Book Review: Transmetropolitan, Vol. 6: Gouge Away

Book Cover“I have a cunning plan!”

The sixth Transmetropolitan collection, like the previous volume, is a mixed bag. The main story, “Gouge Away,” is a strong investigative reporting tale and nicely ties together the Transmetropolitan, Vol. 5: Lonely City and Transmetropolitan, Vol. 4: The New Scum stories. Spider Jerusalem’s talents really get to shine and his articles make a huge impact after the media’s attempt to defang him with popularity. The other three issues have some highlights, but for the most part feel like a bit of really good filler.

“We’ve never listened to a word you’ve said.”

The first issue, “Nobody Loves Me,” is a sequence of television shows based on Spider. As Spider’s fame and popularity grow, the media feels driven to commodify his persona. Of course, to an extent Spider is already a caricature of gonzo investigative reporters like Hunter S. Thompson; how else to explain his outbursts for “Waiter! Fresh underwear, seven blankets and a bucket of moist towelettes!” The result is thus a caricature of a caricature. The three examples presented cover a wide range of genres. “Magical Truthsaying Bastard Spidey” is a risqué anime, “From the Mountain to the City: The Life and Work of Spider Jerusalem” is an amfeed fiction akin to a dirty soap opera, and “I Hump It Here” is the inevitable porn parody. The common theme through all these is Spider’s character is transformed into pure hedonistic entertainment.

The issue ends with two dreams while Spider is passed out on drugs. The first dream is fantasy where Spider gets to literally stomp out his perceived detractors. This sequence is a bloody power trip revenge fantasy that highlights Spider’s frustrations with his editor, women, and audience. This dream changes into a nightmare about the New Scum, who attempt to drag Spider down into a monstrous orgy. Spider laments “I wanted you to hear me” which gets the response “We did. We just didn’t listen.” This illustrates the tendency of audiences to physically take in media but ignore (sometimes willfully) the message conveyed by that media, especially any undertones in the material. The New Scum idolize Spider and follow him without realizing how much he hates them for electing Gary Callahan president. Similarly, many “talking heads,” especially political pundits, shout their opinions all over television and radio, with their supporters blindly following along and detractors blindly dismissing everything.  Sounds an awful like the United States since January 20, 2017 (#AlternativeFacts), doesn’t it?

“Get the City under my feet. Feel alive again.”

The second issue, “The Walk,” is composed entirely of two panel pages with Spider’s narration under each horizontal panel. This gives the pictures a slightly letterbox feel, fitting for a writer who helped originate the “widescreen comics” style. The story follows Spider as he wanders the City after bumping into a lady on the street who calls him “Spider boy.” This slight combined with the television shows from the previous issue force Spider to re-examine the impact his work can have on the people. He eventually stumbles upon a new outlet for his work that circumvents Callahan’s D-notice (another presidential travesty that could sadly become reality under President Trump). It is no coincidence that this scene unfolds in a diner straight out of the famous painting Nighthawks, with its “symbols of human isolation and urban emptiness” and Edward Hopper’s acknowledgement that “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city” (notice the callback to the previous Transmet collection’s title, Lonely City). This issue is similar to the earlier issue “21 Days in the City.” The narration directly from Spider coupled with a minimal number of powerful images create a simple and direct view of the City and Spider’s place in it. Once again Spider’s physical interaction with people on the street proves the key in a world ruled by technology.

“The Walk” ends with a December 1919 quote from H.L. Mencken, another clear influence on the character of Spider Jerusalem. Much like Spider’s association with the City, Mencken was strongly associated with Baltimore; he was even known as the “Sage of Baltimore.” Mencken’s satiric cynicism strongly resembles the best of Jerusalem’s work. Just prior to the quote, Spider lays out his philosophy about politicians like Callahan in true Mencken fashion.

“They assume, like most people, that fear will do the trick. Fear will keep everyone in place. Fear will keep everyone distracted from what’s really going on.
Let him know we can beat him up, let him know we could have killed him, let him know we can destroy him, let the fear shrivel him up. Fuck that. I’m not afraid of them. They’re afraid of me.
They’re afraid of the truth.”

In the real world, the 2016 presidential campaign was largely a debate about fear mongering and lying. Hillary Clinton was the prototypical politician, with many people viewing everything she said as a lie. Donald Trump routinely invoked xenophobia and claimed everything is a disaster without offering any feasible policies to fix the problems. One can only imagine the field day Spider Jerusalem (or Mencken) would have with these two candidates, and now even more with President Trump.

“What he’s doing: it’s the right thing.”

The third issue, “Dancing in the Here and Now,” follows Yelena and Channon on a day off from work and away from Spider. Of course, neither woman can help talking about Jerusalem and the effect he has on their lives. As Yelena contemplates why she continues to work for Spider even though her job sucks, she tells Channon “What he’s doing is right, and has made a difference, and can make a difference. And I really wasn’t ready for that.” Channon asks Yelena why she doesn’t just quit like “normal” people would. Yelena replies, “Because I’m alive,” echoing Spider’s need to walk the streets of the City; small wonder Yelena strikes a similar pose while walking and smoking earlier in the issue. Yelena’s response and Channon’s concurrence might seem odd after a day of debauchery including drinking, clothes shopping, firearms shopping, a shooting range, and more drinks. Shouldn’t all those untamed antics qualify as being alive? No. Because as the women discover, life needs meaning. Without a cause, all your actions are hollow, meaningless, dull. Behind all the Dionysian behavior, Spider has a higher purpose and a greater impact on society than the multitude of people milling about the City. Taken in that perspective, this issue serves a purpose in the series, although on the whole it feels like mostly filler. Also, the mysterious woman in black Channon confronts remains unexplained, never to be resolved at a later time after the events of “Gouge Away.”

“Did you think I was lying when I warned you? Did you think the truth was not in me?”

The “Gouge Away” three part story is a tour de force of Spider Jerusalem’s investigative reporting prowess. He eschews his Filthy Assistants to take down Gary Callahan by himself. His investigations take him to his old contact Kristin, a Right Love cell, the alien love messiah Fred Christ, Mrs. Callahan in California, one of Rory Flanagan’s killers, and a hotel pimp. This trail nicely ties together many characters and plot threads built up over the course of the series. Many questions are finally answered when Spider’s column is published. All of this legwork proves yet again Spider’s propensity for leveraging human interaction to best an opponent. As usual, though, Spider makes full use of the technology at his disposal, such as his transportation method to California that avoids detection of his passage. Technology is pervasive in science fiction, especially in Transmet, but it still takes human intelligence and intuition to utilize that technology.

Interestingly, the word “gouge” has two meanings in North America. The first, traditional, meaning is “cut or force something out roughly or brutally.” Spider’s tactics certainly fit this definition. The second, informal, meaning is “overcharge; swindle.” This definition befits the other side of the equation: the politicians and police who trick the public using fear and believe “Fear will keep everyone distracted from what’s really going on.”

The second issue of “Gouge Away” begins with a snippet of Spider’s column.

“A short weird ride to the heart of darkness. You and me, we’re going into the White House. We’re going into the Callahan team, the President’s Men.
And we’re going to see what they’re really like down there in the dark.”

This quote beautifully combines several contributors to the character of Spider Jerusalem. The phrase “short weird ride” evokes Hunter S. Thompson. The phrase “heart of darkness” is surely a reference to Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness, which interestingly ties into Spider’s water motif (more on this in a bit). And the phrase “the President’s Men” has to be a nod to the book All the President’s Men written by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, a pair of investigative reporters just like Spider. Woodward and Bernstein had Nixon to fight, Spider has Callahan. Nixon’s Watergate scandal is dwarfed by the crimes committed by Callahan and Alan Schact. Nixon’s disregard for laws and proper presidential behavior (“when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal”) were mirrored by The Beast (“If the President of the United States does it, it can’t be a crime”).

And in an eerie instance of prescience, Warren Ellis almost predicted the presidency of Hillary Rodham Clinton with a news update in the aftermath of Spider’s column revealing all of Callahan’s skeletons in his closet. “Gary Callahan this morning registers the lowest ever approval rating for a sitting president since President Rodham was caught fisting kittens in the streets of Brooklyn.” Yet another instance of Transmet unknowingly predicting much of the lunacy occurring in 2016.  Now, of course, President Trump blends the worst of Callahan and The Beast.

“I died on the cross for your sins! And I’ve shat myself!”

The motif of water continues in this collection, emphasizing Spider’s remark “The older I get, the more I like it out here by the water.” Spider rests by a river at the end of “The Walk.” His world wanderwindow shows dawn over the beach on the Kirabati Islands. And he rests on a bridge over water upon returning from visiting Mrs. Callahan in California. He appears to take solace being near water. The only time we really see Spider calm is in these scenes. Warren Ellis begins his current weekly newsletter, “Orbital Operations,” with the opening “Hello from out here on the Thames Delta.” So the water references are something personal to Ellis; or he has subsumed them into himself, the author being influenced by his own creation. The previously mentioned reference to Joseph Conrad (“heart of darkness”) indirectly brings to mind the river voyage into the jungle to find the mad Kurtz. There could also be a hint of a religious aspect, since most religions consider water a purifier. Although knowing Spider’s spiteful opinion of religion (particularly in a culture that spawns a new religion every hour), this one might be a stretch. But there’s definitely a connection between Spider and water.

“I’m noboby’s fucking cartoon.”

One aspect of Tranmset I hardly comment on is the artwork by Darick Robertson. Tranmset is much more famous and regarded for the words written by Warren Ellis, but a comic book is 50% pictures. Robertson’s work is outstanding throughout the series and so it’s easy to take it for granted. Having the same illustrator for the entire series helps maintain a consistency that other series can lack, an advantage many of these Vertigo imprint series (Preacher , Y: The Last Man ) have over other comic books. Robertson deftly handles everything thrown at him: bloody violence, overt sexuality, quiet moments, action sequences. While Transmet contains plenty of action and wide open sequences, much of the story is people talking, yet the artwork never gets boring or remains static. It also contains some iconic images, such as Spider cupping his hand to light a cigarette or Spider hunched over a keyboard furiously typing out his latest truth seeking article. And don’t forget the inestimable shades worn by Spider.

That said, the multiple guest artists in “Nobody Loves Me” portray vastly different versions of Spider. Obviously this is partly on purpose given each version isn’t supposed to be the real Spider, but instead an actor portraying Spider. But that issue feels disjointed due to the jumps in artwork, a problem endemic to all comic book issues that use different illustrators in a single issue. I’m not sure if this issue was used to give Robertson some breathing room in his drawing schedule, but it definitely winds up standing out (in a bad way) among all the issues of the series.

“I haven’t forgotten a thing.”

Transmet returns to its roots in this volume with Spider’s investigative reporting taking the lead. The issue of fame blunting his fangs is quickly put to bed. It’s an excellent read that brings together much of the preceding story elements. The reader is left dangling at the end with what will happen to the intrepid trio of Spider, Channon, and Yelena, but that’s just all the more reason to continue reading this excellent series.  Even more so given the real world political climate of 2017.

 

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Travis Hudson
Chief Editorial Officer at Rampant Discourse

Software developer by day. Member of the literati by night. Full time father of one son and one daughter. Music enthusiast. Comic book defender. Cultural deconstructionist. Aspirant philosopher. Zen but not Zen.


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