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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, April 27, 2015

LAST ROUND-UP FOR THE JUVENILE WESTERN (IN FILM AND TELEVISION)

In my essay THE LITTLE NEOPURITANS I wrote:

...I feel revolted by the base Werthamism that crops on some comics-fan boards when those fans choose to rail against any and all use of pulpish sensationalism.  It doesn't matter if it's as well done as Frank Miller's DARK KNIGHT or as badly done as Mark Millar's WANTED; anything that keeps funnybooks out of the hands of kids is part of the vast evil conspiracy of nasty pandering comics-companies, usually though not invariably "the Big Two."
I understand that such overreactions may come from a "good place," in that most devoted superhero fans are introduced to the genre as kids. When these fans become adults, it's not unreasonable to want their own kids to experience something like the same "joy of superheroes," and that's only possible when there are at least some viable superheroes in the vein of "juvenile pulp." For my purposes juvenile pulp would include both those narratives expressly aimed at juveniles of  various ages-- for instance, the DC Comic TINY TITANS-- and those narratives defined as "all ages". I'm cognizant that there are many "all ages" narratives that are capable of appealing to adults, and indeed this amphibian capacity explains much of the success of Silver Age Marvel Comics. In THE DIVIDING LINE PART 2 I noted that I found a "juvenile tone" in some "all ages" comic books like GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW and THE VIGILANTE.

I've spoken before of a juvenile "tone" in works like CONAN, GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW, OMEGA MEN and VIGILANTE that in my consideration do not qualify as "adult pulp," as opposed to Miller's DAREDEVIL and Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG, for two. (Side-note: I might view the Thomas/Smith CONAN as at least a transtional work between the two states.) This tone I evaluate based not on the presence or absence of taboo material but on the degree to which, even in an escapist work, the story's content is influenced by the adult concept of "work" rather than "play." The adult's consciousness not only of "work" as a profession but as an insight to the way the world and all its elements "work" is what provides the dividing-line between "juvenile" and "adult." Across this Maginot line of maturation, both the narrative aspects of extreme sex-and-violence and the significant aspects of deeper and more portentous cognitions are united to create all manner of adult entertainments, both "escapist" and "realistic."
The closest I could come to defining what separates "adult tone" from "juvenile tone" is that the former possesses a quality I termed in the above essay "rigor." I didn't use the term again, but the concept underlies many of my other distinctions between "work" and "play."

Key to the Neopuritans' argument is the desire to keep superheroes accessible to juveniles. However, the possibility has occurred to me more than once superhero comic magazines may have reached a point at which they can only be sustained by adults, at least in the United States. And moreover, the specific genre-medium blend of "superheroes in comics" was preceded many years ago by a similar "adult-eration," with the death of "juvenile western films."

In the 2010 essay STANDARD BARING PART 2  I went into some detail about the parallel ways in which adult and juvenile narratives co-existed in Classic Hollywood cinema, perhaps to an even greater extent than they had for that genre in the pulps and dime novels. But one thing this overview neglected was the huge number of juvenile westerns that appeared during the Classic period. Dozens upon dozens of cheaply-made B-westerns offered only the most elementary plots, inhabited with all-good heroes and all-bad villains. The reign of the many cowboy-heroes of the period-- Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Durango Kid, Lash LaRue, and many others-- came to an end in the 1950s, when television usurped the economic logic of the juvie-western, and offered similar fare free of charge. As I was a baby-boomer, this was the only form of juvenile western I ever knew, so I grew up enjoying programs like LONE RANGER and CISCO KID-- though by the time that I saw any of the earlier films on television, they seemed far more cheap and repetitive than the TV westerns that I grew up with.




For whatever reason, westerns did not endure in the realm of live-action television aimed at the juvenile. The only western theatrical films aimed at juveniles were a smattering of western-comedies that appeared throughout the sixties and early seventies: things like 1968's THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, 1969's SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF (and sequel), and 1978's HOT LEAD AND COLD FEET. Admittedly "all ages" westerns prospered in the 1950s and 1960s, but by the mid-1970s the TV-western had begun an almost irreversible decline. As for the world of the cinema, the "all ages" westerns had been all but displaced by the movies' version of 'adult pulp." Aging John Wayne was the last viable exemplar of the "all ages" form, and despite scattered films from other aging icons like Burt Lancaster and Henry Fonda, the wave of the future had been launched by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood in 1964 via the seminal A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and the majority of successful westerns were increasingly aimed at a purely adult audience. Any kid who grew up in the 1980s and had a yen for westerns would have been forced to watch genre-works aimed primarily at adults, such as HEAVEN'S GATE or THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER-- though of course there were the inevitable exceptions, like the YOUNG GUNS series and the megaflop LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER.




By now the parallel I'm suggesting should be obvious: the juvenile form of the western was largely marginalized by the successful growth of the western in its primarily adult form. And while I'm loathe to define any genre's success or failure purely in terms of socioeconomic factors, it seems that parallel factors have caused a similar marginalization of the "juvenile pulp" superhero comic book-- and not, as some fans, like to think, merely the greed of pandering comics-companies.

Admittedly, juvenile westerns do seem to remain vital in other media, as one can see from this list of young adult historical novels.  But in the world of cinema and live-action television, they seem to have been effectively displaced.

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