Transmetropolitan and the Shape of Modern Politics

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It’s been nearly a year since the facade of leadership and guidance on behalf of the United States’ federal government was stripped away. Now we can see the political machine’s moving parts underneath, and it looks like the gears and pulleys are mismatched, following a design different from what was originally intended. In case you’re not in the loop for whatever reason (unfortunately, until this week, we hadn’t been running any Last Week in Cyberpunk articles for a while), since we’ve elected the world’s most dangerous and personally underdeveloped figurehead into office, the circus that’s come as a result has always seemed to side with hate groups and corporate interests over concerned, average individuals on matters of importance. Hardly surprising, seeing as our current wannabe fascist dictator isn’t even hiding the fact that he only cares about his own financial gain. Last year, we saw rednecks try to legalize murder in the face of basic human freedoms, the near-deaths of net neutrality and any semblance of non-privatized healthcare, Disney’s acquisition of Fox–which I personally find very foreboding–and in its dying breaths, a federal budget that, at its very best, acts as a band-aid to the potential economic crises we face.

Academics, nerds, and fans of dystopian literature like you and I over the past year have taken to the internet, screaming in all caps that our world is now Fahrenheit 451, which actively uses screens to quell social interaction and intellectualism. It’s Idiocracya world so aimlessly reliant on technology and mindless entertainment that basic knowledge is no longer afforded to us and our choices of presidential material are whittled down to the most popular instead of the most capable. It’s Brazilit’s 1984it’s Black Mirror’s “The Waldo Moment”. It’s all of these things that the authors have been warning us for decades was going to happen, but we didn’t listen.

It’s Transmetropolitan.

spider jerusalem transmetropolitan lust for life
“If you loved me, you’d all kill yourselves today.”

A Quick Summary

I read Warren Ellis’ frighteningly prescient comic series last fall, and I have to say that it seems to only grow in relevance as time goes on. Published by Vertigo from 1998 to 2003, Transmetropolitan is the portrait of Spider Jerusalem’s world, the America of some 200 years from now–no one seems to know the exact year. Spider, a misanthropic, malicious journalist living in a secluded mountain fortress, finds himself unable to produce material for his book contract and is summarily forced back into society. He does this by way of the City, an urban sprawl that is never specified where it is in a geographical sense, but can be gleaned from hints is the evolution of the Northeast Megalopolis. (And by the way, megalopolises are a real thing now.) The City is almost a character in and of itself, populated by an overstimulating world pulled in a million different directions by factions preaching opposing doctrines, resulting in extremes of political, religious, and other idealistic nature.

One such extreme is the Transient movement, a group of disenfranchised individuals so fed up with humanity and enamored with a colony of extraterrestrials living in the City’s borders that they undergo genetic modification to transition into this species. This “movement”, as the reader comes to learn, actually more closely resembles a cult, led by a character literally named Fred Christ, whose threats of secession from the City draw the attentions of both Spider Jerusalem and local law enforcement. A riot breaks out, and Jerusalem is there to witness it all, engaging in an inspired moment of gonzo journalism that marks his return as possibly the only voice of truth in a world gone mad.

transient fred christ transmetropolitan
Transient cult leader Fred Christ

After this story arc, Transmetropolitan largely focuses on the upcoming presidential race, which largely hinges on winning over the City’s populace. Term limits seem to have been abolished, and in office is a character known as the “Beast”, whose appearance and personality have been inspired directly by Richard Nixon and almost openly acts purely in his own self-interest. In this election cycle, the Beast faces off against Bob Heller, a blond-haired, blue-eyed conservative dedicated to preserving “America for Americans”, and the “Smiler”, aka Gary Callahan, a photogenic politician that doesn’t appear quite so honest and charming under the microscope that the majority of the nation ignores. While Spider has an outright disdain for the Beast–so much that he uses a weapon known as a bowel disruptor (I’ll leave the details of its capabilities to your imagination) on him on two separate occasions–Gary Callahan’s own underhanded political maneuvering reeks of motivations that might prove to be more dangerous to the world than the Beast’s quest for selfish gains. This theory is confirmed when Callahan secretly arranges the vicious murder of his campaign manager on live television directly before announcing her own candidacy for president. By winning this sympathy vote, the Smiler takes office with no one the wiser, and reveals in private to Spider that his intentions as a national leader lie along the purely psychopathic, to cause as many people as much pain as possible.

gary callahan transmetropolitan spider jerusalem
After all, what’s not to trust about a face like that?

