The Definition of Superhero (As Seen Through Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem)
Several years ago, I contributed an essay to Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan, a collection of writings published by Sequartabout the science fiction comic series.
My particular topic was “Spider Jerusalem: Super-Hero of the Future?” In that piece, I looked at how one defines a superhero and whether the Warren Ellis-written journalist character qualified. I thought I’d excerpt some key parts here, mostly because I’ve missed arguing online. (I have lightly reedited the below to correct style choices that annoy me immensely; I have removed the second space after a sentence end and refused to hyphenate “superhero”.)
The definition of “superhero”, or more accurately, whether to classify a particular character as a superhero or not, is an often-debated question that frequently descends into nit-picking and focuses on boundary cases. When a character such as Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem doesn’t immediately resemble a member of the capes and tights crowd, discussing them in such context becomes even more potentially troublesome. With the goal of avoiding hair-splitting and the intent to approach the subject in a playful fashion, I hope that readers will take the following in the light-hearted manner it is intended.
Defining the Superhero
A superhero is most often defined in the same manner as pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Merriam-Webster’s definition, “a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers; also an exceptionally skillful or successful person”, is slight, incomplete, and overly broad, including such characters as Doctor Who, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and James Bond who are not normally classed as superheroes. For the purposes of this analysis, I will be using a definition based on having a preponderance of the characteristics commonly associated with the superhero character type. These characteristics include the following expectations:
A super-hero fights for justice. This may be different from supporting the law, since superheroes are often vigilantes operating in an illegal fashion. The superhero often has her own strong moral code.
A superhero has a distinctively unusual visual appearance. While the traditional superhero costume is based on spandex, a cape, and a trademarkable symbol or logo, more recently, their outfits have become more similar to uniforms. Team members of the X-Men, for example, wear variants on black leather gear with their own signifiers — Wolverine’s claws, Emma’s skin-bearing cleavage — layered on top.
A superhero has abilities beyond those of the common person. These are often supernatural in effect, whether or not a science fiction explanation is provided — Flash’s speed is explained by mixing chemicals, while Wonder Woman’s strength is more mythic in nature — but they may be technological or gadget-based, as with Green Lantern’s ring or Iron Man’s armor. Those that have more believable explanations behind them, such as Batman’s extensive training, still wind up being nearly unbelievable in practice, given the extent of the abilities. A superhero may have a combination of these sources for their powers. Green Arrow, for instance, uses various trick arrows (technology) to support his extraordinary skill with a bow.
Additionally, the superhero has several associated conventions. A superhero often has sidekicks and rival arch-villains. Many also have secret identities, although this expectation has become less popular in modern times. Taken too far, it often results in the perception of split personalities or other mental illness, while the overtones of spending effort to lie to one’s loved ones contradicts the otherwise good intentions of the character.
In the following sections, I will explore how each of these characteristics is or is not reflected against the character of Spider Jerusalem, protagonist of Transmetropolitan. Specifically, he might be considered a Clark Kent for the near future with a post-apocalyptic bent. (In that case, the series title evokes the famous Adventures of Superman TV show opening, which describes a “mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.”) He’s a journalist without the benefit of alien superpowers but with a thirst for justice and a bowel disruptor. Or is Batman a more comparable choice, being a determined crusader with a near-psychotic focus on fixing the errors that made him who he is? Either way, Spider survives no matter what evil politicians throw at him, often due to writer fiat and reader expectations.
[Rest of essay happened here, examining the character in more detail. Remember the “filthy assistants”? But I won’t leave you hanging without sharing the conclusion.]
Is Spider Jerusalem a superhero? For most readers, the answer is going to be an obvious “of course not!” The visuals aren’t what they expect for that genre. (Even if he does have his own merchandise line, both inside and outside the comic.) And other similarities don’t matter. The argument is pointless — even given all of the above criteria, and even if Spider did have a secret identity (or I pointed out how he is hiding his true state of self from his loved ones at the end of the series), no one would be convinced.
We know superheroes when we see them, and Spider doesn’t seem to be one, even if he has much in common with the more obvious examples of the genre. In this case, perception becomes reality, and fans don’t think of the book as such. Plus, comics don’t have a lot of heroes who aren’t either super or branded (such as the Green Hornet or the Lone Ranger). There’s no niche for this type of larger-than-life figure, no compatriots to help establish a different kind of hero. It’s as correct to say Jerusalem is a cousin of Buck Rogers, since the superhero genre began as a branch of science fiction, and heroes have much in common with such SF adventurers.
The biggest argument against Spider Jerusalem being a superhero is that he’s pretty much of a shit (which might explain the bowel disruptor and the series’ frequent fascination with feces). In the “Freeze Me With Your Kiss” storyline, issues #10-12, we learn that he ruined the life of an assistant he doesn’t even recall, and his ex-wife hates him so much that her last living act was to set in motion a murder plot against him. He’s not a nice man to know, selfish and egocentric, although mellowed by the end, confronted by his own mortality. He’s still a hero, though, fighting the established powers that be with the power of the pen. Over five years, Transmetropolitan became the story of an Angry Young Man growing up, a self-righteous ego coming to terms with his own mortality. That’s not a superhero arc; it shows too much growth and change.