I’ve been re-reading some of Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s hilarious, angry and inspiring sci-fi comic series. Last night, I reached one of the darkest chapters in the story, so dark I put it down as a poor choice for bedtime reading. It was a reminder of what this series does well, and what we can learn from it.
Transmetropolitan is the story of Spider Jerusalem, a wild crusading journalist living in a near-future city that combines incredible technology with terrible corruption and deprivation. It’s a funny yet brutal book that combines political thriller, sci-fi speculation and rip-from-headlines slice-of-life dystopianism than shines an uncomfortable light on modern society.
‘Business’, the story in issue 40 (volume seven of the collected edition), is very much in that last vein. Spider Jerusalem, fresh from surviving an assassination attempt, spends a day investigating the horrors of child prostitution.
Yes, you read that right.
This is a book whose average issue is a wild ride of expletives, surreality and bowel-disrupting weaponry, and it takes time out to examine an issue so harrowing even serious dramatists give it a wide berth. It’s something so terrible that even to acknowledge its existence sickens me to the pit of my stomach. But if we look away from the bad things, we leave them to fester.
This the point of the issue, and its power. The sci-fi setting creates just enough distance to let us face the problem, but the realism and sensitivity with which the children are portrayed brings it straight into our modern lives. Nothing is romanticised or glossed over. The social and psychological needs that drive these kids are there on the page, in Ellis’s dialogue and Robertson’s stunningly expressive character art. Within the story, Jerusalem will make his readers look at this terrible thing. Through depicting the story, Ellis and Robertson force us to consider it too. I’ve read it a dozen times, and every time it leaves me stunned.
This is the power of great sci-fi and of truly great humour. Great sci-fi speculates on our future while reflecting on the modern world, the real making the unreal plausible, the unreal raising questions about the real. Great humour, the dark, snarling stuff in which Bill Hicks specialised, opens us up to the serious. By making us laugh it opens up our emotions, so that we feel the serious points. The punchline that makes us both laugh and think is a barb that sticks beneath our skin.
There aren’t a lot of punchlines in ‘Business’, but the barbs are there, our skins soften by the story that preceded it. And that’s part of why it’s such great art.
If you haven’t read Transmetropolitan then you really should. If you’ve read it before, read it again. Because fiction doesn’t get much better than this.