Saturday, December 3, 2011

GN Review -- Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street / Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Set at a point some several centuries beyond the present-day, Transmetropolitan is a gritty, get-in-your-face account of the exploits of Spider Jerusalem, whose journalistic tenacity and uncompromising view of the world makes him both an ideal guide through the cyber-punk backdrop of The City and all its legion of imperfections, and a hilariously, brutally frank thorn in the side to the political figures of the day. He is forced out of a five-year "retirement" from writing by a publisher who demands he finish out a contract for two more books he has yet to write. Loathe to give up his seclusion, he nevertheless mans up, saddles up, and makes the trek back into the City, a dirty, overcrowded, vibrant metropolis that also serves as a panoply of social upheaval and corruption in which Jerusalem thrives every bit as much as he hates it.

The intial arcs in this volume highlight Jerusalem's reemergence onto the City scene, the effects of his journalistic coverage of a riot involving a group of humans transitioning from their original bodies to the genome of an alien species, his taking an assistant under his wing as he gets reacquainted with the president he had smeared before retiring, the depraved offerings of television in the future, and an exploration and excoriation of religious idealogues and hypocrisy. Always in the background are the trappings and denizens of the City, showcased in typical over-the-top manner as they highlight the excess, the absurdity, and the flat-out strangeness of the future. Humans alter their bodies in grotesque ways, journalists use a disturbing array of tools for gathering information, including internally invasive alterations to their senses and bodies, and reality programs take inane and intrusive measures to the extreme on a routine basis.

Transmetropolitan is not nice, which is why I was surprised at how much I ended up loving it. It's far outside the comfort zone I've established growing up on a steady diet of superhero stories, where things are ultimately upbeat and life-affirming (for the most part). Those kinds of stories tend to be my "thing," I suppose. Transmetropolitan showed me that's not always the case, which was completely unexpected. I wasn't expecting to like a story where the ultimate assessment of humanity was that we're all petty, self-absorbed, easily misled scum. But hey, there it is. This was a supremely enjoyable read, and I plan to read the entire run of this series with glee.

My guess is that I also enjoyed the humor in the writing, which is dark, irreverent, and often brutally witty. I'm not immediately aware if I've read anything else by Warren Ellis, but his perspective as a satirist and mysanthropic view of human nature has made for some highly memorable moments in Transmetropolitan, and I'm sure I'd have recalled reading him before. Spider Jerusalem is a gonzo journalist who tells it to the reader straight, no matter what the case, and to hell with you if you don't care for how he says it. The people around him are strange, warped, corrupt, and otherwise ready targets for his curiosity and ire. Ellis makes good use of this narrative landscape, and depicts a number of imaginative situations even as he tells relatively straightforward stories through the eyes of an angry, unyieldingly dogged writer.

Darick Robertson's artwork is what I would consider fairly standard, as far as "normal" comics go, but the visual extras afforded to him in this series really do give him the chance to shine. Half-alien-humans, cats with two faces, women with barcodes on their breasts... the list goes on, and Robertson handles the turns of humanity on its collective head with aplomb, making the reader do a double-take on first look, then nodding as they realize this is strange and grotesque, but also perfectly plausible within the context of this futuristic, cynical backdrop. In short, he does a good job of making the art match the needs of the story, which to me is always the most important question regarding artwork in comics. His people are expressive, his backgrounds are both realistic and impressive, and he conveys crowded, claustrophobic environments as well as more intimate scenes. Very good illustration of a world that is visually a far cry from the present, familiar one.

Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street is the first volume of the collected series, and it kicks off a story that appeals to a side of me that I don't usually explore in comics. I plan to read the others, and suggest anyone who enjoys cyber-punk, over-the-top protagonists, and go-for-the-gullet satire give this series a try if they haven't already. Highly recommended.

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