The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 58 | A “Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street” retrospective

Leaving Proof 58 | A “Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street” retrospective
Published on Friday, November 18, 2011 by
Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street
  • (DC/Vertigo Comics, 1998; 72 pages, collects Transmetropolitan #s 1–3 originally published in 1997 in single magazine form under the DC/Helix Comics imprint)
  • Writer: Warren Ellis
  • Penciller: Darick Robertson
  • Inkers: Keith Aiken, Jerome M. Moore, Ray Kryssing, Dick Giordano
  • Colorist: Nathan Eyring
  • Letterer: Clem Robins
  • Original List Price: $7.95 (US)/$11.95 (CDN)

Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street comprises the first three issues of Warren Ellis’ acclaimed Transmetropolitan series, originally published by DC Comics in 1997 under the now-defunct Helix science fiction comics imprint. The book is set in a near-future New York where the eccentric writer Spider Jerusalem (a character obviously inspired by the late Hunter S. Thompson—think of Transmetropolitan‘s protagonist as Raoul Duke 2099) is assigned by his editor to cover the Transient Rights movement, a population of Martian separatist movement sympathizers who have taken over the Angels 8 neighborhood as a response to what they view as a coordinated effort by the establishment to marginalize them for their lifestyle choice and political affiliation. Things soon come to a head as a confluence of actions by corrupt city administrators, police on a hair-trigger, and violent Transient Rights agitators results in inner-city rioting on a massive scale. Jerusalem—the lone member of the media still in the Angels 8 slum district as confrontations between the Transients and the riot police turn increasingly violent—documents the fighting as it happens, sending out a reportage via a real-time feed to his editor, who manages to get Jerusalem’s text scrolling across Times Square displays and computers around the world. Before long, pressure on the city government from a public stirred by Jerusalem’s eloquent (not to mention occasionally profane) account of the events forces the withdrawal of the police from Angels 8. Jerusalem gets paid a tidy sum for his work, and off he goes for further adventures in gonzo journalism.

The first thing that stood out to me about this book after revisiting it is just how prescient Ellis was with his portrayal of the dramatic and democratizing effect of universally available, on-demand, real-time, global-reach digital news delivery. Transmetropolitan first appeared in print in 1997, at least a couple of years before New Media tools that allow for instant broadcast transmission of text to everyday consumer devices had gained widespread adoption as journalistic, quasi-journalistic, and community organization implements. Jerusalem’s personal reporting on the civil unrest in Angels 8 is what some media and computer scientists would refer to these days as “in situ microblogging of an immediate situation.”

In thinking about recent and current events such as the various austerity riots in the Eurozone, the Arab Spring, and the proliferation of the Occupy Movement, I am struck by how much of the real-time coverage that shaped—and continues to shape—our perception of and responses to these occurrences comes from nontraditional news outlets like blogs, Twitter feeds, and SMS messages. Their utility seems obvious now, of course, but I’m impressed at how well Ellis was able to anticipate the level of influence the combination of immediate news reporting (whether the professional kind or as incidentally practiced by casual observers) and New Media tools could have in shaping global public opinion as it concerns mass protests and demonstrations.

Back on the Street also showcases a recurring theme in many Ellis works: that of extreme body-modification as an avenue for political expression (the Transient Rights movement is wholly composed of humans who have had plastic surgery in order to look more like Greys as a show of their support for Martian separatism). It’s a topic that Ellis will eventually examine in further detail in 2003’s Mek and his landmark Extremis storyline in Iron Man from 2005. I’ve no idea if Ellis has subjected himself to body modification beyond what I assume are the typical tattoo or piercing (indeed, I have no idea if he has engaged in body modifications of any type), but it’s interesting to see his interest in the topic manifest itself time and again in such disparate works.

An air of cynicism suffuses the first two-thirds of Back on the Street: the riot police are bullies in uniform, the New York government is staffed by unscrupulous bureaucrats, the leader of the Transient Rights movement is in it simply to get as much underage Transient pussy as he can, most of the Transients are naïve and empty-headed fetishists who have no idea what they’re getting into, and even Jerusalem seems to be motivated as much by narcissism and misanthropy as he is by a sense of justice and a dedication to exposing the truth. I don’t think the story promotes a cynical world view, though. The underpinning conceit of the story is a belief in the power of words to effect changes in government and society, after all. Towards the end of the book, Ellis writes that

Journalism is just a gun. It’s only got one bullet in it, but if you aim right, that’s all you need. Aim it right and you can blow a kneecap off the world…

Violent metaphor aside, the sentiment expressed in the statement seems more patently idealistic and hopeful than jaded and cynical to me.

Speculative fiction is a tricky thing. When an author’s vision of the near-future is contradicted by our eventual experience of it, his message, no matter how valid, is more often than not dismissed as a non sequitur stemming from poorly-considered premises and a failed attempt at prognostication. Whether by cogitation or coincidence, Ellis avoided this pitfall with Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street. It’s an irreverent and entertaining story that addresses themes and topics that are perhaps more relevant today than they were when the comics were first published over 14 years ago.

Highly recommended.

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