Mar 19 2010 10:18am

The Great Comics Read-Along: Transmetropolitan v. 2, “Lust for Life”

“Let me tell you about my ex-wife. Before you froze her, she told me that she’d left specific instructions about her revival. To wit: she is not to be revived until there is incontrovertible evidence that I am definitely and irrevocably dead. To fuckery with my wife.”

Transmetropolitan: Lust for Life contains several stories that revolve around Spider’s columns as well as larger plot arcs about Channon Yarrow and Spider’s past. The columns make it one of my favorite volumes (though, there is a volume zero floating around out there that collects other “I Hate it Here” columns not in the comics that I also adore). Lust for Life plunges us into Spider’s life as a writer and what he chooses to write about, but it also shows the ugly side of his methods that a reader should always remember when falling in love with Mr. Jerusalem—it’s not all good; some of it is actually pretty horrifying.

Ahead: world-building, journalism, and some actual realistic violence with realistic consequences! Also, one of the best quotes in the universe, if only there was ever a situation to say it in.

What Happens

Since this volume is half made of shorts (albeit ones that tie together and into the overall arc), I’ll summarize by chapter/issue instead of as one big chunk.

“On the Stump” – Royce decides it might be best to protect his “investment” better, so after moving Spider to a nicer apartment he sends over a new assistant/bodyguard: Channon Yarrow, the blonde from the Angels 8 strip-joint. Turns out she’s a journalism student who was paying her tuition dancing (as well as working as a pay-dacoit for one semester and a bodyguard for three). Spider hits it off with her when she recognized the bowel disruptor and says she made one in high school shop. The President is in town to give his first re-election campaign speech, so Spider drags her off to teach her about real, meaty, crazy journalism. They sneak in and Spider runs into the President in the bathroom. He shoots him with the bowel disruptor. Spider and Channon leave, quickly.

“What Spider Watches on TV” – A short about a day Spider decides to spend only watching television in order to write about it. This is, in short, madness. It also introduces Channon’s boyfriend Ziang and his terror of the cat and Spider both.

“God Riding Shotgun” – Another short for a column, this time about a religion convention (there are a whole huge lot of religions in the City, new ones every hour on the hour) as well as Channon’s problems with Ziang, who has no feelings for her.

“Boyfriend is a Virus” – Zhiang decides to become a foglet—a person’s brain downloaded to a cloud of nanomachines that can recombine matter at will—hence abandoning Channon. Spider convinces her to go watch the procedure and tells her she’ll write her first column on watching her boyfriend be downloaded. She loses it at the end and runs out of the building.

“Another Cold Morning” – This is an illustrated column about the Revivals, people from our time who were cryo-preserved and brought back to life in the City once the tech was available. Mary, a photo-journalist who saw a thousand wonderful things, is now living nearly catatonic on the street after her Revival because the City throws away their kind like trash.

“Wild in the Country” – A piece somewhere in between an illustrated column and a regular short, it deals with the reservation system developed to preserve ancient or outdated cultures so they don’t die out. At the end of the issue, Channon has cut off all her hair and dyed the remains black. She’s leaving.

“Freeze Me with Your Kiss I, II, & III” – Spider’s wife’s head has been stolen. The above quote gives you some idea of their relationship. There are people trying to kill him. He escapes, meanwhile being chased also by a talking police dog he previously maimed and a headless remnant of the War of the Verbals, and in the end realizes that it was a set-up: his wife broke into the an isolationist compound and assaulted the members, screaming her full name, the day before she went into freeze. A woman working for Royce, Indira, also set Spider up to fall because of what he did to her when she was sixteen, as well as the fact that she was dating a man Spider wrote an expose column on. In the end Spider is saved, but Royce has to live with the truth about what he did to Indira.

The Part Where I Talk

Lust for Life is one of my favorite volumes because it combines so many of the best things about Transmet. It opens with a column by Spider that ends, “If you loved me, you’d all kill yourselves today.” The writing he does and how he does it are the overall focus of volume 2. There’s a huge amount of backstory and world-building going on half behind the scenes here, too. I’ll tackle a few of what I think are the best points, quotes, and themes from this volume. You guys pitch in with your picks in the comments and we can hash it out, okay?

