Bill Maher’s Take on Comic Books and Why He’s Wrong

Bill Maher's November 16th blog article about the relevance, social importance, audience, and intellectual substance of comics is wrong. Here are a few reasons why.
why bill maher is wrong about comics

Bill Maher is no stranger to public controversy. He’s opinionated and his opinions have the effect of reaching across political lines, often with strong reactions from those who disagree with him. Maher posted a blog on November 16th in response to the public reaction to the death of Stan Lee. Lee, 95, passed away on November 12th, 2018. Lee is widely known and acclaimed for his status as a seminal figure in the American comics industry, most notably for his work and leadership at Marvel Comics.

Maher’s premise in his blog post, which he titled Adulting, is that the public reaction to Lee’s passing is out of proportion to Lee’s importance and relevance to society and that adult comic readers are essentially immature morons.

Maher states in the blog:

“Now, I have nothing against comic books – I read them now and then when I was a kid and I was all out of Hardy Boys. But the assumption everyone had back then, both the adults and the kids, was that comics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures.” Maher then doubles-down on the premise, ending the blog article with the statement that Donald Trump “could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.”

Maher’s blog post generated a huge amount of backlash and he went on Larry King Live to clarify that he was not much of a comic book reader and that he was “agnostic” about Stan Lee. He then said:

“I don’t read comic books. I didn’t even read them when I was a child. What I was saying is, a culture that thinks that comic books and comic book movies are profound meditations on the human condition is a dumb fucking culture. And for people to get mad at that just proves my point.”

Maher’s Position is Founded on Ignorance

I think the issue here, no pun intended, is that Maher is drawing from the well of stereotypes from his youth about comic books. The comic books, graphic novels, and manga of today bear only a superficial resemblance to the Golden Age and Silver Age pulp comics of Maher’s youth. The comics of the 50s and 60s were aimed at a juvenile audience. But comics matured in the 70s, presumably when Maher, as a young man, held on to the stereotypes of his childhood and adolescence. Maher’s static opinion of comics is based on a public perception from almost a half century ago. In the past fifty years, the literary medium of comics has evolved into something much more variegated and mature than the Archie and Spider-Man comics of the 1960s.

Archie’s Growth over the Past 50 Years

An Archie comic cover from 1968 and an Archie comic cover from 2018.

 

We can look at those two characters and their respective comics and settings to see how much comics have changed in the past half of a century. The Archie comics of 1968 were light-hearted and fatuous. The comics were mirrors of the media, fads, and trends for American adolescent stereotypes. The comics reflected socially inoffensive images of cheerleaders, beach parties, romantic rivalries, hamburger worship and the mildest of rebellion against authority. Archie in the 1960s is all about girls, cars, high-school, corny jokes, and culture-centric gags and one-offs. Archie comics and the various offshoots of the Archie universe in other mediums have kept the core characters, relationships, and settings, but the modern themes of today’s Archie comics are more mature and socially conscious than the Archie comics of decades past.  The 1960s Archie focuses on gags and comedic situations for its characters. The modern Archie is telling stories about cancer, interracial gay marriage, and gun control.

Spider-Man’s Evolution

Spider-Man is another character and comic that has evolved over time. Spider-Man was initially conceived by Stan Lee as a name and a character outline in 1962. Lee collaborated with Steve Ditko to come up with the initial design of the masked teenage superhero. A quick read of early Spider-Man comics would show common themes: a teenager by the name of Peter Parker secretly fighting criminals and super-villains under the guise of his superhero identity, Spider-Man. Spider-Man the superhero was a not a new thing, but Peter Parker, the neurotic, insecure ward of Aunt May, the abused employee of J. Jonah Jameson, and the young man who stumbles through a series of romantic misadventures, was not cast from the same mold of superhero alter egos. Has the years have gone by Spider-Man has dealt with death, marriage, divorce, terrorism, and a host of other issues.

The introduction of Miles Morales, a young half-black, half-latino who follows in the footsteps of Peter Parker with his own take on Spider-Man, is just another example of how much superhero comics have moved on from a half-century ago while staying true to their roots. Here’s a passage from the Washington Post, from a 2011 article titled Miles Morales & Me: Why the new bi-racial Spider-Man matters:

Axel Alonso, Marvel’s new editor-in-chief, says that Spider-Man’s newfound diversity was something that was considered the moment Marvel knew that their ultimate universe Peter Parker was headed to the grave.

“We knew that the death of the Ultimate Spider-Man/Peter Parker was coming,” Alonso told Comic Riffs by phone Wednesday. “The question quickly became: Who will be the person to fill those tights? We knew very quickly what had to be done. Having a character as iconic as Spider-Man, when he peels off that mask, having a new demographic be able to relate to him, we’re very excited about that.

Alonso said a Marvel title accurately reflecting the society we live in is nothing new and that it’s been going on since Stan Lee was in charge, agreeing that X-Men in the ’60s was just as much about the civil-rights movement as it was the hatred of mutants.

“We are on the cutting edge of having our books reflect the real world,” Alonso said. “Our heroes live in the same world you and I do.”

