Comics have been going through a very public struggle with maturity for some time now. They were well on their way until they were hit with the 'Comics Code' in the fifties. The code was an outgrowth of reactionary postwar witch-hunting a la McCarthyism, and succeeded in limiting the content of an entire medium for thirty years.
For example, all crime had to be portrayed as sordid, and no criminals could be sympathetic. There goes any comic book retellings of Robin Hood. Good always had to triumph over evil and seduction could never be shown or suggested. In trying to write around these and other rules, it's not surprising that code era books got a little weird in their search for original plots.
When they finally did shake off the yoke, following trailblazers like Steve Gerber and Alan Moore, authors were a bit over-enthusiastic, full as they were of pent-up stories and themes. What followed is colloquially known as the 'Dark Ages', where all heroes were bad dudes, everyone had guns, and Wolverine guest-starred in twelve comics a month.
The release of all that pent-up violence and sexuality hit the industry like a ton of bricks, and soon, anyone who was anyone was penning stories of decapitation and prostitution. They seemed to assume that the inclusion of mature themes made for mature stories, when in reality, they were about as mature as a high schooler's marginalia.
And this struggle is still going on, to one degree or another. At the low end, Liefeld is still out there writing the same action plots, and somewhat better is Ennis, whose Preacher is a love letter to swearing, gross-outs, and bromance. Transmet (for brevity) also has its share of sex, violence, and puerile humor, but for Ellis, this is more than just an exploitation romp, it's a means to an end.
Though underground comics were rife with subversion and political satire, mainstream comics have shown up rather late to the party. Moore's comics are often political, especially his early works, Watchmen and V for Vendetta, but these were rather serious takes, coming from the school of post-modern realism.
In Transmet, Ellis is coming at the issue from a later vantage, that of subversive culture-jamming, most evident in his nods to Hunter S. Thompson's 'Gonzo Journalism'. In the sixties, writers of varying stripes adopted this style in rejection of the repressive fifties, but it took longer to spread to comics.
We can see the same form in action in Transmet, in Ellis' protagonist, Spider Jerusalem, a post-cyberpunk stand-in for Thompson. Most of the time, Spider is following a spiral of madcap self-destruction, doing ridiculous, violent, amoral, childish things in order to break people out of their daily ruts. The first step of this kind of subversion is always to break through assumptions, refusing to play within the system because house rules favor the house.
There is a good deal of humor and adventure in these romps, and their childish unsophistication is part of their charm, and their power. He's an unpredictable, moving target, and though all his actions are focused on specific goals, he makes sure that he is dangerous and entertaining enough to make his mark.
This is where the second step comes in. Once you have grabbed their attention and torn down their expectations, your audience is primed to listen to you with fresh ears. This is the whole point of bombast, wit, and humor. Comedians and Court Jesters are funny because it command attention and allows them to approach issues obliquely, sidestepping the usual thought-terminating cliches.
When Ellis gets these moments, he doesn't put them to waste. As a writer, he is capable of a biting vibrancy that few other authors can match, in comics or sci fi. He hits some of the high points of his impressive career in this book, but then, perhaps that's not so surprising.
This book is relying on two very powerful writing traditions: Gonzo and Cyberpunk, which both use similar methods of witty, idiomatic information overload to communicate their message. What saves this book from the cartoonish violence of a book like Preacher is what always saves cyberpunk: the pure strength of writing.
Both styles share an obsession with synthesis: creating a complex mix of disparate social elements and theories without growing too focused on any particular element. That is why the baroque high-water mark of revolutionary psychadelic writing shares the same location as the birthplace of cyberpunk: Philip K. Dick and Illuminatus!
Gibson really blew everything else out of the water with Neuromancer, and the attempt to pick up the pieces is called 'post-cyberpunk'. It's a collectio of disparate writings sharing a theme and a setting, but widely disagreeing on most everything else. Gibson's book was so prescient (and still is), that everyone else is trying to prove themselves the next technological and social prophet.
There have been a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon, but Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash stands out as one of the most interesting, complex, and purely enjoyable of the lot. Consequently, I spent a lot of time trying (and failing) to find another book that could match it, but with little luck. Not even Stephenson's been able to live up to it.
But there is a lot in Transmet that meets that desire for another Snow Crash, and maybe that shouldn't be so surprising, since Snow Crash was originally scripted to be a comic. It's almost as full of ideas, it's as unpredictable and enjoyable, and the writing has that precise mixture of intellectual and pulp action.
That being said, sci fi is not Ellis' strong suit. This is a soft sci fi if there ever was one, and Ellis' society doesn't hold up to the originality and perverse plausibility of Stephenson's. Ellis gives us sentient nanoclouds next to still frame cameras activated by button. It's not as bad as Star Trek, where you can disintegrate and remotely reintegrate people but can't fix a broken back, but it's not a hard sci fi built around the changes technology brings.
Ellis is more concerned with his characters and his politics, but luckily, he tends to hit his mark with them. Spider, like most of Ellis' protagonists, is a black-hearted, cynical bastard who lives by his own code and leaves a swathe of destruction behind, but as usual, he still manages to make him sympathetic. At his best, Ellis manages to remember that Spider's flaws are flaws, though sometimes, and particularly as he wraps the story up, Spider gets to be too much 'crotchety hero' and too little 'amoral force of nature'.
But it's a good comic, and more than that, it's a good piece of sci fi, though more on the 'Speculative Fiction' end, since it's more concerned with exploring the question of 'what makes us human?' rather than 'what makes travel above c possible?' It's sad and unfair that it never got an Eisner; it surely deserved it.
In fact, it's a crime that this great sci fi series ended in 2002, and that same year, the Nebula and Clarke awards went to a rewrite of 'Flowers for Algernon' whose sci fi elements were superfluous to the story. But then, it's usually too much to hope that a book will both be well written and get accolades.
Robertson's art is also solid, though I'm hard-pressed to think of any interior artist who could match Darrow's covers, but Robertson does admirably. His vision of the future is amusingly detailed and unusual enough to transport us away, and his sense of pacing is strong.
It's worth noting that it took the world twenty years to catch up with Neuromancer, with the premiere of the first Matrix, and that this series predates that landmark social event by several years. As we move closer to The Singularity, and technologies are developed more and more quickly, predicting the future will become more and more difficult. Already, sci fi is shifting to predicting next year instead of next century.
But Transmet looks further than that, because like all great thinkers, Ellis recognizes that to look forward, we must look back. His update of the dystopia to revolutionary politics post WWII is inspired, especially as it is twisted with Gonzo Journalism and Post-Cyberpunk. The best ideas are never one idea, and though Spider's politics sometimes grow to dominate the series, Ellis still contrasts them with a multitude of concepts, leaving us with a pleasing depth of insight.
I can only hope that more comic authors will realize that sex and violence—even at their most over-the-top—can be vital, complex parts of a story, but only if they have a point. There is no story element too outrageous for the arsenal of a talented, driven author.
As usual, it's a joy to see Ellis' madcap style, as he plugs the dangling cords from the cyberpunk machine into the rusty dystopian engine until the whole thing lights up like a 500-channel cold-fission laser-guided Christmas tree. You could do worse. My Suggested Reading In Comics
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