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Review 38: Transmetropolitan


Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

There are times I look around me and think, “I love living in the future.” I mean think about all that we have – even the simplest phones can call anywhere in the world, and the higher end ones are basically backup brains. Surgery that used to require horrible invasion can now be done with a fraction of the time and the pain. We can cure diseases that a century ago would have been thought of as afflictions by God. Our transportation networks have grown to a point where there is practically nowhere on Earth that cannot be reached in twenty-four hours, and advances in communication have provided us with more information than our ancestors could have hoped to see in their (briefer) lifetimes.

We live in an age of wonders, when you really think about it.

Leave it to Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, then, to show us what living in the future really means.

Transmetropolitan is set in the far, far future – so far ahead that even they don’t know what year it is. It’s set a in future that can do anything – cure any disease, bring people back from the dead, synthesize consumer goods from blocks of inert matter…. You can turn yourself into a dolphin for a day or into a sentient dust cloud for the rest of eternity. It’s a future that defies imagination.

And yet, it is very similar to now. The same problems, the same mistakes and the same short-sightedness that plague us will be around in the future, no matter how good the technology is. Despite being able to have anything you want, there is still greed. Despite being able to reassemble matter on an atomic level, there is still hunger and homelessness. Despite the human form becoming malleable in a thousand different ways, there is still discrimination. This perfect future has a flaw, and like so many perfect things, its flaw is its people.

Our guide to this future is Spider Jerusalem, a celebrated journalist whose love of the truth eclipses his hate of the world he lives in, and he’s determined to set the City straight, even if it kills him. He’s an analogue of Hunter S. Thompson, with a little H.L. Mencken thrown in for balance, and he’s the most awesome character to grace comics in a long time.

Spider is angry because he has to come back to The City, the nameless hypertropolis that both sustains him and drives him mad. He looks around and sees the ugliness under the shiny plastic shell of society and is instantly furious that no one has done anything about it yet. What’s more, it’s time to vote for President again, and this time it looks like it’s a race between an incumbent so horrible that he was nicknamed The Beast and an utterly amoral snake called The Smiler, who wants to be President just because that’s what he wants. Spider Jerusalem, whether he wants it or not, holds the keys to power for both of these men, and even his high moral sense isn’t able to tell him which of the two villains should get it.

Keen observers of 20th century history will see a lot reflected in this series, deliberately and clearly, and Spider is Ellis’ avatar His word is beyond dispute and his decisions are beyond question, which is why Warren Ellis is a kind of internet cult figure these days. He created a character that was a brash loudmouth who could scream the things that we’re all thinking, but someone with whom we feel an almost immediate and unshakable sympathy. He’s enough to make me want to be a journalist.

The future of Transmetropolitan is a place where Ellis was able to tell us everything that had been bugging him, from the hyper-escalation of technology to corrupt government to social apathy. The first few issues, before the real meat of the story kicks in, are “soapbox” issues, where Ellis rails against everything that’s going wrong in our time by making it so much worse in the future. My favorite of these, of course, is the religion issue (#6, God Riding Shotgun) where Spider crashes – and trashes – a convention for new religions. Alien Love Gardeners, the Church of Cobain, and the Church of Release, where trepanation can be practiced as an act of evangelism are excellent examples.

Eventually the story settles down with the arrival of the Presidential Election and Spider’s determination to bring down The Smiler no matter what it costs him.

The writing in this story is fantastic, of course, as we would expect nothing less from Warren Ellis. Spider is utterly, completely foul-mouthed, so don’t let your children read it unless you want them to shock sailors. But there are touching moments and angry tirades and passionate speeches that dig right into your heart, and whether you love Spider or hate him, you know he’s speaking from the core of his soul.

The art, too, is outstanding. It takes great skill to make such ugliness look beautiful, but Darick Robertson certainly has it. The City is a living, breathing place, and it has all of the beauty and horror of a living organism, if you look closely enough. Robertson can render gleaming cityscapes alongside the hollow eyes of child prostitutes with equal care and detail. While you read, be sure to look, because every panel is worth looking at.

Transmetropolitan is a story about truth, really. Or if we want to be specific, The Truth. Spider believes in The Truth, no matter who it hurts, and his mission as a journalist is to discover and promulgate the truth. Whether it’s the truth about the alien-human hybrid prostitutes delivered to the presidential suite or the truth about a level of poverty in the City that would shame a third-world nation, Spider’s aim is to show people what their world looks like and force them to take action. Unfortunately, he’s fighting an uphill battle.

