In this year’s Labour Day / Warren Ellis blogpost, we’re going to examine what might be considered his chef d’oeuvre, Transmetropolitan (penciled by Darick Robertson and published in 60 issues from 1997-2002). It’s also probably Ellis’s most overtly political comic, so it comes as no surprise that there are already many texts, even some academic ones, on politics in Transmetropolitan. Most of those focus on the presidential election story arc (with a noticeable spike in 2016, on the occasion of Donald Trump’s candidacy and win), but I’m going to stick to the very first self-contained story which spans issues #1-3, as it already exhibits the main political mechanisms at work here.
The first issue serves mainly to introduce the protagonist, Spider Jerusalem, a journalist writing political columns for a newspaper in an unnamed American city, in a future that seems not too far away (but is apparently supposed to be the 23rd century). In issue #2 he pays the Transient community a visit – humans who, for some reason, chose to have their bodies genetically engineered to gradually take on the shape of aliens. Now these human-alien hybrids “can’t get jobs” and are “forced” to live in the slum quarter Angels 8, according to their leader, Fred Christ. They feel discriminated against by Civic Center (the City government), and their solution is to announce the secession of Angels 8 to the Vilnius Colony, a sovereign alien territory. “The threat of secession will force them to treat us decently”, says Fred.
The Transients erect barricades around Angels 8, but Spider already fears that the police are going to stifle that uprising: “It’s an election year for a law-and-order president. They’ll come in and stamp on your bones, Fred.” And indeed, bombs are thrown at a Transient demonstration, which prompts the police to crack down on the “Transient Riot”. Spider, however, realises what is actually going on in the district. He has witnessed how individual Transients got bribed to incite the riot. Otherwise, “It would never have happened. The Transients were too confused, gutless and dim to start a real confrontation on their own. Until some money changed hands.”
Spider goes to the scene of the crime to report, in a sort of live newsfeed, on the extremely and unnecessarily violent police action, and also to provide his background information on the cause of the riot (“They paid a few Transients off to start some trouble, deliberately marring a non-violent demonstration.”) People read his newsfeed, call Civic Center to complain, and the police are withdrawn from Angels 8 at last.
Comparing this story to the other Ellis comics we have covered here before, we find similarities as well as differences. The major commonality is the ‘abusive government’ trope: while we don’t know for sure whether the bribing lawyers who instigated the riot work for the President, we see the City government personified in the policemen who quash the Transient uprising. Not only do they beat unarmed men, women and children to death, they even enjoy doing it. The big difference to Ellis’s more supernatural and fantastical narratives seems to be that the protagonist who stands up to the government is not a superhero – it’s a journalist. Some people have read Spider Jerusalem’s character as an inspiration for ordinary people to do what they can and make a stand against (Trump’s) government. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that such readings are misinterpreting Spider’s character a little.
Spider Jerusalem is not an ordinary journalist but rather, for all intents and purposes, a kind of superhero. He is the only journalist brave (or mad, as he himself puts it) enough to enter the Angels 8 district. His astounding hand-to-hand combat skills allow him to overcome not only the Transient barricade guard but also two Transient bouncers at once, not to mention his proficiency in operating rocket launchers, hand grenades and handguns. And, perhaps his most superheroic trait: when at the end of the story he gets assaulted by a police squad and severely beaten, he is not intimidated at all – “I’m here to stay! Shoot me and I’ll spit your goddamn bullets back in your face!”
Without Spider, the public would never have learned the truth about the orchestrated Transient riot. Instead, the citizens would have been the CPD’s partners in crime, according to Spider: “You earned it. With your silence. […] Civic Center and the cops do what the fuck they like, and you sit still. […] They do what they like. And what do you do? You pay them.” Without Spider, there would be no critical journalism in the City, only “papers and feedsites that lie to you”.
In Transmetropolitan, there are evil individual politicians, but Ellis makes clear that it’s the complacency of the populace that allows them to thrive. Once more, society on its own is helpless against an oppressive government and needs the ‘strong man’ to protect them.
Due to internet connection problems, The 650-Cent Plague had been on hiatus for some weeks, but now it’s back with another anime-related news item that I just can’t resist to share. In an otherwise serious and sad story, here’s a hilarious detail that doesn’t seem to have been picked up by any other media on the web: last month, the trial of Sascha L. from Northeim (Germany) began, a former supporter of the Islamic State who had built a bomb which he planned to use against German policemen or soldiers. This part of the story is well known and had also been reported in international media (e.g. Washington Post).
The regional daily newspaper, Braunschweiger Zeitung, revealed some details of the court hearing in an article by Johannes Kaufmann in its September 21 issue (not freely available online), including this one (my translation):
By now he [Sascha L.] would have renounced all radical plans, and he would be ready to participate in an opt-out program. Why, then, had he put up a flag of the Islamic State and an oath of allegiance to the ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his cell, assessor Petra Bock-Hamel wanted to know. ‘I don’t like white walls,’ was Sascha L.’s reply. After speaking to a psychologist he would have actually wanted to take the IS flag down, ‘but then there was Dragon Ball Super on television, and unfortunately I forgot about it.’ Later, judicial officers had photographed the walls of his cell – with flag and oath.
