I’ll preface this by saying that I’ve never been much of a comic book freak. I had childhood flirtations with X-Men, Spiderman, and, of course, Wolverine, but it didn’t take long for me to grow out of them. The rampant use of dues ex machina, the soap opera relationships, and the sometimes unintelligible back-stories and tie-ins quickly had me throwing up my hands in despair at the superhero genre altogether. It was actually William Blake that wooed me back, half-unwilling, to the pages of story told with pictures. So, now I’m discovering late a bunch of comics that lots of people like me probably never discovered at all.
One of the first books I read upon returning to the fold was Transmetropolitan, and it’s still one of the best. Think Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Blade Runner. Spider Jerusalem, a drug-addled gonzo journalist of the future is forced out of seclusion by his publishers. Armed only with his laptop, a pair of camera-glasses and a ray-gun called “the bowel disruptor” (which does pretty much what it sounds like) Jerusalem proceeds to rampage all over the dystopian city of the future, culminating in a battle of words with two corrupt presidents.
The story, characters, and art are simultaneously engrossing and gross; I think there’s more vomit than sex in the series, which I know isn’t selling it, but there’s something less cheap about vomit in a comic book. I mean, I don’t often hear people exclaim, “That’s just how it is: vomit sells! We need more vomit!” But bowel-disruptors and other ejaculations from various orifices aside, the story pulls you in with a coherent over-arching plot bedecked now and again with amusing side-shows that are expertly interwoven back into the main line by the end of the series. Oh, and that’s another thing going for it: this series knew how to end. I don’t know if the creators had the ending in mind from the beginning, but it reads like they did, like a satisfying novel rather than a rambling attempt to end every little stint with a cliffhanger and see how long they could drag me along.
Jerusalem himself is also surprisingly coherent (as a character, not as a person). He’s a little schizophrenic, but one passably assumes that this is due to his steady diet of unnamed narcotics and not due to unimaginative writers forcing their characters into bizarre molds to fit whatever absurd story happened to occur to them on that particular day. And, though he’s not even super-likable, which I always found likable in hero, you still find yourself rooting for him most of the time.
Meanwhile, throughout the series the writers use their darkly comical vision of the future to deal ironically with issues both real and invented. Corporate corruption allows the use of information pollen, a kind of biological advertising agent that causes incurable degenerative mental diseases. The perpetual absurdity of our party system is personified in the Evil and Eviler Presidential candidates, one of whom is modeled after Nixon, the other of whom masturbates into an American flag while editing the Constitution. Gender issues are dealt with by way of the transient movement, a group of social outcasts who splice their genes with that of aliens to transform their bodies. The preservation of culture in the face of progress is accomplished through a system of “Reservations” in which people sacrifice modernity to constantly reenact otherwise extinct forms of human culture. And, perhaps most hilariously, the apathetic attempts to rehabilitate thawed cryogenic refugees mock our desire to forget our cities’ least desirable occupants. It’s all there, and it’s all funny, and most of it is pretty smart.
Perhaps the coup of this book, though, was the fact that Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise, bitches!) expressed an interest to the writers in playing the aging Jerusalem in an as-yet-undeveloped movie adaptation. I don’t know about anyone else, but the thought of Stewart playing a sex-crazed, drug addled, cyberpunk Hunter S. Thompson gets my geekdar pinging… Although, with our luck, the movie would just be picked up by JJ Abrams, Stewart replaced with Tom Cruise, and all the vomit would just be CGI glittering with lens flare. But we can still dream.