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SUPER TRUTH

GRAPHIC NOVELS GIVES BIRTH T OA NEW GENRE OF UBER-JOURNALIST HERO

 

BY DAVID KING

 

A svelte, muscular man sits shirtless, draped in tattoos, at the edge of a roof, his feet dangling over the edge, his fingers furiously tapping away at a laptop. His name is Spider Jerusalem, and he is an unlikely hero. He is also an unlikely journalist. However, in the future imagined by comic-book writer Warren Ellis, Spider is both superhero and super journalist. He saves the day by live-blogging a police massacre of a minority group of mutants. Spider writes a column called “I Hate This City,” and he’s in a personal feud with the Beast, the obviously corrupt president. Spider threatens to blow up his editor, takes all the latest designer drugs, and even shoots the president with a bowel-movement-inducer ray. Spider is Hunter S. Thompson for a future age we will never see.

However unconventional Spider may be, in many ways he represents an ideal journalist, someone who will challenge the system, tell the truth and sacrifice himself to show the world what is being hidden from them. Spider is the anti-anchorman, the man who cannot be pacified by the administration, who will not be tossed aside. He is the journalist who will not be denied.

Besides all the heroic work Spider has done in his own comic book, called Transmetropolitan, he also apparently has inspired a wave of comic books and graphic novels that feature journalists just doing their job, albeit in extreme circumstances.

Transmetropolitan ran from 1997 to 2003, and when the series ended, Wired called Transmetropolitan the graphic novel of the decade and christened the series the “dark lord of the graphic novel.”

Despite its passing, Transmet’s influence continues, and all sorts of comic journalists have sprouted up to fill the void. From large, multinational comic companies to small-press publishers, journalists are showing up in comics everywhere. And they aren’t someone’s alter ego. They aren’t reporter Clark Kent or photojournalist Peter Parker; they are simply reporters. Reporters no longer have to throw off their trench coats and glasses to be heroes: In the world of comics nowadays, all they have to do is report.

Gone is the shy, goofy reporter alter ego, replaced with the rampaging, determined bravado of Spider Jerusalem, Matty Roth, Sally Floyd and Ben Ulrich. Even Lois Lane recently was wounded while reporting on a war in a Middle Eastern country.

Sure, it has taken a number of decades to smash the comic-book image of the bashful reporter created during the 1940s, during times when journalists were perhaps not as threatening, but now that the image has been broken, it appears the floodgates have opened.

Writer Brian Wood is not sure there is a trend developing, but he does say he has been influenced by Transmetropolitan. “I remember when I was thinking up DMZ how amazed I was that nothing had been done to fill the gap that Transmet caused when it ended,” says Wood.

If any mainstream company has helped propagate the journalist in comic books, it has been Marvel. One of that company’s most famous journalist-driven books was called Marvels and was presented as a photo essay on the emergence of superheroes. The 1994 series tried to capture the “reality” of superheroes’ becoming part of everyday life through the eyes of news photographer Phil Sheldon.

Transmet writer Warren Ellis followed up Marvels in 1995 with Ruins, a dark satire of Marvels, which showed how the birth of Marvel’s superheroes could have gone terribly wrong. For example, Bruce Banner, who was exposed to nuclear radiation, does not split off a monstrous green alter ego the Hulk; instead, he is turned into an undulating mass of tumors. The Fantastic Four and Spiderman share similar fates.

Currently, journalist characters are playing a huge role in Marvel’s large crossover productions such as House of M and Civil War. Comic books like The Pulse, Generation M and Civil War: Frontlines have told some of the company’s larger stories through the eyes of journalists. These books allow Marvel’s writers to document the affects the superheroes are having on their world in a more personal and direct manner. They show what happens to a society that is accustomed to superheroes when mutants lose their powers and when superheroes are forced to register as federal workers.

The Pulse, written by Brian Michael Bendis, focuses on reporter Ben Ulrich, who has for years battled his editor, J. Jonah Jameson, over whether superheroes like Daredevil and Spiderman should be seen as heroes or criminals. Ulrich, despite knowing the identities of Daredevil and Spiderman, chooses not to reveal them in print. However, Ulrich gets to break it to Spiderman that of course he knows his secret identity: It’s his job.