If you’re wondering what that quote I was talking about in the intro was?

“Help! The President’s shat himself!”

I mean, really: it may be juvenile but I laugh every. Single. Time. Just say it out loud, if you want to try it. I dare you not to snicker.

In any case, other than the humor, the interesting parts of this chapter are a combination of Spider’s views on journalism and the backstory about his relationship with the current president. “It’s because of you that everyone calls me the Beast. Everyone. The press, the cabinet, my children…” says the President. Spider’s reply? “Quit whining. You earned every fucking word. You pissed in the economy. You shat on the law and wiped your ass with the truth.” What is especially interesting to me is that the President accuses Spider of being a compassionate bleeding-heart—because Spider certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of guy you might call a compassionate bleeding-heart. I’d say he’s more like a wrecking ball. He has very little sympathy for other humans on a personal level, as we see demonstrated repeatedly and with merciless cruelty in this volume. From his treatment of Channon’s relationship to the damage he did to Indira without ever remembering her, Lust for Life keeps the undercurrent running so that even while you’re laughing and crowing along with Spider about the Truth and the Story, you have to remember what else comes with that: hurting people who don’t deserve it.

Channon is a conplicated character who actually gets back in Spider’s face when he’s berating her and prying at her personal, internal wounds. (His behavior in “God Riding Shotgun” goes along with the theme of the volume: anything for the story, no matter what, and to Spider everything is a story, even his assistant’s pain. There’s nothing private.) While she’s tough from the start, she has a certain naivety in the beginning, still in an official fancy journalism school for which Spider seems to have little more than distaste. Her emotional vulnerability is interesting because it isn’t presented as some silly childish thing, or a “girly” thing, but as a genuine and raw hurt. She loves Ziang and can’t stop feeling that way even though she knows how bad it is. As she says to Spider, “And, and I know he doesn’t love me, okay? I’m not stupid. But, but, but you didn’t have to just come out and say it… I’m nuts about him, I’ve told him everything there is to tell about me… and I look down at him when we’re fucking, Spider—and it’s like looking into an empty house.” This rift and his abandonment drive her away to a convent in the end of this volume—but wait until she comes back. (Oops, tiny spoiler.) I like the attention Ellis puts into making her emotional agony a real thing that the reader can sympathize with, especially if they’ve had a filthy awful break-up of their own that was as devastating to them as Channon’s is to her. She’s not weak because she’s in pain and he doesn’t write it that way. If anything, though Spider doesn’t say it, I suspect he understands. After all, he was the one who ran away up a mountain for five years.

Despite how much I cackle during “What Spider Watches on TV/God Riding Shotgun” I’ll skip them for now to go on to “Another Cold Morning.” It is one of the best comic issues I’ve ever read. Spider’s sense of right-and-wrong, of what is important, plays strongly in this column. “[Mary] could have told the future what it’d been like to meet Che Guevara in that old Cuban schoolhouse. She could have told them about the last Queen and Albert Einstein and a million other true stories besides. But the future didn’t want to know.” The casual brutality of the City combined with their lack of concern for anyone is crystal clear in this story. Mary, who had been so many things and could be so may more, is stuck in an alley during the day and a hostel at night because no one cares enough to help her. “Mary will live for maybe another century. But her story’s over. Because you wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The last few pages are of Spider finishing writing the column in his darkened apartment, then wandering out onto the balcony in the night. He looks contemplative. I love this short not just because of the emotional resonance (I get misty reading it most of the time) but because of how it treats the side of Spider we don’t see often: quiet, thoughtful, sincere. The panel where he kisses Mary’s forehead before he leaves is pretty heart-breaking. This is one kind of story that he writes, the kind where people just need to wake up and pay attention to what they’re doing to others. Of course, this is balanced by the backstory that comes out in “Freeze Me with Your Kiss.”

