Sci-Fi & Moaning In Meta Journalism

Transmetropolitan_(Collections)_Vol_1_1

Transmetropolitan isn’t just an obscenity laced Sci-Fi depiction of Hunter S. Thompson designed to appeal to a ’90’s aesthetic.  

It’s a Comic Book about Comic Books, too.  

For some of us, we were younger men, once. Angry, frustrated, hormonal,  embodying a high-octane version of a Rocket From The Tombs tune. We would read Bukowski and we drank whiskey in bars and we walked around aimlessly at night as if we could walk forever, in any direction, until life (capital L) hit us in the face.  We would swap drug stories and leered at pretty girls and watched Bogart movies and read Fear & Loathing periodically to remind ourselves of the good times, as you often found yourself in meaningless intellectual pursuits to help pass the endless gulfs of time that besieged us each and every day.

We kept journals in those days. Drunken, sprawling, bawling journals.  Don’t let anyone try and tell you otherwise.

As a younger man, you are capable of great cynicism, great misery, great exaggeration, great obscenity, and even great solipsism, with the practice 21 to 35 offers.  You think in distracted, overstimulated fits & spurts.  Every idea burns with the newness of unfiltered pornography.  You imagine more and more horrible things as you test the limits of your own depravity, or at least what you think you can stomach. Younger men are pretty sure there is no god, the are pretty sure their family has abandoned them, and to prove all of this, they test the limits of those notions, of language, or fashion and sexuality, trying to figure out what you can get away with, and what you’ll let yourself get away with.  In your wildest imagination, boundaries – all boundaries – seem arbitrary, and defined only by the slightest hint of recognition that you happened to cross it, intentionally or otherwise.

It is from this place that Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson have taken up residence, so they can stew in the juices of youthful anger and incensed outrage in only the way that a young person who has taken up pen and paper can.  But, unlike a 20 something male with a xerox machine and a ‘zine they shove into the hands of his increasingly-annoyed-friends to read later, Ellis & Robertson focused that energy into the creation of Spider Jerusalem, a proxy for their unchallenged Id’s.  To deliver a character like this with the kind of venom of a gonzo journalist was no small thing, and together they made a handful of overly ’90’s choices in assembling Spider’s universe.  Sci-Fi alone could fly almost anywhere, and Hunter’s attitude toward politics was certainly becoming known to the general public more at that period.  But to cram the two into a comic book world seemed insane, and could potentially muddy the message that either genre could convey in the medium.  The only more iconic ’90’s choice they could have made would to be creating the book from the stage of Lollapalooza during a Porno For Pyro’s set.

For a smidgen of context: the ’90’s are the Gen-Xers ’60’s, and many of us want to claim that our drugs were better for you, and more powerful back then, and that our music was louder and more rebellious, and that, no matter how much you might disagree, our ideals were not temporary, but will stand the test of time, and we were not a… hey, why are you no longer listening to me and my tired, flaccid, invalid, 30-years-too-late rhetoric?  As technology ramped up and politics entered our homes and lives through new media outlets, lefty ideals finally began to colonize popular culture through rock music, films and comic books, all wrapped up with a touring concert festival vibe that ran through our culture from 1986 until 1997. Our popular culture, so we thought, was so unique and generational that we failed to grasp the irony of how exactly the same-as-it-ever-was.

For businesses, generation trends like this always go over well, and as publishers realized that they could make a ton with a little branding, trade paperback collections of comics – “Graphic Novels” to the Barnes & Noble crowd – became the way many people were exposed to characters and stories.  Books that didn’t have a chance to succeed in single issues suddenly had a life outside of direct market magazine sales on newsstands and in Comics Shops.  Comics as a “hip” medium spread like wildfire to bookstores across the country in these new collections, and the same people that had reached for the Beats and Thompson twenty years earlier were now reaching for books by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman & Grant Morrison, each of them depicting a sort of drug-fueled, rock star lifestyle that these UK Comics artists were bringing to the boring, super-hero dominated world that the last 20 years had delivered.

It was into this stew of cultural and social upheaval that Transmetropolitan hit the American consciousness, a book that really gained an audience only when it began to get collected into trades.  As these were being viewed as “sophisticated reading” by those who were trying to make a buck off of youth culture, the upshot was that an experiment in comics narrative went on for nearly 70 issues, unprecedented for a story as weird & obscene, distributed by one of the big three publishers, no less (DC, natch).

 

Learning to Love The “F” Word (Comes with Accepting The “R” Word, Too).

There is an abrasiveness to the way Ellis & Robertson intentionally present Spider’s world, and it is not meant to win you over, if that’s what you’re hoping for. The last line to this first story arc in Transmetropolitan is, “I’m Spider Jerusalem, and Fuck all of you!  Ha!” And as Spider looks at you, face bloody and beaten into a grotesquerie that is hard to stomach, he smiles, and it is easy to imagine that that he’s shouting this all directly at you, that you are specifically the person he is asking to “fuck off.”

And, in a way, he is.

Nothing is easy, sanitary, or in most cases, comfortable in this universe that we’re presented with, the least of which is the perspective of the main character. Together, Ellis & Robertson have envisioned much of what has actually happened to our world in the decade plus since Transmetropolitan stopped publishing, and if we keep moving at this clip, we’re on track for some of the grimmer parts of their projected future, too. Humanity, as these two see it, is still driven by the basest or impulses, barely able to look above the rim of their Ids at any given moment.  The grimness is only overshadowed by the vulgar cleverness of this pair working together. They have found exactly the right balance of all ego/no filter, and have tailored the explicitness into 24 page “rage-poems” (the opposite of tone poems) about everything that is wrong, everywhere.  This was the ’90’s zeitgeist – a generational criticism of the situation we found ourselves in – presented as a 4 Color Print comic.

Both Ellis & Robertson had careers before Transmetropolitan, but they met working for an indie company, and immediately gelled as creators.  Ellis had this idea kicking around for a few years, and Darick seemed like he got it instantly. (A Sci-Fi Hunter Thompson who must keep the political goons in check.)  Over the next couple of years they discussed and scripted Back On The Street, a three issue mini-series that introduced the character.  When we meet Spider at the beginning, something feels fully formed about him, even from that primitive point in the early narrative.  This might come from the years this character had been knocked about as the artists discussed him, but as I will get into later, I think it was Ellis & Robertson’s role as writers that may have more to do with it.

As a self-contained story, Back On The Street achieves a number of things.  It sets up the potential series that Transmetropolitan could become: Spider returns to The City, get’s a job writing for a paper, and uses his column as a means to fight the wrongs of modern life.  It also offers a B Plot: Spider is motivated to do this, largely because if he finishes his two contracted books, he can check out of modern life entirely and get back to his cabin, “up a goddamn mountain,” where he would prefer to be.  All the while, there are layers upon layers of sci-fi gags and tropes in the background of every scene, which are usually themselves commentary on both everything and nothing.

