Comics matter, Bill Maher!
Bill Maher would have you believe it is in the last twenty years of American culture which has undermined the ability of our nation’s citizens to make good choices. He contends it is our easy reliance on fantasy, our inability to confront reality, which makes comics so attractive.
Furthermore, he believes it is this extreme cultural dependence which has made the nation vulnerable to predation by the likes of the Alt-Right, White Nationalists, corporate raiders, warmongers and the extreme Conservative Right. At the tip of the spear, he blames comics, fantasy and most importantly the purveyor of those things for decades, the venerable, sometimes sainted, often problematic, regularly misunderstood, surrogate parent of millions, Stanley Lieber, more commonly known for years, as the marvelous pitchman of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee.
To quote Stan Lee:
To mimic the bombastic language used by Stan Lee in the early years of his career: “I say thee – nay!” Comics are not the scourge of the West.
There were plenty of scourges more dangerous to Western Society than DC or Marvel comics, let me assure you. Comics are responsible for many things, but the fall of the West is far beyond their capacity. The US government and its corporate backers are far more likely to be the culprits of that particular decline.
Comics are not undermining the psychological well-being of a nation. They have not caused our children to retreat into infantile behaviors from which they cannot escape; behaviors which keep them trapped at home with their parents into their thirties, unable or unwilling to pay bills, unable to form meaningful relationships and lacking the social skills to take responsibility.
Comics did not prevent the next generation from confronting the Baby Boomers who have all but destroyed society as we know it with their taste for power, rampant need for war, and their unabashed consumerism which converts the living world into a quiescent and consumable form suitable for profit by those in the right places, with the right amount of money. No, comics did not do this.
Nor did it make people unwilling to confront society’s ills because they were too busy watching movies rather than attending to life’s challenges. Life happened. People responded. Those that didn’t suffered alongside those that did. Such is the lot of civilization as we know it. Bill Maher, you are confused as to the nature of the nation as we know it, because you are not part of what is taking place in any way that’s good. Events like the Great Recession bounced off of you, Bill Maher, putting scales over your eyes, preventing you from seeing the truth.
Comics didn’t destroy America.
Greed may. Shortsightedness may, a lack of clear vision, a lack of understanding, a lack of proper planning, a failure to educate people on the social norms we should have been monitoring rather than privatizing. Comics didn’t, nay couldn’t have destroyed a world which has been broken and stayed broken since World War II.
Since you wanted to go there, let’s go there. The War to End All Wars was World War I. Did the world disarm after millions of people died from warfare and influenza, costing hundreds of millions of lives for the sake of the rich and powerful? No. It wouldn’t even be thirty years before we would be back at war, across the planet, in a war that would make World War II seem like a festival by comparison.
Did we stop waging war after World War II? I mean, after all, we used weapons which everyone agrees should never be used again. Did we stop making them? No. Because of fear. Because of weakness. Because of greed. Did America recant the mantras of war, dedicating itself to peace by making its infrastructure better, spending trillions to educate its people, plan for the future, design better technologies which could release us from our dependence upon fossil fuels? No. Instead, American capitalized on its position of power as a survivor of World War II and chose that moment to “lead” the world through economic and military might using fear, weakness and greed as its primary weapons of mass distraction.
These three things, fear, weakness and greed, are the destabilizing forces which destroy the world on a regular basis; sometimes quickly, as in times of war, sometime slowly as when rampant consumerism undermines society’s education system, requiring people to be clever enough to work, but not enough to think and resist the call of consumerism, of jingoism, of extremism, of nationalism. Yes, those are also the tools of people in power, control the education of a man and you can control the things he does through his fears.
Comics don’t support any of those things —not the good ones. Good comics promote thought. They promote introspection. They promote a view of the world which is larger than the individual. Often it is the entire nature of superheroic comic stories to promote a view that says the collective we is more important than the individual, that our goal is to push society along and not just to serve our individual needs. Good comics talk about working together, promoting teamwork, dealing with one’s inner demons, fighting for good, protecting the weaker among us, righting the wrongs presented to us — to fight for the world rather than against it.
No, Bill Maher, you haven’t read a comic in a long time, if ever. Because for the forty years I have been reading comics, comics which didn’t always represent me or mine, they have tried to tell stories of an inclusive we, even if, like so many things American, the message wasn’t always clear. I took the message, the underlying narrative and made it mine anyway.
It’s a damned good message.
These days, comics have come a long way. They are working to be more inclusive. The big Two are struggling to get the job done but they are doing it. They have lots of pressure from talented outsiders who are producing amazing works of art, compelling stories, inclusive tales which show a larger and more beautifully complex world than comics have done up to date.
Stan Lee would be proud of this. I would suspect if you hadn’t been suffering from anal-cranial inversion, you might have realized this yourself. The world you are always ranting about on your show is the world comic heroes are usually attempting to create. It is their example you extol every time you declare there should be more justice, betting voting laws, higher quality education, smarter citizens, better laws, less corrupt politicians, less military spending, and a closer more integrated society, free from prejudice and fear.
