We're talking Westerns today, folks. So mosey on up to the table and let's find out why they're out of vogue and what keeps creators working on them anyway.
What is it about the Western genre that drew you to it as a creative person?
Erwin K. Roberts: When you are, like me, an early U.S. baby boomer, you grew up immersed in westerns. They came at you on the radio, followed by TV as soon as your family bought that first set. "B" westerns were on the way out in Hollywood, but "A" westerns would sill be common for quite some time. Western comics came from just about every surviving comics publisher. Most of the last surviving pulps were westerns. (Ranch Romances ended in 1971.) Mixed in were Easterns featuring folks like DC Comics' Tomahawk. Plus, for over fifty years, Northerns like Challenge of the Yukon (SGT Preston) and Zane Grey's King of the Royal Mounted were very popular.
Nowadays, westerns are more popular in places like Australia, than the United States. And, to an extent, I miss them. That's just one of the reasons I jumped on to Airship 27's Masked Rider wagon train. I had a (pun intended) blast writing "Thunder at Devil's Tower." The research about that area fascinated me. I got to play with any number of western stereotypes. I turned one or two on their ears.
These days the western often gets mashed up with other genre. Cowboys & Aliens did not even come close to inventing that concept. About 1953 Shadow author Walter B. Gibson created and wrote six issues of Space Western for Charlton Comics a year or two before Dell launched Turok, Son of Stone. The hybrid possibilities are endless.
Ray Dean: Everything... wide open spaces... raw conflict, survival, high emotion, and the paradox that so many went to the 'West' for a new start.. and then they get there and the same old prejudices are in place or if your 'past' comes back to haunt you... you're done. There so much to love/hate/revel in about the "Old West.'
Derrick Ferguson: My love and appreciation of the Western came from my parents, especially my father. He would watch any and all Westerns that came on TV no matter who was in. And back then we only had one TV so if I didn't watch what my parents did, I just didn't watch TV. He didn't have a favorite Western star. He just loved all Westerns. He and I would watch Have Gun Will Travel, The Wild Wild West and Wanted: Dead Or Alive together and my very first grown up movie was The Wild Bunch, which I saw at the tender age of 10 and changed the course of my life forever.
What draws me to the Western as a creative person? My gut says it's because you can make a Western as simple or as complicated as you want and nobody will give you any shit about it. The Western is American mythology which is why it'll never go away. Myths just don't go away. They get changed, sure. In the 60's/70's/80's many of the tropes of the Western were adopted by police/crime thrillers and science fiction movies. But we always come back to the Western because there's a purity there, a stripping away of the bullshit that infects our society today and brings us back to basic, core beliefs, traditions and codes of behavior that we've lost but still long for.
Lee Houston Jr.: Westerns represent a more simpler time in both literature and history. Where you could tell the heroes from the villains, and not just by what colored hats they wore. It was a period where hard work and honesty were their own rewards for most folks.
Aaron Smith: I’ve never really considered myself a fan of the Western genre. Yes, I watched Bonanza and Gunsmoke reruns as a kid, but I never sought out Westerns on purpose. If I made a list of my 20 or so favorite movies, the only western on it would be The Searchers. The only reason I’ve written a western story and had it published was because I was once asked to write one for an anthology. I like some Westerns, but have never consciously wanted to write them. I like good stories and if I happen to have an idea for a story that works best as a Western, I’ll write it, but that particular genre is not something I’m specifically drawn to.
What are the key elements of an effective Western story?
Erwin K. Roberts: They are pretty much the same as any good adventure story. Look at it this way: The Seven Samurai became a very successful western as The Magnificent Seven. Then, in the aftermath of Star Wars, the plot got recycled yet again in outer space with George Peppard, John Boy, and Robert Vaughn reprising his The Magnificent 7 role. (Battle Beyond the Stars).
