Creators often see things coming that most people are sleeping on. Between 1997 and 2002, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson produced a tripped-out homage to the original gonzo journalist, the late Hunter S. Thompson, Transmetropolitan for DC‘s Vertigo line. Twenty years on, the story seems like a clever prediction of what was coming—though we didn’t take the two centuries they imagined we’d need to get there.
The comic’s setting was a dystopian 23rd century, and featured one of the medium’s oddest (and least likable) protagonists, crusading investigative journalist, Spider Jerusalem. The story revolved around his war against apathy, authoritarianism, discrimination and the abuse of power.
After some background world building to set the scene, Ellis embarked on his main plot. Spider takes on the two candidates for president of the sprawling megalopolis he reluctantly inhabits, “The City.” The eerily popular challenger, Gary Callahan Spider dubs “The Smiler,” seeks to unseat the incumbent, an establishment-backed tyrant Spider labels “The Beast.” Initially, Spider considers Callahan the lesser of the two evils, but his instinctive mistrust of populism kicks in, and he investigates “The Smiler,” discovering that besides having ties to a fascist hate group, the man is insane.
Spider gets beat up, threatened with lawsuits, disparaged as a muckraker and liar—guilty of spreading fake news—and, despite his fame and loyal readership, the populace ignores his warnings and elects “The Smiler.” The story turns on a plot point involving the censorship of a video that reveals a toxic mix of police brutality and indifference during a protest over a hate crime. Spider leaks his story and follows it up with an exposé of the president’s corrupt inner circle, one of whom is a pedophile…
Ever since Transmetropolitan premiered, its fans have self-righteously given their friends who haven’t read the book “I told you so” treatment every time a politician does something naughty or stupid.
The fact is, pun intended, things are different now.
It isn’t about what side of the political divide you’re on—if you’re on it at all, there’s a strong chance you don’t believe anything the other side says. Facts are now open to debate and mutable. Without a shared language, some common points of reference, we can’t have meaningful dialogue. Soundbites and snarky comments aren’t the solution, and focusing on having the last word generally means you haven’t been paying attention to the words that preceded yours.
Warren Ellis wrote Spider Jerusalem as a vain, smug, belligerent, and infuriating character. Despite all his flaws, fans of the book relate to and love him because of his all-consuming motivation; an insatiable hunger for the truth.
We read because we want to know. We’re looking for answers, even if they make us uncomfortable.
When Spider rails against his readers within the context of the book, Ellis, as the writer, is talking to us on a Meta level: You’ve read this slightly subversive comic poking fun at the establishment, but what are you prepared to do to uncover the truth in the real world? The rage Ellis projected through Spider is prevalent all over television and the ‘net—the myriad talking heads, parsing agitprop under the guise of news, with increasing bias and vitriol, reflecting the consumers who insatiably devour it.
Angry or not however, we need them. Just as we need a book like Transmetropolitan from a writer like Warren Ellis.
We might not like—or agree—with the Spider Jerusalem’s in our society, if there are any these days, but we need them. Someone has to dig for the facts and speak truth to power. It sounds cliché, but there’s danger in not addressing that reality. If we assume someone is holding the powerful accountable and therefore fail to protect those who do so, they won’t continue to do it for much longer.
If you’ve read Transmetropolitan, you know Spider probably isn’t someone you’d want to invite over to your house… but you’d definitely want to hear what he had to say.