Starting at the Top

There’s a phenomenon that happens across all media that I always find bothersome, as much as I also see it as more or less a historical inevitability. It’s that people try to introduce other people to media – in this case, I mostly mean ‘to a particular genre’ by giving them the wrong starting places.

I say wrong because too often, in a mature genre (in terms of how long it’s been around rather than, necessarily, its subject matter), it’s all too common that the first experience a new person has of it will be a deconstruction, a parody, or worst of all, this year’s latest lifeless reuse of a classic genre.

This is probably less of a problem with parodies than with deconstructions, if I’m honest, since a good parody is probably still funny even without genre familiarity. But it’s designed to be enjoyed most by people who know and understand a particular genre, because they will be the ones who get most of the jokes – and watching it without that knowledge lessens the experience.

Blazing Saddles might still be objectively funny – but it’s also funnier still with that knowledge. The fact that it’s also a damned good Western in its own right is very much to the point of this – witness the increasingly unfunny attempts to remake it in other genres that have dotted Mel Brooks’ later career and it’s not at all hard to see.

Similarly, you can still have a good time playing the Paranoia role playing game even it it’s your first ever role playing experience – but the game’s gleeful subversion of many established role playing tropes (most notably party unity) will not only not be seen as a subversion, but may come to be seen as the norm (which may cause problems in your later D&D games).

But the problem grows more pronounced with deconstructions, because we don’t have the excuse of reaching for the laugh every few minutes in a deconstruction. In a deconstruction, we’re taking things apart to see how they work, and usually, as the very term suggests, finding out that the answer is ‘not very well.’ A deconstruction’s mission is to make you think about the things you have previously taken for granted – which means that, in order for it to work, you have to have those things and take them for granted.

By shaddim,
Public Domain, Link

The single greatest deconstruction I know of is the original comic version of Watchmen. But if you only started reading comics after it came out, you probably wouldn’t realise that it even was a deconstruction. It is one of the greatest ever works in its form, and as such, forms a kind of event horizon in the history of that form: few superhero comics that follow it are not in its shadow. Either they appropriate the surface trappings (mistaking these for maturity) or they are reconstructive works that take issue with one or more points in it. Either way, the influence is there, but you may not see it until you read Watchmen yourself. And you may not know what it is arguing against unless you’ve read some of the comics that preceded it (especially DC comics of the Silver Age era).

But that’s culture for you. It’s a conversation, and one that never ends, at that. It never stops growing, and so by the time you finally read The Lord of the Rings or watch Animal House, you may experience them as little more than just additional clichéd entries in their respective genres, and not the origins of epic fantasy literature and frat comedy movies respectively that they are.

My point is that there are better or worse places to enter a particular part of the cultural conversation, but the chances are that you’ll wind up entering at least some of them at places closer to the worse end. It is, as I said above, a historical inevitability.

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