“I hate people more than anything. And I’m going to be president…I want to be president because I hate you… I want to be president because I think I should be.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that quote is from the latest leaked documents coming for our current Presidential Administration. It actually comes from Senator Gary “The Smiler” Callahan in writer Warren Ellis’ seminal comic series Transmetropolitan. Callahan is a sadistic sociopath who masks his true nature by literally presenting a beaming, toothy smile to the public. Callahan becomes President of the United States in a landslide, certainly through lies, deceit, and corruption, but most significantly because, whether we intend to or not, people so often vote for what we deserve and not what we need.
Set over 200 years in the future, and first published 20 years ago this year, Transmetropolitan is a story reflective of us, today, told through a gonzo, cyberpunk lens that strangely makes the stories feel all the more plausible. In Transmetropolitan new religions are created on a daily basis, people who crossbreed their DNA with aliens are subjected to militarized police brutality, and 3D printers make food out of recycled trash…all things that are sounding less and less far fetched in a time when your phone can answer any question you have and a portion of the population has convinced itself the Earth is flat.
In the pages of Transmetropolitan, technology and transhumanism have boiled Civil Rights down to a science. Racism, homophobia, genocide, police brutality, and political extremism aren’t broad concepts anymore – violence, discrimination, even fetishism come with CRISPR-like accuracy, as in one story arc, clearly inspired by the Rodney King trial, in which a man is murdered for carrying a single, recessive genetic trait (his attackers are acquitted and a riot ensues).
All of this is brought to you by a narcissistic, tech savvy population hell bent on acting (and voting) against its own best interest time and time again so long as the drugs, sex, and TV channels keep flowing.
Our tour guide through this broken funhouse mirror is journalist Spider Jerusalem, a Moses cum Hunter S. Thompson called down from his mountaintop hideaway by a publishing contract obligation (and a need for more drug money) to reenter The City – a Gotham City by way of Katsuhiro Otomo and William Gibson; the grimiest bits of New York, San Francisco, LA, and Las Vegas all rolled into one genetic, sociocultural melting pot.
[quote_right]When everything is at your fingertips, how do you decide what’s valuable? What’s important? What’s worth paying attention to? What’s worth even doing? [/quote_right]
The City’s residents are diverse in a way that takes diversity and multiculturalism to their most absurd. They suffer from the furthest extremes of information and cultural overload. When everything is at your fingertips, how do you decide what’s valuable? What’s important? What’s worth paying attention to? What’s worth even doing? Spider, and the larger story itself, concerns himself with finding the truth of all this – the capital T Truth, the truth that must be revealed, no matter the consequences.
Even Spider’s name is apt, he’s venomous not only in his attitude and his approach to finding The Truth (in one volume a fed-up Spider resorts to outright torture and blackmail to get what he wants out of his sources). It’s his tendency to seep into the veins of The City, like slow acting poison, that puts him at odds with the powers that be, who of course have their own version of the truth to sell.
For the majority of the story those powers are represented by Gary Callahan. Transmetropolitan was written during the dawn of the Tony Blair era in the UK, where Ellis was writing, and The Smiler is easy to see as an exaggeration of Blair himself, presenting himself as a champion of the people (“the new scum” as Transmetropolitan’s 99% come to be known) only to the extent it will get him elected.
The parallels to the Smiler’s tactics and those of our current POTUS feel eerie enough. But Donald Trump could even more easily be a stand-in for the first President introduced in the series, a man we only come to know as The Beast (a nickname given to him by Spider). Asked why he calls him that, Spider tells The Beast:
“It’s how I think of you. A big black animal squatting in the heart of America, shitting huge steaming green turns into the country. Licking your own balls, jacking off with the Constitution, shooting great boiling wads of poison sperm in the faces of the assholes who voted for you. You’re the thing in us that votes to fuck other people in the gall bladder, the lizard brain that says nothing but eat-kill-hump-shit.”
Spider goes even further in his summation of The Beast’s time in office:
“You traded on fear and hate and snaked your way into a place where you could make your wet dreams come true – By turning America into a fucking third world country that bleeds money and exports fuck all but shit television and transplantable organs…Because you killed medical aid and created a culture of crime and presided over America becoming the murder capital of the world because you thought it was fucking funny.”
But for all sinister puppet strings that have wrapped themselves around everyone in it, The City isn’t a desolate place. It’s overrun with crime, poverty, and corruption, but it’s far from the worst kind of dystopia. The colors, done by series colorist Nathan Eyring, are vibrant. Even in its darkest moments the pages of Transmetropolitan practically glow and artist Darick Robertson fills some pages with enough to make Where’s Waldo feel sparse.
When Spider wanders The City you feel like you’re right there with him – that at any moment you might look around the corner and see two cyborgs having sex in an alley, pass by a mutated child begging for change, or even find two brand new species falling in love. For every detail designed to shock or disgust there are just as many aimed at tugging you heart strings.
The things that go on in The City are often dirty and foul, but the city is alive. And whenever there’s life, there’s hope for a better tomorrow. And ultimately that’s what Transmetropolitan is about. Peel back the layers and you realize Spider isn’t angry, he’s disappointed. Deep down Spider sees the good in everyone, even the cryogenically frozen head of his ex-wife that plots to murder him.
His rage stems from witnessing the stubbornness of the people around him, of the failure of humans to live up to their potential, even in the face of so much technological progress. And it’s the crooked politicians, businessmen, and the cult leaders, the bottom feeders who use their power to exploit the people just trying to get by that really earn Spider’s wrath.
Spider puts it best himself when asked by his assistants, Channon and Yelena, what the hell it’s all for:
“It’s bout giving something back to these bastards, these people whom we somehow let run our goddamn lives for us. Giving them a taste of what it means to be us… Every law that curbs my basic human freedoms; every lie about the things I care for; every crime committed against me by their politics, that’s what makes me get up and hound these fuckers, and I’ll do that until the day I die, or until my brain dries up or something… We show them they’re accountable, we show them that just as they try to herd us back into cages of quiet mediocrity we can chase them back to fucking hell with the truth.”
Transmetropolitan is an angry story – as angry as any person living in America today should be. But it’s the right kind of anger – an anger born of a fist-clenching desire for things to be better. It’s anger born of disappointment, not at our inability, but our deliberate refusal to embrace our own greatness. To talk much more about the story would ruin the journey that it lays out over its 10 volumes. But Spider Jerusalem drags us face-first, kicking and screaming through a bloody, noisy, and sincere lesson that words can be powerful, anger can be righteous and that, ultimately, our greatest weapon is our ability to hope.
It’s the perfect story for our very imperfect times.
Guest writer Chris Wiltz is a Los Angeles-based screenwriter, science fiction and horror writer, and journalist. He is the creator of the acclaimed web series Semi-Dead and the writer of the hit fan film Batman: Puppet Master. His award winning science and technology journalism appears on DesignNews.com. He has also written for animation, comics, and is currently working on upcoming video game projects. His short fiction most recently appeared in Black Power: The Super Hero Anthology Follow him on Twitter as @ChrisWiltz.