Childing- Bill Maher, Stan Lee and Superhero Comics

David Seelow, PhD©

            I have always been a fan of Bill Maher’s TV programs and, generally, have affinity for his political positions. Mr. Maher’s mixture of entertaining comedy and political commentary provides a refreshing break from the more purely public relations format of most late-night programs. Consequently, I was severely disappointed even disturbed when I read his blog on the passing of the legendary comics writer and editor Stan Lee (1922-2018).  However, to my dismay at Mr. Maher’s uninformed blog about a hero of mine turned out to be a learning opportunity. Afterall, I was in the middle of teaching a college course on “Superheroes and the Millennial” at the College of St. Rose in Albany, New York, and hence, along with my students, a target of Mr. Maher’s attack on comics. First, I could allow students their own unmediated response to Mr.  Maher’s blog just as if they were responding to the comments section on The Real Time with Bill Maher blog. Second, I could follow up on their initial responses, and help deconstruct the blog as an exercise in critical thinking.  I could help students pinpoint Mr. Maher’s unfounded assumptions, and his inability to articulate any kind of cohesive, valid argument in support of what us “academics” might call “uninformed opinion,” a polite expression for saying Mr. Maher was full of hot air, at least about Stan Lee and America.  Finally, the occasion allowed us to speak of Stan Lee in a fashion quite contrary to Mr. Maher’s dismissal, and identify why he should be mourned, remembered and celebrated.

            First, let’s listen to the students. They are mostly juniors and seniors, and from quite diverse backgrounds.  Travis immediately identifies the power of superheroes as models for youth,

          Stan Lee was a driving force in the entertainment business. From comic books to both the big screen and small screen, Marvel paved the way for younger generations. Not only did he grace us with power and adventure, but he helped us grow. Teaching us about responsibility,   teamwork, family, love, and loss. He taught us even if we feel as small as Ant-Man, we can do big things. When we felt different was ugly, he graced us with The Thing, who showed us different isn’t always the worst. Through all his characters he taught us something. Something about the world and about ourselves.

            As readers may or may not know many early creators of comic books were children of recent Jewish immigrants living in poor areas, like Jack Kirby (aka Jacob Kurtzberg, 1917-1994) on the notorious Lower East Side of New York. The children of immigrants used superheroes as a vehicle to deal with environments that made them feel small. The same social context as applied to bullied immigrant children, Travis explains, holds true nearly 70 years later. Those who might be labeled small, can do large things through their identification with superheroes. Look at Jack Kirby’s heroic illustrations. They are large, dynamic, kinetic. Heroes like Ant-Man and The Thing empower youth and help them feel good about themselves, especially when they don’t fit the popular stereotype childhood and youth hold out as being the way to be (Peter Parker and Kamala Kahn as cases in point).

            Another student, female this time, Lexi, picks up on Maher’s illogical move from comics to politics.

                 …I disagree with the connection between comic books and the election of  Donald Trump as president. If you’re going to talk about that subject, you need to consider the amount of racism and sexism that is present in this country rather than the effects of comic books. There is absolutely nothing wrong with an individual being interested in comic books no matter what age they are. They allow older individuals a connection to their childhood for nostalgia purposes and [also as]an expression of their interests and creativity. There’s no person                            that should be able to say that’s someone’s interest in something is ridiculous or inappropriate unless it is illegal.

            Lexi correctly points out the harm judgmental thinking can do to others. Further, judgment based on the assumption that the judge’s taste is better taste than the judged is elitist.  Indeed, the irony here is that Bill Maher does just what he accuses the president of doing. He uses name calling or belittling others as a pseudo argument. Incidentally, claiming comics caused the election of a president (fiction having an immediate and causal link to ‘reality’) is bit reminiscent of Dr. Frederic Wertham in the early 1950s when he argued successfully before congress that comic books caused juvenile delinquency. I imagine Bill Maher, if he knew that history, would rightly condemn, prejudice masquerading as science.

            Another student, Rian, who loves to use humor and satire in his writing, also picks up on Mr. Maher’s irrational linking of comics to right wing politics.  “While I understand the hatred of the president and tend to agree I don’t think bringing Trump in on an article acknowledging a beloved dead celebrity is any bit necessary and just sounds foolish.” Precisely, the Red Herring, using anything as an excuse to criticize the president. That’s not good or helpful political commentary as Rian point out and such thinking undermines Maher’s political purpose alienating people other sympathetic to his political stance.

