dictionary would name “post-truth” their word of the year. They still believed that associating with white supremacists, as Callahan did to win the nomination in the comic, would be something that, once properly exposed, could damage one’s political status, rather than cause an army of professional dissemblers and bullshit artists to head to the 24-hour news networks to haggle over the definition of “white,” “supremacist,” and whether or not the accused white supremacist really meant his white supremacy, or was just being outrageous for clicks.
If Transmetropolitan really were a close analogue to today’s situation, instead of Callahan being brought low by a maniac journalist with the work ethic of fourteen New England Protestants and the drug habits of fourteen Keiths Richards, the Smiler would have killed someone himself, on camera, only to have video of the killing disputed by reprehensible hacks paid by both the 24-hour news network they were on and by the Smiler’s campaign. The same video would be deprioritized by the algorithms of social media networks that value “engagement” over “accuracy” in favor of ten neat tricks to make your feet less unsightly. Then an army of conspiracy theorists and Macedonian shitposters would have created a horde of bots to peddle stories about the Beast ACTUALLY committing treason. A lunatic with a semi-popular web site who thinks fluoride makes your teeth visible to police night vision and that school shootings are false flag hoaxes would have dedicated an entire day to wondering if the Beast was the one who actually killed this individual, and at the end of the day, the Smiler himself would get on his feed account and parrot the same bullshit idiocy.
And when all was said and done, the Smiler would still be sitting in the White House jacking off into a flag and selectively editing the Constitution.
After this election, the idea of a journalist printing something so true, so raw that it changes the course of a political campaign, or a policy rollout, or even the day to day life of someone in power, seems downright pollyannaish.