By my writing this article, Bill Maher has won. I, like thousands of other comic book fans, was insulted and angered by his comments about comic books, their creators and readers last week. So much so that I felt compelled write this piece defending the art form I love. And in doing so, I am playing right into his hands.
Because Maher likes to present himself as an authentic voice in the wilderness, guiding the lost sheep to safety while pushing palaces to fall. He recent self-congratulatory anniversary special is proof of that. But what Bill Maher really is a talking head who trades in the currency of hot takes. He is only a few shades removed from the Sean Hannitys, Skip Baylisses, and Alex Joneses of the world. His opinions do not have to be accurate or even defensible, he just has to deliver them as obnoxiously and condescendingly as possible. Bill Maher does not care if Bill Maher pisses people off; as long as people talk about Bill Maher, Bill Maher is happy.
His statement from last week, Adulting, which was published on the blog tied in to his HBO program, Real Time With Bill Maher, is a great example of Hot Take carefully crafted to generate the most anger as possible. I’ll reprint it here in total so you do have to click over to the blog. Lord knows he doesn’t need any more hits:
The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess. Someone on Reddit posted, “I’m so incredibly grateful I lived in a world that included Stan Lee.” Personally, I’m grateful I lived in a world that included oxygen and trees, but to each his own. 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.
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. 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.
I’m not saying we’ve necessarily gotten stupider. The average Joe is smarter in a lot of ways than he was in, say, the 1940s, when a big night out was a Three Stooges short and a Carmen Miranda musical. The problem is, we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff. I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.
You don’t even have to be a comic book fan to put of by this statement. His smug, know-it-all tone is enough to put you off. But to comic book fans, the whole blog post is one big stick in the eye that he uses to provoke his targets to anger.
How exactly was this blog post constructed to raise the maximum ire out of comic fans? Let me count the ways:
- The blog is published immediately after the death of a beloved icon of the comics industry, when emotions are running high.
- Insults said icon by saying he has not really done anything to deserve being mourned for.
- Sets up his own perceived superiority by saying he gave up comics when he was a kid, and even then liked books with more words and less pictures better.
- Acts like reading comics and reading prose novels are mutually exclusive.
- Reiterates the point that comics are kids stuff.
- Stating that, even though he hasn’t read them in around 50 years, that comic books are not literature.
- Insulting professors who teach comics as literature by calling them dumb and that they should be replaced.
- Stating that comics fans are incapable of doing even the simple adult tasks.
- Stating that even if you are a smart person who reads comics, they are still stupid.
- Finally, worst of all, blames comic book fans for getting Donald Trump elected.
It is a veritable smorgasbord of Hot Takes to get a rise out of his audience. But it also a blog obviously by a man who has absolutely no idea exactly what he is talking about but is egotistical enough to believe that his uninformed opinion should be taken as gospel. And that is Maher in a nutshell. That is his modus operandi, whether he is talking about comic books, Islam, women’s rights or gun control. If his opinion accidentally intersects with facts, great, but he’s not going to let it stop him if it doesn’t. He’s got people to piss off and attention to grab, dammit!
Since it is obvious that Maher has his head so far up his ass that it would make a contortionist jealous, why can’t comic fans see that and ignore him? Why are they getting so up set over what a close-minded buffoon says about a medium they love? Because Maher has touched upon a legendary raw nerve among comic book fans.
Yes, thinking that comic books are only for kids or simple-minded adults isn’t a fresh or revolutionary idea Maher just thought up. It has been around longer than Maher has been alive. The idea was used by Frederic Wertham and Estes Kefauver to justify their attacks on the medium in the 1950s. The Batman TV series bolstered and reinforced the idea in the 1960. And whenever police decided to raid a comic book store on obscenity charges, which has happened as recently as 2002, they have used protecting the children–to them, comic books’s target audience–as justification for their actions.
But despite the ill-informed opinions of Maher and others, comic books have not been exclusively for children for a long time, and the shift started longer than 20 years ago. If Maher has decided to read any of the obituaries for Stan Lee, he would have caught mention that Marvel Comics gained popularity on college campuses in the 1960, and that Lee became a regular on the college lecture circuit during that time. In the 1960s and 1970, the counterculture movement spawned the underground comix scene, where artists and writers used the comic medium to provide satirical jabs at society as a whole, using graphic images and adult themes to do so.
In the 1980s, writers such as Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and others started applying literary themes that Maher might find in big boy books with no pictures to mainstream comics. And from the underground movement sprung a vibrant independent comics scene, which gave us Art Spieglman’s Maus, a graphic novel telling Spiegelman’s life as the son of a Holocaust survivor and which won a Pulitzer Prize in Letters in 1992, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, detailing her coming of age during the Iranian Revolution which was adapted into an Academy Award nominated animated film and Fun Home, Alison Bechtel’s memoir of growing up with a dysfunctional family while coming to terms with her own sexuality which was a finalist in the memoir category in the National Book Critics Circle Awards and was adapted into a musical that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in drama and won a Tony Award for Best Musical.
I’m sure most intelligent people, even if they do not like comic books and graphic novels, will read that last paragraph and at least admit that medium as a whole has some valid artistic merit. People like Maher will simply think that the Pulitzer jury and awards voters those years were just morons that should have been replaced by someone smarter.
So, yeah, maybe comic fans shouldn’t care if some old man whose thinks comic books are only Casper the Friendly Ghost hanging out with Wendy the Good Witch or the Richie Rich playing on a diamond-studded swing set essentially calls them retarded for reading them. But mindsets like Maher’s don’t just hurt peoples feelings, it also jeopardizes the reputations, the livelihoods and even the freedom of people in the comic book industry. So his ignorance needs to be challenged.
Usually, when Maher gets push back on something stupid he says, he issues an immediate apology. Well, usually it’s after he says the N-word or if it might endanger his employment or him being kicked out of his Overwatch group. Not this time. In addressing the topic with Larry King, this is what he said:
But talk about making my point for me: Yeah, I don’t know very much about Stan Lee and it certainly wasn’t a swipe at Stan Lee…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.
You can read his original statement above. You can tell for yourself whether or not he took a swipe Stan Lee (Personally, I think he swiped so hard that it was more of a swat). But Maher has the Donald Trump-like quality of twisting reality so he comes out looking the best, and that is what he is doing here. Only a self-centered raging egotist like Maher would consider people being angered by him calling them morons or him disrespecting a dead man be confirmation that his criticisms were correct.
Maher’s comic book hot takes are just one example of Maher putting his personal beliefs ahead of facts or empirical evidence. I’d go into his pig-headed viewpoints on Islam as an example here, but there is not enough space to cover them all. Maher values being politically incorrect so much he named a former show he hosted after it. But being politically incorrect doesn’t excuse him for being factually incorrect. Maher is quickly becoming irrelevant in a world where the John Olivers, Samantha Bees and Trevor Noahs of the world provide takes that are just as hot but better researched. He has to resort to dropping the N-word on live TV, give platforms to alt-Right nitwits and taking potshots at people he feels are his lesser.
So, while we should not take anything Bill Maher takes seriously, we can’t help but turn our heads towards the baby that makes the most noise. Once we learn to ignore that, to not consider Maher the pundit of anything, the sooner he can slip into the obscurity he so richly deserves, at the back of the pack of the numerous people who do the same job he does, but so much better.