Many fans of Bill Maher’s scathing, no holds barred comedic attacks on anything he deems ridiculous found themselves in a sticky situation after the caustic comedian published a blog post in which he insulted and belittled the legacy of Stan Lee, the undisputed godfather of modern superheroes and the chief architect of the Marvel Comic Book Universe, who died on November 12th at the age of 95. In the post, Maher savagely reduced Lee’s legacy to being nothing more than inspiring people to go see silly and immature movies before attacking the comic book community at large.
Maher was parroting the same sentiment which has continually been attached to comic books since they first appeared back in the early 40’s, namely the idea that comic books are exclusively for kids and therefore any adults who still enjoy them are nothing more than immature kids who refuse to grow up and join the real world, kids who actually believe that comic books can be considered serious literature. Maher ended his savage diatribe by suggesting that someone like Donald Trump could only get elected President in a country which holds comic books to be important.
As both a Bill Maher fan and a comic book fan and admirer of Stan Lee’s incredible body of work, this completely unwarranted and cheap attack on such an icon whose work brought nothing but joy and comfort to millions of people, was a particularly painful dagger to the heart. Although I don’t always agree with Maher’s opinions and agree he often does go too far, I usually appreciate his tell it like he sees it, no bullshit style and even when he’s come across as harsh or insensitive to certain issues or people, I try to remember that he’s primarily a comedian first and being politically incorrect and downright cruel does come with the territory of many comics (the other comics). However, not only is his criticism of Stan Lee and comic book culture completely uncalled for and disrespectful given that it came only days after Lee’s death, it’s also downright ignorant to the true impact and influence of comic book culture throughout the decades.
Let’s start with Maher’s assertion that comics are just for kids. This is a stigma that both readers and writers of comic books have been trying to shed ever since they exploded into popular culture in the 40’s. It’s true that at that time and for a few decades after, comics were generally written and marketed to children and teens and maybe some illiterate adults. But let’s not forget that comic books were also sent in care packages to G.I.’s serving in WWII. Still, the stories, just like other media of the time, particularly those appearing on the new invention called the television, were morally simplistic tales of good versus evil. Superman was good, Lex Luthor was bad, and the good guy always won by the last panel.
This was a reflection of larger American society of the forties and fifties, one clinging desperately to a very black and white conception of morality. Major comics of the fifties especially were very conservative and mostly reinforced the status quo, but this was a result of the major comic book companies protecting themselves against Government hearings being held to determine if comic books were a corrosive and dangerous influence on minors of the time. To protect themselves, the big comic book companies created a self-censoring organization which required all stories be respectful of authority figures and traditions, not be violent, grotesque or subversive and never show characters killing people.
This trend continued up to the early sixties until none other than Stan Lee, along with his collaborators at what soon became Marvel Comics, began introducing stories and characters which played fast and loose with the rules of the comics code. Starting with the Fantastic Four, Lee introduced one iconic superhero after another, most of whom flew directly in the face of convention and dealt with real world issues ripped directly from the day’s headlines. Take the X-men for starters. The legendary team of genetic mutants fighting to defend a world that largely hates and fears them was directly inspired by the fight to end segregation and defend Civil Rights for blacks in the South. At its core, X-men was and still is a story about the evils of bigotry and intolerance in all its forms, a story which, sadly, is just as relevant today as it ever was. Throughout his life and work, Stan Lee always advocated tolerance and rallied against bigotry and hatred in all its forms.
Lee’s other characters, such as the Incredible Hulk, were reflections of the real paranoia over the threat of nuclear weapons and the dangers of radiation. The Hulk was an anti-establishment character, an anti-hero whose most persistent enemy was the U.S. Army. Soon after in 1966, Lee and the legendary artist Jack Kirby debuted Black Panther, the first mainstream African American superhero who helped give voice to the frustrations and hopes of Black-Americans fighting for their rights as human beings. Characters like this and later edgy anti-heroes like Wolverine and the Punisher, struck a chord among many college students and radicals pissed off about the horrors of Vietnam, race inequality and the general indifference of the establishment itself. In the late sixties and early seventies, comic books stories, many written by Stan Lee, began to tackle the dangers of hardcore drug addiction, the effects of urban decay, income inequality and the ever present ghosts of racism and class division.
