“We often believe with criminal superficiality that to educate the masses politically is to deliver a long political harangue from time to time.”
– Frantz Fanon
Spider Jerusalem’s biggest flaw, the open wound through which pathos positively oozes out of him, is that he’s never wrong. He may occasionally be incorrect or make a miscalculation, but when it comes to the deeper truths about human nature, politics, and other such things he is perpetually, terminally, gothically correct. It seems an odd thing to label a tragic flaw, but Spider is especially right when he doesn’t want to be. Like a sarcastic, unnecessarily violent Oracle of Delphi.
That trait comes to the forefront immediately, as Spider has to deal with the fallout of telling Channon what he thinks of her boyfriend, an evaluation that Spider was remorsefully correct about. Spider is appropriately — and almost immediately — conciliatory relative to the flippant way he delivered the original observation, reminding us that there is sympathy to his rhetorical omnipotence.
It’s an important caveat and one of the key things that stops him from tipping over into being insufferable as a protagonist, but the scene feels out of sequence given that we need that reminder of Spider’s ability to treat another person with a full recognition of their humanity after he tears a swath of destruction through the religion convention.
An interesting bit of worldbuilding for Transmetropolitan that is never ascribed a specific sociological root cause is that there’s a new religion being created roughly every minute, producing the demand for massive trade shows like the one Spider and Channon invade this issue. They run the gamut from the literal UFO cult Fred Christ runs to cartoonish reconstructions of Nordic and Hellenic belief, but the focus more or less remains on the worst excesses of the fringes of Christianity taken to their furthest logical conclusions. Hence Spider both dressing up as Jesus and executing an impromptu performance of throwing the moneylenders out of the temple.
What this issue clarifies about Transmetropolitan, if it needed clarification at all, is that the cosmology of the world it inhabits is purely and utterly secular. There are no gods, no angels or demons watching from above, below, or any other direction, a state of affairs hammered home by Spider lustily writing about how he described killing God to an aggressive missionary on the opening page. That aggressively antitheist outlook stands out significantly from the pack at Vertigo, which, while infamously irreverent, has made a point of including deities or supernatural equivalents thereof in the vast majority of its output.
Transmetropolitan was effectively Vertigo’s first series to explicitly define itself as being a purely secular world with no gods or adjacent beings and it remains an outlier in that respect with only the likes of 100 Bullets and Y: The Last Man as contemporaries among the imprint’s most iconic series.
We know that there’s no God in Transmetropolitan because Spider tells us there isn’t and this issue pretty much puts to bed the fact that Spider is the moral, ontological, and epistemological voice of authority in the narrative for good and all. What it also does is concretize the fundamentally artificial nature of the discourse in the series, especially, but not exclusively around religion.
Some narratives like Steven T. Seagle and Becky Cloonan’s American Virgin or Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man’s create a crucible to push their protagonists’ beliefs to their breaking points through to prompt a transformation of some kind. Others, like The Invisibles or Clean Room, move their characters around a chessboard towards illuminating or solving specific philosophical problems. Transmetropolitan is a considerably different animal.
As Spider’s jaunt through the convention codifies for the rest of the series, Transmetropolitan is a poli sci riff on Westworld: a theme park populated by animatronic people built to bear out Spider’s observations on human nature through its various excesses and shortcomings. There certainly are Westworld adjacent human zoos in Transmetropolitan: gigantic, carefully maintained compounds where people agree to live in period correct reconstructions of everything from Communist China to the mid 20th century Republican party, but these, and the religion convention itself, are also microcosms of the entire structure and purpose of the comic.
Somewhat in the vein of the noxiously cliched suggestion that the hero of any given magical realist narrative is really just locked in a padded room hallucinating everything as lampshaded in the Buffy The Vampire Slayer episode “Normal Again,” it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to suggest that Spider is an alien abductee in a simulation of what an extraterrestrial species thinks humanity is populated by artful forgeries.
For all we know, the original intended ending of the series could have been Spider shooting himself and awakening to find his actual physical body attached to an alien technology projecting the simulation, done away with by the release of The Matrix in 1999. It wouldn’t be the only Vertigo series to have its fate irrevocably altered by the Wachowski sisters.
The consequence is that there isn’t really a discourse being advanced here, it’s mostly just Spider doing an impression of a shouty, violent James Randi unmasking the most egregious frauds he encounters. The first of the two centerpieces almost has to be an intentional homage to Randi as Spider harangues a man claiming to be ritually abducted and probed by aliens until the man’s sweat loosens the glue holding up his prosthetic scar, allowing Spider to peel it off and flick both it and the man’s credibility away.
