A space opera, a noir, and a western walk into a bar. There is no punchline for this joke, but it’s the best way I can describe Cowboy Bebop. Episodic, as whimsical as it is serious, and surprisingly diverse in the background, Cowboy Bebop premiered in North America on Cartoon Network’s Toonami block and went on to inspire a generation. I hear it mentioned in the background radiation of my life and it makes me wonder, is Cowboy Bebop a classic or a cult-classic?
Defining A Classic
There is no official governing body that attaches the “classic” moniker to archived media. Reviewers may refer to titles as a classic. Media companies will slap the label on the most popular or oldest titles in their archives. This system seems to encourage interpretation and debate, which is fine. I am up for a good debate (as long as I get to speak in essay format). But investors and consumers and retailers want solid numbers. They want to know where a title should be sorted. In the instance of Cowboy Bebop, it fits under three: Science Fiction, Anime, and Animation. But its age also puts it where other old titles are shelved: Classics.
Classic does not always mean old. There are plenty of old television shows I have never heard of before or know very little about. There are also a plethora of shows that have permeated pop culture to the point of universal recognition: Seinfeld, I Love Lucy, and Friends are a few I can name off the top of my head. Looking for shows that are more than sitcoms? Star Trek: Original, Dragnet, and Baywatch are a few others.
Cowboy Bebop has also permeated pop culture in its own way. The question is whether people unfamiliar with Toonami or anime know what Cowboy Bebop is about.
Cult-Classic vs. Classic
The definition of a cult-classic is another term that lacks an official designation. The Oxford Dictionary and Urban Dictionary say the same thing, but is the size of an audience the only criterion separating a classic from a cult-classic? The Rocky Horror Picture Show is perhaps the most famous cult-classic on the market, but wouldn’t its notoriety slide it into the “classic” category? Or is there something missing from the equation?
Marriam-Webster’s first definition of classic is “serving as a standard of excellence.” So an “official” classic should be quality work. Right? The problem is that quality in art is subjective. My favorite movie is Speed Racer but, according to a couple friends of mine, Speed Racer is an unfortunate waste of money. (Somehow, this is not a major strain on our friendship).
The defining trait of a cult-classic is how many people know of it and how much they love it. They tend to be movies that had a short time in the limelight but have since fallen into obscurity: Brave New World, Firefly, and Pacific Rim are a handful I can name off the top of my head. Anything that attracts a niche audience and requiring a specific cerebral mindset to understand can also be criterion for identifying a cult-classic.
Anime is a medium with a niche audience in North America. I hate to admit this, but I am now one of those older fans. I came of age when Toonami was an after-school television block and LiveJournal was the place for online fandoms. The business model behind Crunchyroll became lucrative when I was in university. Which is to say, there is a generation of anime-watchers younger than myself and I have no idea if they know what Cowboy Bebop even is. Do they know Toonami’s contribution to the anime industry outside of Japan? Did they also have a five-year gap in their anime-watching habits, only to be reintroduced to the genre with the premiere of Attack on Titan?
I believe Cowboy Bebop had its space in the limelight and now sits nestled in nostalgia-land for a lot of its fans, which makes its audience smaller than anticipated. For me, this labels it as a cult-classic.
The Real Folk Blues
I asked fellow Potted Lid writers Basil and Dame Uta their opinion on Cowboy Bebop’s status as a classic or a cult-classic. Both labeled Bebop as a classic. Despite our differing views, they are opinions formed from anecdotal evidence. And it’s hard to draw serious conclusions from anecdotes, which is why I need some solid evidence about the reputation Cowboy Bebop has among the masses.
If you have a minute to spare, please take this survey I created to help me out. I’ll post the results once I acquire 100 responses. Please share to everyone you know because I want to know how far-reaching this little show is to the rest of the world.