What follows is, essentially, a war waged by Spider, his protégé, Yelena Rossini, and his bodyguard, Channon Yarrow–who by themselves pack enough punk into this sci-fi narrative to warrant the cyberpunk label–and all the underhanded forces the Smiler has at his disposal. Spider is first nearly killed in a massacre instigated by the City’s police during a protest of their mishandling of the investigation of a hate crime (gee, how relevant). Subsequently, he finds himself censored and fired from the publication he works for by the president’s order, forcing him to begin publishing through an underground news site known as the Hole. In response, Callahan attempts to assassinate Spider and his team, and later uses a cataclysmic byproduct of global warming known as a “ruinstorm”–which is so violent that exposure to its extreme conditions is almost guaranteed to be fatal–as a distraction to destroy the evidence Spider collected against Callahan. Spider, however, retrieves a backup drive of this information, and he and the Filthy Assistants with renewed vigor begin to turn the City upside down in order to wear away the last of Callahan’s defenses. In a last-ditch effort to prevent Spider from exposing him as a fraud, Callahan puts the City on lockdown by declaring martial law. But of course, as the City’s residents riot in the streets, Callahan himself is the one to hammer the final nail in his own coffin in a way that I will not describe here because you really should just read it.

spider jerusalem yelena rossini channon yarrow transmetropolitan
Spider and his Filthy Assistants

Analysis

Fuck 1998–Transmetropolitan feels like a story that should have been written today. This isn’t to say that it’s not rife with dated views of the future, constantly attempting to predict near-alien futuristic fashion in a manner that feels so very characteristic of the 1990s, which ultimately have shown more age than simply extrapolating the current trends. But at its core, Transmet is an absurdist comedy, a satire of epic proportions that, while not seeming to attempt to accurately paint a picture of the future cosmetically, manages to capture the essences of the smothering hostility of outside agencies we face on a daily basis. There’s a reason that Warren Ellis’ series has garnered a cult following–it’s Futuramaif Futurama was profane and streaked with its own shit. In fact, one of its most vocal fans is freaking Captain Picard himself, who has been attempting to produce a live-action version for years. (And, if you just so happen to be reading this, Sir Stewart, I don’t care what anybody says–I would probably have a heart attack out of sheer joy if you took on the role of our pill-popping protagonist.)

Patrick Stewart Spider Jerusalem Transmetropolitan
One can only dream.

The City that unfolds from the pages of Transmetropolitan’s issues is an obscenely labyrinthine expanse that seems to consume the whole of human existence, pulled in a million directions at once by an overabundance of ideologies. In the City, a new religion is founded roughly once every half hour, effectively commodifying the individual’s journey toward spiritual enlightenment. It’s been mutated into a spectacle, a manner of defining oneself no more meaningful than purchasing a shiny new sports car. This is best exemplified by issue #6, in which Spider (garbed as a veritable Angel of Truth, complete with tinfoil halo) crashes a god damned religion convention, in which a plethora of creeds are put on display in consecutive booths, peddling grotesque parodies of themselves by highlighting the superficial benefits of joining.

religion convention transmetropolitan

But wait, there’s more: corporations continuously lobby for the legalization of i-pollen, clouds of nanomachines that instantaneously transmit advertisements to the minds of those who inhale it. Of course, i-pollen also causes the unsuspecting victims of this tragic invasion of the solidarity of one’s mind to contract a debilitating disease, resulting in dementia. Therefore, somehow, the lawmaking process at this point is so rapid that i-pollen is only legal for a few minutes at a time. At another point in the series, Spider details stepping in a wad of cancerous goop, wiping it off on his doormat, and witnessing the mutating mass hiss at him. It’s never made clear whether or not if this is hyperbole. In addition to using custom-fit religion and other, more traditional brands to futilely define themselves, the citizens of the City are constantly making their voices heard, but rarely to any meaningful effect.