The second is where the feeling of Transmetropolitan being a guided tour through an amusement park really comes to bear. The next huckster is a far more dangerous man sporting a very real scar representing The Church of Release, which practices trepanation, a five dollar word for boring a hole in the side of your head.
Spider intercepts him trying to recruit a rube established in an earlier page by Robertson whose dialogue may as well have been scripted for an infomercial. Displaying incredible multitasking skills, Spider smacks the potential victim upside the head while engaging in a shouting match with the huckster brandishing an ice pick, explaining that the man he’s currently assaulting needs medical intervention of a credible kind rather than violent quackery sold as being spiritual.
Thanks in large part to Robertson’s gift for expressive faces and body language, it’s a fantastically comical sequence, but it again underlines the forceful paternalism that Spider projects onto the average person. Just like the Transients, Spider is a better advocate for this man than he himself is, and there’s no meaningful voice of dissent to point this out.
The most interesting bit of the exchange is when the scary man with the icepick tells Spider he can legally stab him with it and call it an act of devotion. It’s a startling and incisive revelation about religious overreach in government, but it’s a point that gets immediately lost in the spray of blood as Spider counters his diving attack with a knee to the face. The most interesting observation the issue has to make is immediately swallowed up in violent spectacle and an angry rant that culminates in Spider saying all he can do in the face of these charlatans is tell the truth.
Because of course Spider is correct. There isn’t a reasonable person to be found who could say otherwise, it’s just that the win conditions have been so ruthlessly gamed and the opposition constructed to be so utterly buffoonish that it reads like as naked a power fantasy as the heists and orgies the hosts indulge for the guests in Westworld.
Robertson certainly grasps what is either cathartic or indulgent about this bit of violence by rendering it in the visual language of early Image hyper violence, going so far as to put Spider in the same kind of improbably deep crouch favored by the likes of Silvestri, Liefeld, and McFarlane. There’s a fun parallel to this in The Invisibles on the page Jill Thompson was instructed by Grant Morrison to ape Liefeld as faithfully as possible, but Robertson stays well within his own style, making it somehow even more surreal than Thompson’s satire.
This page also reveals the specific pathos behind Spider’s rage at the religious industrial complex because Ellis is, if nothing else, meticulous in there being some kind of underlying motive or purpose behind everything Spider does. His father ran off to join a cult, which, we can infer has a great deal to do with Spider’s history of poverty, violence, and sex work, which he also repeatedly invokes this issue.
So there we have the rationale for the forceful nature of Spider’s rhetoric and the spectacular violence that accompanies it. Of course that rationale is as much of an artifice as everything else, employed here as the pretext for Ellis to embark on a screed against religion with nothing standing in his way.
Aside from the unexplored implications of legalized religious violence, there’s nothing that elevates Spider’s ranting and rambling beyond the propagandic New Atheism fronted by the likes of Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
The only significant departure from that rhetoric is that, in a small mercy, Spider never descends into the depths of orientalism and neo colonialist concern trolling that New Atheism reserves for Islam. His fundamental correctness and reverence for the truth while pursuing the flimsiest of targets, however, is a trait that puts him right at home with the architects of New Atheism. After all, Bill Maher keeps a mug on the set of Real Time inscribed with “… BUT I’M NOT WRONG.”
Much has been said and yet will be about Hunter S. Thompson being the primary template for Spider Jerusalem, but Thompson is most iconically known as being deeply, dangerously curious, flinging himself into incredibly dangerous situations like shadowing the Hells Angels or driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on a number of different drugs. Spider Jerusalem, as we see him in Transmetropolitan, is deeply incurious.
He frequently alludes to a younger version of himself we see only in snippets who held a similar reckless curiosity before it became scabbed over by the various cruelties of life. Thus Spider is hardly a vessel for the iconic Thompson who flung himself repeatedly into the vanguard and owes much more to the likes of the acerbic, hardened latter day George Carlin, Bill Maher’s endless well of provocation, or, improbably, human firehose Alex Jones.
It’s an important amendment not least because the heady, psychedelic, and tonally bipolar Thompson who bled as much as wrote Hells Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would have made a poor tour guide. The other half is that Spider Jerusalem, the final product we see strutting on the page, taps into a very primal archetype whose iterations fan out into the horizon lines of both past and future. There’s nothing quite like the melange of obscenity and politics delivered in bellicose, comedically tinged masculine voices to ensorcel the minds of a generation of youth.
