Last November comic books and comic book fans drew the ire of late night talk show host Bill Maher. Their offense? Mourning the death of beloved comic book visionary Stan Lee, a 96 year old WW2 veteran. In the piece he decries comic books as unimportant, and the people who enjoy them as stupid. He goes a step further to say he only believes Donald Trump could be elected president in a country that thinks comic books are important.
Like most things in 2018, this sparked outrage on the internet and Maher. Last week Maher threw gasoline on the flame war, clarifying that he isn’t glad Stan Lee is dead but sad that comic book fans are alive. He went on to mock comedic film maker Kevin Smith, a known friend of Lee, as his textbook example. He took shots at the artistic merits of comic books and then superhero movies. He begged that we “stop pretending the writing in comic books is so good.” He then went on to use blockbuster super-hero movies, rather than comic books, to make his point.
Maher’s rants are nothing more than bullying; which for comic nerds might not feel as familiar as it used to, but I don’t think there’s a die-hard comic book fan over the age of 27 who isn’t still sporting an anti-wedgie callous from their adolescence. We’re used to this. Hit us with your best shot, man. We can take it, but if you’re going to take aim at comic book culture, at least make sure you know what you’re talking about.
Nobody is pretending that the writing in comic books, a medium, is universally fantastic. That is an absurd statement. You sound stupid, Bill. Nobody said all comic books are great literature, most aren’t! But some are fantastic works of art and literature like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, or Karen Reye’s My Favorite Thing is Monsters. Even superhero comics can be more than vapid junk food, check out Alex Ross’ Kingdom Come. I get that you’re annoyed with the weight capes and tights have in our current cinematic landscape(ME TOO!), but super-heroes aren’t all comic books have to offer. I’m not saying, like you, superhero stories can’t have thematic heft, and great writing, but that was never part of the appeal, dude. Your statements are the equivalent of somebody reading 50 Shades of Grey and deciding, THAT’S IT! Novels are for morons! Book clubs are for idiots!
And what’s wrong with liking superheroes? People are drawn to escapism in times of duress. They shouldn’t be faulted for wanting a glimmer of hope. For example, the Great Depression gave us some of our first comic book fans and classic super-heroes, how the hell do you think Superman became so popular? This weird notion that escapism is supposed to be stupid fun rather than compelling storytelling is absurd. Just read Stan Lee’s words from a letters column in 1970.
“From time to time we receive letters from readers who wonder why there’s so much moralizing in our mags. They take great pains to point out that comics are supposed to be escapist reading and nothing more. But somehow, I can’t see it that way. It seems to me that a story without a message, however subliminal, is like a man without a soul. In fact, even the most escapist literature of all – old time fairy tales and heroic legends – contained moral and philosophical points of view. At every college campus where I may speak, there’s as much discussion of war and peace, civil rights, and the so-called youth rebellion as there is of our Marvel mags per se. None of us lives in a vacuum – none of us is untouched by the everyday events around us – events which shape our stories just as they shape our lives. Sure our tales can be called escapist – but just because something’s for fun, doesn’t mean we have to blanket our brains as we read it!”
So sure, mock comic fans for mourning the loss of Stan Lee, a man who did nothing but tell the world that anyone can be a hero, no matter what they looked like or where they came from. A man who used his power to challenge social norms by writing comic books that included themes of social and racial justice in a tumultuous political climate.
Marvel comics has, historically, always had their finger on the pulse of progressive change in America because it’s a brand shaped by the legacy of these men. Comic book culture, both fans and creators, are inextricably tied to the ideas of social justice that people like Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko championed. Whether Captain America punching Hitler: Spider-man tackling the drug epidemic; Richard Nixon being outed as a villain; having a brand-wide crossover to critique Bush era war profiteers; featuring the first openly gay marriage in the pages of a mainstream superhero comic, or creating the first Muslim superhero.