Catching the zeitgeist

As I’ve observed before, fiction that catches the zeitgeist——the spirit of the times——can dazzle people at the time (or at least amuse them) and have later generations going “Huh?”
Case in point: Green Lantern and the Forever People.
With sales steadily declining, Green Lantern #76 marked a radical change, teaming GL up with Green Arrow, shortly after he’d been reinvented as a radical left-wing firebrand. The story opens when GL saves a man from street punks; Green Arrow informs him that the guy is actually a slumlord and the attackers were his righteously angry tenants. To cap that off, an old black man tells GL that while he’s apparently willing to help people in space with orange skins and blue skins “what have you done for the black skins?”
Chastened, Green Lantern eventually helps bust the slumlord for slumlording, then GA challenges him and the Guardians to travel across America seeing what real people are like.
I’d never actually read the story before DC reprinted it in its recent Retroactive line of specials. Forty years later, the script doesn’t hold up that well (Neal Adams stunning art holds up very well indeed). There’s Green Arrow’s dubious argument that saving lives on other planets doesn’t matter, the pointless yelling at the Guardians for being authority figures (the “establishment” as the phrase went) and the idea GL hasn’t actually done anything for Coast City’s black population. He has after all, averted at least two alien invasions, stopped the Invisible Destroyer from causing a nuclear power plant to melt down, and prevented the Shark from killing the entire city. It’s true he hasn’t done anything for civil rights, but to paraphrase reporter Hal Boyle, there are some things you can fix with a power ring and some things you can’t.
At the same time, I can see why it floored so many people when it came out. It very much captures the zeitgeist, the sense that we have to Do Something Now about the injustices in society, that we can do something and that failing to do so is just unacceptable.
Forever People has the same problem to a lesser degree. The weakest of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World books for DC (I’ll have more to say about the weakness when I finish the TPB), it holds up much better than the Green Lantern story, but Kirby’s efforts to put the hippie attitude into words just sounds comical now (“Truth is forever——and we are the Forever People!” “We leave you what cannot die——love! Friendship!”). I can see why later Fourth World revivals either ignored the FP or played them for humor.
But then, there’s the Justifiers.
These fanatics debuted in Forever People #3 as a Nazi analogy, fanatics who believe that by surrendering themselves to complete obedience, everything they do is justified. Rereading the issue, it’s striking how familiar their words sound:
•”Tell us how our pride is being attacked and dragged in the dust!”
•”It’s the others … those who don’t think right!”
•”This is our world! They have no right to meddle with it.”
•”Life makes you doubt! Anti-life makes you right!”
I don’t know if Kirby was commenting on politics of the day, but it’s startling how much some of this could come right out of right-wing talking points these days. It feels like Kirby caught today’s zeitgeist 40 years early.
As I observed in my previous post, it’s hard to guess what’s going to resonate in our work in the decades to come and what will look outmoded and oldhat. Of course, if anything we write is still being read in 40 years, that’s a victory in itself.

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Filed under Comics, Politics, Reading, Writing

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