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Prime Books

Wednesday 2 July 2003

Bad Boys from Britain

  • Transmetropolitan: Dirge, by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson (DC/Vertigo, 2003)

  • Johnny Nemo, Volume One: Existentialist Hitman of the Future, by Peter Milligan and Brett Ewins (Cyberosia, 2003)

  • Heroes & Monsters: The Unofficial Companion to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Jess Nevins (Monkeybrain Press, 2003)

  • Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman, edited by smoky man and Gary Spencer Millidge (Abiogenesis Press, 2003)

  • Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

Dirge is the eighth collected volume of Transmetropolitan comics, a political SF series written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Darick Robertson. Ellis is one of many edgy UK comics writers to have conquered the American comics scene in the wake of superstar Alan Moore's phenomenal impact, and Transmetropolitan is his signature series.

Transmetropolitan first saw the light of day in 1997, and the collections have been coming out regularly since 1998. The serialized comics reached the end of the story (after 60 issues) in mid-2002, but the collections still have a dozen issues to go (probably two more volumes) before reprinting the whole set.

Pissed-off, anti-establishment gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem is the protagonist of the series. He lives and works in The City, an American metropolis of the future. He takes copiously excessive amounts of drugs, angers all the right people, and has become a counter-culture celebrity. Much of Transmetropolitan concerns Jerusalem's ongoing war with the corrupt President of the USA, whose 1984-like media manipulations have become even more ominously resonant since the current American administration seized power.

Transmetropolitan's background details are rich with outré body modifications, extreme genetic engineering, massively dangerous personal technology, unbridled sexual diversity, religious cultism gone amok, information media overload, abhorrently oppressive social inequities, rampant corruption, and disturbingly laissez-faire violence. Transmetropolitan's City is the cosmopolitan nightmare of all those who fear the big city, the disastrous result of the unopposed, decades-long marriage of corporate capitalism and "democratic" government, and the best hope for the emergence of a tolerant pan-cultural community.

Spider Jerusalem — an amalgam of Hunter Thompson, Alan Moore, Ellis himself, and Peter Milligan's Johnny Nemo — loves The City and hates everything that's been done to it. He's a violent and abusive misanthrope who bleeds for every injustice, who weeps for every defenseless victim. His arrogant facade is a necessary armor; without it, he would go insane in the face of all the wrongdoings that need to be exposed.

Before the events of Dirge, Jerusalem and his "filthy assistants" were banned from the mainstream media. Jerusalem's column now reaches the public via a pirate newsfeed, and, despite the President's efforts to squash him, the rebel journalist is more popular than ever. In Dirge, as Jerusalem is confronted with his own mortality, he decides to focus all his efforts on exposing the corruption of the President and toppling his regime.

As the series nears its conclusion, the focus shifts away from exploring the world and centers increasingly on Spider Jerusalem himself. Ellis is gradually toning down the information overload. As Jerusalem realigns his priorities in order to attain his heart's desire, the series acquires a stronger emotional core. Part of me misses the constant invention of the earlier installments, but I also empathize with Jerusalem's plight, and I think the series is stronger for evolving along with its characters rather than repeating ad infinitum the same formula, no matter how exciting and effective.

Transmetropolitan: Dirge is not very accessible as an independent volume. But if you've been following Transmetropolitan, keep reading. With Dirge, Ellis is clearly putting all his pieces in place for the grand finale. And if you haven't read the earlier volumes, what are you waiting for? Transmetropolitan is among the most important, pertinent, and entertaining SF of the last decade.

Johnny Nemo first berserked his way into the consciousness of comics readers in 1984, in the pages of the way-ahead-of-its-time anthology series Strange Days from Eclipse Comics — not that anyone reading Cyberosia's first Johnny Nemo collection would learn any of this. This is as bare bones as a collection gets. The book reprints several Johnny Nemo comics and prose stories, but there's no sign of either table of contents or original publication credits.

