ZsaZsa Zaturnnah as Literature
ZsaZsa Zaturnnah is a story of a gay beautician who turns into a super heroine whenever he swallows a huge rock and screams his alias. Sort of like…the gay version of Darna, except he changes genders like Ranma. It is one of my favorite graphic novels and I was happy to have unearthed studies that recommend the use of graphic novels in literature classes. One particular paper, Teaching Filipino Literature through the Graphic Novel by Emilou Lindsay Mata Mendoza and Irene Villarin Gonzaga, was presented to the 2nd Conference on Filipino as a Global Language held in Hilton Valley Hotel, San Diego California on January 15-18, 2010. (You can download a copy of the paper here.)
Though very few papers like this can be found, it spells good news for me as a comic book enthusiast (did not quite reach the level of American comic geekery my brother attained since I was more into Japanese manga, interactive entertainment and table top role-playing games). So what did the paper discuss?
Mendoza and Gonzaga introduce the possibility of using the graphic novel in Philippine Literature classrooms, citing Carlo Vergara’s Ang Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni ZsaZsa Zaturnnah as a prime example of a graphic novel that is truly Filipino in many aspects. To illustrate these aspects, they deconstruct the character of Zsa Zsa and his (her?) environment, while emphasizing that it is a piece worthy of academic exploration. Their paper hopes to address current issues in the study of literature, by encouraging the use of creative thinking and analysis through the use of visuals. They believe that these issues are best addressed by the graphic novel.
Though visual literature have been used from grade school to high school, Mendoza and Gonzaga note that studies of literature in college have been restricted to the traditional, and mostly Western, texts. In general, literature teachers have been known to look down on the graphic novel because of its fantasy-based themes that are far from realistic. They are seen to be substandard, since they belong to popular culture and therefore unworthy of note, some even questioning the graphic novels’ literary merits. The 1990s, however, saw the boom in visual and interactive literature — most of us having been exposed to them while we were growing up — and most of us are more familiar with literature in this form. Mendoza and Gonzaga mention that more and more students are losing the inclination to study traditional forms, their exposure to various media expanding their literary repertoire. The challenge then, for literature teachers, is to expand their own repertoire.
While Mendoza and Gonzaga suggest the use of graphic novels, they do identify a few problems:
- Selection. What will make a graphic novel’s content meritorious? It all boils down to target reader appeal, ability to fulfill the teachers’ learning goals, methods.
- A cohesive definition/categorization for the graphic novel is still being argued upon, but it is undeniable that this reflects various Filipino social realities. The authors mention that Soledad Reyes did say that graphic novels reflect an alternate reality (and that realism isn’t the only acceptable form of literature), but other researchers like Roxas claim that many Filipinos could relate to these despite its mythical characteristics. A similar essay, written by John B. Vickery (Barricelli & Gibaldi, 1983), posits that this is the true nature of myths: it relates to other fields of social sciences, like history, since it falls under the domain of anthropological studies. Myths and rituals have one essential aspect in common with literature: they are are viewed upon as mirrors of cultural settings and social dynamics.
- Comparisons with komiks. While the graphic novel is grounded on Filipino culture and identity, it doesn’t have the wide reach that komiks has. Graphic novels are more expensive, are sold in bookstores instead of newsstands, and are usually written in English.
Despite the identified road blocks of using graphic novels as literary pieces to be studied in the classroom, the authors forge ahead: “It is a genre which lends itself to rich literary discourse, by virtue of its very form. It is a genre in which the visuals require reading as intensively as the written texts do. Comprehension is arrived at not solely through textual analysis, but also by an examination of the images that accompany the narrative. The graphic novel also uses literary devices, depicts recognizable archetypes — or subversions thereof, and may be studied using varied literary approaches.” (Mendoza & Gonzaga, 2010, p. 3.)
The authors deconstruct Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah in order to bring out its literary merits. These are the following points for classroom discussion:
- Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah as Hero. Zsa Zsa is, in his/her core, is the equivalent of the Western superhero. The Western superhero, however, has a few key characteristics: he must be divine (endowed with supernatural capabilities) and he must be masculine. While Zsa Zsa meets the criteria of divinity, he utterly fails in the second characteristic. This is merely scratching at the surface of the difference, however, since the concept of Western heroism stems from their communities’ need for affirmation whereas Filipino heroism stems from collective experience. This brings to mind Virgilio Enriquez’s (Ceniza, 2003) description of the concept of kapwa, its essence in relation, and how it branches out to other Filipino values. To further stress the difference, Mendoza and Gonzaga highlight that Zsa Zsa’s heroism is “specifically Filipino” (Mendoza & Gonzaga, 2010, p. 5) and further point out that the Diksyunaryo ng Wikang Filipino would define bayani sans the gender biases. The dictionary definition of bayani focuses not on divine ancestry but on the innate strength of the protagonist’s character. The authors then delve more into the characteristics of Filipino behavior and values and how these relate to Zsa Zsa’s heroism.
- Postmodernism of Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah. Because of Zsa Zsa’s defiant nature — crushing so many comic hero traditions in terms of gender, alter-ego dualities (as displayed by the protagonist’s three-pronged identity), and with artist Carlo Vergara’s drawings being borderless as opposed to the bordered conventions of comic book panels — it can be said that Zsa Zsa is a result of postmodernist thinking. The mere fact that Zsa Zsa belongs to pop culture is already postmodern in itself: “Zsa Zsa is an outright rejection of the primacy and value of what is dubbed as ‘serious’ literature over popular fiction. Its appeal is mainly to an audience that is exposed to popular culture and mass media – the likes of whom comprise our students today.” (p. 7)
- Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah in Pop Culture. Here, Mendoza and Gonzaga discuss Zsa Zsa as a homage to Mars Ravelo’s Darna, albeit he/she achieved pop culture status on his/her own. Other references to pop culture that can be found in Zsa Zsa are 70s and 80s icons (Nora A., Sharon C., Dina B., Vilma S.) and lines from these icons’ movies. It is also worth noting that Zsa Zsa has crossed over to the theater and the movies, has attained a cult following, has continued to garner major awards. These secure Zsa Zsa‘s place in Filipino pop culture, making it deserve a place also among other Filipino cultural texts.
Mendoza and Gonzaga conclude their paper by suggesting other means of exploring Zsa Zsa’s text, such as panel analysis and discussions that delve into what they call “key literary devices” (symbols, foreshadowing, figurative language, character archetypes). These would include adjustments to syllabus that would support new teaching and learning goals.
“As a literary text for Philippine Literature class, ZsaZsa’s merits are numerous, although its inclusion in a formal course syllabus may require considerable effort to justify in a traditional academic environment. Still, it has gained for itself an indubitable place in contemporary Philippine cultural and literary studies, and by its very genre, has become a demonstration of cultural empowerment.” (p. 9)
Mendoza, E. & Gonzaga, I. (2010, January). Visual Literacy and Popular Culture in the Philippine Literature Classroom: Teaching Filipino Literature through the Graphic Novel. Paper presented at the 2nd Conference on Filipino as a Global Language, San Diego, CA.