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It’s the future, but nobody actually knows what year it is. Humans are mass-cloned and sold as fast food (or occasionally as fresh-faced politicians), extraterrestrial life has become a fashion statement, and universal matter replicators not only exist, they can get hooked on their own manufactured drugs. Income inequality and health problems are covered over by slick public relations and short attention spans. Climate change has led to the rise of city-destroying superstorms. And telling the truth at the right time can change the world. Welcome to the silly, serious, cynical, and idealistic world of Transmetropolitan.
Telling the truth at the right time can change the world
From 1997 to 2002, Warren Ellis delivered one of the most focused and fascinating comic series of all time. Transmetropolitan has an uncanny knack for blending anvil-heavy political commentary, eerily prescient story arcs, and pure fantasy into something that feels both timeless and ripped from the headlines. Following the life of renegade journalist Spider Jerusalem — who writes like Hunter S. Thompson and looks like Michel Foucault — you’ll find missives on transhumanism, poverty, writing, religion, and social movements: its political homages are probably the only reason I know about Nixon’s Checkers speech.
Ellis’ writing is set off by artist Darick Robertson, whose detailed and outsized work perfectly captures the weird city of Transmetropolitan. I’m the sort of person who can barely remember the artists of most comics, but Robertson’s wild, expressive characters are a big part of what keeps me coming back. And every time I do, I’m struck by how soulful the series really is. Potentially throwaway ideas — like the fact that while cryonic preservation does effectively let people rise from the dead, it leaves them woefully unprepared for the new world — become full story arcs about the value of the past, and even scatological running gags ultimately get their place in Spider’s fight against social and political corruption.
The City's denizens are like you or me — if we were half-alien cannibals with two-headed pets
Given its often straightforward fight-for-justice story arcs, the series could easily have turned into a flat dystopia or an endless cavalcade of unstoppable heroes and nefarious villains. But Ellis explores chinks in his characters' armor, revealing their loneliness and doubt. Likewise, no matter how dark the world gets, it remains vibrant and alive. The City isn’t a totalitarian state or consumerist wasteland but a place full of people just like you or me — if we were half-alien cannibals with two-headed pets — and like any good journalist, Spider Jerusalem shows us their lives and struggles.
Transmetropolitan does what DC's Vertigo imprint did best in its prime: take high-minded concepts and transplant them into the two-fisted world of pulp comics. For writers, it’s a bit of a power fantasy — I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I will never stop a riot with a blog post or attack a recalcitrant source with the "chair leg of truth" — but it’s also both a celebration and an indictment of a world gone beautifully, hilariously mad.