This is something resembling a feature, “Folks Talkin Bout Comics,” where I’m joined by a friend via Google Chat to talk about a comic book that we both enjoy. Maybe it’ll entice you to read this comic, maybe not. In the case of Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, it’s a book that inspires a lot of discussion on humanity, the future, and politics (don’t worry, those feeling drained by political coverage, it’s FUTURE FICTIONAL POLITICS, though Forrest does ponder how it relates to the current election…that jerk). If you haven’t read our first chat, you can do so here, and if you haven’t read Transmetropolitan, or aren’t up to volumes 3 and 4 yet, be warned, there are spoilers discussed freely. As with last time I’m joined by Forrest “I wish I was a Foglet” Karbowski.
Forrest: So, should we talk Transmet?
Paul: Lets! So we’re talking Volumes 3 and 4, which really kickstart (my heart) and the plot of the series.
Forrest: True story. Up until now it’s been a bunch of loosely linked vignettes with some plot rearing its head from time to time, but we start to get into the meat of the overarching story here. The “plot arc” if you will.
Paul: Yup, with some vignettes sprinkled in, but Ellis and Robertson bring in politics, and they bring it in…hard.
Forrest: Gotta say, it’s interesting reading these in an election year.
Paul: It is, cause it goes back to the “well, the candidates or parties are really just the same,” or “you’re voting for the lesser of two evils.” But “The Beast” and “The Smiler,” while both awful, are pretty different. The Beast, like many politicians (both real and fictional), is there to preserve the status quo, while The Smiler simply wishes to “fuck with people.” Fucking with people is something Spider can’t stand for.
Forrest: I think the book’s cynical disregard for our political system goes even deeper…but let’s get to that later. The first thing that hit me on rereading this was how The Beast’s running slogan, “America for Americans,” is so similar to Romney’s (and, it turns out, the KKK’s, once upon a time) recently announced slogan, “Keep America American.” (Or are those the other way around?)
Paul: I don’t recall (nor do I bother to do any research while editing this), but The Beast also has the poster that reads “Hard job, Hard man,” while Callahan (The Smiler) has his smiling face “Callahan for a new USA.”
Forrest: It’s interesting that Ellis chose these two extremes – the fascist man’s man VS the nihilistic, powergrubbing yes man.
Paul: Aren’t they both kind of fascistic? Although, maybe The Smiler isn’t outwardly so until post election. But I guess I’m skipping ahead in that respect, when he starts killing Spider’s columns.
Forrest: I’m having a tough time remembering, which is why this re-read is good for me! But so far, I think the Smiler is more interested in power for power’s sake, to the point where he’ll do or say anything just to get it. Whereas, to paraphrase, say what you will about The Beast, but at least he has an ethos?
Paul: This is true. Aside from his pantsless chat with Spider, and his posters around the city, he doesn’t seem to be doing any active campaigning. He believes that he’ll win, and he really believes that he’s the best man for the job. He may not think much of the people he’s doing the job for…he almost seems to see himself as maybe a prison warden?
Forrest: Right, or a big, angry, abusive dad.
Paul: Yeah, I was tempted to go the dad route…but a dad…you elect (NOTE: What I was really searching for was a way to make a joke out of it. I suppose ultimately it would be an elaborate joke involving a sitcom called “President Dad” where both his kids were voting age and it’s an election year. There would be constant threats by the children to vote for his opponent and he’d be campaigning to his kids. It would be awesome, you’d love it, America).
Forrest: Whereas the Smiler just wants the power, regardless of whatever is best for the people.
Paul: But I guess there’s plenty of folks in authority who see themselves as a “Dad” to a group of folks (I like the word folks)
Forrest: You’re nothing if not folksy!
Paul: As is Spider, who buys a little girl’s stuffed animal back from the pawn shop for her.
Forrest: I like the dichotomy of these two volumes, showing Spider championing the New Scum even as he sort of loathes them.
Paul: We’ve talked about Robertson’s skill for comedy and gore, but I don’t think we’ve talked about his ability to convey touching moments.
Forrest: There was that bit where Spider wrote about the girl who was cryogenically frozen, who makes a return appearance here. Like a lot of people, I suspect, Spider likes the little guy, but he hates it when people are small, if that makes sense.
Forrest: (Small minded, small hearted…)
Paul: I also love the bit where a bunch of protestors or performance artists kill everyone’s technology in a roped off area. We’ve seen a lot of technology tied into humans in this series, and this group’s argument that people have forgotten how to be human is a very Spider, and very Ellis argument.
Forrest: Right, and the funny thing is, it doesn’t really change anything, which prompts Spider to scream “I FUCKING HATE YOU!”
Paul: Nope…”I’m the only one who’s remotely fucking interested”
Forrest: Yeah, but keep going.
Paul: The small people acting small. Not too worried about who wins the election as long as they get their blow job every day, just like The Beast said. It’s just that The Beast underestimates the desire for a slightly better blow job.
Paul: That’s ultimately what swings Spider to The Smiler’s side, albeit temporarily. The fact that Vita Severin, an intelligent, idealistic woman is working for him, makes Spider believe in a candidate.
Forrest: Oh, Vita. So tragic. I knew it was coming, and I still was surprised when it happened.
Paul: That panel f’d me up when I first saw it.
