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Transmetropolitan: Spider's Thrash
Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson and Rodney Ramos
Titan paperback £10.99

review by Patrick Hudson

Spider Jerusalem is a gonzo-journalist living a surreal near future city, with a take-no-prisoners dedication to truth, justice and what used to be called the American way. Rather than the bank robbers and communist spies that kept Superman busy, Jerusalem fights the corrupt politicians and the perpetrators of the very immediate injustices of abuse, prejudice and corruption.
   The Superman comparisons are not inapt: Clark Kent is, after all, the most famous comics journalist of them all and, after scientists and bored playboys, journalists probably furnish the most popular secret identity in superhero-dom. Like his stable-mate at Vertigo's parent DC Comics, Spider Jerusalem uses his own special form of x-ray vision to see through the cute conspiracies of corruption and uncaring ignorance that blight the lives of the weakest in society, socking them on the nose with his superheroic rhetoric.
   This volume suffers from being an episode in a series I haven't been following. Far from being a graphic novel in the artsy-fartsy sense, it is a compilation of six issues from the ongoing series, and therefore begins assuming prior knowledge and ends assuming continuing interest. This is rather frustrating if you are expecting plot and resolution. In fact, it's a long time since I read six issues of a comic with so little plot in them; Ellis doesn't seem to feel the need to have anything dynamic actually happen over the course of this volume, the decisions that set the events detailed herein having been made in previous episodes (although there is one slow tick of plot that happens across these issues, without any of the characters having to take action).
   However, the volume does have interest for the casual reader. Ellis writes powerfully about the plight of the less fortunate in society, and some sections of Spider's Thrash could almost stand alone as non-fiction pieces. The sections on child prostitution and treatment of the mentally ill, in particular, strike a note of outrage rarely seen in mainstream comics. The script turns what are, in effect, text features into a compelling graphic form through captions and dialogue that gives a face and background to the testimony.
   It's perhaps more a comment on what we are conditioned to expect from mainstream comics than on Ellis that such subject matter sits ill at ease amongst the pop-culture reference and mass-media asides, but Ellis' bleak vision of a world of festering moral decay and fetishised sexuality is unrelentingly adolescent. In a world of alien religions, triple-breasted hermaphrodite porn and casual mutation, the real-world issues are just part of the farcical dystopia rather than something immediate and important.
   This impression is reinforced by the layout and art, competent but rigorously traditional mainstream comics representational illustration. The artists and typographers make scant effort to use the graphical elements of the comic form, the only concession being Jerusalem's courier-typeface articles. The creators seem unwilling to break through the fourth wall, and even Ellis is unwilling to address his readers directly through captions preferring to let Jerusalem do all the talking. I guess that's fair enough, but I expected more from a comic with such urgent content.
   This compilation makes a big deal of Jerusalem's move from publication in the City's major newspaper to independent publication on the public networks, uninfected by the industrial process. He has been frustrated in his desire to tell the truth by those old-faithful fictional standbys the money-men and the guys-in-suits: only by freeing himself of this process can he bring the unalloyed truth to his readers. But this brings the comic itself into question - after all, DC Comics is part of AOL/Time Warner, the biggest media conglomerate on the planet. If Superman is Star Trek, then Transmetropolitan is The West Wing, worthy and serious but still a product of the mainstream media machine that moderates what can be said and how.
   It's unclear whether Ellis appreciates this irony or not, but based on what's on show here I wouldn't be at all surprised either way. And I mean that as a compliment.
Transmetropolitan: Spider's Thrash
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