In the City, absolutely nothing is sacred. Two hundred years or so down the line, most advertisements seem to be aimed solely towards the innate human sex drive. My favorite recurring example is the Sex Puppets, a horrifying caricature of Sesame Street that, from what I can tell, teaches children of the joys of group intercourse. Meanwhile, issue #40 focuses on young children that willingly sell their bodies to adults, and another vignette in issue #25 covers street kids with so little hope for their futures that they get themselves hooked on a physically disfiguring and degenerating drug. Eating cloned human meat is socially acceptable. Even Spider’s mutant cat is never seen without a cigarette in one of its mouths. Of course, there are conservative factions that call for a return to the good ol’ days, but considering some of the members of their ranks literally dress like Hitler, they are clearly not driven by concepts like “compassion” and “humanitarianism”, whatever those may be.

transmetropolitan cat
Spider’s cat

Moderation no longer exists in the world of Transmetropolitan. The rifts between factions grow ever wider, and most interactions between average people are purely transactional in this oversaturated consumerist culture, stripping meaning from almost everything. This is best exemplified by the Revivals–individuals who had themselves cryogenically frozen in the past for any number of reasons, only to be brought back into a world so extreme and uncaring that they can’t comprehend it. These Revivals, in constant shock and terror, end up in what amounts to homeless shelters or on the streets.

transmet revival shelter

Spider himself, while not without compassion for the innocent, is a reflection of this world–a madcap, chain-smoking, constantly-medicated version of Hunter S. Thompson rarely seen without a maniacal grin on his face. He loves the City, but despises nearly everyone in it–constantly we are reminded of his violent misanthropy, ranging from constant threats of giving anyone and everyone a horrible case of diarrhea to literally destroying his ex-wife’s frozen head to prevent her from being brought back to life. In issue #5, Spider spends the entire issue calling in to news stations and other media outlets, spouting furious anti-propaganda and hateful comments before concluding that he “has become television”. (Remember, kids, the late ’90s took place before the internet was the main outlet for trolls.) But despite his drug-addled, rage-induced rampages, Spider values truth over all else, no matter how painful or soul-crushing it might be. Therefore, it’s only fitting that he, crackpot conspiracy theorist that he may be, is the closest thing that his world has to a voice of reason.

The only ideals that Spider–and by extension, I assume, Warren Ellis–seems to hold in high regard are those that drive transhumanism and the preservation of history. In issues #7 and #9 respectively, which sandwich “Another Cold Morning”, the issue that covers the Revivals and neatly transitions between the themes of both, Ellis seems to advocate the evolution of humankind into something greater, while also bemoaning the disconnection we have from our history. Issue #7, “Boyfriend is a Virus”, covers Channon’s cyborg lover who finally takes the last step in his own religion, a version of techno-Buddhism, a process that transfers his consciousness from his body into a cloud of nanoparticles–or foglets–that essentially removes his body’s limits, turning him more or less into a floating, talking, immortal replicator. While Channon is grief-stricken by what might constitute the shittiest way to break up with someone, Spider admires the manner by which a human can evolve while still remaining, essentially, human–which varies from the rest of the world around him, so stagnated by the lack of change to the human condition that humans themselves have taken on inhuman traits. Issue #9, “Wild in the Country”, covers the City’s reservations, which are essentially living museums that are dedicated to preserving periods in history down to the minutest of details. This includes the brutality of societies like that of the ancient Aztecs, who performed human sacrifices. Volunteers have their memories wiped and reprogrammed to fit the times and places of their assigned reservations, and the memories pertaining to all visitors are also wiped. Unfortunately, visitors are few and far between. This lack of self-education in order to distract oneself with lesser pleasures, Spider seems to imply, might be a contributor to the overall meaninglessness of society.

