Hating it here – The caustic genius of Transmetropolitan

Transmetropolitan is a graphic novel series about a gonzo journalist in a future society not so much dystopian as utterly disinterested in social advancement. It reminds me most of the society in search of continual distraction seen in Brave New World, except there’s no attempt at conformity. Instead there’s so much as raging personal satisfaction that individuals become impotent. The lead character, Spider, is one of the few investigative journalists left: the media is dominated by people who merely observe, acting as living platforms for cameras. Spider wants The Truth.

Spider does not care who he needs to punch in the face to get it.

It’s important to read this series in order. Many graphic novels don’t much care where you check in, but I started in volume 3, Year of the Bastard, and almost didn’t come back. You really need to have accepted the main character, and understood where he is coming from, before you see him interact with his world. Read on its own, the third volume makes him look juvenile and homophobic, and that’s a mischaracterisation.  His society really is as shallow and terrible as he makes it out to be, and his resistance which just looks like him being self-aggrandizing and tiresome at the beginning, is slowly driving him insane.

Satire is tricky: you do sometimes get the sensation that Spider’s society has been built specifically for him to have things to shout at. Sometimes these are epic set-pieces, like when Spider acts as a tinfoil Jesus at a religious convention, turning over the tables and desperately wishing he had a whip. Sometimes they fall a bit flat, possibly because as a reader in another country and decade, I don’t see the cultural context behind what the writer is doing.

It’s one of those graphic novels which stretches the boundaries of the format in interesting ways. It’s a simple read, on  a textual level. It uses profanity and graphic, casual violence rather than eloquence to make its points. On a thematic level, it’s a rich series.  It’s deliberately brash, in the cyberpunk way, but that looks kind of quaint and dated now, which adds some appeal to a genre which seemed to adolescent when it was new. Personally, it reminds me more of Noir novels. Spider is not a perfect man, even his friends call him an evil bastard, but he’s as good as this world he’s in allows. In that he reminds me of many of the Gumshoe detectives.

So, recommended for fans of the genre, for people who like the graphic novel as a form and want to see how it can be used, for those who like Noir, and for those who enjoyed the work of Hunter S. Thompson.

Actually, no, that’s kind of a cheap and easy comparison. You can see Thompson’s genetics in Spider, but Thompson’s written self always seemed to me quite a simple sort of guy. I think perhaps it owes something to the exposees of poverty, like Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris or Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Spider’s articles on child prostitution, or about Care in the Community, could be lifted from these sorts of books. Don’t let the added tattoos and sci-fi jargon fool you: the social justice story runs right through all of these books.