You see, much like in our world, people don’t actually like truth. It’s uncomfortable and unpleasant, especially because there’s a very good chance that the truth could implicate us in some pretty horrible situations. What’s worse, there are countless situations where you can have contradictory situations and explanations, and yet both can be considered “true.” That’s the unfortunate difference between fiction and real life.

Still, I would appreciate Spider Jerusalem today. In this world of instant news, where something that’s an hour old is “old news” and where opinion is put side-by-side with fact as if there were some kind of controversy, we need someone to stand for the truth. Someone who doesn’t care about what people think of him or the consequences of her quest for herself. Someone fearless enough to push as far as he can and then push farther. Someone to stand up and say, “This is what is true.”

We may not listen to this person. In fact, given the way things are going right now, we may even come to hate the one who tells us how we are responsible for the world in which we live. But we need him nonetheless, and if Spider Jerusalem can inspire even a few of us to look at our societies and ourselves with a critical, unblinking, bloodshot eye, then perhaps his spirit lives, even if he doesn’t.

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These are the new streets of this city. Where the New Scum try to live. You and me. And here in these streets are the things that we want: sex and birth, votes and traits, money and guilt. Television and teddy bears. But all we’ve actually got is each other. You decide what that means.
– Spider Jerusalem, Transmetropolitan
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Transmetropolitan on Wikipedia
Warren Ellis on Wikipedia
Darick Robertson on Wikipedia
Warren Ellis’ homepage
Darick Robertson’s homepage
Transmetropolitan on Wikiquote
Transmetropolitan on Amazon.com

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Filed under Darick Robertson, DC Comics, futurism, graphic novel, humor, media, politics, science fiction, technology, totalitarianism, Warren Ellis

Review 14: V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

There are people who think that comic books are just for kids. They see Superman and Batman and Spider-Man, with their bright costumes and their rather simplistic moral codes and think, “Well, that’s all well and good for children, but as a thinking adult, I need something more.” Some of these folks are lit-snobs, who view any kind of book with pictures as immature. Perhaps they were told that they need to grow up, and have distanced themselves with comics as they have done with their own childhoods. Or perhaps they simply don’t know better….

The point is that while there certainly is a lot of childish dross in comics, there’s also a lot of gold. In the right hands, a great story can be told in any medium, be it print, painting, film, stage, or yes – even comics. In this case, the right hands are those of Alan Moore and David Lloyd.

Moore is considered one of the giants of modern comic books, having penned many a dark and strange tale, ignoring the accepted norms of comic book storytelling in order to tell the weird and off-kilter stories that he wants to tell. In the famous Watchmen, Moore told us about the flaws and imperfections inherent in the heroic ideal. In V for Vendetta, he looks at the flaws and imperfections in our societies and ourselves.

The book is set in an alternate London, a place that Could Have Been. In this world, the worst of our modern nightmares has happened – a nuclear war that ravaged many parts of the world. Europe, Africa, these places were, as the characters put it, “gone.” England survived the turmoil by the skin of its teeth, pulling itself up from chaos and disorder thorough the strength of the new government party, Norsefire.

This government is unapologetically fascist. In the turmoil following the war, they saw the only solution to England’s survival in absolute obedience. And so they built a new England – an England of strict rules and laws, with ears and eyes everywhere. Minorities of all kinds were systematically wiped out from the country. Blacks, Muslims, homosexuals – anyone who didn’t fit into the world view of the new leadership was eliminated, and in many cases just disappeared. The government espouses a doctrine of absolute control over its citizenry, seeing that as the only defense against the horrors that the world had just barely survived.

But, for all that, England prevailed. People were safe in their homes, as long as they followed the rules. They were entertained with radio and television, given plenty of amusements and a healthy dose of fear to keep them in line. The government of England seemed almighty, governed by their fascist ideology and a massive supercomputer, known simply as Fate. Nothing, they thought, could challenge their supremacy.

Until V arrived.

With no name, and no face besides the Guy Fawkes mask he wore, the terrorist known as V began to cut a swathe through the ruling elite. All that is known of him is that he had been a prisoner in one of the concentration camps set up by the government. In that place, terrible experiments were done on the human detritus of society – experiments with truly horrific results. Whether V’s incredible mind and physical ability were because of those experiments or despite them, we will never know. All we do know is that he survived, and with a single-minded determination bordering on madness, he sought revenge.

With public demonstrations of terrorism and pyrotechnics, he took it upon himself to wrest control of the city from those who had locked it down. His goal is freedom for everyone, anarchy in its truest sense, and he will not be stopped.