The Politics

Despite Ellis’ leaps to scathing and staggeringly absurd conclusions about the future of consumerist society, one thing that, in an ironic twist of fate, holds up perhaps a little too well is his view of the future of politics. As I stated before, moderation no longer exists–the divides between opposing factions has grown so wide that nothing lies between them, ultimately resulting in a world that has lost all sense of purpose and meaning. No better is this illustrated than by the rat race of politics, in which there are no longer parties defined by terms like “conservative” or “liberal”. Instead, political affiliations are labeled by their alignments or opposition to the party in power, highlighting how pointless idealism in government has become–all that matters is who holds the power. Gary Callahan, who visually represents a twisted version of Jack Kennedy to the Beast’s Nixon, is aligned with the party in opposition and might come off as a “liberal” candidate, but considering his contemporary, Bob Heller, is a poorly-veiled neo-fascist, this might not be the case.

bob heller transmetropolitan hitler
You know you’re doing something right when you’ve got a Hitler in your audience.

Furthermore, the Beast at one point claims that his job as president is to keep as many citizens alive as possible–nothing more. This heartlessly utilitarian outlook might seem like a fair assessment until one couples it with the Beast’s life of debauchery. To him, being president is just a day job with some nice perks. But compared to Callahan, he’s practically a saint–a fact that Spider doesn’t realize until far too late, blinded by his own disdain for the Beast.

The Smiler’s own duplicity is marked by the people he surrounds himself with. One of his advisers, Alan Schact, has controversial ties to an organization that promotes the legalization of pedophilia, and is later exposed as a pedophile himself. In one of the most darkly comedic moments, upon being confronted by his associates with this PR nightmare, Schact declares that there is an obvious solution to the dilemma before promptly blowing his own head off. (I find all of this immensely ironic since the popularity of the aforementioned Sex Puppets is, well, an actual thing in this universe.) Also, Callahan’s running mate is squeaky clean–too clean, in fact. Upon investigation, it turns out that the VP candidate is literally a clone, grown in the weeks prior to the race. And Vita Severn, the Smiler’s campaign manager, while honest and appears to have the makings of a good leader, is killed for outgrowing her role in Callahan’s plan.

Of course, something so sinister and corrupt only serves to usher in a sympathy vote that puts Callahan into office. There are no virtual or augmented realities in Transmet–just the ones fabricated by media outlets and mindless entertainment, spinning mistruths in the manners that are most profitable to publications, or will prevent the government from censoring them with a D-notice, which is supposedly meant to limit the spread of “harmful” or “untrustworthy” journalistic pieces.

It’s almost as though anyone with any measure of power in Transmet is guaranteed, in some way, to be corrupt or easily manipulated, or is otherwise disconnected from the political world. So for the simple-minded voters, when it all comes down to election day, well, it’s all just a matter of crossing fingers and hoping that whoever gets elected will do the least amount of damage possible.

I hope this is all starting to sound familiar.

Compared to reality, Transmetropolitan might take a couple sci-fi leaps here and there. Not all the pieces fall perfectly into place. But I can’t help but feel that this series resonates with reality in more than a few particularly frustrating ways. There are smaller, more obvious parallels interspersed throughout our current political world, from an actual pedophile’s near reelection into the Alabama Senate seat to the corrupt, two-faced, corporate stoogery brought to you by Paul Ryan, hailing from my own home state of Wisconsin. Larger examples include your run-of-the-mill Democratic nominees for president, more often than not seeming to adhere to hidden agendas behind plastered-on grins. Political parties mean nothing anymore–the Grand Old Party, which prides itself on limiting the size of the federal government, has had its fair share in expanding the size of the federal government. I could go on and on about how our current president represents the absolute worst of what Transmet has to offer–from causing people adhering to hateful and, frankly, outdated beliefs to come out of the woodwork, to barely even concealing his own corruption, to simply acting as a figurehead while megacorps have had their run of the nation’s lawmaking process–but I’ll leave that infuriating mess for you to sort out on your own. If you’re into masochism, that is. And meanwhile, honesty and strength in leadership and mass media seem to be nowhere in sight, because they have no place in the political and journalistic world we’ve made for ourselves.

