Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson

Vertigo, 1997-2002 (1998-2004 reprint), ??? pages, C$???.?? tpb, ISBN Various

Originally published as a series of sixty comic books from 1997 to 2002, Re-published as a ten-volume series of trade paperback from 1998 to 2004

Well, that was an experience.

Over the years, friends having succumbed to the Transmetropolitan bug kept pressing issues of the comics on to me. “It’s great!” they said. “Spider Jerusalem! You’ll love him!” Oh, I was convinced all right… but finding the money to buy the entire ten-volume trade paperback run was another challenge entirely. I finally broke down and went ahead in January 2006, using the thin pretext of a New Year’s present to myself. The comic book shop guy and amazon.ca were both pleased with my choices, though they probably each kicked themselves for not having the entire series in-stock when I wanted them.

So I finally sat down and read the series in full, re-experiencing the issues I had already read and tearing straight through the story. From a distance, it’s an admirable model of narrative simplicity: Journalist Spider Jerusalem comes back to a city he dislikes yet can’t live without. As a skilled stranger with a number of archetypal resemblances with Leone’s The Man With No Name, it doesn’t take a long time for him to start clearing the system. And then the system starts fighting back…

Transmetropolitan takes place in an unspecified future (even the characters aren’t too sure when) in a city obviously modeled after New York, complete with a Kafkaesque sword-raising Statue of Liberty. The city if a teeming mass of wonders and misery, and Jerusalem has a wonderful romantic relationship with it, simultaneously disgusted by its excesses, yet dependent on it to survive and thrive.

But if Transmetropolitan is such a success, it’s in no small part thanks to the character of Spider Jerusalem himself, a pushed-to-eleven take-off on Hunter S. Thompson’s model of a gonzo journalist with a cynic’s heart and a staccato vocabulary. Jerusalem is alive in a way that very few characters are, and if nothing else, Transmetropolitan is worth a look just for seeing him do what he does best. Great secondary characters complete the portrait, from a two-fisted editor to filthy assistants to a drug-addicted universal assembler to the vast cast of characters necessary to keep a 1,300-page novel running.

Surprised by the length? You should be: Unusually enough, this sixty-issues, five-year-long series was designed with a specific end in mind. As a result, the complete run of Transmetropolitan feels like an unusually satisfying complete story, along with a lengthy prologue (Book one sets up Spider; Book two sets up the series.), a few interstitial mood pieces and an issue-long epilogue. Transmetropolitan may at first look like science-fiction, and then like edgy comedy, but as it progresses it inches closer to political satire with a real heartfelt message. Fiction for budding revolutionaries, stuck between evils of differing statures.

I’m not completely sold on certain aspects of the series (the technological levels shown here seem mutually inconsistent, for instance) and I’m still smarting over the cost of the series (I could have bought six hardcover novels for that price! Six! That’s the rest of this month’s reviewed books alone!), but there’s little doubt in my mind that Transmetropolitan is one of the most important SF novel of the late nineties. Its episodic publication nature and unified story made it hard for non-comics SF specialists to evaluate properly, but now that everything is out in trade paperback format, it’s time for a critical reassessment, and hopefully a wider acceptance in the written-SF community. Here’s my Transmetropolitan low-cost guarantee: Buy the first volumes. If you can’t stop at the end of the second trade paperback, forge forward with the confidence that you’ll enjoy the rest.

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