As the title suggests, this is a vendetta on many levels. It is revenge for what was done to V in the prison camps where they took all the “undesirables,” and for what was done to England by its new rulers. V is a man with nothing to lose, and everything to gain – not just for himself, but for his country.

This is a book about freedom on many levels. It’s about political freedom, which makes it especially relevant today, and it’s no coincidence that the film emerged during the headiest days of the Bush administration. Following the attacks of September 11th, Americans were afraid, and the government – like the government of this book – was all too willing to harness that fear in exchange for control. People were told to watch what they say about the President, the government or the troops. Television pundits and spokespeople demanded that criticism be shut down, and that those who disagreed with what the country was doing were branded traitors.

Fortunately, we got through those frightened times, but even today, those who would stay in power use fear to keep people in line. Fear of death, fear of immigrants, fear of gays – fear of The Other – are the first weapons they use to command obedience from their citizenry.

And most people fall in line very easily. It’s not surprising, really. Most people, when they’re afraid, look to someone to take care of them, to protect them and to tell them what to do. It’s a natural impulse, a natural need of human beings. But V exhorts us to move past that. He reminds us that, in a quote from the film, “People should not be afraid of their governments – governments should be afraid of their people.” While our government never reached the depths of the one in this book, it is something that all citizens of all countries should remember.

The book is also about personal freedom. We are all of us prisoners, really – prisoners of our societies and prisoners of ourselves. We are held down by our preconceptions , our doubts and our illusions; our own minds and our beliefs about what others expect of us are what keep us locked into a prison whose bars we cannot even see. V freed himself from his own literal and spiritual confinement to go from prisoner to a societal force, bursting free in an explosion of flame and destruction. He meets a young woman, Evey Hammond, and brings her into his world – partly to be his accomplice, but also to show her how to be free. Her freedom comes at a cost too, enduring the greatest nightmare of a citizen of a fascist society. But she survives, and finds her freedom in the rain and the dark.

The lesson that V teaches us, whether as individuals or societies, is twofold: we hold ourselves prisoner, and there is no more vicious or cruel jailer than ourselves. And that freedom is frightening – it is wild and uncontrolled, and never comes without a price. But that price is well worth paying.

To be honest, it took me a long time to finally enjoy this book. When it came out originally, I was big into super-hero books, and V struck me as just goofy. Why would someone wear such a dumb mask? I thought. And that hat? The cloak is okay, but…. Of course, I knew nothing of Guy Fawkes at the time, so perhaps my ignorance of British history held me back, but still, I was very impatient with it. Also, the art was much rougher and darker than I was used to. The usual four-color palette and clean inks of super-hero comics are not to be found in this book. Instead there are washes of pale purple and yellow and green, with heavy inks and faces full of sorrow and pain.

In other words, it was not what I expected from a comic, and so I gave it a wide berth. And that was probably for the best, since I think that having a better idea of politics and society makes the story that much more interesting. It’s a complex and multi-leveled tale that deserves a thoughtful read, and asks a lot from its reader, and if you expect to get through it without doing some thinking of your own, then you’ll be sorely disappointed.

That is, however, the mark of a great work – does it make you think? Does it come back to you later, when you’re watching the news or reading the newspaper? When you see a story about the pervasiveness of security cameras and think, “I wish V were here,” then Alan Moore and David Lloyd have truly done their jobs.

V isn’t the hero we expect from comics. He isn’t the hero we’d necessarily want, either. But a person like V is necessary sometimes – someone who values freedom above all else. Let us hope that we never need him.

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“Noise is relative to the silence preceding it. The more absolute the hush, the more shocking the thunderclap.
Our masters have not heard the people’s voice for generations, Evey… and it is much, much louder than they care to remember.”
– V, V for Vendetta
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V for Vendetta on Wikipedia
V for Vendetta on Wikiquote
V for Vendetta at DC Comics
Alan Moore on Wikipedia
David Lloyd on Wikipedia
V for Vendetta on Amazon.com
Guy Fawkes on Wikipedia

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Filed under Alan Moore, anarchy, comic books, David Lloyd, DC Comics, England, made into movies, murder, politics, terrorism, totalitarianism

Review 08: Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

What with the movie on its way, I thought it’d be time to go through the book again. And, as always, it was a great pleasure to read.

This is a graphic novel that has an immense impact on comics history. It’s considered to be one of the most important works in the genre in, well, ever. Read any analysis of Watchmen and you’ll read that it revolutionized comics. It changed everything, they say.

