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With DC offering free online copies of Transmetropolitan #1, we spoke with artist Darick Robertson about the vision he and writer Warren Ellis had for the future – and received some insight into its characters’ development

By Brian Warmoth

Posted October 23, 2006  11:20 AM

About a month ago, DC’s Vertigo imprint began offering free first-issue downloads from many of its classic series, such as Sandman, Preacher and 100 Bullets. Among them is Warren Ellis’ and Darick Robertson’s legendary 60-issue future tale of a journalist who wielded a bowel disruptor and took down a president.

Capturing the spirit of Gonzo journalism pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson, the story’s main character, Spider Jerusalem, took his fight for truth to the streets of his city and fired off some of the greatest obscene tirades ever seen in comics.

We tracked down artist Darick Robertson and asked him about his work on the series and how its characters evolved from script to art.

WIZARD: How do you think your first issue of Transmet has aged, looking back on it now?

ROBERTSON: I look back on that whole series very fondly. I had a lot of passion and met a lot of initial challenges when I started on that book. There were so many questions about whether I was going to be the appropriate artist on it and stereotypes about my own career and work that I had to shake free for people to have confidence in me outside of Warren Ellis and Stuart Moore. Some other people in the decision process weren’t so sure. That first issue was a lot of me trying to prove that I could be more than just a monthly superhero guy.

In the scheme of Transmetropolitan, how did your perspective on drawing things change after the first issue? What was new to you at that point?
ROBERTSON: I felt very free on that issue to show people what I was capable of. I felt like it was the first time I was doing something that high profile, comparatively, that showed what kind of artist I was capable of being. In a lot of ways, it was me trying to not do what I thought was popular. I spent a lot of my early career trying to do what’s popular. I broke in right when comics exploded, and there was a lot of pressure to perform like the Image guys were performing and have your sales reflect it.

I found myself trying to emulate all of the guys who had very popular styles and seeing how they could influence mine, based on some advice John Romita Jr. once gave me. He said, “Watch what’s popular and adapt to it rather than letting the style effect you. Instead of getting left behind, see how you can adapt to the new styles.” And you can see how John’s work has done that over the years. So I took that to heart and tried to translate it in my work.

But when I came to Transmet, I didn’t feel like I needed to do that anymore. I felt like I could just say, “Here’s my book, and this is what I want to do with it, and if the editors are happy with it and it’s on time, it will stand or fall on its own.” And we always expected it to dry up after about four issues.

How far into the series did you get before you weren’t always looking over your shoulder?

ROBERTSON: [Laughs] I don’t know that it ever went away. We were always a bit like, “Geez, is this our last year?” But it just kept going and going. It’s bigger than I ever imagined it would be. But I’m so furiously proud of that accomplishment because it was such an underdog.

Do you think that atmosphere surrounding the book had any part in the energy and risk you and Warren took with the book and all those “Oh my God, they just went there” moments you were able to stuff into it?

ROBERTSON: I guess so. I don’t think we calculated to say, “Now we’re really going to make them mad!” Our ideas were more like, “This is good, and this fits this world.” I saw that world very vividly, and whenever I had an opportunity to demonstrate that it was always great.

That was at a very strange time in my life, too, where I had just moved to Italy. I was living in Florence, Italy, while doing issue three or four. I was doing a lot of that work while traveling around Europe. I was being exposed to a lot of European cities at the time. After I got back from Europe, I moved to New York and was living in the guts of what Transmetropolitan is a parody of. So by the time I was done with that, I was really making a statement on cities. So I learned by living abroad that a city is a city. It doesn’t matter who’s living there or where in the world it is. All cities have these common threads because people need the same things from them. Human beings need something from a city that they don’t get from a rural existence. Therefore, a lot of that ended up digesting through me, because I could see all of those common threads and how the world was changing.

I look back now, and we were right on the cusp of what was coming.

The book was kind of like “Star Trek” in that regard - you both had a keen eye on where media and technology were headed…

ROBERTSON: … And technology, especially! I was drawing. In issue #1 I was drawing people walking around with these little headgear things. And now there’s Bluetooth. It’s smaller and more efficient than what I imagined. I thought there’d be a thing you would hang on your head where one eye operates your PC, and one eye would be your cell phone. It would all be this one unit. And I thought that would all be years from now, and it would be bulky. I was totally off the mark on the timing, but I was right on the mark as far as the trends. It’s incredible how much technology has leapt forward in the last ten years alone.

Shoot, I can recall getting my first PC and being excited that it had 30 gigs of memory. Now, that’s just my external drive.

As far as the little details and jokes going on in the backgrounds in Transmet, how much of that was Warren throwing stuff at you, and how much of that did you stuff into the panels after you got the scripts? Was there a back-and-forth of notes being exchanged where you would suggest things to add?

ROBERTSON: No, it was a lot more free-flowing than that. Warren and I from the beginning had a really happy and playful relationship when we approached this book. When we first started it, I remember having a long conversation where we ended up on the phone way too long just laughing out loud, like, “They’ll never let us do this!” And we would do it.

But it was never that calculated. We just thought it was going to be a short-lived series.

With Spider Jerusalem specifically, I have the first drawing that I did of him, and he never really changed that much. I really got him right on the first shot. There were things that I threw in there that Warren didn’t ask for that just seemed to fit - things that he would need, like the bag over his shoulder and his glasses, because I thought he would want to take pictures. He’s a journalist. That’s why in issue #1 there’s that panel where he found out his maker was on drugs. He’s like, “What the f--- are these?” That was Warren’s jab at me for coming up with those glasses.

What Warren would do is, he would see something he liked, and he’d pick it up and run with it. Like the three-eyed cat was something I drew in the design piece, because I imagined mother cats eating out of dumpsters, and God knows what would be in the dumpsters. They’d have kittens, and some would start to survive and there would be strays running around. Then Warren was like, “Let’s make one his pet!” And he had a much more interesting use for it. He had it in there eating all of those geckos. We’d throw something onto the pile, and it became like a couple of kids playing with Legos. We kept digging in the box, and rather than tear the other ones down we would find a way to play off each other’s ideas. I would always say it was like a cherry tree we grew. We both planted it, and we both nurtured it.

We had a lot of fun. The Sex Puppets was something that I just drew on a calendar in the first issue. Warren asked, “Well what’s that about?” like there was some whole idea behind it. But it was just something that popped into my head while I was working on it. I imagined that if I took a Sesame Street approach to sex education it would be the Sex Puppets. That would immediately be hit with by protests by parent groups, so it would probably find a certain type of person that would enjoy it on another level. It was also inspired by a film called “Meet the Feebles.” A little bit of that was in there, too. I was watching that at the time and I thought, “Oh my God, that would be so wrong,” but rather than going for sex education they would just go for the titillation factor to make money. And there it would be. If there was an audience they would keep making it.

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