Ironic, Bill. I can call you Bill, right? My wife and I watch your show weekly. We admire the fact you and your guests often arrive at what I consider the right conclusions, though I don’t always agree with you and every so often, I shout at the television telling you how wrong you are.
Today, I am shouting at the Internet, because I know frankly you don’t give a damn; yet I am compelled to say it anyway — You are wrong, Bill Maher. There is nothing wrong with people seeking to find and keep a little magic in their lives. There is nothing wrong with people returning to the flights of fancy they once enjoyed as children. Taking a two hour break from the life and death struggle the rich have made our modern world.
The rich? Yes, Bill, I consider you one of the people who enjoy a life of great ease, the life of a celebrity, who is expected to do little, beyond entertain us, and yet commands so much economic respect and luxury. You live a life almost none of us will ever have and yet you feel completely justified in telling people who work so much harder than you ever have or ever will, that their lives are meaningless because they have hope. Because they have dreams. Because they choose to dream of a life better than the one this corrupt system, which you rail against all the time, allows them.
You are a hypocrite, sir.
You are the worst kind of person. You are the kind who finds a man struggling and rather than offer a hand, you condemn him. Perhaps you kick him, a well-meaning boot, to drive him to his feet, when what he needed was a hand, a kind word and the understanding you pretend to have when you are in front of a camera once a week.
Stan Lee is dead, Bill. What you did was little more than a stunt to boost your ratings, because you remember the first rule of showmanship is that there is no such thing as bad press. Fair enough. There is no such thing as bad press, but you can create a social movement which works against you, Bill. I doubt you will experience any consternation in your life as a whole. You are rich. People have short memories, and likely by next week, this will all be water under your golden bridge. But I won’t forget, Bill. I suspect many of the people who work for you are secretly Marvelites, whether they be old ones or new ones, they will keep their opinions about you to themselves, because they want to keep making money.
So let me be the one to say what they cannot:
Bill Maher, you are a cruel person, the kind who would speak ill of the dead, before they are even in the ground. Because that is exactly what you did. You fancy yourself a sophisticated individual but you are as petty as they come, if your behavior is any indicator. You are the kind of person my mother said to cross the street to avoid. Your inability to even recognize there is a time and place for everything makes you even less sensitive than the Conservatives you lampoon every week.
I grew up reading comics.
They were a bulwark against the cruelties of my childhood. They were a balm when bullies blackened my eyes. They were a shield when inequality raised its many headed hydra in my direction. They were tools when I went into the world, they taught me courage, strength, kindness, understanding, and compassion. They made me strong, where it mattered, not just outside but inside. It taught me the value of life, the nature of responsibility and a respect for the world, and everything and everyone in it.
On your show, you talk the talk: the talk of a liberal who says they want a better world. But sir, off the camera, you are nothing like me. Not even close. A thousand years dead, I would stand up for and prefer the life and dreams of Stan Lee over the hypocrisy of a cruel, living Bill Maher. You are not fit to allow his shadow to fall upon you. And now that he’s dead, you will never have a chance to be a better person by having it happen. What little respect I had for you is gone. Comics didn’t destroy the world. Greed did. People are hiding in their basements out of fear of what greedy, inconsiderate people might do, or say, next.
Comics are a modern mythology, a means of finding ourselves, when we are confronted on all sides by signs that tell us to join the Dark Side, steal from the Earth, pay your fellows less, undermine their freedoms, steal their rights, poison their water, pollute their air, all in the name of profit.
Comics and the aspirations of people who recognize what we have in this society is unsustainable, a pathology, an untenable sickness dooming the world; comics may be the thing which saves us. We have thirty or forty years left to pull it together. We will have to make a heroic transformation to save ourselves from a world lost in climate change, Bill, a thing you rant about all the time. It will take an all hands on deck, superhuman effort to save the world from our darker, richer, more selfish selves.
The kind of effort only the mythology of superheroes could engender. The kind of belief which comes from the power that storytelling brings to the world. Stories change things, Bill. You of all people should know that. We need stories where the heroes save the world and recognize there will be sacrifices to make it happen. Stories matter, Bill. Stan understood this value and spent his life promoting them. What, sir, have you spent your life doing? Deconstructing a broken system and getting rich off of it. Analysis is good. Stories, however, are mythic in their power. Comics are more than just their words, pictures or narrative structure, Bill.
They embody the spirit of an age, an age of heroes, an age of tragedy. They may be the final inspiration for a world that must dig deep to save itself from its impending annihilation. The heroic example of comic heroes may be exactly the inspiration the future will need. It is as viable as you believe your quest for truth through discourse and laughter are. Before the end, we may need them both.
Don’t discount what you don’t understand, sir. For some of us, comics saved our lives. One day, their fantastic example may save us all.
Thaddeus Howze is an award-winning writer, editor, podcaster and activist creating speculative fiction, scientific, political and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, ‘Hayward’s Reach’ (2011), a collection of short stories and ‘Broken Glass’ (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.