In the subsequent decades, comic books, just like other media such as television and film, continued to reflect many of the dominant concerns and issues of the age, whether it be the proliferation of gun violence and mass shootings, AIDS and the crack epidemics, the looming threat of terrorism (especially post 9/11), the morally questionable practices of governments in the name of security (again, especially post 9/11) or the struggles for recognition and equal rights for women, those in the LGBTQ community and various other minorities. Despite having started out as a conservative and exclusively white male circle, the ever expanding comic book universe has made some tremendous progress in the name of inclusion and representation, telling stories which, even though fantastic and fictional, shed some long overdue light on real types of people grappling with real world struggles.
This is not to say that there isn’t still a ways to go. Although there are now more characters and stories representing the myriad lives and struggles of people from diverse races, religions, sexual identities, cultures and countries (even planets), it’s still a disproportionate number and many characters are long overdue for getting the same kind of attention well known characters like Superman, Batman and Spiderman, just to name a few, receive. Despite this, not only have comic books come a long way in reflecting the changes and progress we’ve made as a country and world, they’ve also come a long way as a form of literature. Maher’s claim that comic books are not serious literature is another holdover from the age of the comic book as solely children’s entertainment.
As mentioned, although early comic books told mostly juvenile stories, the genre has blossomed in the subsequent decades with countless stories and sagas which rival some of the greatest works of literature in terms of style, scope, thematic depth, symbolism and character development. A list of the preeminent masterworks of the genre always include Alan Moore’s landmark masterpiece Watchmen, Neil Gaiman’s epic Sandman saga and Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns. All three, in their own ways, are post-modern explorations of the Superhero genre which deconstruct and examine the inherently complex nature of heroism and the often murky line between good and evil as it exists in the real world.
Since these seminal works appeared back in the eighties, the genre has produced countless other works which stand shoulder to shoulder with these big three and many other classic works of literature. Additionally, many of today’s most acclaimed authors and writers from different genres have tried their hand at Comic Book writing or at the very least, are fans of the genre. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman (along with many of his other works) won various awards including the prized Hugo award, along with Watchmen, which also appears on Time Magazines 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the present, alongside To Kill a Mockingbird and Catcher in the Rye, just to name a few.
All of this aside, the fact that Maher would go out of his way to demonize and put down an entire community of comic book enthusiasts as dumb and immature juveniles stuck in a fantasy world is a desperately pathetic low blow. Despite the various subtleties of the comic book universe, some of which I’ve just explained here, the bottom line is that comic books are, like any other form of media, whether considered high or low brow, still entertainment. But this is true of anything in our culture, whether it’s art, sports, music or film. At the end of the day, whether it’s thought-provoking and heavy or simply pure escapism, people are indulging in it because they want to, because it gives them some alternative to the monotony of their day to day lives.
Furthermore, saying that Trump‘s election was helped by the influence of comics in this country is to ignore what the best comic books have been and continue to be about, namely individuals trying to do what they believe is right, rising above their own fears and prejudices and helping others whenever possible to make this world a kinder, fairer and more decent place for all people. These have never been adjectives associated with Trump, especially now that he’s in the White House. For more proof, you need look no further than the world’s first Superhero, Superman, literally an illegal alien who exposes the truth and fights corruption and evil, both as a superhero and a journalist, all things which Trump (and Lex Luthor) hates.
To sum up, while it can’t be said that all people who read comic books or watch comic book films share the same values or vote the same way, lumping them together as infantile or suggesting that enjoying stories about flying aliens or billionaires dressed as Bats had any bearing on the election of a man like Donald Trump is downright ludicrous and Maher should know better. Maher often calls out those on the left who get hung up on unimportant and counter-productive causes like policing all political incorrectness, but by attacking Stan Lee’s legacy and his fans, he’s doing the same thing: trying to make an issue out of absolutely nothing, drawing ridiculously false equivalences and simply pissing off people, many of them his own fans, by belittling the inspiring accomplishments of a great man who brought joy to millions. The bottom line is, if Maher wants to fight the comic book villain known as Orange Crush, he’s gonna need the support of all those people who know what true heroism looks like.