On Superheroes, Comic Books, And Their Audience

For the life of me, I don’t know why I tune into Real Time with Bill Maher.  I don’t think Maher is a particularly good comedian, as he’s a guy who plays at being far more edgy than he actually is; his interview skills are only so-so; and he often comes across as smug and superior.  I often say it’s a show I like, but I can’t stand the host.  That’s more or less true.  Maher does often get some interesting panels together for discussions.

However, he did get in a bit of trouble recently with the online geek community when he seemed to say something bad about Stan Lee when Lee died.  He addressed this on his show over the weekend, and I want to address his points.

So, here’s the gist of Maher’s argument:  Maher was not attacking Stan Lee so much as he is attacking adults who still read and love comics.  He does not see comics as a legitimate form of art.  He sees them as entertainment exclusively for children and tells anyone who thinks otherwise (specifically Kevin Smith who, well, does not dress like an adult) to grow up.  He describes all superhero movies as a man gets powers, learns to use the powers, and then has to get the “glowy thing”.  And he took some shots at adult men who play video games while he was at it because I guess women don’t play video games.

Now, I could go the pedantic route and point out a few things he says that aren’t true in a snotty, nit-picky sort of way.  Or I could get nasty and toss insults.  Maher said he lost a lot of Twitter followers when he made his initial online comments about Lee’s death, and he wasn’t going to miss those people.  I won’t be unfollowing him on Twitter though that’s mostly because I don’t follow any celebrities on Twitter.  It seems too much like socially-approved stalking in my mind.  So, yes, I could point out that one of his “glowy thing” examples doesn’t work because the “glowy thing” was not the thing the hero was looking for, but that’s beside the point.  Let’s move on.

Now, in the past, Maher has actually suggested the rise of superhero movies and TV shows led in part to the election of Donald Trump because Trump voters believed an idea that Maher found stupid, namely that the right man, a powerful or influential man, can just show up and fix all our problems for us.  Ignoring for a moment that there were probably plenty of people who felt the same about Barack Obama in 2008 from the same side of the political aisle Maher calls home, and that many comics tend to have more progressive-leaning political ideologies if anything, this may be the core problem with Maher’s argument.  He claims that fans of superheroes and comics are mental or emotional juveniles who oversimplify the world.  He did, on Friday night, say if you first learned about racial intolerance as wrong from a comic book that you should follow it up with other, more sophisticated writers like James Baldwin, and that is an excellent idea, but if we are going to say that problems like racial intolerance are more complicated than what the average comic book has to teach us, then shouldn’t we say the same thing for why people vote the way they do rather than just dumb it down to “they love superheroes and easy solutions!”?

And as far as superheroes at the movies go, yes, there does seem to be a preponderance of glowy things, but I think more of these movies go with vortexes or portals from the sky, or even just a ground-bound hero or hero group has to somehow stop something that is coming out of the sky is much more common, and if there’s a giant blue beam, so much the better.  However, that also leads to a broader indictment of all kinds of big budget movies, many of which don’t feature superheroes. Heck, I just described 2016’s Ghostbusters.  That’s more a symptom of Hollywood action spectacles in general today than anything else, and a powerful man somehow saving the day alone could just as easily describe cinematic heroes like James Bond and John McClane.

Besides, some of the best superhero movies have included The Dark KnightLogan, and Deadpool.  Only one of them–Deadpool–features a man gaining powers, and he doesn’t exactly need to learn how to use them.  They just work, and arguably Deadpool is still a fairly conventional superhero origin story told in a very unconventional way.  The closest any of these three come to having a “glowy thing” is the lenses in Batman’s cowl near the end of The Dark Knight when he uses the cell phone tracking devise.  The problem with the powers-and-glowy-thing idea is that the movies using those conventions are often coasting on well-worn and recognized cinematic tropes.  Most probably don’t aspire to much more than to be entertaining and sell tickets, and there’s nothing wrong with that and no one should feel ashamed to like what they like.  But when someone really creative or invested in a character or genre wants to do something different and does it well, then that is and should be celebrated.