There are a lot of things to parse out in the closing story. One of the things I found most interesting was the violence and how Spider reacts to it—it’s not the usual comics-super-violence with little emotional effect. When the men at his door have guns, Spider reacts instinctively to slam the door one one guy’s arm, take his gun, and fire at them: but it’s how he does it and how he looks when he’s doing it that matter. First, he runs, and the look on his face while he’s yelling is definitely panic. The fact that he keeps yelling “Fuck you!” at the men attacking him strikes me less as some kind of macho thing and more as an outpouring of all those ugly emotions that come on you when someone is invading your home and trying to hurt you. Fear, rage, and the fight-or-flight response. Spider fights. He has to beat the last one to death against his Maker, after which he actually throws up. It’s not easy for Spider to kill a handful of other people, but it was necessary.

The flashback to the War of the Verbals with France is cool in a whole different way. Spider looks so much less haggard. It also gives us some information about the world outside the City, which appears to have been mostly taken over by the Anglophone languages and cultures. (Except the Reservations, and man I would have liked to talk more about that, but I’m trying not to end up with a ten page post.)

Then we get to Indira, the woman who set it all up, and honestly it’s kind of hard to blame her. Spider effectively got her gang-raped on film at the age of sixteen for a story. There’s the extra layer that she’s dating the man who runs an oncogene farm that spider exposed for using children as cancer growth-beds, which is obviously a story that needed to be told, but all the same… If Spider knew what was going to happen in Miss Jones’s theater, which it seems like he definitely did, why didn’t he offer his young new assistant any kind of warning or protection? It wouldn’t have been so hard to do. Five minutes. But the thing is—he didn’t care. He doesn’t even remember her name. The last panel is great: Spider sitting slumped in the floor, saying “Tell you what, though, there’s going to be a column in this.” And Royce responds, looking at him in a way that’s not terribly friendly, “Uh-huh. There always is.” Because Royce knows who was in the wrong when it came to Indira, but he also knows how Spider works, and that there’s no way to stop him from treading on a few other people if he wants to do good journalism. The lesser evil, I suppose, would be a good term.

Lust for Life is a fantastic collection of stories that all weave together the stories of the City, the world, and Spider’s own life. It has some big foreshadowing hiding in it, too, that everyone re-reading will recognize. I skipped a few of the shorts that I actually really love, because this thing is getting damned long, but I’d love to talk about them in the comments if your favorites are different from mine.

The Art

If I had to pick the best art out of this volume, it would probably be from “God Riding Shotgun.” The wide-panels of the religion convention are truly awesome. Each booth is a treat. (Also, there’s a reference to Garth Ennis tucked away in there, as well as Kurt Cobain, etc.) The variety of looks for the people from fat to skinny to slouchy to just nasty are much better than a background with a bunch of people who look all alike.

Of course, the Reservations are pretty gorgeous, too, especially Farsight. Too many choices!

Catch you here next week for volume three, “Year of the Bastard.”

« Vol 1: Back on the Street | Index | Vol 3: Year of the Bastard »

Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

Genevieve Williams
1. welltemperedwriter
There's a theme running through Transmetropolitan about this world's lack of awareness of history; it's mentioned in an upcoming story that nobody actually knows what year it is. The Reservations seem to run counter to that, but I don't know that they actually do. They're immersive, but they also exist without context.

Lust for Life is one of my favorites, too. (It's also the title of my favorite Iggy Pop song, which might have something to do with it.)
Brit Mandelo
2. BritMandelo

I wonder about that sometimes. Because when Mary is revived, and asks how long she's been frozen, it says that the revival guy told her. Yet they aren't entirely sure what year it is. I suppose it's like, you have a general idea of within fifty years or so, but not an exact one? (After all, there were those years of superstorms and mass hysteria and Bad Things Spider remembers from his youth.)
Genevieve Williams
3. welltemperedwriter
I'd guess it would be a general amount of time, which makes some sense; people are notoriously bad at remembering how long ago things happened, minus a referent date. (I do this all the time. I'll think something happened last year, then look in my diary or in my online journal and discover it was actually three years ago. This might be just part of my transformation into a cranky old lady, but I see it all the time in others too.)

The world of Transmet DOES seem to remember how many years it's been since something, though. There's at least one reference to some sort of memorial plaque or monument or something that says it's been X years since whatever event is being memorialized.
Brit Mandelo
4. BritMandelo

Man, I know--"the other day" for me can mean yesterday or four years ago.