The current generation of mostly left leaning newsmen and political commentators from Maher to Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, and Michael Moore all share the youthful discovery of George Carlin as a seminal moment, and Carlin is an acknowledged master of slipping reasoned political discourse into material packaged to elicit an explicit thrill. As observed by Olbermann while interviewing Carlin, the comedian’s most trenchant commentary on government surveillance was the opening anecdote that began The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television. Carlin is likely the most obvious and most influential iteration, but the archetype of the jester who pushes at the limits of political and obscene speech simultaneously is more or less as old as human civilization itself.
Still there’s something undeniable about how much Carlin was able to become an epochal figure by filling that role as the media landscape changed to provide him with an unprecedented platform that continued to expand exponentially in scope and scale across his career.
As Marshall McLuhan would remind us, the medium is the message, and so Carlin’s impact in politically engaging multiple generations of youth deserves recognition beyond the content. Carlin’s television presence and the clandestine dissemination of his tapes among youth barred from his work by disapproving parents created a kind of community and shared experience of his work that had never been possible before on such a scale.
Carlin spoke to a disaffection and a pathological need to test the limits of speech that is almost universal among adolescent boys (and girls too as the surge of like-minded female comics like Margaret Cho, Sarah Silverman, and Amy Schumer is steadily proving) that relentlessly seeks an outlet.
Mine was Transmetropolitan, which created and continues to sustain a sense of community and shared experience of its own through this feature, but where the phenomenon is most arrestingly — and sometimes worryingly — proliferating is the web, where the boundaries can sometimes be almost impossible to find.
Throughout his career, Carlin had both rigidly defined and enforced boundaries on his speech, which retreated at a glacial pace even as the handful of broadcasters on public airwaves expanded into the cable habitat he went on to define. His own work, specifically how many of the infamous seven words had become permissible, was the truest barometer, as he once waxed poetic about with Chris Rock. The bounds of what Ellis and Robertson were allowed to depict were considerably more elastic thanks to the unique place that the Vertigo line has in comics history.
In a broad sense, Transmetropolitan began at a time of unprecedented lassitude for violence, sex, and profanity in mainstream comics won in part by works like The Sandman, Swamp Thing, and Hellblazer that pushed harder and harder against the waning influence of the Comics Code Authority that bifurcated the American industry in 1954. DC sketched out boundaries of its own, formally creating the Vertigo imprint in 1993 to both collect that boundary pushing content and wall it off from the ostensibly family friendly content of the rest of the line.
Arriving in the context of Vertigo being so segregated from DC that Zatanna would have to be depicted with blonde hair to be cleared for The Books of Magic: Life During Wartime and after the blowout battles between Karen Berger and Grant Morrison over The Invisibles, there were very clear limits to what Ellis and Robertson could do, even if the fences never seemed to do much more than loom at the edges of their peripheral vision.
These kind of demarcations and boundaries, applied to either Carlin or Ellis and Robertson, seem fairly quaint in relation to the seemingly unmitigated liminal nature of the contemporary Internet, which Transmetropolitan never quite got its arms wrapped around. One of the most important distinctions to make between old media like television or print and the Internet is that the former are explicitly capital controlled spaces while the latter absolutely is not.
While Carlin, for instance, could have hypothetically aroused the ire of the government in the form of the FCC had he pushed his material beyond those seven words, but the force that carried the most weight in determining his, and anyone else’s speech on television, were the financial stakeholders in the networks he appeared on. The biggest check on obscenity, the most tried and true enforcer of community standards in the United States, is the hand that signs the cheques.
It’s a dynamic that has become obscured in the age of the Internet, but it came roaring back into the forefront with the rise and precipitous fall of YouTube star Felix “PewDiePie” Kjellberg, who lost a lucrative deal with Disney and valuable promotion by YouTube and Google after his rising profile prompted scrutiny of anti semitic content in his videos.
What Disney, old media barons that they well and truly are, failed to understand when they initially courted Kjellberg is that despite the enormous scale of his success — estimated to be in the region of fifteen million dollars — he was a feral creature that had never had to submit to the kind of vetting or oversight that would have prevented the anti semitic and misogynist strains of his thought to penetrate into the product.
That’s what’s at the heart of the fundamental distinction in the Internet not being a capital controlled space. You can go to the web to make money, and there absolutely is a ceiling for how much you can make before having to accept the same kind of compromises as old media access requires, but it isn’t built into the price of admission the same way that landing a special with HBO or a series at Vertigo is. When 4chan founder Christopher “m00t” Poole was asked about the commercial prospects for the board following a TED talk in 2010, he summed up the relationship between speech and capital on the web thusly:
“The commercial picture is that there isn’t much of one, I guess. […] The site has some adult content on it, obviously it’s got some very offensive obscene content on it, just in terms of language alone and when you’ve got that, you’ve pretty much sacrificed any hope of making lots of money.”