Forrest: It’s disturbing!
Paul: It still does….her head…it’s just GONE!
Forrest: In a manner of speaking. Bits of it are still there…everywhere.
Paul: What’s really interesting for me, as someone who’s adopted digital comics, is how this would play out for the first time for those readers, where they’re reading panel by panel. Cause one panel…head…next panel: NO HEAD.
Forrest: And the thing is, you actually do care about her, like Spider does.
Paul: Yes, she seems to be a genuinely good person.
Forrest: One of the few we ever meet!
Paul: It’s even shocking to see her funeral and everything…I think I wondered if maybe they faked her death with their new fangled hard sci fi technology.
Forrest: I think it’s doubly shocking because of how they condense the time between death and funeral. Only separated by one splash page.
Paul: Yeah, definitely Spider’s shock to Spider’s mourning.
Forrest: It’s a great example of something you can do in comics that you can’t quite do in other mediums. Certainly there are ways of condensing time, but that particular trick wouldn’t work as well in a book, or a movie…
So do you think Ellis is completely cynical? Are there no honest politicians? Will the little people ever open their eyes and give a shit? Are we all just reading Spider’s column for laughs? Is there only one sane man in the world, and does he have to take a cocktail of stimulants, hallucinogens and various other drugs to remain sane?
Paul: At this point, in the series, I’d have to say YES, though later on, NO, as we are introduced to more people who are inspired by Spider, but it does seem to require his actions to get them going.
In volume 4, there’s a scene with a man who lost his legs saving The City.
Forrest: Yeah, oh man. That.
Paul: He’s bitter that he doesn’t see any money because of that. That’s an interesting bit of foreshadowing. Or could be read as such.
It could also be read as a take on The Beast. Someone who keeps the trains running on time, but is ignored except when trying to get votes (or spare change).
Forrest: It made me think, briefly, about how much of a shit I am for passing by all the homeless people on the street each day. Who knows where they came from, who they used to be?
Paul: Yeah…I go back and forth between cynicism and feeling like an awful human being on that front. The other character in that scene is the journalist, who listens, like Spider would, but pays the legless man in drugs. I don’t think Spider would do that. Or at least do it so …emotionlessly? If anything, we’re constantly reminded of his empathy with his subjects through this nameless journalist’s apathy.
Forrest: Yeah, I don’t know? I think he’d find another, better way to help him.
Paul: This guy, who is presenting an unfiltered feed of this man’s words, doesn’t care to contextualize it, he’s just aggregating content.
Forrest: Exactly. I love that sequence a few pages later, where Spider watches the weird cyborgs having intercourse via their various ports and outlets. Even with all this plot and social commentary going on, Ellis and Robertson take time to show us what a funky, far-out place the future could be.
Paul: And then we get another great moment with Mary, the revival. Her face when she gets her camera, very similar to the little girl who gets her Sex Puppet back.
Forrest: “All we’ve actually got is each other. You decide what that means.”
What does that mean?
At first I thought that last line was a cop-out, but I think it’s more a challenge from Spider to the New Scum.
Paul: I agree…throughout the series, he’s challenging his audience. Probably the same way that Ellis may have felt he was challenging comic book readers. I don’t think he’s ever someone who’s really labored under the superhero genre…he’s MOSTLY done his own thing. But there’s got to be some frustration as a non-superhero writer in comic books.
Forrest: Spider seems to be a pretty clear analog for Ellis. Even though his opinions in the book are about a sci-fi universe, it’s pretty clear he’s talking about society now. Humanity doesn’t change much, in the long run. But we COULD.
Paul: I’m not gonna lie, I got excited and read ahead a little…and I think the moment I’m thinking of is in volume 5, but there’s a point where a monitor on the street talks about all the technological advances of this (Transmet’s) society, and how it would still be MILLIONS of years before it was a truly advanced society.
Forrest: They have a bit like that in volume 4 as well. The whole thing about the Type One, Two and Three society.
Paul: Oh, ok, that’s what I was thinking of…just couldn’t find it skimming right now.
That shit depresses me.
Fuck you, Warren Ellis!
And fuck Michio Kaku, too! Whenever I read his books about what SciFi stuff is actually possible, or how long it would take to BE possible, man…it’s hard to cheer me up from that. So maybe that’s why this series speaks so well to me…cause no matter what kind of gadgets we get, we’re still not going to see any kind of true advancements for humanity in our lifetime.
Forrest: Man, now I’M depressed 😦
Paul: At the same time though…there are the wonderful humanistic moments that keep us going. Cause no matter how stupid we are, we have each other.
Forrest: But at the same time, speak for yourself. I plan on becoming a Foglet.
Paul: For better and for worse. Just like newly married couples!
Forrest: Ha! Yes!
Paul: Man, if I intro this by saying how long it took for us to write part two cause of you getting married, this’ll all feel very thematical and such.
Forrest: I like that. Themes and motifs and shit. On that note – I think I need to go apologize to my wife for being snippy with her earlier
Paul: Uh oh. (Insert hacky comic wife joke)
Alright, well i think we’re in a pretty good place for 3&4
Forrest: Definitely, I think we covered it pretty well.
Stay tuned, faithful readers! Volumes 5 and 6 will be coming…SOONISH!