And then, there’s Spider himself, the upraised middle finger of our story.

Spider barely qualifies as an anti-hero, in that there is no purer motivation for him except to get back to isolation and seclusion. His dedication to self-pleasure through drugs and alcohol, his preference for independence, his abusiveness to everyone around him at all times, and his over-use of rape imagery in his language (which, if I’m perfectly honest, makes me uncomfortable every time it’s used) makes Spider questionable as someone to identify with at best, and morally reprehensible at worst.  He is an outsider in every sense, bound to no word or honor that the rest of the world accepts or acknowledges.  Coming to The City seems like more of an attempt to give the system one good solid kick in the nuts before he can disappear completely than it is an attempt to resolve any kind of owed debt to his publisher.  He is hardly a contestant for a 70 issue run of stories about his life, and is yet another barrier to entry that makes it hard to recommend the series who has anything close to a “delicate” sensibility.

So, if it is such an abomination to most pallets, why on earth write anything about it?  Isn’t this a “you either like it or you don’t” kind of binary?  Isn’t this Fight Club, or Lost all over again?  What more could there possibly be to say about a series so foul and difficult to get into?  To start with: the sense of humor.  If you like your comedy like you enjoy your coffee, Transmetropolitan delivers in this category in spades.  Granted, you have to be on-board with every permutation of filthy language, including the over use of words like Cunt and Rape and Fuck and every imaginable (and colorful) modifier.  Ellis & Robertson take to profanity like Peter Capaldi in The Thick Of It, and not just in language, but in visual and narrative depiction, too.  They love a good ribald joke, and to them, the funnier the filth, the better.  So, a crude-oil-choking-animals-stuck-in-plastic-rings-black sense of humor is a huge part of the interest for most readers.  But to me, even the jokes cover the more interesting bits.

 

spider1Let’s Get This Out Of The Way (Here There Be Spoilers)

To discuss Transmetropolitan with any more granularity requires spoilers, so I’ll just jump to the somewhat meaningless climax and get it over with: Spider types – in real time, mind you – a column so powerful that he stops an in-progress riot.

I shit you not; even in a Sci-Fi context, it is the primary definition of deus ex machina.  (Let’s see me “write” my way out of this one!)  But the plot in this particular story – like some of the best gonzo journalism – is more atmospheric than essential to what’s really going on.  It’s the tone, the conviction, the character study, the word painting, of putting your faith in something that is A Good Cause in spite of your worst personality traits, the TRUTH (or whatever) at any cost… it’s putting on the page some flavor of honesty in whatever form you can, be it journalistic or comic-book-ic. Robertson & Ellis both loose the story in one hamfisted detail or another along the way.  And with Back On The Street, they shoot the moon on the first try, which is admirable AND foolhardy.

And, to me, that is the point, too.

In the course of Back On The Street, we find out that Spider has sequestered himself “up a god damn mountain” in a rural part of the world, living with little communication for the last five years, lost in a drunken, drug-fueled solitude that he’s been quite enjoying, selfishly.  He is coaxed out of this reverie because he still owes an ex-publisher two books.  Spider returns to The City, where he obtains a columnist gig immediately based on his reputation, and his first story is following up on an old friend, Fred Christ, who leads the Transiet Movement.  (These are people who are transitioning from human to alien.)  Fred incites two of his people to start a riot to get some press about the way the transients are being oppressed. Spider covers the story live, forcing the cops (who are engaging in the riot) to stand down.  During the riot, Fred is found to be a fraud, rapist and pedophile, and Spider is beaten by the cops outside his own home to teach him a lesson about getting in the way of real power.  Spider joyously rises up from the ground in the last scene, laughing triumphantly, happy to be back on the job in The Glorious City.

Roll credits.

As a story, it’s not bad, and it was clearly enough for the publisher to get the ball rolling, and give Ellis & Robinson a series.  (It was just as likely that the series would forever be remembered for the three-issue run, too.)  But when you get to the next collected volume of comics in the series, you realize it it isn’t even the greatest Transmetropolitan story, let along a great beginning to a series that changes and evolved over time.  More than anything, Back On The Street reads like a foul-mouthed, pro-drug diatribe, a manifesto with plot holes and idiosyncratic views on government and politics that is somewhere between a comic series and Police Evidence.

However, when the series began to get collected in trades, we know that Spider became a bit of a phenomena all over.  Clearly, this book spoke to an audience that was being rewarded for looked for further meaning in the series, and it’s clear there is something else going on here than just a string of comic book profanity.  Ellis & Robertson are pointing their sci-fi barbed ideas directly at the current American Dream, and their commentary has only become more relevant as time has gone on, but was on the minds of everyone in the ’90’s.  The representation of journalism as a narcotic-inspired sprint from interview to interview, only so the publisher can participate in some devolved version of political discourse – in spite of what’s happening in a city overrun by vandalism, poverty and inequality – even at this far-future date of 2015 seems eerily on point for what is now almost a 30 year old series.  Throw other hot topics that are not even the main subject of the story – issues of trans culture, cult leaders, police brutality, and invasive species – and you’ve only sort of scratched the surface of what Transmetropolitan is all about, on one level.

Nobody comes out of Back On The Street looking good. Spider stops the riot, but is beaten for the effort. The trans movement gets press, but their spokesperson is revealed to be a sex-crazed pedophile who joined the movement to get tail and make money.  The police are clearly on the take, and easily manipulated, but this only makes them even more dangerous than originally intended.  Even Royce (Spider’s editor) goes from ‘doing Spider a solid’ to milking his popularity and brand as a way to make a lot of money.  As mentioned above, the book makes it hard to like the story through obscenity and other prickly presentations, and so if there is an appeal to the book, it must come from Spider’s personality.  Or rather, his resemblance to Hunter Thompson in behavior.  It is from this angle that the character – and the series – starts to come into intellectual focus.

hunter-s-thompson-liebowitzTransmetropolitan is best summarized as a Sci-Fi depiction of a Hunter-like character in an undisclosed amount of time in the nearish future, and this has been the back-cover-blurb short-hand for what the series is about since its inception.  It is a summary that Ellis & Robertson have tried to shake, doggedly.  Still, it is a decent enough jumping on point if you are trying to find a way to pick up this series, and if you are not on board with that basic concept at first, it is likely nothing can attract someone who is wondering if they’ll like the book.  Admittedly, people may like Spider for the ways that he is different than Hunter: Spider is much more jovial, and seems to be having fun as a journalist, and seems to enjoy the physical benefits of the surreal insanity of this future world, unlike Thompson, who seemed to despise modernity in all its forms.  It seems that, rather than to use Hunter as a direct inspiration for our protagonist, they have inverted his archetype to distance Spider from this part of Hunter’s character.

This blurring of reality and fiction seems to be much closer to the goal Ellis and Robertson have with this book.  Spider Jerusalem.   Hunter Thompson.  Their names are structurally similar, and even some of the physicality in Spider’s appearance is obviously meant to evoke the comparison between the two characters.  But their personas are just different enough to create cognitive dissonance.  Ellis & Robertson are giving us all the cues to expect a Hunter analogue, and deliver to us instead a much more exaggerated (and “comically” humorous) version of that expectation.  As with all mysteries, Hunter is the McGuffin, but the the key to the mystery is still in the actual depiction of Spider.  Just not in the way you think.

 


I Will Not Let This Devolve Into A Discussion Of Shade The Changing Man: Coming From Meta 

The late ’90’s found a number of new styles, genres and authors rising to prominence as post-Grunge culture searched for their respective literary voices. The book that most resembles Transmetropolitan in form is The Invisibles by Grant Morsrison, which predates Transmetropolitan by a few years, yet they did run concurrently for a quite a while.  spider-morrison-king-mobKing Mob – the lead character of The Invisibles – is a dead ringer for not only Grant Morrison, but for Spider Jerusalem, coincidentally. (And, note the similarity in the form of their names, too.)  This makes perfect sense in meta-narrative way.  Spider’s look before moving to The City is a dead ringer for another, even older British author, Alan Moore.  Through this meta-lens we can start to understand what Ellis & Robertson were driving at with this layered and obtuse story.

alan-moore1spider-jerusalemIt goes without saying that Moore’s work on Swamp Thing & Watchmen (and, to an extent, his other DC work in the ’80’s) laid the groundwork for the ’90’s influx of UK talent.  His reputation was equally legendary for his intelligent comics stories and his dedication to sex magic.  His shamanistic appearance and tendency to incorporate poetry and blank verse as part of his narrative structure – and his larger use of literary collage as a well for inspiration – made him one of the first true auteurs of comics narrative writing. Many of his most well-known pieces of work were built upon his interest in borrowing characters, plot elements, genre conventions and song lyrics, all to assemble these parts into a dramatic story that was highly critical of power and government. The quality of the writing was of an intellectual caliber that exceeded what was prevalent in, say, the people who scripted, “Justice League,” to pick something at random.  When you looked at the typical superhero fare of the era side-by-side with Moore’s work, it was hard to argue that he was anything less than inspired.

Morrison – a much more ’90’s figure in the world of comics – is not only a sort of namesake descendant of Moore (Moore-son), but to chart his own territory, took a different approach to the comics world through drugs and meta-text, placing his own overlay onto Moore’s framework for creating the perfect post-modern comics statement. Morrison’s stories also tended to have borrowed elements, but his characters were from comics own history, and are often aware of their own fictional qualities.  Some of Morrison’s characters refer to themselves as “fiction suits” due to their physical similarity to Morrison himself, and these characters often make efforts to contact either the author or the reader directly, as the story demands. The Invisibles deconstructs spy narratives to the point of visual dissonance, and his runs on Doom Patrol and Animal Man defied both continuity and company policy in favor of post-modern jokes, and the search for the ‘creator / narrator.’ Morrison’s own theology seemed equally centered around hallucinogens in those days, but there is always an element of self-discovery and identity exploration at the core of his books. Trans lifestyles, government illogic, the inter-connectedness of all things all tend to work in concert with each other to create a non-linear, but impressive story.

Armed with this knowledge, the introduction of Spider’s character in Back On The Street suddenly carries with it a little more weight with it. As this bombastic and clearly educated character is up on the mountain, he leads a hermetic and drug-hazed lifestyle entirely focused on the self. Spider grows hair (that is usually eliminated by a normal shower in modern life). His attitude toward fans and the outside word is shoot-first, and his desire to have any public association with the work he’s done is nonexistent. However, his frustration with the world of publishing and modern life is not so strong that his book deal can’t draw him back to The City. The allure of writing a book on anything he chooses (once he writes the one about politics) awakens within him the need to pursue unfinished business. Each time Alan Moore agrees to work on a new book, it is not hard to imagine a similar phone call to the one Spider has at the beginning of Back On The Street.

Spider’s transformation into a Grant Morrison figure is made possible through the character of Royce, the managing editor of the paper. The role of editors in the world of comics plays a similar role to that of print journalism: take the writer’s material and massage it until it is ready for public consumption. Every book and major character at a comics publisher has an editor, and their role in making sure stories and titles get to the printer on time is not only necessary, but essential to coordinator with all the other writers and editors at a publisher. The shape of the final product, and the way we see the author that we read, is often the work of an editor.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it might be worth it to include photos of Darrick & Warren to the images of Royce as depicted in Transmetropolitan. It is truly uncanny, and absolutely an intentional move. More directly a dead writer for Darrick (but also sharing a few of Ellis’ own visual cues), Royce is the filter through which the public is exposed to Spider Jerusalem. Royce keeps Spider’s ego – in its purest form – from reaching the audience, just like Stuart Moore at Helix Comics is the filter between the public and Warren & Darick’s raw vision for who Spider could truly be. (Stuart is referred to in the credits as “whorehopper,” a reference to the editor that holds Spider’s two-book contract, further blurring the fiction / reality border.) In just the drawings used to represent the main characters in the story, Transmetropolitan presents itself as pure metatext through using well-known comics writers to play out the drama. Once Transmetropolitan is read with a meta-text slant, the series really begins to reveal itself as something very masterful.

5: transitions.

Spider’s transition from an Alan Moore analog to a Grant Morrison analog is clearly meant to be seen as a cultural shift from one “older” paradigm to a younger, fresher one. Spider is moving from a purely creative position of integrity-in-art (Moore) to a position that must play the game, and learn to enjoy doing it (Morrision). On the mountain, Spider is merely a man, living alone, immersed in chemical abuse and the slow and steady detachment from the world around him in an almost spiritual pursuit of oblivion. Spider then traverses from the mountain to The City, where he is not only “plugged into” The City (as his devices come to life in the car as he gets closer, and can finally get a “signal”), but does so out of an obligation on the part of the writer to live near to where the publisher operates (a common practice in the old days of comics). But rather than work directly on his two-book contract, he instead starts an entirely new project with Royce, using the logic that he income from this new gig could help finance his work on the other contract that is due. (This is like the logic of using methadone to kick heroin.)

While we never see what Spider does on the mountain, its sounds as if he spent a lot of time in an altered state of mind, detached from the world. But when he comes to The City, he wants intelligence drugs, and the benefits of modern technology, to keep him focused on on point. His chemical intake shifts from oblivion to participation. Where Moore had become difficult to deal with, Morrison has become more and more dedicated to playing the game, a move that paid off in the long run. The style of dress is dramatically different, too. Spider wears old, worn and heavy clothes on the mountain, covering every inch of his body. It is somewhat funny, then, when Spider goes to his shitty apartment in The City, takes a “shower,” and it thus, baptized in light! He is reborn, now looking like Grant Morrison where he wears sleek, all-black “minimalist” clothes, where his form is easily revealed. Even his transition from the Mountain to The City is preceded by him blowing up the last remaining point of human contact he had before, and driving drunk into The City in a shitty car, barely acknowledging that he should be concerned about his behavior because he is ready to play the game.

The “two books” detail is interesting. Spider owes The Whorehopper a book about politics, and another of Spider’s choosing. This should be easy to Spider, who is not only a political journalist, but a prolific (and very famous) writer. But clearly this was difficult, so much so that he took the advance on this contract and retreated from society for five years to avoid writing either of these books, instead reading “Confederacy of Dunces” and “Fear And Loathing” over and over again. Spider has some sort of writer’s block, to a degree that is more severe than most. He not only can’t write, he is disillusioned with writing as a form of communication that can successfully change the world in a positive way. This problem is so pervasive that Spider can’t even muscle his way through a book on politics to get to the real gem, a book on any subject of his choosing. This can be seen as a metaphor for the book you have to do in comics to get a creator-owned deal, a common path for young writers, but also how things had worked out for both Ellis & Robertson, where Transmetropolitan was their “second” book.

6: Confusion between Referrer and Referent

The add to the ambiance of the world of Transmetropolitan, there is more than a bit of interplay between written bits that inhabit the world of Spider Jerusalem, and provide an additional level of commentary and meta-text to the book. The bar that Spider hangs out at is called “Bastard’s” (where they serve “Moore” beer). The rocket is branded “Eat Me,” and Spider’s license plate is alternately seen reading “Spider” and “Spyder.” The City is called City, and you can buy Exclaim Magazine! everywhere. Cop cars and taxi’s are easily identifiable, as their license plates read “Police” or “Taxi,” and the local paper is called “The Word,” and books are titled “Blah.” Signco produces all the signs in The City. The most popular brand of cigarettes are called “Stress Managers,” and all buildings are outfitted with AirCo brand air conditioners. Spider wears boots branded “Stomp,” and one man drinks a “Fuck You” brand liquor, straight from a bottle. The local strip club is called “Bazooms,” and you can get money from their “Cash” brand ATM. In a nod to Repo Man, beer is “A Can of Swill.” Computers tell you what they’re doing by printing “On” or “Recording” on their screens, and stairs are labeled with the place they lead to on their signs.

This language is difficult to classify in Transmet. They are not graffiti, not sounds effects, not dialog, and most likely, not meant to be “real.” Rather, these are all tiny jabs and barbs, little commentaries on how linguistic or world has become, but also to emphasize the symbolic nature of the item itself, in a medium already prone to meta-text. A police car with the license plate “Police” is too exaggerated and on the nose for most comics. But this book is trying to blur the line between reality and fiction anyway, and it makes sense that the world would just use these kinds of shorthands to continue that slide. Spider’s own view of the universe seems to be permeating the images we see, so much so that his reductionist perspective, he’s fleeting commentary, and his disdain are all captured in these kinds of uses of text.

7: The Message Behind The Meaning

Ellis & Robinson are fairly casual when it comes to referring to the social, political and ecological problems that plague Spider’s universe. In many ways, the problems are largely irrelevant, and only occasionally push their way into the narrative forefront. However, what is unique about these references is that, in the hands of most other Sci-Fi authors, the entire story would be subsumed in these secondary (and tertiary) references that liter the story in Transmetropolitan. There seems to be little to no control over guns, as they are everywhere, used liberally, and with seemingly no consequences. (Spider has a rocket launcher and grenades that are used often.) Traffic is not only a continuing problem in the future, but there are actual standstill days where people like Spider just get up, abandon their cars, and walk. Advertising is ubiquitous and on every surface imaginable, in every size, blocking any and all skylines The City every used to have. Geckos are an invasive species that has become an incredible problem in The City, so much so that mutant feral cats have been genetically altered to hunt and eat only Geckos. Every home is equipped with a “Godti” maker, that can materialize our every need. The only problem is the machines often get hooked on drugs.

Glossed over quickly in the first three issues: Trans Culture, Drug Abuse, Ghettos of the Future, Cult Leaders, Rape, Child Abuse, Cameras Invading Every Last Privacy, Age Restrictions In Bars Lowered to 17, Ridiculous Future Fashion, Police Brutality, Bar Codes Replacing a Stripper’s Nipples, Journalistic Integrity vs. Journalistic Terrorism, and the continuing slide of human apathy. And all of this – and more that I missed, I’m sure – are crammed into three issues. The denseness of what is happening in every panel of Spider’s world is directly connected to his hatred of life in The City. He curses the moment all of his “devices” activate as he gets closer to The City, and he becomes a distracted and ferocious driver. The sound of The City makes him question his return, and speaks to the tangle of issues that Spider can’t completely engage when he is forced to face them head-on.

These is clearest when Spider meets up with his soon-to-be editor, Royce. When they are together, they yell and scream and smoke and swear for most of the interaction, but when Royce corners Spider – Editor to Writer – and asks why Spider left, and while he points a gun at Royce’s forehead, says, “The fans, Royce. The fans and the noise and the bullshit and… I couldn’t get at the truth anymore,” to which Spider puts down the gun, for one brief second, absolutely vulnerable.

This is the most precise interpretation of the creative process I’ve ever seen portrayed in comics: you’re manic creative side violently rebelling against the organized editor only because you’re insecure about how honest your work actually is. It is really the only time you see Spider emote earnestly, and only when he’s concerned about being a fraud. It not only offers another dimension to his character, but also seems to be a bit of a plea on the part of the authors: we’re going to strip things down, bare, in an effort to be as honest as possible. But to do so, we’re going to have to make light of some social issues. We’re gonna use course language. But this is all metaphor, a way to analyze the creative process, creatively. Let me take my guard down for a moment, and maybe we can go on a journey together?

Spider and Royce and a fascinating relationship. Royce begins every conversation with, “Where’s my fucking column?” in spite of the fact that it is only two hours after he hired Spider to write for him. Of course, Ellis & Robinson can’t resist a bathroom joke if they can help it, so at this point in the story, Spider is on Jumpstart, and has taken to keeping the phone in the toilet bowl (since he doesn’t use the bowl anyway, and since this location reflects how he feels about the phone, since only Royce can call him anyway). Spider furthers by asking his adopted gecko-eating cat to piss on the receiver in lieu (hold for laugh) of a proper hang up. The scene is played for laughs, but this is just after Spider has cleaned himself up, and is looking for a story to write. Spider is constipated in more ways than one, and in spite of trying, he has yet to write a single word.

8:

In yet another turn of inappropriate humor, Ellis and Robinson decided that the climax of Back On The Street happens on the roof of a strip club, while strippers watch Spider – ahem – pull off a live story while he watches a riot. It makes sense that Spider feels at home at a strip club, as he sees his own work as prostitituion, and finds no problem with that lifestyle for anyone. The metaphor continues as Royce watches Spider’s live-feed coverage of the riot, and Royce’s eyes glaze over, as if he’s watching porn. Royce immediately monetizes what Spider is doing on the live-feed, pimping out Spider’s words like anyone else does.

But what makes this scene incredible – and appropriate to our discussion at hand – is the way in which Spider is depicted in the panels where he is “live blogging.” Spider’s face contorts into every possible facial expression: joy, anger, bemusement, epiphany, sweaty-clenched teeth, half-closed eyes as smoke snorts out his nose, so into the moment that he is barely aware that the riot has “climaxed,” and shut itself down, while he is still pounding away on the keyboard, lost in the moment of textual release. Afterward, exhausted and with a sad-but-spent expression, he passes out in the open hand of a hooker. Or, at least, the sign outside the strip-club designed to look like one. As the police leave the scene of the riot, Spider remarks that, “they’re pulling right out.” More telling, the stripper refers to Spider as “fuckhead.” He’s not having actual sex. He’s fucking “in the head.”

Bedroom humor aside, the point is made that Spider walks past all four strippers (who don’t seem to do much for him), and is much more turned on by his relationship to the written word. To him, it is the drug, the thing that gives him a mainline jolt, and fills him with horror and humor and joy and desire. In this section, we are given the whole of Spider’s Id in all of its playful, graphic, privileged wonder. In a lot of ways, what is printed here is irrelevant, and I went through it a few times for pull-outs or lines I could use to sway my position. But, ironically, they only paint a picture of Spider, not the event at hand. The “live blogging” plays a role in the plot, to be sure. (The police leave because of it.) But what is blogged is lost, and instead what is revealed is that Spider’s only joy, his only release in this world is writing what he sees around him, as honestly and as directly as possible, and only then will he feel any respite from the nagging problems of everyday life.

This, of course, is at the center of the Ellis – Robinson thrust of Transmetropolitan. The meta-text and inside-comics-baseball structure of the story – and the way in which every moment can be pulled apart for a layered commentary on writing, and specifically Sci-Fi-gonzo journalism – is a mission statement from the creators to offer up a perfect cross-section of what the book will be about for the next 67 issues. Ellis and Robinson are interested in the struggles of The Writer. The work they produce. The relevance they serve. And what about Comics? Can it get political? Can it be “gonzo”? Ellis and Robinson want to get as close to the metal as possible, and this means taking their stories through multi-layered bathroom and masturbation jokes, by turning environmental shortcomings into one-off jokes. They want the writer to be the main character, to focus on his problems and difficulties. Who hasn’t felt, at that moment of creation, like the smoking and snorting Spider from the climax of Back On The Street?  Only, later, to realize you’re just a guy, drunk and watching the world, and trying hard to reflect into text how you feel about it.

9:

It is easy to sell short Transmetropolitan for the shortcomings. It is very ’90’s, in style and presentation, and while Spider seems righteous, he can wear on your nerves, absolutely. But to dwell on Spider as a character sort of misses the point. This is a study in writing – about what writing can do, where it can go, and what it can tell us. This is a study in form, both comics and journalism, contextualized through the tropes and ideas of Sci-Fi. This is an attempt to see if this kind of writing can be done, and to break it down as the series progresses. Spider is, in many ways, secondary, because at the center of Transmetropolitan is a love-letter to pitfalls of the creative process, and that is the greatest strength of this book.

The humor, the art, and the large upraised middle finger to all expectations and conventions are merely icing on the cake.

Spider lives on the 1600 block,

The Last Reader On Earth

Kamandi Issue #1
Kamandi Issue #1

It would be absolutely insane to try and make the assertion that Kamandi was one of Jack Kirby‘s greatest comics, or even the greatest comic that he did for DC in the ’70’s.  They didn’t call Jack “The King” for nothin’; his work essentially led to the creation of the Marvel Universe with Stan Lee, and has already cemented him as one of the most important comics writers and artists of all time.  Even when you look at only his work for DC, where he retreated after Marvel screwed him one too many time, his Fourth World books are tremendous in terms of scope and quality, and discounting those titles, The Demon is still a force to be reckoned with.  Simple name recognition probably says it best: of all of Jack’s characters involved in DC’s various relaunches in recent years, Kamandi is the only one that has yet to see print again on a monthly basis.1

My own experiences as a fan have been handicapped from the beginning.  Having been born only three short years before the series was canceled, it wasn’t until I was a young teen that I even heard of the character, and still a few more years before I found a single back-issue that was within my price range.  To complicate matters, there was some dispute as to the validity of the character in terms of continuity2, and other visions of the future directly contradicted the one Kamandi presented.3  Not only was it hard to find the source material, but his position within the larger framework of comics seemed to be in doubt.  It was very easy, both as a reader and a creator, to let Kamandi fall by the wayside.

Even the creation and introduction of the character seems difficult to believe.  The first issue of Kamandi – released in 1972 – is uncannily like a very successful film series that began a few short years before, Planet of The Apes.  Marvel Comics, as it turned out, beat DC to the punch in securing the rights to the film, and DC wanted something to rush something to the marketplace before Marvel could get their book launched.  One of Jack’s Fourth World books, The Forever People, had just been canceled, freeing him up to work on a new book of some kind.  DC’s dictum to Jack was to do a book like POTA, and at first glance, it’s hard to suggest that he didn’t.  Kamandi lives in a world set in the future, we see a destroyed Statue Of Liberty, and inside there are various races of intelligent, talking animals that run the world.  We even meet someone in an 20th Century astronaut suit.  Is this even a story that The King can drag out for nearly 40 issues without feeling as if it is far too much of a rehash of things that have already been done?

Yes, as it turns out, and the reason being is that the story was already something that Jack had done before… in 1956.  At that time, Kirby was working for Harvey Comics, and produced a story called “The Last Enemy” that involved an astronaut who returns to Earth only to find much time has passed, and animals – not humans – run the planet.  Around the same time he also produced a regular strip called “Kamandi of the Caves,” both of which he combined to create the version of Kamandi that we know and love now.  Jack went back and forth in terms of how familiar he was with Pierre Boulle‘s novel (published in 1963), or the POTA film at the time he wrote Kamandi4.  But what is clear is that both were familiar with each other, and both used each other’s work as jumping off points for their own particular visions of the future.