It seems like they reset their clocks, so to speak, after that chaos period. They're measuring the time again, and they still have documents enough to do things like the Reservations, but it's like they lost a year or five somewhere in the middle and are guessing now as to exactly when it is. (I would have liked a little bit more on the devastation period in the comic, but it only gets talked about like twice, and that's sort of vague.)
David M.A.
5. David M.A.
I think we're all misinterpreting what it means to say "nobody knows what year it is." *Somebody* does, surely, but the way I read these passages is that nobody *cares* what year it is; they only measure time as relative. Two decades ago, six months ago, sure. But "in 19XX" has no relevance to the average City denizen.

Plus, it lets Ellis get away with not sticking a solid date on anything and look silly in hindsight.
Brit Mandelo
6. BritMandelo
@welltemperedwriter @David M.A.

All right, I finally went and looked it up:

Issue 42, which is the last chapter of volume seven, says this:

"The problem with no one knowing what year it is, is that we have to define backwards, as it were. (image of a monument that says "...was born here 26 years ago" with the 26 in changeable digital letters) We can't say "that year," we have to say "ten years ago." Or "the year that boyband exploded onstage when their bodysculpt implants overloaded their skin's surface tension." Therefore, because it's difficult to refer back to the past, we tend to live in the present moment a lot more than we used to. Or, a lot more than we presumed we used to."

So it really is an unknown year. Nobody's got a clue.
Jon Rosebaugh
7. inklesspen
Well, it'd be easy enough to redefine Year 0 as when the Beast was elected, or some such. So I really think it is that nobody cares, not even the journalists.
Brit Mandelo
8. BritMandelo

Thinking about that--I might disagree. Time is a social construction that people have to agree on. It's not as if the past has been wiped out; it's still there and close, there's just a disconnect. Choosing a "year zero" would be intensely problematic from a social perspective because everyone knows it can't be year zero. The way they define things isn't exactly unheard of; many countries use calenders based "backwards" in time on political appointments. (15th year of Emperor ___, for example.)

Though I do suspect this social disconnect from the bad years is to blame for the fact that no one has bothered to figure OUT what year it is. After all, there had to have been some crazy guy in a basement somewhere marking off the days during the conflicts who knows what year it actually is. They're still a floating society without an anchor temporally or, really, culturally. The City is an amalgam. In that sense I agree that it's also a matter of nobody caring enough to put the information together.
David M.A.
9. Andr.Drew
It seems I have a defective copy of Lust for Life, just bought last week. It starts with Boyfriend is a Virus.

This is NOT GOOD.
David M.A.
10. psychicscubadiver
Completely off topic, but the Bowel Disrupter™ reminded me of something I've often thought. I wouldn't want one of those as a 'home defense'. Cause when the bad guy is gone, it's your house and you've got to clean that up, which horrifies me.
Michael Grosberg
11. Michael_GR
Warren Ellis must have read a lot of Varley. There is something about most of the stories in this volume that channels the same vibe I used to get from the eight world stories. Plus, a seasoned journalist gets a young intern? that is just so "Steel Beach". Of course, having your reporter based on Hunter Thompson instead of old screwball comedies means the madness was cranked all the way to 12 (Varley's was merely at 11).
Brit Mandelo
12. BritMandelo

Yeah, I somehow just don't think Spider cares. He has filthy assistants for that kind of thing. *g*


Hm! That's a cool thought. I wonder if there are any namedrops of Varley mixed in the backgrounds somewhere. Since Ellis seems to be a big reader it wouldn't surprise me if there were. (Finding them might be the hard part, though...)
Chris Meadows
13. Robotech_Master
I find myself wondering if the bowel disruptor has a very light "stun" setting that one could use on oneself in lieu of a laxative when feeling unduly constipated.
David M.A.
14. Holden Carver
"It seems I have a defective copy of Lust for Life"

No, you don't.

What's happened, and what should probably have been mentioned right at the start of this read-along so that everyone was clear about it, is that there are two editions of the first two volumes.

The first edition of volume one was done as a cheap, introductory volume to the series, followed by a bigger volume two, collecting more issues than a standard volume.

