“Spider Jerusalem is like Hunter S. Thompson in the 25th century.” That is how the lead character of Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan was first described to me. This description captured my interest, and my friend also informed me that if I enjoyed Preacher by Garth Ennis, I would love Transmetropolitan. He was not wrong. While reading the series, I could definitely see the references and parody of Thompson in the panels. On a surface level, Jerusalem resembles Thompson with his bald head, eye covering sun glasses, and chain-smoking habits. Both are journalists with a taste for the critical, clinical, and controversial, especially aimed at those in authority (in particular the Presidency). And they do share a great love for guns, drugs, and vulgar and violent language. Perhaps the only thing spreading these two figures from one another is fiction.
However, when I finished reading the series there was someone else who reminded me of Spider Jerusalem, someone who I could see him in actions, words, and spirit. I looked at Spider Jerusalem and couldn’t help but see the 19th-century German philosopher, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche.
For those of you unfamiliar with the school of thought, nihilism is the belief that no being, object, or thing in existence has meaning, purpose, truth, or value. All beliefs, ideals, morals, and values are baseless and contain no real merit. Nihilism is often associated with extreme pessimism, radical scepticism, and unceasing condemnation and criticism. The Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy describes a true nihilist as someone who “would believe in nothing, have no loyalties, and no purpose other than, perhaps, an impulse to destroy.”
Such a description uncannily captures Spider Jerusalem.
From the first pages of Transmetropolitan we are confronted with Jerusalem’s nihilistic nature. He is anti-media, anti-religious, anti-politics, and anti-establishment. His dialogue towards the people he encounters is hateful, violent, critical, cynical, and to some extent deranged. I believe ‘The Graphic Novel’ describes it best when they say, “In Spider, Ellis seems to have constructed a perfectly iconic caricature of the ever-skeptical anarchist.”
But one of the key motifs in Transmetropolitan is the idea of overcoming. For Nietzsche, despite the godless and meaningless nature of life, humanity still has the ability to reach new heights in its own existence. While humanity must overcome religion, morality, and any sense of meaning, what is most important to reaching this higher state of human existence, overcoming pain and suffering. So much so that one should actually go out and seek suffering to overcome and wish pain upon there friends in order to make them better people. As Nietzsche writes, “To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle…. Without cruelty there is no festival.”
In terms of personal overcoming, this is best captures by Nietzsche’s perhaps most famous line, “Whatever doesn’t kill me, can only make me stronger.” When Spider is diagnosed with an incurable degenerative neurological illness with similar symptoms to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease (a fate similar to the one that awaited Nietzsche) due to exposure to Information Pollen, he is informed that there is only about a 2% chance of him being cured. This new experience and profound amount of suffering increases Jerusalem’s resolve to bring down the corrupt and insane President Gary Callahan. In the end, after all the of Spider’s trails and tribulations, it appears that he is about die until in the end he proven to be apart of the surviving 2%. Through his suffering, he overcomes.
The imagery of mountains in Transmetropolitan also links Jerusalem with Nietzsche. Mountains are commonly used by Nietzsche to resemble a haven or a place of self-reflection and mediation, or are used to describe the challenge of over-coming something, a great feat to achieve and a height to surpass. In a way, the prologue of Nietzsche’s most popular book Thus Spoke Zarathustra resembles the beginning of Transmetropolitan, as both characters begin “up a goddamn mountain.” The main character must leave his mountain home of silence and solitude to go speak the truth to other people. While Zarathustra and Jerusalem ascend and descend their mountains for different reasons, both cannot escape interaction with their fellow human beings, nor the need to speak “the truth.” Mountain climbing was a favourite pastime of Nietzsche, and he often enjoyed taking his notebooks up with him so he could write down thoughts he had along the way. Nietzsche’s character Zarathustra describes himself as “a wanderer and mountain climber.”
Whether it’s Hunter S. Thompson or Friedrich Nietzsche, Transmetropolitan is a work of literary and philosophical depth. Perhaps we can each find our own correlations.