Iconic Spider Jerusalem and The New Journalism

There’s someone every journalism student should know. An iconic figure who commands respect and admiration. Someone whose journalistic philosophy of complete dedication to the truth at any cost should be admired and emulated. Someone who always carries a bowel disruptor to waylay enemies. That someone is Spider Jerusalem. Strange as it may seem, fictional journalist in semi-dystopian future Spider Jerusalem is a role model not for kids, but for adults.

Exploding from the pages of Transmetropolitan (1997-2002) created by writer Warren Ellis and artist Darick Robertson political journalist Spider Jerusalem – the future’s answer to Hunter S. Thompson mixed with a touch of Che Guevara with a rock star craving for drugs and strange experience – is forced to return to the City from his Mountain refuge. Soon finds himself going head to head with a corrupt soon-to-be president nicknamed: the Smiler (by Jerusalem himself). His column “I Hate It Here” is beloved by those the Smiler refers to as The New Scum – the city’s dispossessed masses.

The dystopic future created by Ellis and Robertson contains bizarre mutations of today’s social norms, new drugs, and transhumanist inclinations. Yet it also contains the same bizarre perversion of basic humanity seen in contemporary society and politics.

According to a column by Jerusalem, “Yesterday, here in the middle of the City, I saw a wolf turn into a Russian ex-gymnast and hand over a business card that read YOUR OWN PERSONAL TRANSHUMAN SECURITY WHORE! STERILIZED INNARDS! ACCEPTS ALL CREDIT CARDS to a large man who wore trained attack cancers on his face and possessed seventy-five indentured Komodo Dragons instead of legs. And they had sex. Right in front of me. And six of the Komodo dragons spat napalm on my new shoes.

“Now, listen. I’m told I’m a FAMOUS JOURNALIST these days. I’m told the five years I spent away from the City have vanished like the name of the guy you picked up last night, and that it’s like I never left. (I was driven away, let me remind you, by things like Sickness, Hate and The Death of Truth.)”

Despite his supposed misanthropy, Spider Jerusalem does not hate people or society as much as he hates stupidity, knowing ignorance and inhumanity. Spider Jerusalem, strangely enough, has a passion for humanity and society and is willing to put his life on the line for Truth. As Transmet was ending its run in 2002 a sort of death was coming over American journalism. Call it the Death of Truth, perhaps. Call it the sort of thing that would drive the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and Spider Jerusalem mad. In the wake of 9/11 much of the national press corps seemed to turn over their journalistic ethics and quest for truth in return for the ink and ratings access to a corrupt Presidential Administration would bring. The tough questions stopped being asked at the very time they needed to be asked. People who spoke their minds (Bill Maher for example) were branded anti-American and punished for their opinions.

Legitimate, professional journalists (as HST might have denounced in his typical Hard Man of American Letters style) had turned themselves over to suckle from the great teat of State. What followed was signed agreements and codes of conduct in return for becoming embedded reporters in the second major news event of the last decade: The Invasion of Iraq. After the general misconduct of prisons like Abu Ghraib, enhanced interrogation methods like waterboarding and violations of human rights in detention centers, an Orwellian nightmare of authoritarianism became ever more easy to believe. In that time journalism did need a role model.

Spider Jerusalem and in his almost perverse passion for finding and reporting the truth at all costs would make a powerful icon and an implicit remainder of journalism’s core ethos in such times. Ellis and Robertson’s creation offers certain crucial insights into journalistic values. It gives readers the idea that in journalism, truth is the only thing that should matter. That journalism is dangerous and good journalists are also dangerous. That good political journalism will make you enemies. Bad political journalism will make you friends. And, finally, journalists are very much crusaders constantly fighting the Sickness, Hate and The Death of Truth. So be on the right side of the fight.

Transmet reads and looks as good as it did over ten years ago. But the darker lesson seems that though Transmet was primarily meant as a metaphor for contemporary culture, we are ostensibly continuing to spiral into the perverse version of society that it depicts within its pages. And yet, there remains no Spider Jerusalem in sight.

The tough love of Ellis and Robertson’s opus places self-reliance high on the agenda. Americans are always looking for a Messiah instead of looking within. They cannot seem to stand the idea of peering, even momentarily, at the realities of their own existence. While we have moved into a new era, Sickness, Hate and the Death of Truth still exist and they’re still driving the Spider Jerusalems of the day away from “the City” and up to the mountain.

Spider Jerusalem had the capacity to come face to face with the ugly truths that rule our lives. In this respect he becomes an agent of change, preaching a strong gospel of social responsibility: If you’re not a journalist who is willing to do this, get out now. Become something more benign like a custodian — still helpful, but in less of a position to do great harm to society.

In birthing Transmetropolitan, Ellis and Robertson created an iconic universe and with it a character that has proven to be prescient. There is an enduring quality to the work here, the clang-clang-clanging of truth. It is this fierce pursuit of the Truth and this enduring hope of better yet to come what will continue to make Transmetropolitan iconographic in the years to come. The battle for journalistic integrity should never end. And as long as the battle continues so will Transmetropolitan and the legend of beyond-gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem who Ellis envisions as, “cheap, but not as cheap as your girlfriend.”