Eventually DC, for reasons of their own, probably that they wanted to standardise the volumes a bit more, produced new editions of the first two volumes, effectively moving a number of issues from volume two to volume one, making volume one longer, and volume two shorter.

See: for a table showing what I mean.

In short, not defective. Poorly advertised, perhaps, but not defective.
Brit Mandelo
15. BritMandelo
@Holden Carver

Oh. I can tell you why it didn't get mentioned--I didn't know, and that's my fault. I have the old ones I suppose.

Sorry, everyone!
David M.A.
17. Ryan Viergutz
The net is overwhelming, but I do come in and look on these columns when I remember.

If Transmet gets better than this one, it's one for the ages. I've stepped onto Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis once to date. I felt comfortable, walking on a thriving urban downtown street. I had found my home.

This volume showed me what a city is in all its bizarre beauty... I will get there, or I will die trying.
Nic Castillo
18. NicNac
Interesting read. I'm (obviously) following along about a month behind, hope no one cares. :)

I liked this volume far less than the first one, at least until I read through the read along posted here. I loved the first column at the beginning, "If you loved me, you'd all kill yourselves today" is hands down my favorite quote. And I enjoyed the worldbuilding going on, but I wanted MORE like the first. More hard hitting stuff, and I just wasn't finding it so much.

The religious convention was certainly interesting, but I think my favorite was "What Spider Watches on TV"--the look on his face when Channon is telling him off before she leaves, and then the different panels showing him slumping lower and lower as he watches are just great. It perfectly captured how it is when a person spends all day watching TV! And I love it when Spider gets on a roll and starts calling all the call-in shows.

On a deeper level, I wondered if maybe he WASN'T responsible for what happened to Indira, but I suppose that's just wishful thinking. The read along helped me process some of the deeper stuff in this volume, so thanks for that! I'm guessing that Spider's nature is something we'll have to continue to battle a bit with throughout the series!
David M.A.
19. damon1347
hi brit,
very greatful for your read-along, great job, thanks for doing it!!!
I am just rereading T for the x-time, and it is still a fantastic piece of work. Three questions that started to cross my mind:

1. which city is this supposed to be? okok, maybe this is as vagues as 'when' it is set. Let me re-phrase: why is it set in the US? considering that we are talking British artists? not that it matters, but still...

2. does anyone else think that there is a certain similarity between Spider and Kind Mob from 'The Invisibles'?

3. while re-reading it, I find, though I agree that the world-building is great, some of the constant allusions to cheap sex get a little bit boring. dont get me wrong, I like my porn :), but it gets a little bit tiring, when considering what other great ideas they have put in the book (think religions, think reservations, etc etc) the constant mentioning of sex becoms bland...

what do you guys think?
David M.A.
20. damon1347
potential spoilers, be careful :)

one question just crossed my mind: Spider will have an affaire with Yelena in the story, but I always felt that she was more of a protegee than a lover/partner. How about Channon. Looking at the the very last issue I feel Spider and Channon are more of a couple. Is there any indication in the storyline that they have 'something' gonig on? Or is it all platonic... I am not sure I fully get their relationship.

enlightening thoughts anyone?
Brit Mandelo
21. BritMandelo

1. The City is pretty heavily alluded to as New York throughout the text. (Warren actually writes quite a bit about the US/stories set in the US.)

2. He's a Hunter Thompson figure to me; and considering that some of Thompson's books appear in the backgrounds, it seems to be an intentional reference.

3. The point of the constant allusions to sex is that it has become bland and non-taboo. It's supposed to be an unremarked part of the background/life in the City, because it's not shocking for them in the slightest.

Regarding Spider and Channon, no, they are just very close friends. There's never any indication that either of them has a sexual interest in the other beyond the cursory, and Channon actually starts the story as his protege/assistant. When she quits, Yelena comes along, and they have chemistry. Both Channon and Yelena start their relationships with spider as students/proteges/assistants, but Channon develops a friendship with him and Yelena and he develop a romantic relationship.
David M.A.
22. Jenny C.
I think it's entirely possible when Mary asked what year it was she was told no one knows.

Which if you think about it is far more terrible than any given number would have been.

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