            Victor, a foreign student, writes, “Countless people can attest that Stan [Lee]inspired them to read, taught them that the world is not made up of absolutes, that heroes can have flaws, and even villains can show humanity in the depths of their soul. He gave us X-Men, Black Panther, Spider-Man and many heroes and stories that offered hope to those who felt different and rejected, while inspiring countless people to be creative and dream of better future.”

            Well said. I can say that comics inspired me to read vociferously, and I feel my reading ability- though a dumb professor in Mr. Maher’s eyes, can probably be considered a better than average. Victor’s comments made me think of the famous Spider-Man published in December 2001, the one with the pitch-black cover, no text, just darkness. In the comic, villains like Doctor Doom work along side superheroes like The Thing in clearing the rubble of 9/11. The real heroes, that comic clearly represents as being the first responders: the fire and police departments, civilians, ordinary folks doing extraordinary things. The comics message like that of the superheroes simply: stand tall.

            Ryan M., a female, returns to Maher’s insidious judging, “…insinuating that many adults in the United States are childish and immature for liking the work of Stan Lee was a poorly thought out statement from Bill Maher. Many well-adjusted successful adults enjoy characters like Spider-Man, Thor, The Fantastic Four, and others. A much more childish thing to do is state that all people who enjoy these stories or artforms that you do not appreciate are stupid.” Again, the young student shows the adult to be the childish one in his judgmental devaluation of other people’s taste and enjoyment. If you read, you are accomplishing something. If you are inspired by what you read so much the better. Superheroes, as these students indirectly indicate, are modern forms of the ancient gods- just as Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung among others have often reminded us. These mythological, larger than life figures, are metaphors for our inner beings. They inspire us to be our ideal selves- that’s how we become heroes like the first responders at Ground Zero.

            Another student sums up the students’ response to Mr. Maher’s “adulting” blog quite well, “It is amazing to me that we live in such a judgmental country where your intelligence is judged based not on your merit, but on the types of entertainment you enjoy in your free time.”

            Finally, Brandon makes some salient points, “Age of Ultron showed us technology can or may possible destroy the world one day….Black Panther is black and African. Miles Morales is an Afro-Latino. Shuri is an intelligent female scientist. Children can identify with these characters based on their race, ethnicity, gender, etc., and aspire to be just like them.”

            In summary, the students succinctly capture the essence of Bill Maher’s blog and identify Maher’s total reliance on personal judgment and taste as his sole criteria for dismissing Stan Lee and his millions of fans.

How to Argue, and How not to Argue: Getting Real with Real Time

Know Thy Audience

            Let’s take a closer look at the flaws that drain Mr. Maher’s argument of any validity. As the students mentioned, tone and attitude convey much of an argument’s context. A writer must be cognizant of his or her audience before composing any form of communication, written or oral. Stan Lee’s death provides the occasion for Maher’s blog. Disrespect for someone recently passed, a celebrated figure at that, discredits the argument from the start. Who will take seriously a blog that begins with disrespect for its audience? Such evident bias discredits the author’s ideas even before they are articulated. The disrespect is extreme too. Maher does not even refer to Lee by name. Lee is, “The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died …”. The guy who hosts Real Time with Bill Maher should have enough sense to know that if,  “America is in deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess”, then those millions include a good percentage of his own audience, which mind you, would be a tiny fraction of the audience Stan Lee commanded. Maher simply does not even seem to know the audience he is writing for. Consequently, Maher invites a hostile response, which he did, in fact, engender, in droves.

Know the Subject, at Least a Little

            Probably around early middle school, teachers tell us to do some research before writing about something. If you don’t know anything about your subject whatever you say will have no merit. For instance, I try not to write about cooking. On the other hand, Mr. Maher throws knowledge aside and even admits he has limited knowledge (an over generous assessment) about comics, “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.” First, Maher does not currently read them [comic books]- so what he knows would be based on what he read as a kid, half a century ago, i.e. he knows nothing about the topic he is writing about. Further, he relegates comics to the lowest form of literature, below the “Hardy Boys”, and this uninformed devaluation returns in his subsequent blast of misinformation which maintains comic books cannot be sophisticated literature. The comedian, political commentator must be an expert on sophisticated literature too?