It’s times like this when I feel I can relate to Spider, as I’m sure you can as well. Constantly self-medicating, writing for an underground website, a deep rage constantly burning inside as I watch the world around me slowly eat itself. Like Spider, I can’t actually change anything. All I can do is write, until the government issues to me its version of a D-notice.

Whatever the case may be, Warren Ellis got the future of politics pretty well spot-on. It just came a couple hundred years sooner than we might have expected. You can experience Transmetropolitan for yourself here.

Oh, and just for the hell of it:

Transmetropolitan – 10/10


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6 Responses to “Transmetropolitan and the Shape of Modern Politics”

  1. Anonymous

    It’s not like Trump’s election suddenly changed everything. The US government has been a consistent enemy of its people for over 200 years. Its power has grown exponentially and unchecked throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, thanks to the machinations of both major political parties (who in reality are merely two wings of the same party).

    Corporations are often criticized (and rightly so) for subverting the political process. Oftentimes left out of these critiques is the government’s (and the politicians’ and others’ employed by it) corrupt willingness to use its power for the corporations’ benefit. If the government didn’t have so much power in the first place, the corporations wouldn’t be seeking to control it and people wouldn’t treat every election like it’s a literal life-or-death struggle.

    The greatest threat to our rights, freedom, and continued prosperity isn’t which politician or political party is in power. It’s the idea that some people should have power over others, and that by banding into a large enough group, that group suddenly gains the right to force its will on others, despite none of the individuals in that group having that right on their own.

    Until people get that through their heads, the government and the corporations it protects will continue to screw us.

  2. Anonymous

    What I mean by “Deep State” is the army of unelected bureaucrats who have spent years, sometimes decades, in the government, and used that time to increase their own and the government’s overall power and push whatever political agenda they support. Most times they’re operating within their own little fiefdoms, but sometimes they coordinate their activities – not necessarily a wide, overarching conspiracy, but more individuals whose goals happen to align. The end result, though, is basically the same. “Multiple independent individuals/agencies arriving at the same tyrannical conclusions” might actually be worse than “sinister shadowy cabal” because there’s less of a centralized structure to dismantle, more hydra than singular “head of the snake.” Your description of the government as a cold-blooded predator is pretty accurate.

    I somewhat agree with your assessment that the individual is shit. People are not, have never been, and never will be perfect. It’s because of this that people shouldn’t be trusted to rule over other people, nor should people be allowed to vote to force their will on others. Power especially attracts the worst sort of people, making its continued existence a risky proposition.

    In political discussions, I try to educate as many people as I can about the NAP – the non-aggression principle. This states that aggression – initiating or threatening force against a peaceful person or that person’s property – is inherently wrong. Most people assume anarchy means “no rules,” when it really means “no rulers.” There’s still rules – everybody must respect everybody else’s fundamental human rights, and vice versa. Obviously, there would be people who wouldn’t adhere to this. Critics assume this would lead to massive gangs led by despotic warlords. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong – Iceland had a thriving anarchistic society during the Middle Ages that lasted almost 300 years, where nearly everything was privatized and handled in a free market.

    I’m not a fan of a “violent rebellion.” I think a civil war in America would be brutal and horrific. I prefer an agorist approach, where the government is forced to withdraw because its functions have been usurped and replaced by underground free-market solutions, starving it of revenue and purpose. This is a peaceful way to accomplish a freer society.

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