Fri
Apr 2 2010 11:49am
The Great Comics Read-Along: Transmetropolitan v. 4, “The New Scum”

“Dictation. (Recording). Notes on the murder of Dr. Vita Severn by the office of Senator Gary Callahan.”

First, an announcement—the official day for the comics-read-along posts is switching from Friday to Tuesday! It’ll lighten up your reading load a little bit. So, volume four today and volume five on Tues., April 6; then it’s smooth sailing from there on out.

“The New Scum” collects six chapters of the same name and a short story about winter. Spider and Callahan are circling each other, looking for a way to rain down doom, while the election runs to its end—and the Beast, the sitting president, has gone into seclusion. He isn’t even running, aside from a single interview with Spider where he makes the point that at least he believes in something, even if it’s something Spider hates. Callahan doesn’t believe in anything. (Though, the Beast is wrong. Callahan believes in screwing with people.) The revelation of the Smiler’s real agenda and real personality in this volume are my favorite part. It’s enough to give you chills.

Ahead: crazy politicians, murder, mayhem, drinking, and a country that can’t crawl out of its self-absorbed lunacy to save its own life.

What Happens

Spider has moved again, this time to Pastoral Mews, a super-secure “gated” sort of community. However, Vita’s murder and the fact that he’s the one who set the wheels moving for it are haunting him. None of the people on the street seem to even care about the election any longer. They’re all caught up in their own lives. The sitting president isn’t  campaigning; he does one interview with Spider in this volume and that’s the extent of his attempt to defend his position. Spider uses the column to offer a tiny bit of backhanded support for the Beast, who makes a cogent point in his interview—at least he believes in something, even if it’s something Spider hates. The Smiler believes in nothing. The interview raises his approval rating, but not enough.

Then there’s a bit more about the streets and the “new scum” voters, including the reappearance of Mary. Spider gives her a camera and discusses his plan to take down Callahan for Vita’s murder, which even Channon and Yelena don’t know about yet. Afterwards, the Smiler himself demands an interview lest Spider appear to be biased. During it, he fully admits to his madness and cruelty, a pure hatred for humanity. He actually compares himself to a James Bond villain. Spider calls him out about Vita, tipping his hand on his evidence, and Callahan confirms his suspicions. The problem is that all of Spider’s equipment was sabotaged and there’s no proof the talk ever happened. The “meet the new boss” chat was just to let Spider know that Callahan will go after him and everything he loves in retaliation for his humiliation. It’s too late for Spider to change the vote, even though he tries. The volume ends with the election party Channon and Yelena have organized. The presidency goes to the Smiler in a landslide. Spider and his filthy assistants throw explosives off the balcony to “celebrate:” after all, it’s them against the world, now.

The Part Where I Talk

There’s a lot to say about this volume and it’s hard to figure out how to say it, but here are the highlights:

Spider is growing more and more as a person in “The New Scum.” He’s showing weakness, if only to the reader, like in the beginning when he’s on his balcony crying. He can’t keep going at the rate that he’s going, with the weight he’s under, and not crack. He’s not a god. He’s just human, and a human with some problems at that. “The New Scum” also has one of my favorite scenes in the entire comic: Spider finds a lost little girl, who’s mother has just had to pawn her toy to buy a trait for her. The little girl asks, “Will you help me?” and Spider says, “’Course I will, sweetheart. Why else d’you think I’ve stayed here all these years?” The mother comes rushing over to thank him, and Spider ends up buying the little girl her toy back from the pawn shop. I think that covers the good end of his mercurial relationship to the city he loves and hates. He wants to take care of his people.

The finale of the volume covers the bad side. There, he’s on the balcony alone, snarling, “Scum! You useless bastards can’t get anything right, can you?...That’s the way it’s always fucking been—why should I fucking worry now? Useless betraying fuckers, I give you the truth and you do nothing, and now I’m all alone—”

Of course, he isn’t alone, which brings me to something else I wanted to touch on: the women of Transmetropolitan. Spider, though he originally kept personal distance as teacher/boss from Channon and Yelena both when they first arrived, is heavily reliant on his “filthy assistants” for emotional and technical support. This becomes clearer in the next volume especially, but for now, I’d just like to consider the people he chooses as confidantes.

Mary, the Revival, is a good example. Spider helped her get on her feet, from what the dialogue implies, because he saw a kindred journalistic spirit. He’s willing to confide his plans in her and rely on her support. He doesn’t go seeking out a man to back him up when there’s a woman who is better for the job. (I can’t quite make this argument for Channon and Yelena because he chose neither of them; Royce did.) While Spider is obviously sexually attracted to women, and he actually does have sex with Yelena, he doesn’t objectify them any more than the culture objectifies literally everyone including Spider himself.