            Given the fact, Mr. Maher is a “mature adult” and has a research staff at his disposal maybe he could have done at least an hour’s worth of research (appears he has done maybe 15 minutes tops as I will explain shortly). He maintains Stan Lee’s value was inspiring millions to, “I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess.” Hardly. Even if Stan the Man only inspired people to attend movies, the numbers would be hundreds of millions, given that four of the top ten all time grossing movies are superhero movies (as of January 2019). However, Lee inspired not just the consumption of movies, but the production of movies. Think of the extraordinary actors, actresses, directors, and many other creative folks in the film industry that have, as adults, found Stan Lee’s characters to be commendable, and well worth their considerable efforts and talents.  Just recently, Brie Larson, an academy award winning actress (Room, 2015) took on the role of Captain Marvel. Other academy winners like Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain 2005; Life of Pi, 2012) and Gweneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love, 1999) have given themselves to superhero movies (Hulk and Iron Man respectively). That’s one hell of legacy in my book. But, that’s a small part of Stan Lee’s contribution to popular culture.

            More than any other single individual Stan Lee shaped the comic book industry from his teen beginnings at Timely Comics under Martin Goodman until his death last year. Stan Lee was the face of superhero comics, and comics today have spawned a transmedia phenomenon of unparalleled success: comic books beget graphic novels, network television shows, streaming Internet based shows, animated shows, feature films, video games, conventions, and merchandizing that have provided millions of job opportunities from the errand runners to the creative brilliance of people like Ryan Coogler or Patty Jenkins (yes, diverse genius too). Lee’s success, in part, can be found in his totally different posture and respect vis-a-vis his audience, then that exhibited by Mr. Maher. Stan spoke to kids on a first name basis. He never talked down or disrespected his readers, and the millions of young readers (reading I assume is something Mr. Maher values) often thought of Stan as a friend. From the formation of The Merry Marvel Marching Society to Stan’s Soap Box and the Marvel Bullpen Bulletin Lee invited the audience to join the Marvel Universe. He was a pioneer of fan culture. How different this Smilin Stan Lee personae is compared to the smug condescending attitude projected by Bill Maher’s blog.

A Thesis need Evidence, or Why The Emperor has no Clothes

            A thesis without evidence is a sandwich without bread. It does not hold together and tastes bad too. Maher’s thesis, best as I can tell, would be that most Americans are adulting- “…adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff.” Appears that around 1998, this miraculous culture change must have occurred. Moreover, this cultural immaturity, a desire to hold on to childish things like comic books, led to the election of Donald Trump, who Mr. Maher very much dislikes. Fine, the thesis that immature adults are uninformed and therefore voted for Donald Trump, which presumably mature adults who read sophisticated literature not comic books would not have, simply has no foundation, and no evidence is proffered. First, if the millions of comic book fans voted, well Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, so millions of comic book readers most likely voted for her. (As an aside, President Obama, who Bill Maker does like, read and collected comic books.) Maher offers no voting statistics to back up his claim. Although he writes as if he is also a sociologist, Maher offers no evidence for the culture change he claims happened the end of the last century. He simply piles one unfounded assumption on top of another.

            In that second paragraph about adults remaining children he states, “And so they (the childish adults) pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature.” Again, no evidence, just assumption and a wildly incorrect assumption at that. Has Bill Maher read Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning comic book Maus (Pantheon Books, 1986-1991) about the holocaust or Joe Sacco’s powerful account of the middle east, Palestine (Fantagraphics, 1993-1995)? Obviously, he has not. Let’s stick just with superhero comic books. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a distinguished writer for The Atlantic– a very sophisticated magazine, wrote a series of Black Panther comic books. Mr. Coates has been awarded a McArthur Genius Fellowship, among other accolades; i.e.  he writes sophisticated prose. By the way, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby developed the character Black Panther way back in 1966 and this pioneering comic book character endures today in a motion picture that was nominated for best picture of the year (2018) and won two other academy awards, Ruth E. Carter for costume design and Hannah Beachler, for production design, both African American women. A rich multilayered film about African politics, and African cultural traditions, this film can hardly be classified as childish. Nor can the comic book that the film is based on be considered childish.  Lee and Kirby imagined an African country, Wakanda, technologically superior to all other countries. It was a brilliant inversion of colonial history and their exploitation of naturally rich countries to fuel European, and later, American greed, while projecting an alternate history that benefits African natives not colonial powers. Nothing childish about the superhero as African chieftain nor the thematic clash between pan Africanism and isolationism or between armed insurrection and peaceful reform.

