The gonzo journalism of Transmetropolitan in a cyberpunk setting is our reality.
Transmetropolitan is well known as the seminal cyberpunk comic book series by writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson, published by DC comics (through their Vertigo imprint). Though Transmet concluded its run in 2002 and takes place in the 2300s, the themes of technological alteration of humanity and the rise of totalitarian democracy are extremely relevant to our current political and cultural climate today.
Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem
The Transmetropolitan comic depicts the cigarette-fueled journalistic rampage of Spider Jerusalem, a Hunter S. Thompson inspired curmudgeon. Throughout Spider’s endless quest to expose wrongdoing and agitate those in power, Transmetropolitan shows a cyberpunk dystopia that strikes very close to home.
As far as journalists go, Spider Jerusalem is far from objective, instead preferring to align himself against those in power before having any information.
Thankfully, Spider is aided by high-tech tools such as a diarrhea-inducing ray gun, which he uses to threaten, torment, and defend himself from others. The piece of technology that Spider uses most is his anti-cancer gene modification, which is necessary given his habit of smoking several packs of cigarettes each day. The theme of ubiquitous addiction to various technologies is very reminiscent of our current iPhone-addled culture.
Much like in our current era, hardcore investigative journalists are an endangered species in the world of Transmet. Constantly exposing corruption, oppression, and frequently outright murder, Spider Jerusalem and his “filthy assistants” (his bodyguard and his research assistant) are targeted by those in power, frequently up to and eventually including the president of the United States. This targeting is limited to discrediting at first, although ultimately it becomes clear that the government is conspiring to assassinate the main characters.
The World of Transmetropolitan
Spider frequently gets or disburses his scoops via a dead-drop system on the internet, much like Wikileaks today. When not covering government corruption, Spider wanders the megalopolis in which the story takes place. The megalopolis is clearly a critique of American culture: though egregiously replete with excess and wasted resources, there are many citizens who are homeless and otherwise starving. Everything is permissible within the megalopolis. Child prostitution, explicit violence, glorification of Nazi Germany, all drugs, and extreme apathy about civic matters are all ubiquitous. Consumerism has reached its logical conclusion, and products are bought solely for the purpose of conspicuously consuming them by throwing them directly into the trash compactor.
In Transmet, the power of the individual is bifurcated. Individuals with a modicum of wealth can choose from a galaxy of earthly pleasures and spend their days in the comfort of work and then the bliss of hedonism. Despite this, these same citizens have very little power to influence the world around them, which is owned and operated mostly by corporations. Corporations are allowed to run wild over the citizenry who have no consumer protections. Spider himself is afflicted by a disease caused by a technological form of corporate advertising which is detrimental to human health. Citizens vote, but, in keeping with a totalitarian democracy, their vote is merely a procedural formality required for the next already-powerful person to take the helm of the government-corporate hybrid. If the citizens have no wealth, they live in complete squalor and have no recourse.
Parallels Between Transmetropolitan and Today
The cultural commentary here is a prescient warning: as tradition loses its grasp on human behavior, historical practice of morality does too. As general apathy increases, the extremes of the public condition are exacerbated. A mixed bag of results, to be sure. Amidst technological sophistication, the fact that citizens are starving or forced into prostitution is even more offensive, because as Spider notes, the technology necessary to feed everyone and provide nearly omnipotent medical care has existed for decades. Public apathy and fatalism about the political process prevents re-allocation of resources, and the poor are kept too busy in their daily lives to have a political voice. Of course, these tropes are echoed strongly today–perhaps more strongly than when Warren Ellis wrote Transmet.
The wild inequality of Transmet is very reminiscent of our inequality today. In Transmet, the most oppressed and poor are those who were thawed from cryogenic freezing once the technology to do so was invented. Immigrants from a previous time, the newly thawed are promptly spat onto the street into a world they cannot possibly understand or cope with. Similarly, war refugees are accepted into the city, and promptly allowed to rot in a slum. There is very little stretching needed to see the similarities with the current situation regarding Syrian migrants.
To make matters even more poignant, another highly oppressed group are those who chose to hybridize themselves with alien DNA. Being different from the rest of humanity necessitated a response, and so the government forces the alien-human hybrids to live in an overcrowded slum in which they are frequently abused by the police, who are never held accountable–another all-too-obvious parallel with today.
Another unfortunate parallel with the present is the government’s attempts to co-op and disrupt protest groups.
When the human-alien hybrids are protesting their confinement in slums, the government inserts agent provocateurs who provoke violence, allowing the police to have an excuse to liquidate the slums. Alongside the provocation of violence, the government also manages to buy out the leader of the protest movement, using him to help incite the riot. Spider Jerusalem eventually uncovers the government’s plot and exposes it, and is beaten by the police for his troubles.
Our current election is probably worse than the one in Transmet
One of the main plotlines of the Transmetropolitan comic revolves around Spider’s participation in the presidential election. In the election, Spider weighs two candidates: the Beast, who is the incumbent Democrat, and the Smiler, who is running against him as the Republican candidate. The Smiler, though initially considered to be a slightly less bad alternative to the Beast, is clearly modeled after Richard Nixon, complete with hatred of journalists and bumbling attempts to destroy evidence which might make him look bad. The Smiler is soon discovered to be bad to the core.
In keeping with oddly accurate writing, the Smiler is associated with right-wing hate groups who also permeate the police forces and are responsible for the oppression of many slum-dwellers. Naturally, the Smiler wins the election and promptly begins exacting revenge on Spider, who was a thorn in his side during the campaign. Censoring and silencing stories with the equivalent of modern-day National Security Letters, the Smiler starts his presidential term with targeted assassinations and police execution of protesters.
Spider eventually wins out against the corrupt presidency–an unrealistic and sentimental twist in an otherwise bleak comic series. The primary mechanism by which Spider is able to win is investigative journalism. Much like in our current era, the Transmetropolitan comic expresses that without journalists telling us about what our leaders are doing behind the curtain, the public will be taken advantage of. We don’t have to wait until the 23rd century to arrive to start taking advantage of Transmetropolitan’s commentary.
Featured Images: Vertigo Comics / Darick Robertson