(Previous installment here)
One evening a few years ago I was walking through Times Square with my friend Chuck Mathewes, a theologian who at the time was writing a book that would be published as The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. (The cover features a photograph of the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center.) In Times Square at night you don sunglasses if you have them, and, given the number of flashing lights, you’re thankful you’re a non-epileptic. I found myself remembering the opening scene of Vanya on 42nd Street, with actors moving through a wan and dirty Times Square, populated by hordes of sketchy characters, on their way to the crumbling and derelict New Amsterdam Theatre.
Spider Jerusalem would have felt at home there, then; but probably not in the sparkling wonderland Chuck and I were walking through. I thought about Augustine: the City of God, the City of Man. A question came to my mind. “Hey Chuck,” I said. “Which do you think Augustine would have been more appalled by, Times Square in 1980 or Times Square today?”
Chuck is a loquacious man, but he fell silent. “That’s a tough one,” he finally said.
That first issue of Transmetropolitan reminds me, strongly, of another comic series, Alan Moore’s Top Ten, a massively weird police procedural set in a city populated by the super-powered of many different worlds. In Neopolis, criminals and cops alike manifest telekinesis, invulnerability, precognitions, super-strength, heat vision, giant stature, and pretty much anything else you might imagine. (Police officers, private detectives, journalists, and criminals are the common characters of urban adventure stories, in whatever genre or medium.)
Transmetropolitan began in 1997, Top Ten in 1999. Both series, then, arrived at the high tide of the Rudy Giuliani era in New York, as that hard-nosed mayor brought order to the city’s various disorders, cracking down on crime, rebuilding Times Square. Neither the City of Transmetropolitan nor Neopolis of Top Ten are direct representations of New York, but they’re more like New York than anything else — just New York transfigured by dreams. A nightmarish New York, some might say, but it’s clear that both Warren Ellis and Alan Moore feel nostalgia for the comparative chaos of the pre-Giuliani city, for the time when you had to have a certain measure of courage to live in New York and a larger measure of weirdness to like it.
Look at all those families strolling cheerily, gawkily, through the illuminated canyon of Times Square, quite a number of them excited about seeing the show currently playing at the thoroughly renovated New Amsterdam Theatre: Mary Poppins: the Musical. And in some once-sketchy corner of the West Village — though the sketchiness seems so long ago now — there’s this restaurant whose chef comes from Per Se. Already observers are listing celebrities who’ve been seen eating there: Chloe Sevigny, Kirsten Dunst. A-list. Spider Jerusalem just wants to puke.
(to be continued)