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.