It’s not exactly clear what, if anything, Marvel is trying to say about journalism through its superhero journalists, but Wood says it might not be worth trying to figure it out. “I think Marvel’s take on the real world is so bizarre I’m not sure if it is worth trying to analyze,” he says. Wood, on the other hand, clearly is trying to say something about the current state of the profession through his work.

Last year, Wood began a series titled DMZ, which tells the story of a TV news intern who is stranded in a war-torn New York City with a stash of cameras, an editing suite and his trusty press pass. In Wood’s future, an America preoccupied with wars overseas is dragged into civil war at home when militias rise up to take the country back from the war-hungry government. Wood’s protagonist, Matty, is there to expose the atrocities and suffering along with the subtleties of life in a war zone.

Books like Wood’s are not just filling the void left by Transmet; they may also be satiating some part of the public’s desire for heroic journalism.

According to a June 25 report by the Pew Research Center titled “Public More Critical of Press, But Goodwill Persists,” almost all news organizations, whether print or TV, local or national, received higher favorability ratings than political institutions. While the report shows steady declines in favorability for both types of institutions from 2001 to 2005, the media still remain loftily above political institutions.

However, the believability ratings for most news organizations have shown steady decline since 2001. The believability for newspapers has dropped from about 65 percent in 2001 to 54 percent in 2005.

Wood says he certainly wishes there were more reliable news gatherers. “I wish we had more Spider Jerusalems out there in the real world, meaning journalists who dig and hunt for stories as opposed to those who just report what they’re told from the likes of Tony Snow and Scott McClellan,” says Wood. “They must know when they’re being lied to, and it kills me that we don’t wake up to 72-point headlines in the Times that read BUSH LIES or something like that. And the ones that do, like Greg Palast, to name one example, are marginalized.”

Although it is easy to take DMZ as a commentary on coverage of the Iraq war, Wood says it was documentation of past conflicts that gave him inspiration. “I always thought embedded journalism was kind of weird, especially the ones that got dressed up and rode around in tanks,” he says. “I could never imagine how they could hope to be objective about anything. The images that came back were compelling, of course, and it’s somewhat thrilling to watch, but I wouldn’t ever consider it ‘news.’ When I was doing preliminary research for DMZ, I read a lot of books written by journalists from a lot of recent conflicts, going back to Soviet books about their war in Afghanistan, which felt very genuine to me. They were very personal, very honest, and you got to know the soldiers and civilians in detail. Same with other books I read about Chechnya. I felt more influenced by those than anything current.”

At the beginning of DMZ, Matty is interning for a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who apparently is killed in an attack by insurgents, leaving the inexperienced Matty as the only one who can tell the story of the residents of war-ravaged New York City.

A large difference between Wood’s DMZ and Ellis’ Transmetropolitan is the experience level of their protagonists. Spider Jerusalem seems to embody all that is right with the old guard of journalism. Transmet can be taken as a call for a return of their ilk, whether it be muckrakers like H.L. Mencken, gonzo journalists like Hunter S. Thompson, or investigative reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. On the other hand, Wood’s Matty is devoid of experience, and he is certainly not a newspaperman. Is Wood calling for the slate to be wiped clean? Well, maybe.

Wood says Matty’s inexperience is a blessing, in a way. “I think Matty’s not knowing how to be a ‘proper journalist’ helps him. He’ll make a lot of mistakes along the way, sure, but there is no doubt that his intentions are pure. He’s got no real agenda, and he’s not working for a paycheck or a promotion, or an award.”

So in a time when the media are seen as a pack of weak lapdogs to a corrupt administration or as mouthpieces for corporate America, can comics like Transmetropolitan and DMZ keep some hope alive? Wood certainly seems to think so. “I don’t think current events make journalism seem very appealing,” he says, “with newspapers coming under attack for treason, and the threat of jail time for protecting sources. I hope that books like DMZ and Transmet inspire people in a more general sense to seek out the entire story, the truth behind the smokescreen, to not be satisfied with sound bites from the mainstream news reports.”

Can comics inspire comic readers to become journalists? That has yet to be seen. However, from personal experience, it appears these books are turning comic readers on to the works of real journalists.

On a recent trip to a bookstore, a friend mentioned he wanted to read something like Transmetropolitan. But he didn’t leave the store with a comic. Instead, he left with a copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.



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