Coming to (Literary) Terms: Zeitgeist

Part of what makes a graphic novel more novel than novelty is the fact that it can be used to discuss and appreciate the nature of literature in a relatively accessible format. A great graphic novel can be just as challenging, thought provoking, and structured as anything else we consider traditionally as literary canon. One of the consistent contributions to this blog will be an examination of literary techniques, theory and analysis of my humble library of graphic novels, manga and films.

The term of the day is: Zeitgeist

The word zeitgeist is a German word that is best translated as “the spirit of the time”. As a literary term, it most often refers to how a work captures a specific ideology or way of life during the time period it represents. It is often used as a mean of understanding our past, granted through a fictional lens. Works like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath captured well the time and place in which they represented, examining discomforting ideas of the world it portrayed. Films often seek to create tone through the capturing of strained times. I’m not a huge cinephile, but John Hughes films often captured a nice saccharine version of the 80’s, as well as  Stranger Things has done very well as an example of the use of zeitgeist, even more so as the Duffer Brothers weren’t even children during that time, and a great bit of fun could be had watching Fresh off the Boat, displaying a humorous example of Asian American schism.

But how does it work with medium of a graphic novel? Harmoniously. Comics have often been in tune with the times and offered many subversive and topical examinations of the goings on of the world. Sometimes they are set in despotic futures, rewritten pasts, or the here and now. What it often does is become reflective on the nature of the heroes, the current climate of the world, but more often how those two things inter mingle. Characters that are ideal for this examination are our stalwart all American heroes: Superman and Captain America.

Superman has had a variety of incarnations, but in each he has been continuously reexamined and validated as the pinnacle of the super hero ideology. Looking at various incarnations, however, we can see how our views on Superman, and our challenge of him as the superhero have arisen. 1996’s Kingdom Come and 2001’s Action Comics 775 (What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?) were a couple of stories that addressed comic readers and their desire for grittier, more violent heroes. Magog and the Elite were pastiches of popular comic characters,Marvel’s Cable and Wildstorm’s The Authority, and were used as a focal point of discussing the argument on the fictional battlefields of comic book panels. (As an aside, The Authority being a pastiche of the JLA is interesting enough, the future aqcuisition of Wildstorm by DC in 2010 makes it an even more interesting piece of trivia). In each case, Superman is challenged for his old world sense of moralities and his inabilities to modernize his behavior. He faces those challenges differently in both, but essentially the conclusions came to similar points. The mindset moving forward was of a Superman that is strong not because of his powers, but rather with the care and consideration in which he used them. With Snyder’s current incarnation we see a Clark Kent struggling with the implications his mere presence creates, and the responsibility he has to a world that is, currently, undeserving of his service.

Captain America, likewise is a character that is heavily tied into the spirit of the times. While originally conceived as a World War Two symbol of America, Steve Rogers has gained far more relevance as a representative of the democratic voice in the Marvel universe. He is a character that is a bit of an oxymoron as he has a flexible rigidity; he embodies Marvel’s adherence to tradition of growth, yet observing hopeful ideologies. Cap feels the political and social strains, and often sides with the rights of the people, whether those rights lead to ruinous results or flourish into a bright future. We have seen this reflected with his initial creation as an all American icon through World War II, during his run as a Nixon era hero where he became Nomad, to his activism during the Civil War arc. In each of these cases, Captain America remained a symbol of American idealism, while also taking into account how that belief worked during a different era of thinking. The Ultimate version portrayed a far more rigid character, as Captain Rogers had a variety of growing pains, adjusting to a less moral world. Wanting to live his life as it was, he encounters friction from teammates, and encounters jarring realizations, some hilarious, some a little pitiful (Cap moves into Brooklyn and has his apartment broken into, as he has not invested in better locks for his door). The cinematic interpretation uses this as the root of the characters motivations; Steve Rogers is constantly at odds with a fearful, post 9/11 world, and the way that many view the needs of the world. While he lacks the naivete of other modern incarnations, he is  a man resurrected into a world that is still excessively foreign to him, as he seeks to understand what Captain America means in a world that had long ago eulogized him.

Zeitgeist is not the easiest of literary lenses, but it does help to suggest the importance of certain works. Comics are interestingly good entry points into looking at the way audiences view culture and counter culture. Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Moore’s Watchmen are often works that are said to denote the spirit of the 1980’s, and from those works we can definitely look forward and back at how a book can encompass or reflect the beliefs of a group of people during a particular time period.

 

 

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