Derrick Ferguson: Being set in the West helps. I think the untamed frontier is just as much a character in a Western as any of the humans. Sergio Leone understood this and used it to great advantage as his American West is as much of a fantastic realm as Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age. Cowboys. Indians. Schoolma'arms. Gunslingers. Gamblers. Hookers with a heart of gold. Greedy land-grabbing cattle barons. Rustlers. Showdowns at high noon in the middle of Main Street. Sheriffs. Owlhoots. Barroom brawls. Cattle stampedes. And I think that there’s a certain heroic element that has to be in play. The good ol’ fashioned “A Man’s Gotta Do What A Man’s Gotta Do”
The last I really think is important because the Western is a genre where we can still read about heroes being heroes simply because you have rugged men and nurturing women doing The Right Thing simply because it is the The Right Thing and bringing. Law and Order to a ferociously savage and chaotic land.
Aaron Smith: The key elements of an effective western are the time period, setting, and archetypes specific to the genre, which are obvious, but a good story that’s a western needs the same key elements as any good story whether it’s science fiction, or a Victorian period piece or a Game of Thrones type fantasy epic: good characters, believable motivations, suspense, drama, etc.
Ray Dean: CONFLICT, CONFLICT, CONFLICT. One person rubbin' up against another and causin' friction... ranchers against farmers, cattlemen against sheep farmers, soiled doves against proper womenfolk. There's a wealth of conflict in a world where people are trying to make a living and get what they want. Sounds like any other genre? I don't know really.. Maybe it's just how I see it in my head... the dust, the boarded walkways and false fronts... lone men on horseback riding into a town full of people that might want him dead... It all works for me.
Bill Craig: Keys elements are cowboys, horses and guns, and a pretty gal in distress.
Lee Houston Jr.: There are no 'shades of grey' in a western and justice was always triumphant in the end.
Is there really any hope at making the Western story popular again, or has the world moved on?
Derrick Ferguson: I think that in print The Western is still as popular as it ever was. There’s a British publisher of Westerns, BLACK HORSE WESTERNS that started in the 1960’s and is still going strong to this day Here’s a link if anybody reading this is interested in submitting to them or just reading their books: http://website.lineone.net/~adam_and_lynne/index.html.
As for movies and TV: I think we’ve just got to accept that The Western has had it’s heyday on TV and that’s that. We may get the occasional mini-series like Lonesome Dove or Broken Trail but that’s it. As for theatrical films, it’s all about superheroes now so I’m not holding my breath there.
Aaron Smith: I don’t think the Western will ever be as popular as it was from the 30s to the 60s when TV, film, books, and comics were full of westerns, but I think the western will always have a place, however small, in fiction because the old west is just as valid a setting for a good story as space or the jungle or Holmes’ London or modern San Francisco or whatever.
Erwin K. Roberts: The western has become sort of a cottage industry. Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott and more recently Kevin Sorbo make westerns from time to time. Westerns seem to be a bit more regularly published in the UK and Down Under than in the U.S. of A. Perhaps something, somewhere, will catch fire again, like the 1960's Spaghetti Westerns. But if all the general public sees for westerns are things like the Lone Ranger film, there is not much hope.
Lee Houston Jr.: The basic tenets of a good western, as listed in my two previous answers, are evident in a lot of stories today. As for a revival, there is still an active, but small, western genre with authors like William Johnstone and Robert Knott, who is carrying on Robert B. Parker's Cole and Hitch westerns. However, the typical western deals with a specific time period, so the best bet for a revival will probably be with licensed material from the days of The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke; Have Gun, Will Travel; The Wild, Wild, West; Bonanza; etc. Hopefully the next attempt will be handled better and be more successful than past efforts.
Ray Dean: I don't think it has... Open Range, Crossfire Trail, the Love Comes Softly Series, Purgatory, Appaloosa... a number of well-received Western miniseries and movies have been made... Tombstone was another great one... I think the long sweeping visuals of open land, cacti, tumbleweeds.. those images are part of our american heritage... and I think some part of our culture will be attached to the 'Western.'
Look at Firefly, with its space cowboys... the show Defiance with some Western elements... shows like Supernatural have western settings, backstories, and episodes. Perhaps it just comes down to what 'new stories' can be set and written and produced in that genre to help keep it alive for generations to come. Don't forget to introduce the 'next generations' to the genre! My son (17) loves watching the 'old' Western films with me (El Dorado, Rio Bravo...)
Bill Craig: Westerns are gaining in popularity again because people are so fed up with the inhumanity they see around them on a daily basis. I enjoy reading them, and I enjoy writing them.