Transmetropolitan: A textual analysis
Let me tell you a story...
Comic books, or graphic novels if you prefer, have moved into the mainstream in recent years. Titles such as the likes of 'Watchmen' and Sandman' can be found in most bookshops nowadays. It is primarily these books that are aimed as 'mature readers' that make it this far, with DC's Vertigo imprint leading the charge.
Several years ago I chose to test out the theory that these works have the same level of complexity and contextual interplay that any other book might possess by writing about one for a university essay. What follows is an edited down version of that essay, which has never been published before.
Transmetropolitan is a series of comic books aimed at 'mature readers', meaning people aged eighteen and above, although this is largely at the discretion of the retailer. Published by DC in the United States of America, it is written by an Englishman, Warren Ellis, and drawn and edited by Americans Darick Robertson and Stuart Moore respectively.
The series is set in an undetermined future: Ellis never reveals the time in which the stories are set, although he makes it clear that the dystopia he and Robertson have created is at least several hundred years on from the twentieth century. The stories focus on Spider Jerusalem, a journalist with a burning desire for the truth and a large drug habit, who writes an extremely popular column for a newspaper in the city, although which city this is has never been stated. As with any vision of the future there is an element of science fiction involved.
The 'science' bit - some theory
Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, described all 'texts' (meaning everything from a poem to a novel and all points in-between) as “a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”, creating “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”.
By this, Barthes implied that nothing is truly original, and all texts are essentially a mixture of ideas, ‘quotations’ as Barthes puts it, taken from the culture that the author, and by association the consumer, inhabits. This is arguably the basis of all popular culture.
'Borrowing' Hunter S Thompson
An analysis of the Jerusalem character reveals that he is a ‘tissue’ of several ‘moral’ journalists. ‘The Transmet Feed’ (2002) suggests both Hunter S. Thompson and H. L. Mencken as influences. Ellis frequently alludes to this Thompson reference. Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, but was more famous for his coverage of American presidential elections in the past, including the 1972 and 1992 campaigns. He lived in a secure compound on a mountain in the middle of nowhere, and shoots trespassers. He is perhaps more famous for writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, now a film directed by Terry Gilliam, Fear and Loathing… is more of a drug binge than the journalistic work Thompson’s employers were expecting.
The Jerusalem character shares several of his traits. Spider’s first appearance in the first issue shows him living in a compound on a mountain, and there is a sign on his property warning that ‘Trespassers will be shot!’ He too is famous for his election coverage, and within a few issues his editor demands to know when he will begin his election coverage.
Like Thompson, Jerusalem uses a lot of drugs, which give rise to some rather eccentric behaviour. In the film Fear and Loathing… there is a scene where Thompson (played by Johnny Depp) begins to hallucinate in a hotel bar, and people turn into giant reptiles. After some confused rambling, Thompson produces the line “Tell me about the f**king golf shoes!” much to the horror of the other guests. In a similar display of random drug-induced behaviour, Jerusalem is seen jumping onto a taxi before berating it’s driver with such statements as “Who did you vote for, vermin woman? Did you vote? Can you read? Have you got thumbs? Show me your f**king thumbs!” The next panel shows him running across the roofs of cars shouting “THUMBS!”. While Ellis doesn’t play on the connection too much, the influence can be seen, upon analysis, by anyone whose cultural experience included the works of Thompson.
Thus Ellis has ‘borrowed’ parts of Thompson’s image, and is making use of them in a futuristic environment.
A bit of politics
Ellis does much of his cultural referencing form the world of politics, seemingly because it amuses him: “Politics is one of the only two spectator sports I have any time for. The other one is sumo.”. Spider’s eventual nemesis is President Gary Callahan, who draws comparisons to Tony Blair, with elements of Richard Nixon.