The relationship between Channon and Yelena as they attempt to be the assistants Spider needs, as well as the friends he needs, is rich. It has layers. They dig at each other (especially, in this volume, regarding Yelena’s relations with Spider) but in a way that seems to strengthen their friendship. It also leads to some of the funniest moments in the comic, such as their various thefts of Spider’s credit cards and the scene at the election party where Yelena screams “I fucked Spider Jerusalem!” in the middle of the room. The panel right after where only they and Spider, who appears baffled, are in color and the rest of the staring quiet partygoers are greyed out is hilarious. I also appreciate that despite Spider’s not-quite-a-relationship with Yelena, he doesn’t treat her differently from Channon. Maybe it’s just bias as a woman reading comics, but to see a cast that’s actually made up mostly of strong women is a major happiness-booster. I can’t say it enough: I love Yelena and Channon. They balance out Spider perfectly.

But it wouldn’t be possible to finish talking about “The New Scum” without thinking over the two “presidential” interviews and what those interviews seem to have to say about politics in general. It’s chilling, to be honest, but definitely realistic.

The Beast’s theory is that of the 51%—as long as over half of the people get dinner every night, he’s done his job. In his opinion, Spider is asking too damned much from the president and the country. “I believe in getting through the day. I believe in knowing your station. I believe in living somewhere quiet. … My job isn’t to make living life a good time. My job is to keep the majority of people in this country alive.” While this might seem a little pessimistic at best and sort of like evil negligence at worst, the Smiler has him beat. “I hate people more than anything,” the Smiler says. “And I’m going to be President…. I hate you all, you know? All you scum. I want to be President because I hate you. I want to fuck with you. I want to make you shut up and do things properly. Get through your doomed little lives quietly.”

So, the choice is between somebody who’ll let 49% of the population starve so long as he’s got the other half covered, mostly the people who voted for him while the ones who didn’t get fucked, and a complete sociopathic lunatic who hates everyone equally.

The people? They vote for the crazy goddamn bastard who wants to stomp their heads in, just because he distracted them with a little sympathy ploy and a nice smile. They do it every time. The people, the new scum and the old scum, only listen when it seem like it’s good to listen. They never listen enough. That’s Spider problem, and really, I’d say its one of our problems, too: the truth always gets buried under the prettier or more entertaining lie.

The Art

The last issue, the party, is my favorite art-wise. Yelena’s posture and facial expressions just blow me away every time. Even in her “sexy” dress, she slouches and stands like she’s wearing pants and a pair of boots. Her screaming-face is pretty awesome, too.

Otherwise, every time Spider’s wandering the street the art is worth special consideration. Robertson pays so, so much attention to each small detail of every single person walking around. There’s probably only so many times I can say that in the read-throughs, but really, it stays true. The City is where the colors and the beauty are.

That’s it for “The New Scum.” Join me on Tuesday 4/6, not next Friday, for volume five, “Lonely City.” To catch up on the rest of the posts, go here.


« Vol 3: Year of the Bastard | Index | Vol 5: Lonely City »


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

3 comments
psychicscubadiver
1. psychicscubadiver
That volume confirmed my opinion that one of the scariest expressions a person can wear is a smile. Seeing someone sincrely smiling and enjoying themselves when they do something truly wrong is a hell of a lot worse than someone who is just angry or unfeeling.
Tim Nolan
2. Dr_Fidelius
Re-reading the election party scene I wondered if some of those faces are taken from life. The first splash page in landscape orientation, then again four pages later; there's a chap with a cigar and a shot glass who could be Warren Ellis if you squint a bit.

I may be wrong.

The interview with Callahan is lots of fun to read, but I'm a little bit sad that he turned out to be such a thoroughly, unabashedly evil-hearted bastard. One of the greatest things about this comic is how easy it is to believe; you can see how an individual (and indeed a whole society) could lead itself into a culture of institutionalised brutality and indifference. The trouble with the Smiler is he's a cartoon villain. He doesn't do awful things because he thinks they're Right, he does them out of malice and a joyful hatred of humanity.
It does make him entertaining, but of all the principal characters in Transmetropolitan he's the least real.
Brit Mandelo
3. BritMandelo
@psychicscubadiver

Exactly. It's what makes him scarier than the Beast, who's actually pretty comical throughout.

@Dr_Fidelius

Strangely, I've never read the Smiler as cartoon-villain. There've been too many real life politicians who were elected and then became dictators just because they wanted to do what he wants to do: make people shut up, sit down, and get through their lives without fuss. Usually those guys kill a lot of people.

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