That said, there's no other way to find Johnny Nemo stories these days, which makes this book essential despite its lacunae. The two prose stories included here — "Murder Is Meat" and "Time for Nemo" — don't match the comics (which make up most of the book) for raw sardonic energy, but they're still fun.

Johnny Nemo is an amoral, hedonistic, hard-ass, kill-first-ask-questions-later private eye who operates in thirtieth-century New London. Readers of Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan will quickly recognize Milligan's series as its most essential predecessor. The throwaway cyberpunk technology, the sleazy sex, the casual violence, the dense urban landscape, the strange religious cults ... all that and more fed into The City, as envisioned by Warren Ellis (who blurbs this book, saying "I expect all these hippie comics the young folk like to just shrivel up in [Johnny Nemo's] awesome field of testosterone").

And if people think that Ellis's essentially compassionate Spider Jerusalem is a bastard, wait till they meet Peter Milligan's unbridled incarnation of the Id principle, Johnny Nemo. Johnny Nemo kills anyone without remorse, fucks anyone without question, does anything and everything to make himself happy and entertained. And yet ... this series, for all its glorious excesses of sex and violence is not simply a moronic pandering thrill-fest. It's much too wry, much too self-aware for that. And so funny; most of all, Johnny Nemo is maniacally funny. Johnny Nemo is the ultimate deconstruction of the developmentally retarded macho asshole tough guy. As Johnny Nemo himself says: "New London ain't a place for the squeamish. It's ugly, violent, dangerous, filthy and decadent... And that's why I like it — it suits my personality..." And with a subtitle like Existentialist Hitman of the Future, Milligan isn't exactly aiming to pander to the blood-and-guns audience.

Johnny Nemo, Volume One: Existentialist Hitman of the Future is a dangerously funny book.

For their comics series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, British bad boys supreme Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (in the 1980s, the Comics Code Authority once deemed O'Neill such a bad boy that they rated his very style unsuitable by Code standards) gathered as their "heroes" the archetypal bad boys of Victorian fantastic fiction: a serial rapist, an opium addict, a megalomaniac murderer, a monstrously violent changeling, and a vampire victim transformed into a (gasp!) feminist. Respectively: Wells's Invisible Man, Haggard's Alan Quatermain, Verne's Captain Nemo, Stevenson's Jekyll & Hyde, and Stoker's Mina Murray (a.k.a. Mina Harker). This last one's neither a boy nor a gentleman, but there you go.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a subversive adventure series that enthusiastically exposes the racism, sexism, and classism of Victorian fiction and morals while nevertheless being a loving homage to the imaginative creations of that era's writers. (I'd wager that the upcoming film adaptation does away with scenes such as the Invisible Man gleefully raping the girls from Rosa Coote's Correctional Academy for Wayward Gentlewomen, and simply turns the League concept into an adventure story devoid of social satire).

This steampunk series is a close kin to Kim Newman's Anno Dracula sequence, imagining as it does a universe where the entire heritage of fiction exists in one streamlined universe. As such, it is dense with both obvious and obscure references; and the encyclopedic erudition shown by both creators is staggeringly impressive.

Shortly after the comics series started coming out, Jess Nevins began to post online his annotations, uncovering and commenting on the various references, jokes, puns, homages, etc. peppered throughout. The annotations also include translations of the occasional foreign-language dialogue. Nevins's postings eventually evolved into webpages and, finally, into this book, Heroes & Monsters: The Unofficial Companion to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

His endeavors quickly drew the attention of Moore and O'Neill, who were impressed at Nevins's thorough and knowledgeable scrutiny of their creation. Moore himself provides the introduction to the book version and is the subject of a lengthy interview by Nevins, while O'Neill provides his own annotations to the annotations. Clearly, this book is a treasure of information and insight for League enthusiasts.