Case in point: Kamandi #1.  True, we see the Statue of Liberty, but where that was the final image of POTA, Kirby opens his story this way, with Kamandi paddling his raft in the opposite direction as quickly as possible.  Kirby is telling us that where ever POTA may have gone, we’re going further.  And quickly, too.  The Kamandi stories move at near-lightning speed, preventing us from even meeting the person that raised Kamandi before they are killed.  In no time he’s traveling to other lands, meeting other races and survivors, and trying to make sense of this scarred and destroyed land that bears only the slightest resemblance to the world we know.  There are relics and references to our world, but as far as their relationship to the story at large, we might as well not even pay attention.  In much the same way that good Super-Hero needn’t refer to the rest of their fictional universe but when appropriate, do, Kamandi does not rely on what came before it, but rather, merely presents adventure governed only by the rules a post-apocalyptic world can offer.  By 1974 Marvel’s Planet of The Apes book came out, to coincide the new line of toys, a TV show, and animated series, that would launch all within a year.  By then, Kamandi had been running for nearly 20 issues.

As with anything that Kirby touched, the story does not end here.  Jack eventually left DC and went to work for animation studios in the late ’70’s / early ’80’s, while Kamandi was handed off to other writers, and eventually canceled.  It was at Ruby-Spears Productions, a subsidiary of Hanna-Barbara, where Jack was asked to produce some POTA concept art for a series that would proceed the animated series that had already been produced in 1975.  While the concept art never developed into anything we saw on screen, it was this arrangement that led to Jack designing characters and backgrounds for several Ruby-Spears animations, including the much revered Thundarr The Barbarian, created by Steve Gerber (another ex-Marvel genius), and written by Mark Evanier, who worked with Jack on the Fourth World books.  While Thundarr and Kamandi are very much their own creations, their similarities run deep, and yet again, it was Kirby who had a hand in shaping our modern-day visions of the future.

In my own Kirby-like way, I was re-introduced to Kamandi by accident.  I was going to meet a friend, when I received a message saying that they couldn’t join me.  Quite a ways from home, and with very little on my agenda, I popped into a library to see if there was anything around that would catch my eye.  To my astonishment I found an old and dusty “Archives Edition” of the first 10 issues of Kamandi, collected for the first time in 2005, which had probably been languishing away on the shelf ever since.  Aside from the librarians that handled the book, it appeared that almost no one had read it.  A lost relic from a world that used to exist had found its way into my hands.  I ran home and immediately to my secret bunker, and began reading stories that I had always heard about, but had never had a chance to read.

Until now.

Explosions.  Talking animals.  Current technology masquerading as ancient relics.  Barbarian-like gladiatorial fight scenes.  Nuclear paranoia.  The downfall of modern society, where our human mistakes are repeated by animals time and time again.

Seriously, what’s not to love?

(Note: DC has recently published Vol. 1 of a new Kamandi reprint series, based on the popularity of other Kirby reprint editions that have come out recently.  The OMAC book was incredibly successful, and his entire run on Kamandi – many issues of which have not been available since their original print runs in the ’70’s – should be available in two Volumes by the end of this year.)

1 While there have been several references to, and attempts to bring back, Kamandi since the original series was canceled in 1978, most often these attempts are spearheaded by Grant Morrison, who is a nerd for characters like this, and rarely do they lead to regular appearances, as with every other Kirby Property that DC owns.

2 There is only one explicit DC Universe reference within the Kirby-penned issues, and that one is left up to interpretation as to its authenticity.  Editors and future writers had tried to tie this character explicitly to another Kirby property, OMAC, with varying degrees of success, leading to much confusion among fans and readers.  

3 Another, less post-apocalyptic  future had already been established in the pages of The Legion Of Super-Heroes.

4 Jack claimed that he had not seen Planet of The Apes at the time, and only had a passing familiarity with the story when he was told to work on this project.  Later, he claimed that he had seen it and was aware of what they had done, and was himself trying to do something else closer to the work he’d done in the past (that was, very likely, the inspiration for the film in the first place).  Personally, I believe the later.

L & R Evening

Best Comic Ever
Best Comic Ever

Not that this is news to anyone, but I am a Love & Rockets fan. (Not the band.) Encouraged by my friend Lyra, I picked up a copy of Music For Mechanics in the early ’90’s, and over the years would pick up an issue or collection here and there, totally impressed and in love with almost every aspect of the book.

Within L&R there are two main narratives that have been running through the series since the beginning: Locas, written by Jamie Hernandez, which focuses on a group of Latina punk-rock girls from a neighborhood called Hoppers 13 in Southern California, and Palomar, written by Gilbert Hernandez, which focuses on the residents of the eponymously named, magical-realist village somewhere “south of the US border.” While a number of other, unrelated stories and characters crop up regularly, including stories by their brother Mario, these are the primary works in the series.

In the monthly comics, the stories within were presented in a piecemeal fashion: there would be a little from Locas, and little from Palomar, a little of this, and little of that, and in the really early issues, a Mario story. Recently, a series of excellent reprints were put together that collected the stories in a way that separated the flotsam and jetsam from each other. Now, you can get a four volume series that covers the entire Locas storyline up to the present (in order), and a three volume series that covers the entire Palomar series. (There’s yet another collection that contains all the Mario stories, and everything else that isn’t part of the two other storylines… though in many cases, there are crossovers.)

Having (finally) read through nearly everything by all three of these artists, I have become quite torn in terms of how to divide my fan worship. Critically, the Palomar stories are highly respected, and there is something very astute and literary about the Gilbert stories. And while I really do like his work quite a bit, there is a part of me that is drawn to Jamie’s work more often. (To be perfectly honest, I really love the Mario stories best, but in terms of output vs. enjoyment, Jamie wins.) I can’t exactly stress this enough without using an equally geeky analogy: admitting this is the Comics equivalent of saying you are a Beach Boys fan, but you just aren’t that into Pet Sounds.

Even worse than this, I find myself drawn mostly to the Sci-Fi / Latina Wrestling stories, more than the soap opera that is the majority of the Locas stories. When Maggie is flying around the world, repairing robots and spaceships and meeting dinosaurs, I just find myself enjoying the stories more than when Maggie and Hopey are fighting over their “relationships problems.” When Hopey’s band goes on tour, I’m much more excited than when they show Maggie struggling with her new job as Apartment Manager. When Vicki is in mourning because her old wrestling enemy, Rena, might be dead, and thus Vicki declares that she will only wrestle fair and square for the rest of her career, it feels like a more momentous occasion than when Penny attempts to squeeze more money out of her rich sugar Daddy. To make this point abundantly clear, this is the Comics equivalent of saying, “After Brian Wilson left the group, the Beach Boys REALLY started to cook!”

