In Bashing Stan Lee, Bill Maher Dismisses the Best Possible Platform for His Politics
As someone who paid an inordinate amount of attention to politics at a very young age, I’ve been aware of Bill Maher for most of my life. One of the few celebrities I was aware of before him, however, was Stan Lee. In a blog post he should have put on the air for viral video’s sake, Maher becomes one of the few people to have an unkind word to say about the comics legend’s passing. Well, in fairness, he didn’t say anything bad about the man, but rather he simply shit all over his legacy. Dismissing Stan Lee’s life’s work as “funny books for kids that people should grow out of” is precisely the kind of ignorance Maher accuses his rivals of on his show. So, let’s discuss why this World War II veteran who dedicated his life to creating morality plays for progressive values is worthy of the level of public mourning he’s received.
In his post, Maher claims he enjoyed comic books as a child, but he is sophisticated enough to have grown past them. The thing that really gets under his skin is that people have the unmitigated gall to treat comic books as if they are actually an artistic medium. He writes:
“[T]wenty 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. And now when adults are forced to do grown-up things like buy auto insurance, they call it ‘adulting,’ and act like it’s some giant struggle.”
This is a remarkable position to take, especially for a man who thinks not being able to tell dick jokes at college gigs is an existential threat to the very idea of free speech. I have a theory as to what this is really about, but we’ll get to that later. One thing Maher always encourages people to do is think critically about the things people say. So, giving him the benefit of the doubt that this is a serious belief and not outrage-trolling, let’s do just that.
His basic premise, that comic books are for children, is not inherently wrong. Way back in his day, this was very true. In the 1960s, the world of comics was still in its proto-state, specifically because Stan Lee hadn’t pushed the industry forward yet. The Comics Code Authority, the kind of Greatest Generation culture crackdown that folks like Maher used to rail against, hampered creators’ ability to tell complex stories. Yet, just because a story is crafted for children doesn’t mean that it’s not literary. Even when he was young, Stan Lee used comics to tell an allegory against racism via the X-men at the height of the civil rights movement.
When it comes to progressives, Bill Maher isn’t anyone’s favorite. His views on religion, privilege, and social justice are all firmly in the “problematic” category. Still, Maher’s value to the larger progressive movement is simply his platform. Pundits and future candidates for office all came through the stages of his HBO show and the ABC show that preceded it. He also used to have a unique place in the political conversation, particularly on HBO. There was little room for bullshit and talking points in the discussion, meaning it was a place for a more frank discussion about politics than we usually get. I’ve never been impressed with Maher’s own political thinking, but his guests almost always have something interesting to say.
In one of his editorial monologues at the end of his show last year, he tried to expound upon this theory that superheroes paved the way for Trump. It’s in this rant that Maher reveals he has no idea what comics books are anymore. That rant and the post that sparked this column are born from some half-remembered ideas about comic books. He believes that superhero stories are bad because they condition people to think that they can go about their lives carefree and hero will save them if there is serious trouble. It seems that Maher is conflating the mythology of comic books with his favorite subject, the mythology of religion. He may have read these stories as a child, but he never understood them.
As someone so keen on hearing from people with different perspectives, Maher betrays that ideal when he dismisses an entire genre of media. Not only that, he declares it bad for society and, essentially, the reason we have Donald Trump sitting in the White House. He reaches this conclusion based on his simplistic assessment of what these stories are about. Not coincidentally, since he thinks this medium is not worth scholarly study, he doesn’t know he’s wrong. Like so many of conservative “morons” he lambastes on his show, he’s behaving just like them. He’s made an uninformed decision that something is dangerous and refuses to listen to experts on the subject because he thinks their scholarship is corrupt.
One only need to sit through the third act of any modern superhero movie to see the folly of Maher’s argument. In the MCU alone from Avengers to Ant-Man and the Wasp, each film ended with a huge fight that causes massive property damage and (presumably) loss of life. Most of the villains the heroes are saving the world from wouldn’t be a threat at all if not for the hero. Rather than tales where a godlike hero comes to save us, modern superhero tales are all about the cost of great power. Whatever you think of Stan the Man himself, “with great power comes great responsibility” might be one of the best phrases ever written.
The value of superhero stories are that they give people something more than entertainment. It’s not that comic book fans pray to these heroes for their divine intercession. Rather, it’s that in a world where real-life heroes are flawed human beings, these characters give people an ideal to look up to. People don’t want Captain America to burst in and save them; they want to be Captain America. I’ve watched enough Real Time to know that Maher would explode in triumph at this point. He’s say that I’d made his point for him, that basement-dwelling virgins are hoping to get powers and a sweet-ass shield. And, in fairness, there is not a comic book fan in the world that hasn’t thought extensively about what powers they’d have and how they’d use them.
Yet, that’s just the fantasy part of it. It’s the the fictional magic that takes it from being just an action thriller into the realm of the mythological. Christians don’t drown themselves by the thousands trying to walk on water like Jesus. No, the ones who are doing it correctly try to emulate the parts of Jesus’s character that they can. This is what comic book fans mean when they say that these characters are their heroes. When faced with something that threatens your firmly held ethical beliefs, you want to respond the way Cap would. (Just with about 100 percent less punching.) If you’re struggling to balance your private and professional life, you think about Peter Parker. If you’re angry, ready to break everything in site, you might think of the cautionary tale of Bruce Banner. I’m being reductive here, but my point is that like any literature, comic book stories teach us to deal with our own emotions via allegory.
Even the most objective, rational thinkers fall victim to their own emotions. I mentioned above that I have a theory as to what is really sticking in Maher’s craw. Based on other segments of his recent shows, Maher seems to have evolved into a stage that most adults hit, sooner or later. In order to make sense of the world and their place in it, they have to shit on everything that the “younger generation” does. Rather than taking stock of their own flaws or failures, they shift their anger and blame to their replacements. Things aren’t as good as they used to be, and these damn kids have no sense. They believe it’s affecting the very moral fabric of the country and threatening to tear us apart.
Maher has spent much of the past two seasons of his show lamenting the fervor with which the left and right hate each other. He shouts from his desk chair about how people don’t understand how they are being deceived. He mourns the loss of truth, justice, and the American way in our modern life. Ironically, the kind of stories comic books tell are one way to dissect those issues. For as long as science fiction has existed, it’s been a way to tell fantastic stories and sneak in political or social commentary. It tricks people into empathizing with people or ideas they’d otherwise disagree with. And, like the best literature or art, it does all this without you realizing it.
Maher wrote “that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.” Of course, he’s wrong. Far-right authoritarians have won high office in nations where comics aren’t important. However, it’s likely that any place that successfully beats back those xenophobic and anti-liberty forces is one that grew up with stories told by the likes of Stan Lee. Kids who grew up with comic books and adults who cling to those stories still have the kind of clear moral compass that might seem unfashionable in an “adult” world. They also instill the lesson that even when things look their bleakest, it’s always worth fighting for what’s right. Perhaps if Baby Boomers like Maher paid closer attention to comics, the world would look a lot differently than it does today.