Is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo A Superhero? NYCC Panelists Debate

By Elizabeth Keenan

The most literarily oriented panel at New York Comic Con hinged on its titular question, one which may become more debated as the English-language film version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo arrives in December and Vertigo publishes Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy in graphic novel form over the next few years.

So, is Lisbeth Salander a superhero? She’s a hacker, a martial arts expert, and a relentless punisher of evil. But she has no superpowers. Oh, and she kills people, a major point of contention in the definition of “superhero.”

Moderator Robin Rosenberg, author of The Psychology of Superheroes and The Psychology of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, introduced the panel with a clip from the Swedish version of the film, in which the diminutive Lisbeth takes out a crew of bikers with the aid of pepper spray and a few well-placed jabs.

Lisbeth Salander

Panelist Denny O’Neil referred to Peter Coogan’s definition of the superhero from his book Superhero: the Origin of a Genre to figure out whether Lisbeth Salander could be one.

“Defining the superhero, like saint or savant, is hard to define,” O’Neil said. “She is a superhero in that she is focused and has created herself like Batman and the Green Arrow and a number of others. Where you might have problems is the word ‘hero.’ The word hero comes from a word that means to serve and protect the community. I that she neutralizes a number of really ratty guys, yeah, she’s a hero. But I don’t think she’s too interested, based on the evidence of the stories, in protecting the community as a whole.”

Tom DeFalco built on O’Neil’s estimation of Salander as a “superhero prototype,” comparing her to The Shadow.

Is Salander a hero like The Shadow?

“The Shadow was a master of disguise,” DeFalco said. “He depended a lot on research. He was pretty good in a fight. He did his best to keep to the shadows. In her case, she wanted to live her life in the shadows, and was only accidentally drawn out.”

For Paul Levitz, the “super” in “superhero” has to take the character beyond reality—and Lisbeth Salander doesn’t quite make it there.

“She’s one inch this side of that boundary,” he said. “She does it with pepper spray and mace, and some really nice martial arts moves. It’s amazing, and I don’t have the ability to do that. But it seems humanly achievable in a way that Batman, the most human of DC characters, is not.”

Beyond Salander’s abilities is the issue of her lack of compunction about killing people. Panelist Danny Fingeroth pointed out that certain “superheroes” are really antiheros.

Perhaps The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is more like The Punisher...

“The Punisher is an antihero,” Fingeroth said. “Wolverine is willing to kill people, depending upon which era, and sometimes without remorse. . . . If any one of those is a hero, maybe she is, too.”

Rosenberg returned Coogan’s definition of superhero, in which the hero has a mission, powers, and an identity, with a costume and a code name. In response, DeFalco noted that Lisbeth Salander does have a mission—she’s on a crusade against men who hate women, the original Swedish title of the book—and she gets involved in causes where women are being abused, and has been abused herself.

“Superheroes have a real identity and a fake identity,” DeFalco said. “Peter Parker is the real identity, and Spider-Man is the fake identity. With Captain America, that’s the real identity, Steve Rogers is fake. With Batman, that’s the real identity. When he takes off the mask and is Bruce Wayne, that’s the fake identity. With Lisbeth, that’s the created fake identity she’s made. When we see her in the book, I don’t know if we ever see the real identity.”

Salander's tragic origins might make her a superhero in the Batman mold...

Like many other superheroes, including Batman, Lisbeth Salander’s tragic origins play into her transformation. Rosenberg noted that Salander’s rape by Nils Bjurman gave her a mission.

“It made her have an appreciation for abused women,” she said. “She seemed to become transformed in the way that superheroes have transformative issues.”

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