Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street

July 15, 2008

For someone who is genuinely prolific — as opposed to someone who uses one idea and spins 10 different titles out of it (no names given to protect the guilty) — Warren Ellis appears to have only Transmetropolitan as his contender for the status of magnum opus. My measure for “magnum opus” here, to be sure, includes originality of ideas, distinctive universe, completeness of plot, an epic length, and anything that makes my claim right. Perhaps, if Ellis would extend The Planetary (I doubt it) or keep going with the excellent Desolation Jones (I doubt it) or do a chapter for all 1,001 characters of Global Frequency (I doubt it), we might get something comparable. As it is, only Transmetropolitan at 60 issues collected in 10 trade paperbacks is as good as it comes.

Most of Ellis’s non-superhero works — Global Frequency, Orbiter, Ministry of Space, Ocean, Fell, the list is very long — may be noted for their restraint, mature characterisation, and healthy social attitude. Then, you get this title which throws a great big spanner into my last line and turns it into complete nonsense. Something of a futuristic dystopia with all its potential for dark humour first seen in a younger Ellis’s Lazarus Churchyard is revived here. The world of its crazy characters leaps out at you like a full-born universe with claws, rabies, and 3 eyes.

What, after all, is a Foglet or a Revival or a Transient or a Church of Christ (no, not that one)? Sigh, here goes, only because I’m dumb enough to have asked the question. A Foglet is one who has downloaded his or her consciousness into a million nano-machines and so exists like a near-omnipotent cloud. A Revival is one who comes back to life in a new body after his or her brain has been cryogenically frozen by a legal enterprise in our 21st century. A Transient belongs to a post-human post-druggie community of body-modifiers who have grafted alien genes onto themselves. And Christ here is Fred Christ, an egoist, to say the least.

Anti-hero Spider Jerusalem, last seen 5 years ago when the story begins, returns to “The City” and for work at its most popular newspaper “The Word” after his self-awarded retirement in the mountains. Through his eyes and foul mouth, we learn why he hates this brave new world of the future so much (and why he secretly loves it as well). Volume 1 is an unusually slim series volume for a Vertigo collection, hinting that it might have been a test case to see whether even mature readers have the stomach for more of what Spider/Ellis dishes out. But every journalist does owe it to himself or herself to read this first installment because it is about both the good journalism can do and the evil it can perpetrate by just that gentle swirl of the pen. With an optimistic high at the end that makes you want to run out and save the world by spamming, Ellis gives a glimpse of a happy resolution that will not happen again for nearly the next 9 volumes — that cheeky git!

Gweek gives this inspiring book 9 swings of the bat.

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