Several things are remarkable about Sascha L.’s statement, but the most striking of all is the way in which it is reported in the newspaper article: no explanation at all is given what “Dragon Ball Super” actually is. As comic experts, we know that it is a current anime series by Akira Toriyama, a sequel to his earlier series Dragon Ball / Dragon Ball Z, and even if we haven’t watched it ourselves, we have some idea what Toriyama’s art style looks like and what the story is about. But how many of the newspaper readers would know? One might have expected at least a gloss in brackets such as “… Dragon Ball Super [a Japanese animated series] on television…”, but no more is said about that subject in the article.
By leaving readers in the dark, Kaufmann relegates the nature of the TV show in question to an unimportant aspect – which it most likely is. But there are probably quite a few readers who wonder: what is this TV program that has the power to distract viewers from important tasks? And is there something about this Dragon Ball Super show that makes it particularly appealing to islamists? Then again, maybe we should be thankful for every moral panic that did not happen. One can all too easily imagine alternative newspaper headlines for the same subject along the lines of: “JAPANESE CARTOON CREATES ISLAMIST BOMBERS”…
Speaking of Joe Sacco, there is a Sacco exhibition currently shown at Cartoonmuseum Basel until April 24. There is a lot to see there: the exhibition starts with original drawings from Sacco’s early comics, of which I found the juxtaposition of a “Zachary Mindbiscuit” story from 1987 and “More Women, More Children, More Quickly” from 1990 (both unpublished until the 2003 collection Notes From A Defeatist) the most interesting. While already an accomplished draughtsman in 1987, it wasn’t until “More Women…” that Sacco started positioning his caption boxes in oblique angles, which would become one of his trademarks.
Sacco’s main works, Palestine, Safe Area Goražde and Footnotes in Gaza, are all represented through original drawings (10 episodes from Palestine alone) as well. Another fascinating exhibit in this context is an arrangement of Sacco’s notebooks and reference photographs, next to the corresponding pages from the published comic. It becomes clear that while he gathered plenty of material, he took some liberties when it came to making a comic out of them – particularly in Footnotes, in which he re-imagines events that happened 50 years ago.
Insights into Sacco’s work process can be also gained from three short documentary films displayed on a screen (6 minutes in total), produced in 2011 by Portland Monthly and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry: “Reporting from the field”, “Tools of the trade” and “Inspiration of Robert Crumb” (also available online). Another section of the exhibition traces the history of comics journalism before Sacco by way of “special artists” and reportage drawing from the 19th century on.
There is some more original art on display from Sacco’s more recent comics, which I’m not too crazy about. In the museum’s library, all of Sacco’s published works can be read in German and English. And then there’s another sensational exhibit: The Great War from 2013 (or 2014, according to the museum), in which Sacco tells the events of one day of a British military unit in WWI. The publication is subtitled An Illustrated Panorama, but I gather it comes in the form of a leporello (“accordion”) book. In the exhibition it is arranged in a semicircle. Not a comic, strictly speaking, but definitely an eye-catcher.
In an exhibition leaflet, Sacco is quoted (my translation): “Journalism is about countering the endless lies, even though it sometimes reiterates them – intentionally or unintentionally.” In this regard, journalism and scholarship are very much alike.
I have already lamented the demise of German manga anthology magazines on this weblog (Daisuki, the last monthly anthology, was cancelled in 2012). But what about journalistic periodicals that write about manga? As far as I know, there are two German-language magazines of potential interest for manga readers: Animania (or “AnimaniA”) and Koneko.
Frequency: every other month
Publisher: Animagine, Hachenburg
Price: €7.80 (DVD edition)
The launch of Animania predates that of Koneko by 10 years: first published in 1994, Animania is probably the earliest German magazine on Japanese pop culture. As the name suggests, its focus is on anime rather than manga. However, on average more than 20 of its pages are exclusively devoted to manga (including artbooks). Additionally, a lot of manga articles refer to their anime adaptations and vice versa. Apart from manga news and reviews, the latest issue (06-07/2013) even contains short interviews with manga authors Tite Kubo, Kanan Minami and Mikiko Ponczeck. Animania covers other areas of Japanese pop culture as well, but not as extensively as Koneko (with the exception of video games, which are given slightly more coverage in the former).
Frequency: every other month
Publisher: raptor, Frankfurt am Main
Price: €4.95 (D)
Koneko covers a lot of different areas of Japanese pop culture, which reduces the space given to manga coverage. A typical issue contains only 13 pages on which manga are the sole subject (although there are many other pages on which manga is one of several subjects). This includes drawing guides, portraits of fan artists, and also 6 pages of a dōjinshi, an original comic submitted by a reader (arranged on 3 magazine pages).
Generally, Koneko seems to reach out more to its readers, the vast majority of which appear to be teenage girls. Animania on the other hand makes a somewhat more mature impression, and is more focused on the anime/manga scene. For this reason I find it more appealing than Koneko, which I would only recommend to someone who is also interested in J-pop. Still, it is a pity that, after the cancellation of MangasZene in 2007, there is no German magazine in which manga are the primary topic, and not just one small part of a purported all-encompassing fandom of Japanese pop culture.