It is often said of me that I like to take nerdiness to hitherto unknown heights (as recently as yesterday afternoon, by one of my co-workers after I complimented his daughters Avengers t-shirt), and when I started to think about it, this schism in the things I enjoy about L&R seemed to cut right to the heart of that comment. Rather than the artistic and acclaimed work of one person, I like the cheesy soap opera of his brother. Rather than the sharp and sophisticated relationship analysis that happens in later stories, I like the corny Sci-Fi / Wrestling stories. Rather than the (yawn) boring observations on sexual relationships that are bubbling beneath the surface of all the later stories, I seem to get much more excited about spaceships, robots, and dinosaurs.

I’m not exactly sure what that says about me, but if taking nerdiness to the extreme means that I am in love with Latina-Wrestler, Punk-Rock, Sci-Fi comics, then I will make no apologies for my nerdiness. But, to win back at least some of the cred I’ve lost, I’m starting on reading two imported volumes of Corto Malteseto make up for it.

Currently Reading:

 

Shade, The Changing Man
Shade, The Changing Man

Originally created in the 70’s by Steve Ditko, this revival began in 1990 and ran for six years, until the writer (Peter Milligan) finished all 70 issues. Along the way he utilized a lot of different artists to fit each particular chapter of Shade’s story; as “The Changing Man” Shade is constantly becomming someone new, and as each style shifts and changes, new artists take over. (Very similar to the way The Invisibles was written & drawn four years later.)

Half psycedellic free-for-all, half adventure, and entirely strange from start to finish, this series is the story of how Shade came to Earth from his home planet, Meta. (Yeah. It gets better.) Meta exists in a dimension near (or around?) Earth; between Earth & Meta lies The Madness Zone, the only place that allows passage between the dimensions.

Shade is sent by his superior, Wizor, who had told him to fight the manifestations of “Madness on Earth” in whatever way he can. Apparently, The Madness Zone has begun to leak into Earth’s dimension, and so Shade must combat the leak using a Madness-Vest (or M-Vest for short).

On Earth, when humans catch “The Madness,” their internal obsessions and frustrations are externalized. In the first major story, a JFK obsessed man creates a “Kennedy Spinx” in Dealy Plaza, that asks people, “Who Shot JFK?” If they are wrong, the Spinx eats them. In the second major storyline, Hollywood itself catches the Madness, and soon everyone finds themselves in a movie, within a movie, within a movie, ad infinitum. As Shade travels the Mental States Of American, he runs into huge American Myths that must be kept in check in order to prevent Americans from going crazy. Did I mention Peter Milligan is an English Writer, too?

I fell in love with this series when I was in High School, as it sparked the imagination like few other things I read back then. Now, over 15 years after I first discovered the comic, it reads so vividly and beautifully that it’s hard to imagine it as a “dated” piece of writing. In much the same way that Ditko’s Shade held up pretty well to me in 1990, here in the far-distant time of 2009, those innocent Comics from my High School years carry an impressive amount of punch.

I have all 70 issues of the 90’s run if anyone wants to borrow them, and the 8 original issues of the Ditko series. Neither were “popular” in the usual sense of the word, but for my money, there are few comics that are as well written (or as academically “funny”) as Shade. It’s well worth the read, even for non-Comics fans.

Life Really Does Imitate Art… In Comics

Reality... Or Fantasy?
Reality... Or Fantasy?

As a person dependent on bus transportation, you quickly tire of many of the usual ways to pass the time when being ferried back and forth. To shake things up, I’ve been listening to NPR on my iPod, since it’s not only a surefire way to show my instant alignment with the political Left, but it also sends a clear signal to the masturbating homeless man sitting next to me that it’s not okay to engage me in conversation. (Might I add: mission accomplished.)

Recently I listened to this Radiolab episode, in which Robert Krulwich and Brian Greene get down to brass tacks about the nature of the universe. It’s pretty compelling stuff, and Robert’s incredulous questioning not only acts as a proxy for the usual kind of scepticism new ideas like this tend to become associated with, but Brian’s cool demeanor in what must be a pretty uncomfortable position creates a perfect science narrative for us to take home: even in the face of absolute hostility from skeptics, the bigger truths that science is uncovering are, without a doubt, compelling and fascinating, even for Christians.

Even more interesting than the encoded religious discourse is the fact that, according to Brian’s understanding of the universe, Comic Books had it right all along: we live in a universe where every imaginable variant universe – and, in fact, exact, to-the-molecule duplicates – exists somewhere, “out there.” Not only that, but there are exact duplicates of me in other duplicate universes posting this exact same blog entry… along with all the other versions of me that are posting entirely other things (or, similar things worded differently). I’m sure the duplicates of you, reading this, are having the same reactions to reading this sentence as you are, too.

Metatextual jokes aside, the hilarious part to me, listening to this, was how easily I believed Brian’s “crazy” ideas. The whole time I was thinking, “this is like the multiverse concept in DC Comics… a concept propagated by every other version of DC Comics in all the other universes, too.” It led to some pretty funny moments throughout the podcast, which I’m sure was amusing to the other people riding the bus, as they inched further away from the giggling kid with the iPod at 8:30 in the morning.

Vampire Punks!

Vampire Punks!
Vampire Punks!

The cover, and two interior pages, from Swamp Thing #3, July, 1982. (For higher-resolution scans, try my Flickr Page). In this issue, Swamp Thing fights for his life against Vampire Punks from the small town of Rosewood, Illinois. (I hear they had a wicked hardcore scene back in those days.) Our protagonist runs up against Stiv Slashers, a kid who is turned into a vampire by a hitchhiker. He in turn infects his girlfriend X-Head, who works at the local Blood Bank. Together, they reduce Rosewood to a town of Vampire Punks that terrorize any of the humans left behind. Swampy, being the agreeable moss-encrusted creature that he is, decides to give these punks What For.

(My favorite detail in this issue: the Punks live in the Front Street Arcade, and sleep inside of old Pinball Machines during the day.)

Swampy Enters The Arcade
Swampy Enters The Arcade

Almost as good as the images / dialog from this issue is an exchange in the letters page which showed up in issue #8:

I just read SOTST #3 and was not all that pleased with it. When I first heard of the Punk-rock vampires that were to be in this issue, I thought it would be rather funny. I was, at least, a bit disappointed. I can’t say I agree with the way you portray punks. Contrary to what Phil Donahue, Penthouse, and the Today show say, not all punks are self-destructive junkies.

