Transmetropolitan and Politics in Comic Books
No, it’s not Mallard Fillmore, smart guy. It’s not Doonesbury, either.
No, my favorite political comic is Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan. Set in a post-cyberpunk, hyper-consumerist, singulartarian dystopia (called “The City”), Transmet follows the doings of Spider Jerusalem, a hard-drinking, grumpily cynical journalist whose long-standing book deal pulls him out of a state of semi-retirement and thrusts him back into the muck and mire of the so-called civilized world. Through Spider’s funkily bespectacled (but keenly incisive) gaze, Ellis explores issues of sex, drugs, religion, multiculturalism, big media, and so on, blowing his topics up to ridiculous proportions to match the ridiculousness of his setting. In this way, Ellis leverages Spider to comment on the real-life absurdities of the present, while keeping him rooted firmly in the fictive world.
Of course, the real reason I consider Transmet my favorite political comic is its treatment of presidential politics. Hunter S. Thompson, whose brand of gonzo journalism characterized the angsty, paranoiac doldrums that followed the Summer of Love in America, inspired the character of Spider Jerusalem’s own approach and politics. Like Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72,” in which the author documents his time following the campaign of George McGovern, and his virulent hatred of and occasional (probably spurious) run-ins with Richard Nixon, Spider’s metaplot puts him in the midst of the campaign between “The Beast” and “The Smiler”—a campaign in which neither candidate can necessarily be described as the “lesser evil.” No spoilers, of course, but the campaign (and a dirty campaign it is) figures pretty centrally to the plot, and the story—which often veers for the sardonic—treats it with deadly seriousness. If you haven’t read Transmetropolitan, you should. And if you’re an American (or live in another reasonably democratic country), you’ll probably be at least somewhat unnerved by the political likenesses that strike maybe a little too close to home for comfort.
My point in bringing up Transmet is to make plain what comic aficionados already know—that comics are a pretty meaty forum for social and political critique. And they have been for a damn long time. And we’re not just talking ‘zines, Comix and small press stuff, but the big boys as well. David and I share a love of the X-Men, so consider the well-documented parallels between the struggles of Marvel’s mutants and the American struggle for Civil Rights. Likewise, Marvel’s Civil War explores issues of privacy, and the encroachment of Big Government on personal freedoms (even if we’re talking about the freedom to be a superhuman badass privately, and without government oversight).
So what makes comic books such a great platform to explore political issues? Is it their serial nature (so social issues can be examined longitudinally)? Is it that they’re larger than life, so issues can be blown up and examined unselfconsciously? Is it because comics have always been something of a subversive medium, one that sails somewhat below the radar (The Code not withstanding)? Yes to all of these, I think. Consequently, as comics (or comic characters at least) are exploding into the forefront of the popular consciousness (and have been for the better part of a decade), I wonder if we can continue to count on them to be such a profound platform for exploring politics and society. Certainly I’m not the only person who has observed a thread of Jingoism through recent comic book movies… For now I reserve judgment and remain optimistic that writers and creators will continue to turn out provocative stories rooted in social and political consciousness, regardless of Disney’s impact on the medium.
In the meantime, why don’t you share some of your favorite “political” comics with us?