An Outdated Canon

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June 26, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

“They” like to tell you a lot of things; especially things to form your opinions regarding what’s good and what’s not good.  Even though none of us have never met one of “Them”, we know who “They” are, the people that somehow have the power to manipulate the objective consciousness into dictating what is acceptable and what is not.  “They” is a very vague de-humanized term that we like to designate an oligarchy of power that use their influence to sway social consciousness; the power players.  Not being a conspiracy theorist myself, I don’t mean “They” to be a fictitious illuminati that we can hurl all of our problems on.  When I talk about “Them”, I mean anyone with the power to create an objective perception from subjective thought, essentially anyone with the power to exert their own opinions onto society and present those opinions as being objectively valid and true.  I realize that this is something that we all do, it’s just some of us are better at it than others.

I will automatically detest anyone who tries to forcibly impose their own beliefs and opinions onto myself.[1]  I suppose this is why I pretty much hated every lit class I had to take; I could never get behind the idea of someone telling me that I had to read something just because a group of nameless, faceless opinioned assholes dictated that it should be read by apathetic and insecure 14 year olds.  Worst of all, I loathed to be told how I should read it, that there were things that I was supposed to glisten from it instead of coming to my own conclusions.  When it comes to books, movies, and every other realm of pop culture, who decides what is in the canon and what is to be excluded?  And why do “They” get to do this?

My biggest gripe with the literary canon, and I suppose high school English comes in the form of The Catcher in the Rye.  This book represents everything that I despise about “Them”, and their inability to contextualize literature with society.  Simply put, I believe that The Catcher in the Rye just doesn’t matter anymore to either teens or Americana.  I realize that I am about to impose my own beliefs upon not only “Them” but the internet as well, insofar as trying to prove that my own subjective opinion is, in reality, objective truth.  I am a hypocrite.

South Park beat me to the punchline with the episode “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs” in detailing the exact faults of the literary canon and the obsolete nature of The Catcher in the Rye.  The Colorado Quartet only read the book once they are told of the controversial nature of the book, only to read the book completely un-phased.  Their disappointment in The Catcher in the Rye highlights the exact reason why it doesn’t matter anymore: we’ve become totally desensitized to what was the shock value of the book back in the 1950s.  The fact that Holden says Goddamn on every other page, or the fact that he buys a whore, or that the book even has the word “fuck” in it doesn’t matter anymore.  There’s nothing shocking about it anymore, and for most students, the truth is that it was the promise of lurid and controversial moments that intrigued us into wanting to read it.  We saw it as a rite of passage from childhood to the teenage years; where once it was banned and deemed for mature readers, now we see it as a tale about a snot nosed phony who isn’t telling us or showing us something we didn’t know before.

The selling point, the way it was pitched by teachers, was on the shock value, and its mature content, but when that illusion faded away you realize that the book has no purpose in 21st century canon.  Everything that made it an instant classic, namely the language and the overt teenage angst, has by this point been co-opted as the norm in society.  The Catcher in the Rye can’t be contextualized anymore, because society has completely embraced, and as a result, become desensitized everything that the book was selling.  The word “fuck” is now in PG-13 movies, and everyone over the age of 12 with access to a computer has seen porn; what was shocking, controversial, or broodingly insightful back in 1951, has just become a norm now in 2014.

I understand that The Catcher in the Rye was the first of its kind, focusing on a teen and rife with foul language, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the best.  There is importance in being the first to do something, even if others did it better later (The “Beatles Paradigm”), but it should be recognized as such then.  Shakespeare is still read today, not because he was the first dramatic playwright, but because he was the best one.[2]  Citizen Kane is lauded as the greatest movie of all time, but we all know that it’s just an honorary title.  As a society we admit that better movies have been made since, but Citizen Kane is still relevant to society and history today.  The Catcher in the Rye doesn’t quite hold up because in our growing cynicism we expect everyone we meet to be like Holden Caufield: a pretentious asshole, or a complete idiot.  It doesn’t mean anything anymore, because it no longer has any intrinsic value, due to the fact that the attitudes presented in the novel have now become accepted as being the norm and commonplace.