At the end of the story you have Swamp Thing say, “…You’re too decent… you’re the promise of what this town could be…!” Does this mean that it would be far better to have a world of decent, clean-cut American

boys than it is to have a bunch of unsightly Punk rockers? A lot of people apparently think so, and I’m glad to say I don’t agree. The next time you do a story with punks in it, keep in mind that you can’t believe everything you read or see on television.Mark “Sid” Pfaff
234 S. 6 West
Missoula, MT 59801

Editor’s Response: To Mark – or “Sid”: We thinks thou dost protest too much. The word “punk” never appeared in the story, fella; that’s your label, not ours. And what Alec [Swamp Thing’s alter ego] was so disturbed by was an apparent world-view, not a style of dress. You, as a self-proclaimed “punk,” seem focused on appearance, however – and something that superficial was not at all what concerned the characters in the story.

How It Went Down
How It Went Down

Not only is “Sid” sort of missing the point (this has nothing to do with the comic’s portrayal of punks, but of punks who have turned into vampires and have no soul), but the editor takes a pretty self-righteous attitude toward “Sid” in his response (reading between the lines: the editor understands that appearances do not a person make, but accuses “Sid” of making his assumptions based on the way the way the Vampire’s Dress). This little sequence (and the letter than it provoked) was one of the more entertaining things about Swamp Thing in these early days.

Interesting factoid: Stiv Bators, the Vampire Punk’s namesake, had just started The Lords of The New Church a year before this issue came out. At the time, Stiv was incorporating the stage show of the Dead Boys with a more New Wave / Pop sound, which lead to him becoming a bit of an icon in the music world, even in the mainstream. Considering that Iggy Pop was experiencing some downtime, career-wise, it makes sense that Stiv might be the most recognizable punk icon at the time this writer set to work on Swamp Thing.

And that’s one to grow on.

We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Sequels!

There’s just no two ways about it: Repo Man is one of the best movies ever made by human beings. I’ve often thought so, and there was no end to my excitement when I discovered that a comic book sequel – written by Alex Cox – was on the way. Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday was published in March of this year, and while I’ve had a copy for a while, I only just finished reading it the other day after I’d finally plowed through all my required reading for school.

As many people know, Alex Cox originally penned Repo Man with accompanying story boards, and when he was trying to get the film made, the Comic / Script hybrid is what people saw when he was trying to generate interest. Repo Man itself is a perfect synthesis of everything that Comics are about: Sci-Fi stories with everyman characters getting caught up in the action, working against the Government & Local authorities to get the job done. But beyond the junk-culture trappings that it embraces, what Repo Man managed to do effectively was to synthesize Alien Conspiracies, Cold War Paranoia, the Devolution of Americans, TV Addiction, the Commodification of Everything, Punk Rock, LA Street Life, Drug Culture, Revolutionary Military Groups, Tabloid Footprints In Your Hair, the Disposable Nature of Modern Human Life, Televangelists, Celebrity Gossip, & The Interconnectedness of All Things into a stream-of-consciousness filmic essay about Life In These Here United States. After a few viewings, Cox’s dialog takes on Chaucerian qualities, and every bit of garbage and each throw-away “product placement” seems full of nuanced meaning in the same way every piece of set-dressing in a Wes Anderson movie does. Many people have argued to me that Repo Man is a sloppy and schlocky ’80’s movie that implies a lot and says very little. I couldn’t disagree more.

Having said that, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday is very much about the same things that Repo Man is about. Set 10 years after the film ends, Otto (now calling himself Waldo) returns to LA in an effort to eek out a living for himself. Where the career of Repo Man was previously the job that represented American Culture perfectly (everyone can own anything, but the elite thug ruling class will always have the power to take it away if there’s a buck in it to be made), now the career of choice is Telemarketer. Waldo quickly immerses himself into the world of everyone trying to sell everyone else every imaginable thing they don’t need, not realizing that everyone else is trying to do the exact same thing. The shiny prize, the thing that keeps all Americans living this pathetic lifestyle, is the idea that if you work hard enough, you’ll win that Hawaiian Vacation.

Waldo buys into this idea just like everyone else, and as the book unfolds we watch him weave in and out of a story that, itself, is a further scathing criticism of the direction this country is going in, here and now. The same fears are still at play, and as people stab each other in the back they’re still surprised to see a knife in their own when they turn around. Odd Sci-Fi elements come into play, and the Government – as clueless as anyone else – is still trying to screw over their people while still being thwarted by clueless people like Waldo, even if he’s not making an effort to. So much of what is great about the original film is in this book that it’s hard not to like.

Still, this is not a great sequel by any stretch of the definition. While continuing the same themes and ideas that are great, Waldo suffers from being somewhat incoherent and condensed in a way that borders on the surreal. To me, Repo Man was about the ability to leave behind the world around us by giving up the bullshit that causes misery in our lives. Otto, from the outset of the film, rejects nearly everything in his life (in order: his job, his friends, his family, religion, and in the end, his girlfriend & driving itself) for a chance to understand the wisdom that Miller gained from having not driven until that moment. Their reward is that they are allowed to ascend to the next level, to leave behind LA & it’s flawed existence and discover the secrets beyond.

Cast against that reading, Waldo leaves something to be desired in terms of resolution. In fact, there can barely be said to be a plot, and what little there is seems irrelevant in the end, anyway. LA has progressed to a point that bears little similarity to the world Otto left, and as Waldo, he seems to have learned nothing, and is willing to jump right back in and play the game, despite the implication that we’re all running in circles anyway. Waldo fails to learn anything useful during these adventures, and while one could argue that only in the end did Otto actually “learn” anything in the movie, in the comic, Waldo fails to change in any way; at the end, he’s still under the impression that his Hawaiian Holiday is just around the corner, despite serious evidence to the contrary.

There are so many things that I could address that make Waldo unimpressive: it is not a movie, it has no awesome soundtrack, it has a slick computer look-and-feel to the production that adds a lame “sheen” to new comics, and the format of the book is cramped and feels a bit short in the end. (I read it in a couple hours, and it seemed to go by too fast for something that is as ostensibly dense as it is.) Of course, these complaints are all personal taste more than anything else. So, here’s a recommendation: Plettschner (the knitting “coffee break” security guard that worked for the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation) makes a great cameo, and catches us up on what’s happened to him in the interim. (Very, VERY funny.) And really, Waldo is a great book in terms of cultural satire, and Cox’s ability to take disparate parts of the American Dream and weave them together to create a Comedic Nightmare is equally painful and funny. But there is no ooomph to the book, no emotional trajectory that makes it worth following (or, really, rooting for any of the characters), and the resolution is as empty and painful as Mainstream Marvel Comics Pap.

Perhaps I should try reading it listening to Iggy Pop & The Plugz? Or, perhaps, the book is just not that great in the first place, and I should let sleeping dogs lie? Only time will tell.