“What now? There’s a bag of anti-cancer trait in the bathroom. Take some. Cigarettes on the table. Start smoking.”
The third volume of Transmetropolitan, “Year of the Bastard,” contains the chapters of the same name parts 1 through 6 as well as a short story about Christmas. It throws the reader directly into the main arc of the comic: Spider finally begins covering the election as it ramps up in the City. This is a comic about politics and journalism, after all, and so far we’ve mostly just had the journalism. The effect covering politics has on Spider is one of the more important points of “Year of the Bastard,” which otherwise serves to flesh out and set up the other players for the rest of the series. Things get serious from here on out.
Ahead: drugs, politics, drugs, filthy assistants, and a whole lot of anger. Also, if you’re trying to quit smoking right now, reading this will not help.
Spider really doesn’t want to cover the election, but everyone from Royce to his public wants him to offer an opinion. The available candidates are the sitting president, the Beast, and two challengers: Heller, the crazy one, and Callahan, the one who seems better. Spider gives in to the pressure despite his misgivings and announces live through a feedsite interviewer that he will be covering the election. Afterwards, he goes to see Kristin, an ex-political consultant who is now a drug pusher. She sets him up with information and a smorgasbord of pills. When Spider visits the Word office to let Royce know he’s doing it, his new assistant is there: Yelena Rossini, Royce’s niece. He goes home to research. The next day, they meet outside Meany Hall, where Yelena cracks and starts yelling at Spider how much she hates him. They go to interview Callahan.
The senator, also known as the Smiler, is with his two consultants Vita Severn and Alan Schact. Spider gets them started bickering, drops some source-gas to record the argument, and hightails it to the bathroom to listen in with his laptop. He overhears Callahan calling his voting bloc “the new scum.” The next several pages are like flipping channels between news stations; they’re ads and interview clips and column chunks. Then it’s off to one of the Heller rallies, where Spider discovers exactly how much of a white supremacist lunatic the senator is. At the same time, Spider is starting to have some drug problems. After that, Vita comes to visit in secret to ask Spider to back Callahan even though they both know he’s cracked, because someone has to take out the Beast. Schact is playing his own game with the run. So, Spider does write a column—but it’s supporting Vita, not Callahan, which is a very backhanded way of offering an endorsement.
In the weeks leading up to the selection convention, Spider tricks a group of followers to trail after him to a housing project, where he live broadcasts the truth about the way the government is abusing the people within them. He goes home and he and Yelena celebrate with a little booze. Or a lot, because they wake up in bed together the next day. She insists nothing happened but Spider later admits that his shades take pictures when they get shaken, and he’d left them on, so he has proof. At the convention, Callahan is selected but Spider’s previous news coverage forces him to promise he’ll do something about the projects. But when the Smiler nominates his VP, who has a clean slate and nothing to offer, Spider knows he must be a tool of Heller. Some investigative journalism later, they prove that Heller paid to grow Freeh (the VP candidate) at a body farm and Fred Christ paid for his consciousness upgrade. He’s a literal tool. Spider attempts to get into Callahan’s press conference and manages with the reappearance of Channon to save his ass. They announce what they’ve found to the other press figures and ask Callahan if he’ll stand by his VP. His approval rating drops to 18%.
And then Vita Severn is murdered on live TV. He uses her death as a sympathy play and raises his ratings back to 78%. Kristin sees Spider at Vita’s grave and confirms his suspicion: Callahan did it.
The Part Where I Talk
I like the attention Ellis pays to the difficulties of elections in this volume—when Vita comes to ask Spider to offer his support, he asks why, and she says, “Because [Callahan]’s got a job to do, damnit. He has to remove a sitting president. And it has to be him—the country can’t afford a Bob Heller, or one of these nameless fucks I see ghosting around the con making deals for a leg up…” It’s not about getting a good candidate in. It’s about the lesser evil and that appears to be Callahan despite the fact that, as Spider says, “Half of the time he seems autistic, the rest of the time he’s like a lizard jacked full of lithium and speed. These things do not promote love in most of us.” Spider is more right than he knows, but he likes Vita, and he offers her support in his column. He’s making what seems like the best choice.