While never mentioned by name, 4chan’s legacy as a venue for adolescent boundary pushing at the limits of obscenity weighs heavily on Jacob Clifton’s analysis of Kjellberg’s place in the contemporary Internet ecosystem for Buzzfeed:
“Reddit ‘ironists,’ imageboard Pepe posters, and all the other uncreative online shock jocks are born of a culture that is insulated from real life. […] They become collectives, at which point it feels like they came from nothing. But they came from somewhere: boredom, loneliness, and the universal feeling (which most of us are lucky enough to overcome in childhood) of being the protagonist of the universe, who is mistreated despite doing one’s best.
To these boys, rape and Anne Frank are equally ghost stories, equally a path to extremity. The thing is that this breed of deeply aggrieved male nerd will always talk louder, talk over each other, talk over women. Nerds scream because they don’t feel heard. That’s the only reason anyone ever does.”
The condition of white masculinity that Clifton describes here is hardly new to comics readers, it’s the deep reservoir of disaffection and entitlement that Steve Ditko’s Randian inflected contributions to Spider-Man tapped into and Mark Millar would later synthesize into a cottage industry of grotesque power fantasies epitomized by Kick-Ass, Wanted, and Kingsman: The Secret Service.
In theorizing an archetype for Kjellberg and former Breitbart firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos, Clifton describes a kinetic, living version of Spider Jerusalem grown to fill the spaces between panels or a pervasively connected Carlin:
“Imagine how easy it would be to idolize someone who so regularly can be counted upon to reframe your personal Overton Window — the category of what you think is unthinkable — to include things you wouldn’t have said six months ago, every six months. It’s a wonderful feeling, of liberation and transgression, and it never ends: What gave you a thrill now sounds commonplace, everyone is saying it, everyone has normalized it, and we need to move on to something else. Something worse, or else nobody will pay attention. This reciprocating discourse provides incredible validation, teaching that the worst thing a guy can think doesn’t make him a terrible person, but a hero.”
Where Clifton falters and ultimately fails in his thesis is to claim that the radicalization that he observes is too new to have a name. The drive to influence an audience, particularly a youthful and disaffected one, by expanding what they believe is thinkable, and thus possible, through obscenity was George Carlin’s life’s work from the release of Class Clown until the day he died. A mission in life he shared with many agitators of the 1960s including novelist William S. Burroughs, beat poets like Allen Ginsburg, and Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman.
It was also very explicitly the shared spirit of The Invisibles, Preacher, and Transmetropolitan, Vertigo’s first generation of creator-owned series. Morrison sought to bring a new consciousness into the dawning 21st century in part by evoking the likes of the Marquis de Sade by “panning for gold in the archetypal dung of the human unconscious.” Garth Ennis pursued his own marriage of the divine and the profane by punctuating a quest to discover where God disappeared to and why with an escalating human embodiment of obscenity referred to as “Arseface.”
Ellis and Robertson contributed by rounding up every sacred cow they could lay their hands on, gathering them together in a single pasture, spiking their feed with liberal doses of laxatives, and, finally, tipping them all over.
Despite Clifton’s failure of imagination to conceive of the core of his thesis having analogue roots beneath the digital surface he investigates, there’s a fundamental and important truth in his words that applies to the tantrum that Spider throws at the convention and the deeper pathology of his need to be loudest and most correct over the din of public discourse: “Nerds scream because they don’t feel heard.”
Spider, despite his elocution and cult following, feels put upon and wronged on a cosmic level because he was unable to stop the election of The Beast or dismantle the cynical industry that robbed him of a father. A trauma which has ultimately cost him his ability to recognize his positionality in most circumstances, which in turn recalls the remainder of the Frantz Fannon quote I opened with:
“To educate the masses politically does not mean, cannot mean, making a political speech. What it means is to try, relentlessly and passionately, to teach the masses that everything depends on them; that if we stagnate it is their responsibility, and that if we go forward it is due to them too, that there is no such thing as a demiurge, that there is no famous man who will take responsibility for everything, but that the demiurge is the people themselves and the magic hands are finally only the hands of the people.”
If Spider’s tragic flaw is that he is perpetually, gothically correct, then this is the fundamental struggle he grapples with throughout the series. To move beyond placing blame on the state of stagnation his world has fallen into on the masses to recognize that those same people have the ability to push it out of entropy into a new era. A truth he can’t very well embrace if he’s screaming over the people he purports to be advocating for, no matter how big his public platform gets.