Much has been made of the varying talents of British comic scribe Warren Ellis, and the praise has been, for the most part, fairly deserved. When he's on his game, shooting with both barrels, Ellis' stories hum with an urgency, begging one to turn the page. Planetary is a fine example, as it not only looks at the hidden history of the superheroes in its universe, it steps further into turning the conventions of said heroes on their collective boot heels. It's solid stuff, and when Ellis sticks to the plot dynamics, it works like a charm. The Authority is fun of a different nature. Owing less to deep thought than blockbuster action bonanzas, it aims to titillate that latent, hidden comic reader in all of us. You know the one -- the little imp that really only flips through the pages to see a weekly baddy get the stuffing promptly kicked out of him. It works on a visceral level and only occasionally allows the strings of the puppet master to be revealed.
But Transmetropolitan, now that's a personal story, and that sort of tale is quite a bit trickier to pull off.
Set in a grim, corporatized future -- you know the one, it's the one where society is crumbling, the people fester with moral decay, the government is little more than a police state (oh damn, that's not the future at all) -- the book follows the travails of journalist-turned-new world prophet Spider Jerusalem. It seems that Spider's been in retirement for some time now, having opted for the life of a mountain recluse rather than be forced to live through one more minute in the increasingly deadly urban rat race. The only catch, however, is that he signed a contract for a book deal five years ago, and he'll be in for a hefty lawsuit if he fails to deliver two previously promised tomes -- one on politics and one on any subject he sees fit to write about. While it seems simple, it means that his bucolic mountain life has come to an end, and he's soon headed back into the city. You see, in order to properly write about politics, one must of course be properly mired in the political world.
The book's format is ongoing as it follows Spider's re-assimilation into society, which he accomplishes by first getting a haircut and a shave (prior to this, he looks suspiciously like comic scribe Alan Moore, a good friend of Ellis) and then sees him tracing stories of prostitution, police corruption, dirty dealing mutants and the like. But it really serves as a touchstone for Ellis' whacked out ideas of what grinds the social gears that keep humanity moving along. And as such, it often works rather well. Ellis is a bright, funny and talented guy. He's also a guy that sometimes stretches himself too thin, and that's something that becomes apparent in the later part of this first story arc, which finds Spider in the midst of a bloody riot, writing his news story live via a remote feed. Sure, it's intended to be stark, amusing social commentary, but it more often resembles a hipster-copy of the antics of that last bastion of real gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whose own views on the world of today send many shrieking off into the night. Too often, Spider's remarks seem intentionally shocking, and I can't help but think that this is meant to mask some of the rougher, less conceived spots in Ellis' thinking. And hey, I have no problem with profanity, but can you really take a character like this utterly seriously when every other word he says is fuck and bastard? That's a little heavy-handed for me, and I'd like to see Ellis loosen up with the language. I'm sure he has some genuinely interesting things to say, but one begins to lose track when a Tarantino-esque dialogue is continually going on.
Darick Robertson's pencils are uniformly excellent, and he seems to be going for that same sense of tight cartoon-quality storytelling that made Geoff Darrow so popular a few years ago. Robertson's version of the future is palpable and real, packed with dozens of details and small jokes that keep you scanning the pages long after you've finished actually reading them. In today's market, where the artwork tends toward a homogenized hero quality, that's nice. Robertson's world and the characters that inhabit it live and breathe on the page.
In the world of mainstream comics, Transmetropolitan is a rarity. There's very little overt action to the story -- the fun lies in reading Spider's observations, whether trite or inspired. The idea of the comic itself is inspired, for that matter, even if it's not always as thoughtful or revealing as it's intended to be.
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