I especially like that he was wrong. Spider proves in “Year of the Bastard” that he can not only be wrong but that his missteps can have huge consequences. It’s part of being the voice of the public that he doesn’t enjoy. As Royce says, he needs to be hated to write. The theme of Spider hurting people he doesn’t intend to hurt keeps going through this volume, too. Not only does his effective attack on the Smiler result in Vita’s death, but his taciturn support of the senator in the beginning was just enough to sway the public. Once Vita dies it’s already too late. Spider has failed the people and failed a potential friend in the worst way possible.
His anger over this betrayal and failure adds to the development of his sense of responsibility to the people of the City that we haven’t seen as much of before. When he told Mary’s story in “Lust for Life” it was more about a sense of general sadness about the treatment of the Revivals by the people. Now, we begin to see how he feels about the people and the City as a whole: a mix of anger and concern. He wants them to do the right thing and feels, sometimes, that they’re actually capable of it with a little guidance. When he leads the band of roving citizens to the housing projects and forces them to see what they have voted for and allowed, he’s angry but he’s also concerned with where the election is going. Later, at the convention, he says “I did it. I forced the bastard to commit in public to fix everything I wrote about. That’s all I could do.” Spider wants his people, the people of the City, to all be taken care of no matter how much he repeats that he wishes half of them would just kill themselves on a regular basis. That anger covers his deep disillusionment, another subject of “Year of the Bastard.” The people failed him in the Longmarch campaign, which he tried hard to endorse, and instead they ended up with the Beast. That’s pretty resonant for me and I suspect for most readers: we always hope that the masses will do something good and true, but it just so rarely happens that way. In fact, I think it happens just enough to make it more of a disappointment when the people turn into ravenous dogs scrapping at each other instead of supporting each other. That seems to be exactly what Spider is feeling.
His drug use may be a comedy point, but Royce’s reaction to it is telling: when Yelena asks why he’s drugging himself to the gills, Royce says, “We’re back at that stage already, aren’t we?” It’s not healthy for him and it’s a sign that he’s going downhill. He doesn’t want to cover the election but once he’s sucked in, he’s in, and he can’t get out. Spider and Kristin’s conversation about addiction to politics just confirms that. Character depth! I love it. Spider is so damned complex. His personal morals seem to be intensely lacking when it comes to compassion, but on a grander scale, it is his most important mission to create a world where no one has to suffer unnecessarily at the hands of a power that is supposed to protect them.
World-building: the text starts to give more hints about the political structure of the new country post-revolutions as well. Presidents serve an eight year term, for one thing, and it seems that while there are senators and they do have selection conventions, the party-divides no longer exist. You are the sitting president or you are the Opposition Party, no matter your views or how you might not fit together. (All the same, it isn’t hard to extrapolate what parties in our world the candidates would belong to.)
There’s one other character I want to talk about a little bit before we’re done here: Yelena Rossini. When she first shows up, she’s quiet and monosyllabic. She seems a little gothy. Of course, the next pages she’s on, you start to see the resemblance to Spider. She’s screaming at him about how much she hates him, fuming, growling. She’s got some anger behind her and a whole lot of political history via her father. I love Yelena. At first I was iffy on her, because she doesn’t inspire much in that first scene, but she’s tough and a little crazy. She’s the perfect filthy assistant. Channon mouthed off to Spider, but Yelena spends most of her time challenging and examining him to understand how he works. I can’t pick who I like best, Channon or Yelena, but together they’re the formidable pair of people that make Spider function (without dying). It’s especially nice after the treatment of women in many comics, even ones I otherwise like, because here they’re people first. Competent and badass people, just like Spider himself. It’s hard to write any secondary leads that won’t be overshadowed by Spider’s larger-than-life personality but I think Ellis succeeds with the Filthy Assistants.
This volume has some awesome art in it, from the “Home entertainment system: give me fire” page to the death of Vita Severn. As usual, the backgrounds are excellent (this is the volume where you can see a book by Hunter S. Thompson sitting on Spider’s table), but Spider’s facial expressions steal the glory. If there is one thing to be said about Robertson it is that he captures the look of “drug binge” with great accuracy. Perhaps favorite page:
It’s not really hard to see how cool that is. Spider is prepared to do some Research, right there. I wish I had that much evil glory doing research, don’t you?
That’s all for now, but join me next week for volume 4, “The New Scum.”