Nevins's League companion also includes three thematic essays: "Archetypes", "On Crossovers", and "Yellow Peril". Of these, "Yellow Peril" — which tracks the history of the "yellow peril" concept in the xenophobic Western imagination (one of League's villains is a thinly disguised Fu Manchu) — is the most detailed and illuminating. The other two, while certainly being interesting, disappoint.

"Archetypes", subdivided by cast member, does an unsatisfying job of examining the archetypal qualities of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen's various characters. The best sections are the ones devoted to adventurer Allan Quatermain and to Mina Murray, the latter providing particularly interesting historical information on the Victorian "New Woman". On the other hand, the sections on Captain Nemo and Professor Moriarty meander somewhat aimlessly and don't truly succeed in making their case for Nemo representing "The Man with the Machine" archetype and Moriarty as the "Hero-Villain", sidestepping their more striking archetypal qualities. In the case of Nemo, Nevins fails to recognize the archetype of the megalomaniacal antihero who uses questionable means for a (perhaps deluded) just cause, and in the case of Moriarty — Sherlock Holmes's arch-enemy — there's no mention of the "Villain as the Mirror Image of the Hero" archetype. Nevins then goes on to summarily dispatch the Invisible Man and Jekyll & Hyde as characters who "do not represent archetypes" — I disagree (I think there are a few archetypal avenues that could have been explored), and I wish Nevins had made an equal effort with all the main characters for this piece.

"On Crossovers" deals with fictions in which "characters and concepts from two or more discrete texts or series of texts meet." I'm a sucker for this material, and, although I appreciated Nevins pointing out some of the more obscure historical instances of this kind of literary amusement, I nevertheless found the essay unsatisfying. For one thing, Nevins introduces of a taxonomy of crossovers (he identifies seven types), but he doesn't argue or justify his taxonomical divisions. The essay is also frustratingly short, and does not fully succeed in placing League in context within this tradition and succeeds even less in situating League within the body of contemporary crossovers (for example, the works of Kim Newman are not mentioned in this essay). The essay spends too much time listing examples of the various types of crossovers (as per Nevins's taxonomy) and not enough exploring the type of crossover that is a "fictional world [containing] characters from numerous authors"; i.e., the subgenre to which The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen belongs. The piece tries to articulate something, but then gives up the attempt without even a struggle. Nevertheless, despite its lack of analytical rigour, it is, as far as it goes, an informative and entertaining read.

Finally, this book's use as a reference tool would have been greatly enhanced by an index. Despite my quibbles, Heroes & Monsters remains a very entertaining read; it generously overflows with arcane and fascinating information. And it's obviously a labor of love.

Alan Moore, who will turn fifty on 18 November 2003, seems to inspire labors of love. Alan Moore: Portrait of an Extraordinary Gentleman, edited by Gary Spencer Millidge and 'Smoky Man', is a 352-page fiftieth birthday card for the man who is arguably the most significant and talented comics writer of the twentieth century.

Aside from a Moore interview and a reprinted correspondence between Moore and Dave Sim (the controversial creator of Cerebus), the book is entirely composed of homages to Alan Moore by 145 artists, writers, filmmakers, and cartoonists from around the world.

It's a gorgeously designed book and a moving document of the profound effect Moore's work has had on readers and artists all over the world. Every aspect of Moore's career is covered: underground cartoonist, revolutionary comics writer, genius comics scriptwriter, musician, prose author, performance artist, magician. There are hours of fascinating reading here. The texts include academic articles, testimonials, essays of various kinds, memoirs, etc. On top of that there's an abundance of comics and illustrations by a very diverse array of international cartoonists and artists.

This book is witty, reverential, loving, and a wonderful present to a phenomenal writer who forever changed comics in general, but more specifically horror and superheroes, with, respectively, Swamp Thing and Watchmen, his greatest and most influential works.

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a critic, editor, and fiction writer. 2003 will see the release of three anthologies he edited: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic (Véhicule Press), Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction (Red Deer Press), and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk (Four Walls Eight Windows). He is the featured "Foreign Author of the Month" for June 2003 at Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W 2C2.

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