It’s interesting that those who write and read the comics can see a depth, nuance, and maturity in comics whereas someone like Maher, relying on uninformed opinion, can make statements like this:

But then 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. And because America has over 4,500 colleges – which means we need more professors than we have smart people – some dumb people got to be professors by writing theses with titles like Otherness and Heterodoxy in the Silver Surfer.

Three More Examples of Comic Literary Greatness

The mocking tone, which is directed not only at comic fans but those who would dare to sully the halls of academia is rooted in Maher’s ignorance of the subject and perhaps a bias for the liberal arts. I can’t speculate there. Publications like ImageTexT, a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the study of comics and related media and published by the University of Florida English Department, give credibility, validity, and critical examination to comics. An academic embrace is needed to remove the cultural stigma which has besmirched American comics since the 1930s. Please, professors at 4,500 American universities, hold on tight to comics and continue to write your dissertations, comparative analyses, and journals.

Not every book is a great work of literature and not every graphic novel has to prove itself by putting on a  stern face and showing the world it is a SERIOUS WORK. But to dismiss comics, especially the modern offering of comics, graphic novels and manga as being universally intellectually deficient and juvenile is ignorant. Consider these three comics:

Maus

maus pulitzer prize winner

Maus, by Art Spiegleman, is a graphic novel published in 1991 by Pantheon Books. The main character is Spiegleman, interviewing his father about the Holocaust. Jews are portrayed as mice, Germans are shown as cats, and Poles (Polish people) are depicted as pigs.

Maus tells a story of the past and the present, as Spiegleman, through his mouse alter-ego, interviews his father about his father’s past as a Holocaust survivor. The graphic novel is notable for its complexity, its departure from the typical fare of comics of the day, and even for its designation as a graphic novel, a relatively new term devised by Will Eisner in the 80s to legitimize comics as a medium.

Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. It is the first comic to do so. Maus is widely recognized as a modern literary classic and a “cottage industry of academic research has built up around Maus.” Laguardia Community College of New York has guidelines for instructors teaching Maus in the classroom. 

Watchmen

watchmen why bill maher is wrong about comics

Alan Moore’s Watchmen is the poster child for the anti-superhero comic. It’s an idea that is now a genre in comics. Works like Invincible, The Boys, and Jupiter’s Legacy are critical of superheroes and take aim at showing their dark side and faullts, a trend that Alan Moore virtually pioneered back in the 80s.

Moore’s Watchmen is anti-establishment, openly cynical of authority, and grabs traditional superhero tropes by their legs and dangles them outside of a skyscraper window before he lets them go, having concluded it would be easier to let them fall to their death then it would be to try to “save” them. The superheroes in Watchmen are flawed, frail, damaged, defensive, selfish creatures. Nite Owl is far more Willy Loman than Superman.

Moore slowly and surely murders the superhero genre with a confident pen and his literary weapons are sharp and deadly. His writing and story-telling abilities are both in top form, which in part explains Watchmen’s cult following, its enshrinement by Time Magazine as one of the ALL-TIME 100 novels, the Hugo award in 1988, as well as Eisner awards for Best Writer and Best Writer/artist, and Best Graphic Novel.

Lone Wolf and Cub

ogami itto and daigoro bill maher wrong about comics

Lone Wolf and Cub is a manga written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima. Publication began in 1970 and ran through 1976. At it’s most basic, it’s a story of revenge as Ogami Itto, the Shogun’s Executioner, and his son Daigoro, take the assassin’s path in a journey across Japan to avenge themselves and the death of Daigoro’s mother at the hands of the Yagyu clan.

Lone Wolf and Cub’s popularity in Japan is almost unprecedented. The manga has inspired no less than 7 feature films, numerous movies made for television. It’s had two television series. That’s just in Japan. In America, it’s referenced in sources as diverse as Bob’s Burger’s to the Kill Bill movies. The Road to Perdition, the 1998 movie starring Tom Hanks, was made in homage to the series.

Lone Wolf is more than a story of revenge. Lone Wolf and Cub is also a cautionary tale against revenge, in much the same way Homer warns readers about rage through the tale of Achilles. It’s also a story about discipline, love, family, respect, duty, and strength of will. It’s a story that makes other epic works look meek by comparison. All of this is done against a backdrop of careful research from Japan’s Edo period, introducing the readers to a feudal society and its laws and customs with more depth than a graduate-level history class. Lone Wolf and Cub is a story about a small child but its target audience is anything but.

Read What You Want, How You Want

There’s a multitude of comics and graphic novels grappling with complex themes as important and relevant as other works of literature. And there are many that are not. It’s perfectly ok to enjoy a comic or story for the joy of escapism and entertainment. The best stories, the timeless tales, can be read on multiple levels. You can read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a commentary on Gilded Age attitudes towards commerce, race, and class or you can enjoy it for the adventure and excitement. You can read the X-Men comics as metaphorical commentaries on social issues or you can read them as outsized adventures. You can read them as both. Read comics—and books— how you want, just don’t let the Mahers of the worlds tell you that you are wrong for reading them.

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