Warren Ellis‘ Transmetropolitan is one of those glorious experiences that makes you feel you’re getting mindfucked and revolutionized at the same time. It’s like plugging your brain into the mainframe of a delightfully weird computer that’s been programmed to overload your senses, tear at your sensitivities and often make you laugh uncontrollably at the same time.
It’s the story of Spider Jerusalem, a superstar Gonzo journalist (yes, that’s a real thing; Google Hunter S. Thompson) who returns from a self-imposed paranoid retirement to once again explore and expose the corruptions of the dystopian world he occupies. Among the issues he tackles are corrupt political leaders, body modifications and equal rights for transients (humans who have altered themselves genetically to more closely resemble aliens and other things). But he also likes to delve into the little things, like television.
“What Spider Watches on TV” is among the more fanciful Transmetropolitan stories. It’s only issue #5 in the series, so we’re still getting to know all of Spider’s particular paranoias, likes, hates, food preferences (he enjoys caribou eyes) and general ticks and tendencies. Ellis takes a simple idea that could just as easily be used in a sitcom (in fact, I’m pretty sure I saw an episode of Clarissa Explains It All with much the same premise once) and uses it to reveal new things about both the world he’s built and the character he’s channeling. It’s simple: put Spider Jerusalem in front of the TV all day so he can study the hold it has on his culture, and don’t let him get up until his brain is fried.
It stars very simply. At the urging of his assistant Channon, Spider, who’s more distrustful than most when it comes to mass communication, decides to plop himself down in his chair and watch TV all day, with his trusty two-faced cat at his side (and no, I don’t mean the cat has a treacherous personality; I mean the damn thing has two freaking faces). The idea is that deep immersion will give him a better understanding of all the people who are slaves to the world of broadcasting, but what happens instead is a trip down the rabbithole into a state of half grim lethargy and half absolute madness. This is thanks in part to the television in the future, which has much more of a…deep immersion effect than what we have now does. As strong as his mind is, Spider never stands a chance.
“What Spider Watches on TV” is a great self-contained story, and though it’s not the first issue, it’s also one of the best introductions to the Transmetropolitan series you’re likely to find. Spider is almost literally confronting the essence of his universe by sitting down in front of that television. It could nearly serve as a metaphor for everything else in the series. And as an added bonus, it’s really, really funny.
“What Spider Watches on TV” can be found in Transmetropolitan: Lust for Life (old printing) or Transmetropolitan: Back on the Street (new printing).