The one book whose undeserved prestige bothers me even more than that of The Catcher in the Rye is The Dark Knight Returns.[3]  It was neither the first nor the best of its kind, misnomers that follow TDKR to this day.  Contrary to popular belief, it was not the first Batman story to portray a brooding and dark Batman, but merely the biggest commercial example up until that point.  Moving past the campy, kid-friendly nature of the comics that had been dominant in the 50s and 60s, it was in fact Denny O’Neil who brought Batman back to his dark and dour roots in 1973.  This trend continued through the mid-80s wherein the comic book industry was injected with a heavy dose of realism and edgier content.  The thing is though, writer/artist Frank Miller took the seedier and darker elements of Batman that were being re-popularized and took it to their logical extreme.  TDRK merely commercialized the ever present darkness and maturation of content.

By 1986, the year it was produced, the Joker was already back to being a homicidal maniac, Two-Face was back in the canon after a 17 year absence, and Batman was brought back to being a detective at the pinnacle of human fitness and mental fortitude.  “The Joker’s Five Way Revenge” and “Strange Apparitions” are earlier works that all emphasize a back to basics approach to Batman that Frank Miller is incorrectly credited with.

Even after TDKR, better, more intriguing and insightful stories abounded.  Were these later masterpieces influenced by Miller and TDKR?  Yes, they were, but again it was because TDKR was the most commercial and easily identifiable version of Batman at that point.  Remember for about 20 years, the most accepted version of the Joker was Caesar Romero; just because it’s the most culturally visible, doesn’t mean it’s the correct or best out there.  The Long Halloween is built upon emotions and interpersonal relationships that TDKR ignores in its entirety.  We get Batman, the pinnacle of human perfection, but we also see how Bruce Wayne affects Batman and vice versa.  It also serves to expand on the emotional devastation of Harvey Dent’s transformation into Two-Face, another lacking plot of TDKRThe Killing Joke, and A Serious House on Serious Earth, arguably the most cerebral Batman stories ever add a psychological component to the dichotomy and parallels between Batman and the Joker that no one has since matched.

When you get down to it, all TDKR is, is a simple punch-kick-repeat story that is read into more so than it should be.  The exact same things that were praised in TDKR back in 1986, have now been hurled as criticisms at Miller since the turn of the century.  His latter Batman works such as The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All Star Batman and Robin have been criticized for depicting a hyper-militarized Batman, fascinated with his own cruelty and sadistic tendencies, with no regard for children.  What people forget, is that this is precisely the same Batman we get in TDKR.  In every Frank Miller Batman story, Wayne is portrayed not as the tormented vigilante of the night, burdened to wear the cape and cowl to mask his own failure, but as an urban terrorist with moderate to severe sociopathic tendencies.  The liberal media is portrayed as being inept and dangerously naïve rife with propaganda and absurd ideas (ok, maybe that isn’t such a bad thing), while the political right is quite literally portrayed as being iron fisted fascists.  History and hindsight being what they are tell us the TDKR doesn’t stand the test of time, but “They” will tell you different; that it’s the seminal Batman work.

This doesn’t work not only because better Batman stories have told since, but because we have two shining examples of Frank Miller using the exact same formula he used for TDKR on later works, works which were brutalized by critics.  In both The Dark Knight Strikes Again and All Star Batman and Robin, Miller uses the same equation from TDKR to craft his stories.  When you really dissect and analyze all of his Batman works, you’ll see that his later work really weighs down his “masterpiece”.  Where once Miller’s style of writing Batman was praised and lauded as the seminal and canonical take, now that very same portrayal is criticized and lambasted for being too aggressive, maniacal, and misogynistic.  Frank Miller hasn’t changed, only our perception has.

Still, as a society we can’t retroactively change public opinions, especially those pertaining to what is objectively good.  The best tool we have to do this with is hindsight.[4]  The present tells us that The Catcher in the Rye is obsolete (as told by South Park), and that TDKR isn’t nearly as good as we once thought it was (as illustrated in TDKSA and All Star Batman and Robin).  The present has revealed the illusions of the past, now all that has to happen now is for history to catch up to us.  But, that won’t happen until “They” say it can.

 

[1] Somehow Bill Maher has made a living doing just this.  Asshole.

[2] Assuming of course he wrote his own plays.

[3] I’m aware that I’ve probably just destroyed whatever semblance of literary merit I had by comparing an American classic to a comic book written by the same man who came up with the idea of a cyborg powered by drugs.  But, there is a comic canon as well.

[4] As with everything in life.

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