They’re right.

Before I get to the actual story – and it’s a formidable story – I want to address the immense technical achievement that is evident in this book. Look at any panel, any page and you can spend a long time just admiring the artistry that has emerged from the Moore-Gibbons partnership. The words and the images fit together like the finest puzzle pieces, each one reinforcing and supporting the others. There are no unnecessary words, and there are no unnecessary pictures.

Goddamn it’s good. It’s a fantastic piece of work.

Just as much as the technical aspects of the book are a marvel, so is the story. It was written in – and set in – the mid-80s. It took the core genre of the comics industry, superheroes, and bent them to reality’s will. These were not the iconic, ageless figures of Batman and Superman, people whose hearts and intentions were pure and who never aged. The superheroes – or “costumed adventurers,” more appropriately – were very, very human. Not only did they age, but they made mistakes. They lied, they failed, they gave up. They were, with one notable exception, human, and their reasons for doing what they did were also very human.

It’s tempting to say, “These characters are us,” because they’re not, but they’re still a lot closer to us than traditional superheroes are. And this was especially true in the mid-80s. The Darkening of comics hadn’t begun yet, and it was probably Watchmen that kicked it off. Suddenly, after decades of two-dimensional storytelling and Manichean moral codes, the idea of heroes with ethical failings, personality problems and a faulty moral compass flooded the market. Unfortunately, they were inferior copies of an exceptional original.

Anyway, the story. The world in 1985 is a different place. The rise of the costumed adventurer had a big impact on the social fabric of the United States, and the Cold War has reached levels of tension that nearly break the world in two. America owns a superweapon in the person of Jonathan Osterman, also known as the nearly godlike Doctor Manhattan, but even he can’t stop the political super-powers from the intractable mess they have created. Everyone can feel it, the great burning and the end of the world. Everyone knows it’s coming.

And then someone kills The Comedian.

The death of this adventurer-turned-mercenary sets off a chain reaction that leads to the discovery of a horrific plan to save the world. People who believe themselves to be heroes have to decide what it means to do good when there are no good choices left to make.

It starts off as a murder mystery with hints of conspiracy and ends with a bang, as well as a deep moral quandary – do the ends justify the means, and if so, how far can we take that argument?

There are points to criticize the book, if you want to. One that my friend Joe mentioned is that, for all that the main characters are supposed to be heroes, they’re utterly un-heroic. They’re the antithesis of what a comic-book hero is supposed to be: morally sure and above reproach. Any mistakes that they make, even the ones that result in tragic consequences, should make them more heroic in the end. That’s what makes characters like Spider-Man and Superman such a pleasure to read. We know that, even if they screw up, they’ll ultimately do the right thing.

The same can’t be said for the people in this book. Rorschach is a homicidal existentialist, Ozymandias is a megalomaniac, Doctor Manhattan is a detached nihilist, sort of, and Nite Owl is a pudgy guy in an owl costume. These people are not, by and large, people that you can cheer for. They’re not people you can look up to, mainly because they’re just like us. They’re flawed, very deeply flawed, and we expect our heroes to be better than that.

So, it is possible that you will dislike each and every character in the book, and I can’t blame you for that. Still, it’s worth your time to read, even if it’s just to admire the technical ability of Moore and Gibbons. As for the movie, I can only pray that they do it right. I have a high tolerance for adaptation – and I know there’s no way the entire comic can be fit into a movie – so I will give the filmmakers some leeway. But I pray that they do it right….

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“Somebody has to do it, don’t you see? Somebody has to save the world…”
– Captain Metropolis, Watchmen
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Watchmen at Wikipedia
Watchmen at Wikiquote
Watchmen annotations
Watchmen movie website
Watchmen at Amazon.com

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Filed under Alan Moore, apocalypse, comic books, Dave Gibbons, DC Comics, ethics, graphic novel, made into movies, morality, murder, mystery, super-heroes, terrorism

Review 04: Superman: Red Son



Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong

Every culture has its icons. Characters or figures that are recognizable by anybody who lives there, figures that are almost impossible not to know. And America is very good at producing those icons and spreading them worldwide. I remember reading somewhere – I don’t remember where at the moment – that the United States’ chief export is dreams, and I think there’s definitely something to that.

Of all the dreams to emerge from the American subconscious over the last century, Superman is one of the most enduring. Show that “S” shield to almost anyone on the planet and they’ll probably know what it is. For most of his lifetime, he has stood for Truth, Justice and the American Way, with the third element to that tag line slowly vanishing as writers with a more global perspective take over the character.

