Everything Bad is Good

I think it’s interesting how conceptions on pop-culture phenomena change over a given time; positive and negative connotations switch places, and even the meaning of the name isn’t stable.

Take comic books, for example: for most of the 20th Century they were looked down upon as just-for-kids, childish funnies that grown adults had no reason to touch or come close to.

It took a generation growing up on comics to come up with the artistic visionaries who’d redefine comics as mature, adult, with deep themes and strong content: obvious names like Alan Moore and Frank Miller, for example. Gone were the days of four-color superheroes saving Hostess Pies from third-tier villains; suddenly in the late ’70s and ’80s, they had severe personal problems, battling drug and alcohol addictions, putting drug dealers and child abusers behind bars.

And it took a generation of readers growing up on the work of those luminaries to get to the point today, with many readers, bookstores, critics, etc. making off with the term “graphic novel” and applying it to “comic books” in order to construct a mature image, getting away from the kiddie comics of ages past. There’s a niggling remnant of the old stigma, but society as a whole doesn’t care so much anymore since the content has matured. And while not every one is Persepolis or Watchmen, the actual tone of most comics has moved on to straddle the line between child and adult.

On the other hand, we have pulps, the seedy dime-quarter-dollar magazines that entertained a generation. Back in the days before paperbacks even existed, in the age of war-rationing and the dominance of the fiction magazine, the pulps carried on the fine heritage of dime novels and penny-dreadfuls and other Victorian-age serials. Their name comes from the cheap wood-pulp used to make the paper, but has become latched on to the style and tone of their content: seedy, low-brow entertainment, the kind of “boobies and ‘splosions” media for non-literary-minded young guys.

Not that it was always thus, as many famous literary authors had their start in the oddest pulp places. But since lurid covers began to dominate during the pulps’ heyday—the late ’30s to the mid-’50s—and many involved “adult” themes (violence, sex, etc.), they gained the image of low-brow schlock, and there they remain. Pulps are seeing another resurgence, thanks to the power of the internet, lapsing copyrights and eager reprint houses, but they still have a negative connotation outside their niche interest base.

How about spaghetti westerns? The name itself is a negative connotation: what’s a bowl of spaghetti look like? A mess. An apt definition for Italian directors hiring American actors to film westerns in Spain. A good spaghetti western has a grittier, sometimes bleak outlook, with protagonists surviving massacres or attempted hangings (despite their innocence), dark anti-heroes riding lean horses in pursuit of their prey: gold, vengeance, death. It’s infusing more of the gritty noir anti-hero into a genre that’s already fueled by rough living, bleak landscapes, and casual death.

So the name itself was originally a deliberate criticism, but it was subverted by fans to become an accepted nom-de-plum. And while the genre had a brief life-span, roughly 1964 to the end of the 1970s, it’s had its impact on the western as a whole, breathing life back into the flagging genre. Interestingly, though spaghetti westerns have passed on, they’ve been replaced by another group of foreigners who’ve latched on to reinvent the mythos of the American Old West: see the ramen western subgenre. (Yes, this is really a thing.)


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