Thursday, April 17, 2014

Transmetropolitan

Lately I've been dusting off my comics collection and bringing them to work with me in a desperate bid to get my students to read something, anything. My lower secondary kids get badly-bound Calvin & Hobbes ("Teacher, the pages are falling out again") and my Secondary 4s get the good stuff: Sandman, Hellboy, Y: The Last Man and Transmetropolitan. (Only given to the kids with morally negligent parents, like mine were, thank God.)

I know that letting teenagers paw my precious comics is a bad idea in the long run. Already my Hellboy volume is dog-eared, and one of my Y: The Last Man books has been lost. I wince a little every time I see a kid unconsciously pull the pages back all the way, cracking the spine. But I don't say anything because these books are meant to be enjoyed, and I know from experience there's nothing less fun than someone going "Er... could you not open my book so widely?" I can always buy new copies, but the window of time for my students to develop a love of reading is closing with every passing day. My only request is that they always return the books, so future cohorts can read them too.

I've enjoyed re-reading my old comics as well. I pulled out Transmetropolitan for the first time in years and couldn't stop until I'd finished reading the volume's adventures of Spider Jerusalem, a tattooed and shirtless Hunter S. Thompson clone. (I have a thing for bald, cranky journalists who smell like cigarette smoke and sweat.) Set in a chaotic dystopian city of the future, where consumerism runs amok and the sheer number of skyscrapers and flashing screens make present-day Tokyo look like a sleepy fishing village, Transmetropolitan is a profane homage to the power of one gonzo journalist trying to do the right thing in a society that just doesn't give a shit about anything anymore. (Whew.)


Written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Darick Robertson, Transmetropolitan - which ran from 1997 to 2002 - is a roller-coaster ride through futurism. Everything from nanotech to 3D printing to wearable computing to cryogenics and genetic engineering, and lots of other tech I'm not smart enough to name or identify. But the same old problems plague humanity - corruption, greed, exploitation and selfishness. Like a chain-smoking avenging angel, Spider Jerusalem investigates and exposes the hypocrisy of the establishment, taking on government, religion and the police while avoiding censorship, death and torture. He also has a ray gun that causes explosive diarrhoea.


Two things I particularly like about Transmetropolitan: first, the artwork, especially the panoramic centrefolds of the city and its teeming mass of inhabitants. Wonderfully detailed, hyper-coloured and so alive they seem to bounce right off the page. Second, despite being an all-male team - right down to the inker and colourist - there is an underlying respect for women as characters. Yes, women are still relegated to martyr roles (Vita Severn) shrewish bitches (Spider's ex-wife) or the usual gratuitous nudity (Indira Ataturk, in an arc I found rather troubling). But at the end of it all - spoiler alert - Spider's disciples are both women, and one even inherits his role and persona. Which fits the storyline, and the transgressive nature of the series. Batman and Superman are always men, but in Spider Jerusalem's world, women can take on the protagonist's mantle and - most importantly - wear it no differently from him. Maybe it's a low standard that I have for comics, but baby steps. (Now, if only they could've gotten the Asian names right...)

The violent, hyperkinetic world of Transmetropolitan is often very silly, and sometimes pointlessly juvenile. Kind of disgusting, at times. It swings wildly between exuberance and cartoonishly futile rage (against the machine - sorry, couldn't help it). Still, for a character so awash in cynicism, Spider Jerusalem always puts a smile on my face.


On Monday I handed a Transmetropolitan trade paperback to a student, then waited for his reaction. As he flipped through the pages, his eyes grew wider and wider. "Wow. Wow! This is insane!" He couldn't stop staring at the panels, slowing down and lingering at each one. Soon, he was reading.

I knew I'd catch him taking it out surreptitiously later during the lesson, probably trying to hide it behind his worksheet. I was right. I told him to put it away, but the best comics are those you just can't resist taking another peek at - in class, or even in adulthood, years after your first time.