Maher likewise contends directly with a letter sent to him from an organization overseeing Stan Lee’s legacy.  Though he doesn’t read the letter in its entirety, he does focus on a section that suggests Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck, Herman Melville, and William Shakespeare were all disrespected in their day.  Maher openly scoffs at this idea and asks what comic book could possibly compare to the likes of Moby-Dick or King Lear.

OK, while I don’t know about Steinbeck, the other three are not entirely wrong.  Dickens wrote in weekly or monthly installments.  He was hugely popular, but that chapter-in-installments plan meant Dickens could and did alter his plot depending on audience response.  Somehow, I would not be surprised if he wasn’t seen as a serious artist in his own lifetime.  Melville often had financial problems, and if we’re talking Moby-Dick, it wasn’t exactly a huge financial success during the author’s lifetime.  Yes, there is a story about Melville’s name being misspelled in his newspaper obituaries, but that seems to be more of an urban legend than reality.  And Shakespeare?  Play writing was considered the lowest form of writing in his day, and Shakespeare didn’t even think to publish his own work.  The theaters were in the same neighborhoods as the brothels in Shakespeare’s London.  So, I think the bottom line is at least two if not three of these writers were not treated as writers producing great art for their entire lives.

Now, I wouldn’t compare Lee’s work to the great works of literature.  Lee’s work is fun, light-hearted, and written to be more or less disposable.  So are most superhero comics, especially from the Golden and Silver Age.  But Maher makes two errors in his editorial.  First, he assumes comics are written for kids.  Second, he assumes comics are all superheroes.

To answer the first, most comics are not written for young readers much anymore, particularly superhero comics.  Most superhero stories seem aimed more at teenagers or a bit older at the younger end, and there are plenty of comics out there for older readers.  I wouldn’t be offering a kid under ten anything with the Punisher in it, that’s for sure.

And while superheroes are the most prominent genre in American comics, there are plenty of comics in just about every genre you care to name.    I shared a “Best Comics of 2018” list with the Gabbing Geek comic readers, and much of the list was stuff none of us had even heard of.  Factor in that comics are a bit more respected in Japan and parts of Europe, and we’re left with an art form that is unique unto itself as a combination of words and pictures.

After all, no one would refer to Sin City or Fun Home as juvenile stories full of superheroes.

So, let us take the unstated challenge here.  As much as I, say, love Batman and the recent work of writers Tom King and Scott Snyder, that doesn’t mean I would stack them up against Moby-Dick and King Lear.  If those are the best that the novel or the play can produce, we should look for the best that comics can produce and see how they stack up.  And if you’re not interested in the best work possible in the superhero genre, works like Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns because “superheroes are for kids,” maybe we should look somewhere else.

How about Maus?

Maus is used in college classrooms.  Maus is a very serious work about a very serious subject, one where creator Art Spiegelman used the comic form to examine his own thoughts and feelings on what his father lived through and the legacy that his father provided.  Maus is not for kids.  Maus is not a superhero story in any way.

And, I would argue, Maus is art.

But for me, the bottom line is we shouldn’t seriously shame people for their entertainment choices.  As a joke among friends is fine  Otherwise, when we belittle others on the basis of their escapist fun, we run the risk of stereotyping.  That treats other human beings like they are somehow less intelligent than ourselves based solely on where they go for their own escapist entertainment, and that’s wrong.  If we shouldn’t stereotype an artform in the broadest definition of “art,” then we shouldn’t do it to people, and I didn’t need a comic book to teach me that.

Now, I write this for a blog and may get lucky with a dozen readers, and I’m hardly going to be the only person to say this sort of thing, but I have a forum here, and I will use it.

tomk74

Defender of the faith, contributing writer, debonair man-about-town.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: