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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Spirit of our Times

Transmetropolitan - A Spirit of our Times
Steven Stemp

The New Year is a unique time, it allows us to gaze longingly back into the past, and to look hopefully to the future. To leave behind the mistakes of the old, and get ready to make entirely new ones. The New Year is a time of reflection, of looking deeply into oneself, and then swiftly seeking to change it.

Sometimes we stretch our eyes further, look upon the world around us, and perhaps we will be lucky enough to find someone else who already did that looking, and gave us a novel, a film, a TV series, a game, some form of media that sums up the world; The spirit of our times. A moral compass that typifies our world, one which puts all the dirty truths of the age of the plain white sheet of the page. I have looked, I have been looking for many years, and it seems no closer this year than last.

Charles Dickens writes Oliver Twist, and an entire slum of London is rebuilt. Orwell writes 1984, and for a time it’s warnings resonate with us. Now however the majority thinks of Big Brother, and they think of hot tub orgies, and fly-by-night ‘celebrities’. The constant surveillance is mocked and naturalised, so no one is ever concerned with it any longer, much less would they be concerned with the encroaching losses of freedom. Our closest Celebrity-Author parallel has no greater legacy than her legions of 13 year old fans, their wish fulfilment fan-fiction, and piles of merchandise. No sooner has she finished the last book anyone will care about, along comes another author to fill the void, to green light the movies, OK the action figures and inspire the fan-fiction. It’s a very simple cycle, based largely upon saturation. As more books have become available, and on a larger and larger scale they mean less, touch less people.

Simultaneously, publication may no longer be based upon the worth of your words, but upon how well you might sell, on whose fanbase you may supplant. Books don’t come in series anymore, but in franchises. If there is a Dickens or an Orwell out there in the world today, trying to fight the good fight, we’ll probably find them on YouTube, at best ignored, at worst lumped together with conspiracy theorists.

So, in short, I don’t believe we’ll find the spirit of our times in the books out there. Perhaps we’ll find it in the computer games? Sadly, formats are finite, and a computer game, no matter its message, will be largely forgotten within five years in the next big upgrade. So we can’t find our enduring message there. Do our films dare to challenge us? Some do perhaps, consider Persepolis, or Waltz with Bashir both have a powerful message delivered in the medium of animation. But what does that say of us? Have we become so inured to the horror of reality that it must be made "hyper real" before it even begins to sink in? Consider that sooner than ruin our Christmas, for the first few days the news of Gaza was hushed on all but a few news stations. Say the word River over and over and eventually the syllables lose all meaning. See the dying day in and day out on the news, and we’ll shed no more tears. Assuming we’re not already, as a society, at that point already.

All of our media is saturated, a vast mess of franchises, those few pieces that may once have existed to offer a moral compass will no longer reach us as they will, by and large, never be allowed to exist, or simply snowed under by so much other nonsense, and thus never reprinted, remade or recreated as it would not be profitable. The spirit of our times, the theme of the present era of human history is of little more than excess. We find ourselves in the midst of economic crisis, motivated and perpetuated by simple greed. The warnings of the past are subverted into meaninglessness, our media is nothing but a tool of the elite, our entertainment does not work to enlighten, but to stifle. I can think of a few works that have touched upon these truths, only to become swallowed and assimilated by Hollywood feel-good endings, or simply ignored entirely. One piece however, remains brazenly open in its venom against the present, casting a weary eye over the world as it now stands and declaring "I hate it here. . ."

Between 1997 and 2002 Warren Ellis Penned and Darick Robertson Inked the 60 part tale of journalist of the near future Spider Jerusalem in DC-Vertigo’s Transmetropolitan. Set almost entirely within the city a vast and sprawling metropolis that may once have been almost any city in the US, Transmetropolitan is a dystopian nightmare of unchecked corruption, consumption and excess. Called back to this world from a woodland retreat, the hard drinking, drug abusing anti-hero is forced to write again, having been unable to meet the demands of his publishers.

Over the course of the series, Jerusalem bears witness to massacre and brutality inflicted by the state, uncovers corruption and probes the deeply wounded psyches of the alienated and self-obsessed victims and residents of his world. For his trouble, he meets only with brutal reprisal, and the brutally depicted loss of one of the few people that matter to him. Transmetropolitan forces us to ask if we should sacrifice truth for journalistic objectivity, or whether we really need someone to spit in our face every now and then, and tell us how things really stand.

Between its bowel disruptors, graphic violence and language, Transmetropolitan is a beautifully written piece, and its chaotic art style brings a sickening energy, perfectly capturing its essence. In some issues, there is little to no artwork, instead we are swept along in the pure prose of Spider Jerusalem, and amidst its venom we find poetry, we are truly moved to his levels of despair. As with many dystopian pieces, its made clear throughout Transmetropolitan that the soulless ‘MonoCulture’ in which Spider is trapped, is in fact our own world, simply distorted and reframed. Globalisation has led to a singular identity across the face of the world, and no two cities are truly distinct enough to offer any reprieve. Only in self destruction, altering the very basis of human identity, do those within the MonoCulture hold on to hope. They buy happiness in drug form, in altering the body, or losing themselves in hypothetical constructs of futures that may never exist. Transmetropolitan holds a mirror up to the present, and offers us no room to argue against its revealed truths.

However, in as much as Transmetropolitan is a critique of our world, ironically it is as much a franchise as any other. DC Vertigo has released a glut of merchandise around the property, despite the in-text attacks on such things. It’s no more going to alter the way we perceive the world than Rage Against the Machine ever forced the MTV generation out of our seats into glorious revolt. So, despite its honesty, despite it being the most honest depiction of our times, it extols the spirit in another sense; it’s a product, targeted at the disenfranchised. That is the spirit of our times, we are now each members of a demographic, simply disposable incomes labelled in such a way that is best to exploit us.

But not to worry, Watchmen is out soon, and the "economic downturn" means more savings. Big Brother’s back on TV, and in a few weeks our resolutions, our reflections will all be forgotten. Happy New Year!
May the spirit move you!

© Steve Stemp Jan 7th 2009

Steven is studying Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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