Bill Maher's fixation with Stan Lee isn't social commentary, it's just out of touch.
I love comic books.
I love superhero TV and movies.
I also understand that many don’t share the same passions. Some may even see comics as childish and foolish, and that’s perfectly fine. It doesn’t mean I can’t get along with them or agree with them on other issues, and it by no means makes them a bad person by default.
Late last year Bill Maher, a late-night talk show host for the long-running HBO series, “Real Time With Bill Maher,” responded to the passing of Stan Lee by criticizing comic books in a blog post. In it, he wrote, “twenty years or so ago, something happened – adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature.” Maher received immediate backlash across the entertainment industry for the things he said, but his comments point back to a long-time struggle of comic book creators and the industry as a whole: the struggle to be taken seriously.
Maher’s initial blog post came shortly after the death of Stan Lee; then, almost three months later, Maher doubled down on his sentiments at the end of his show. If you haven’t seen it, here it is.
His commentary essentially disregarded the opinions of people who think comic books have any cultural weight. Maher went on to lament how people cling to the things they loved as kids as a way of avoiding the adult world, shifting his discussion from criticism of people who like comics to a judgment of people who whine about adulting.
Typically, my first instinct is to avoid such controversy, but since Maher used the death of one of my idols to criticize superheroes and comics, I feel inclined to respond.
To some extent, I understand his disapproval; some people do try to avoid adult responsibilities at every turn. But that's about as far as my agreement with Maher goes as he pins the problem on the entire medium of comics. Yes, I imagine there are those who would rather cling to fantasies about having superpowers that render their “real life” problems moot. But who can blame them? Everyone has their own fun way of escaping reality whether it be reading, watching TV, sleeping, etc. It's as if Maher entirely overlooks this. Just like any other form of entertainment, for a lot of people, comics are fun to read, follow, and enjoy.
The idea that Maher finds superheroes childish is understandable, but out of touch. He is over 60 years old, so for most of his early life, comic books and superheroes targeted children because of limitations set by the Comics Code Authority. It wasn't until about 30 years ago that comics matured to a point where they appealed to all ages. Comics have developed so much so that their movie adaptations have made over $20 billion at the box office. That kind of money is not made with children as the sole target audience.
In addition to the billions made in the box office, some comics have gained serious acclaim. A select few, such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus have even been recognized by TIME Magazine as some of the greatest literary works in the past century. I doubt Maher is aware of this because most of these fantastic works happened after he became an adult.
Comics are often composed of more than the age-old tropes of good vs. evil, riding off into the sunset, and justice always prevailing. They have played off of politics and philosophy for decades, whether they have endorsed the status quo or challenged it. And furthermore, it has inspired the creation of what we have today in animation, video games, and blockbuster films and has furthered the conversation of philosophy and ethics. The aftermath of “Avengers: Infinity War” this past year resulted in countless articles and videos discussing the philosophy of Thanos and if whether or not his act of mass genocide was justified. That, to me, is anything but childish. “The Dark Knight” addressed terrorism and the philosophy of peace built upon lies. “Captain America: Winter Soldier” questioned loyalty when both friends and governments betray us. Just this past month, I was so inspired by “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” that I wrote a poem about what it takes to be a hero. I could go on for hours concerning this topic, but those are just some of many examples from the film industry rooted in comic book literature.
Moreover, comic books – like any other childhood memory – can leave a lasting impact on people throughout their years. Why should comic books be dismissed compared to other forms of fiction, just because it has pictures?
Bill Maher and others like him can say what they will, and they have the right to. Comic books are not for everyone, nor are video games, novels, animation, film, or any other form of art and entertainment. Everyone has different tastes and fans of all art should respect that. The issue is that Maher's knowledge of comic books and graphic novels is stuck in the ’70s, and exemplifies his willful ignorance of the entire genre as an art form. Dismissing an entire medium without attempting to understand its popularity is arrogant. Even worse, Maher chose to use the aftermath of the death of one of comics’ most significant contributors to mock those who cherish the medium.
This is what he seems not to register. Comedians can invoke themes in their routines and provide commentary on politics or society, sharing their thoughts and giving their perspectives to their audiences. While Maher specifically targeted Stan Lee’s work and superhero comics, there are more to comic books than superheroes. Comics, just as prose, can tell stories of fantasy, science fiction, romance, westerns, or history. Just look at the subjects and themes invoked in Persepolis, Fun Home, or Ghost World. Taking the time to understand why characters like Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Wonder Woman resonate with people probably won’t turn Maher into a die-hard comic book reader, but may help him understand why fans of the medium have been so quick to defend Stan Lee’s legacy.