Callahan’s closest aide is Alan Schact, who speaks of the ‘third way’. ‘Third way’ is a term that was frequently used during Labour’s 1997 election campaign, and it’s difficult to see how Ellis could be referring to anyone else. Schact is accused of “spin with a very personal agenda”, an accusation previously leveled at Blair’s ministers (i.e. Peter Mandleson) and his press secretary Alistair Campbell. Callahan’s nickname is ‘The Smiler’, since his grin is almost permanent when in public, an observation made of Blair during the 1997 election.
The subtlest, but possibly the most telling use of this cultural referencing occurs when Spider is listening in to a conversation between members of Callahan’s political team prior to his election, using some highly advanced method of ‘bugging’ that Callahan’s security measures failed to spot. Vita Severn is Callahan’s political director: “You want to fire a woman from a directorship this year, senator [Callahan]? Come on then, fire me. Say goodbye to the good ink about ‘Callahan’s Chicks’.”
This seems to be a reference to talk of ‘Blair’s Babes’, once again prior to the 1997 general election in Britain. The text is accompanied by an imaged of Spider preparing to inject some exotic drug into his eye, which is striking enough to cause a casual reader to miss the relevance of the statement.
Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have noted the low voter turnout in modern elections, and Ellis addresses this within his story in a typically flippant manner:
“Pollsters are reporting record low turnout this election day, with yet more people bemoaning the continued necessity to actually physically drag your carcass to a polling station to vote…”
This line is delivered by a smiling newsman as part of the election coverage, adding humour to the statement from the readers’ 20th/21st century perspective whilst keeping in tune with the general obscenity fueled language which Ellis attributes to his vision of the future.
Several references are made to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In a letters page rant in issue 13 Ellis mentions that the Egyptian government implicated Tony Blair in the death of Diana. While he was quick to rubbish this, later actions of his characters seem to suggest that the idea interested him on a theoretical level. Issue 23 showed Spider’s interview with Callahan just before polling day, in which Callahan admits to having orchestrated the death of his political director Vita Severn, stating:
“Vita dying was the best thing that ever happened to the campaign. She’s a Diana now. Stupid dead pretty girl all laid out for people to get weird over. I’m going to surf straight into the White House on them big old dead tits of hers.”
A second reference is made in issue 23, where Spider is explaining to his assistants the process of journalists tracking people and repeatedly asking them questions: “It’s like being a photographer, except we’ve never killed any royalty doing it.” This is a fairly clear reference to the way photographers followed Diana and allegedly helped cause her death.
Since Transmetropolitan is set in the future, lines can be drawn linking the series to various forms of science fiction. Seemingly, the most appropriate is cyberpunk. Douglas Kellner said “cyberpunks are very much a product of the technological explosion of the 1980s with its proliferation of media, computers and new technology” (Kellner). In Transmetropolitan, many people are entwined with technology, in some cases to the point of being cyborgs in the traditional sense. Some people receive the news on their skin. Others can make telephone calls using ‘phone trait’ which “grows an antenna web over your skeleton… runs off your own metabolism”. The very presence of cyberpunk ideas within the text would suggest an inherent postmodernism: “Thus postmodern theory and cyberpunk fiction are products of the same new high-tech environment and both serve to map and illuminate it.” (Kellner)
Transmetropolitan can be seen as a postmodern text in that it is, to quote Barthes again, “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”, and while this essay has focussed on Ellis’ words, a closer analysis of Robertson’s art would reveal a wealth of cultural references also, hidden within each panel of art. Ellis plays with ideas, creating the kind of conspiracy theories that some people get arrested for in the world he and Robertson have created, poking fun at current politicians from the safety of the future. In effect, this is postmodern satire.
This was originally written for an academic essay. Some of the four letter words have been removed.
Feel free to reference it should you find it useful! The quotes I use come from the following sources:
- Barthes, R. (1977) Image-Music-Text, New York, Hill and Wang. 146
- Kellner, D. (1995) Media Culture, London, Routledge. 303
- Transmetropolitan -All written by Warren Ellis and pencilled by Darick Robertson (co-creators).