Regardless of his jingoistic past, Superman still remains a popular American figure. He represents what we would like to be, as a country. Powerful and just, upright and honest, but at the same time kind and generous and, at heart, good. Superman has the power to control the world, but he doesn’t – he chooses not to – and we like to believe that it was his small-town, American upbringing that instilled such humility in him.

This book examines how things might have gone.

In the late ’80s, DC Comics introduced their “Elseworlds” imprint, with a pretty simple mandate: take canon DC characters and place them in new situations or environments. This way you could see how Batman might have turned out in an America that had never gained its independence, or what would have happened to the JLA without Superman, or if The Flash had taken the bullet meant for JFK. It opened creative doors, allowing writers to tell new stories about familiar characters without disrupting the regular continuity of the DC Comics line.

Of these, Superman: Red Son is one of the best. Mark Millar poses a simple question with a very complex answer: What if young Kal-L’s rocket had landed in Soviet Ukraine instead of Kansas?

What emerges is a fascinating tale of a Superman brought up under Stalinist philosophy. Still the good man that we know him to be, Superman nonetheless chooses a very different means of interacting with the world. We see from the first few pages that the man cannot stand still – he is constantly in motion trying to save people, not just in the Soviet Union, but anywhere in the world. It is his responsibility, he believes, to keep people safe, much in the manner of Soviet philosophy where the government controls nearly every aspect of its citizens’ lives.

Taken in by Stalin, Superman eventually rises to lead the Soviet Union to nearly world-wide dominance. Under his rule there are no accidents, no wars and no conflicts. Crime is nearly non-existent, and those who do not mesh well in this well ordered world are mentally reprogrammed until they do. There are dissidents, of course, like the mysterious Batman, a singular force of chaos in Superman’s perfectly ordered world, but in the end, even he falls. The only true challenge to Superman’s worldwide reign is the brilliant American scientist Lex Luthor, who has devoted his life to freeing mankind from alien tyranny.

It’s a brilliant take on the myth, with a lot of very familiar characters worked in. The art is gorgeous, with a style and a color palette that evokes thoughts of Soviet-era propaganda posters, yet never fails to be dynamic and fascinating.

More important, however, is the message of the story. The idea that comics can have a message is something that a lot of people seem to ignore, fueling the idea that comics are just for kids. The message in Red Son is very important and very, very timely.

The story was published in 2003, a time when America was in great pain. We had been badly hurt and wanted to set things right. By doing so, however, we caused far more damage to the world than we had ourselves endured. By trying to fix other people’s problems, we created even more, and the harder we pushed, the more the world pushed back. And this was not a new trend – one of the negative labels often affixed to the United States is that of “world policeman.” We have a long, long habit of trying to help everyone, whether that is the right thing to do or not.

In that vein, the Superman of Red Son, despite being a Soviet, is a reflection of ourselves. He is a man of immense power, who decides to help everybody. His intentions are good, but good intentions are not always rewarded with good results. His world is orderly, yes – crime and violence are nearly unheard-of – but it comes at the price of individual freedom. People are no longer in control of their own destinies with Superman in charge, and while that may be a safe life, it is not one that I would like to live.

The political message of this book is subtle, but it’s there. More interestingly, it’s a message that can be enjoyed by a broad spectrum of political views. If you’re a liberal, then it’s taking a stance against imperialism, against the imposition of one country’s values and politics over others’, all in the name of making the world a better place. If you’re a conservative, it’s a call for individual liberty. A government that provides everything for its people is just another form of oppression – without the freedom to make their own choices, for good or for ill, people are not truly free.

In the end it’s a complex tale, with no real good guys and no real bad guys. Except for Brainiac, who will probably never be anything but a bad guy. It’s a story about the choices we make, both as citizens and as societies, and the understanding that we must have the freedom to make those choices. They may sometimes be the wrong ones, but making mistakes is part of the package. In the end, there can be no Superman to save us. We must save ourselves.

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“I care about everybody.
– Superman, Superman: Red Son
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DC Comics.com
Mark Millar on Wikipedia
Superman: Red Son on Wikipedia
Superman: Red Son on Amazon.com
Soviet Posters: Revolution by Design

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Filed under Batman, comic books, Dave Johnson, DC Comics, Elseworlds, ethics, fantasy, graphic novel, Mark Millar, morality, peace, super-heroes, Superman, totalitarianism, USSR