            Maher’s second paragraph offers his one piece of actual evidence and two more examples of minimal research (the first being the quote of some random individual posting in Reddit- possible a minute or two research there). In a somewhat specious attack on professors, Maher cites a dissertation that he or a staff member must have spent 5 minutes or so to up. In arguing that adults have pretended comic books are literature Maher uses professors who teach or write about comics as evidence, i.e. fodder, for his argument that such professors are adulting.  The sentence states a probable fact about the number of colleges in the United States but draws the ridiculous conclusion that the country does not have enough legitimate professors to man the cited surplus of colleges. First, to argue there are too many colleges strikes me as odd. How can you have too much educational opportunity? Second, how does Mr. Maher know there are not enough professors to go around? How many are there? How many are enough? He has no idea and offers not even a guess; nonetheless, evidence aside, Maher concludes that because we need more faculty for those surplus colleges such professors must be dumb. How Mr. Maher infers “dumb people got to be professors” “…because America has over 4,500 colleges…” escapes me.  God forbid a student, even a freshman, produces such absurd reasoning. Granted that dissertation on the Silver Surfer that Maher cites may not be Kant’s The Critique of Pure Reason, but Real Time with Bill Maher is hardly This Week with David Brinkley. Regardless, dumb people do not earn doctorates. That’s a preposterous claim.  I don’t want to claim I am smart since smart cannot be easily defined, but I confidently assert that I am not dumb nor are any colleagues or doctoral candidates that I have ever come across.

            In a blog completely bereft of logic, evidence, or clear thought, Maher concludes with the gargantuan leap from comic books to electoral politics. His assertion that  the average Joe is smarter today than the average Joe in the 1940s is an unsupportable assumption, but more remarkable must be  that Maher offers The Three Stooges (one of my favorites) and a Carmen Miranda musical as proof that the average Joe back then was not as smart as the average Joe today, who what, watches, The Bachelor?  The entire concluding paragraph is just fluff; a pretext for his concluding statement and polemic, the real reason for the blog. What makes Maher think only the U.S. public thinks comic books are important? France has a rich tradition of comic books and some of the best scholarship comes from France whose electorate generally choses leaders I suspect Mr. Maher would agree are of intellectual caliber. In a roundabout kind of way, as I suggested above, Maher’s fantastical assertion mirrors Dr. Frederic Wertham’s right wing claims in 1954 that comics caused juvenile delinquency. Imagine Bill Maher agreeing with that end of the political spectrum? That’s precisely what his nonargument amounts too. Contrarily, after some research Mr. Maher might even make an opposite claim that only in country that dismisses comic books could Donald Trump get elected. But research is for those surplus college students and modestly paid professors, not extravagantly paid talk show hosts. Afterall, isn’t opinion more interesting than knowledge?

            Push aside the straw man fallacy, and Mr. Maher’s real target should be the Internet and social media, which has contributed to a decline in clear thinking and evidence-based argumentation. The web all too often provides a platform for unsupported, ill-informed opinion, and unfiltered prejudice that drains an argument of worthwhile investigation leaving only sensational headlines that are repeated and spread like a virus among a population that struggles to find the needle of insight in a haystack of hot air. Three short paragraphs may constitute a blog today, but I prefer writing an online essay that more closely mirrors the considered thought and deliberation of traditional print media. Call me a dinosaur if you will, but I hope students and citizens will realize the value of deliberate thought, careful research, genuine inquiry that forms the basis of an informed citizenry making intelligent electoral decisions.

            Well, no disrespect Mr. Maher.  For the most part, I like Real Time with Bill Maher, but given the choice between Real Time with Bill Maher and an imaginary time with a Marvel movie, I will choose the movie every time.  I like to think of my movie going as childing.; a willful return to the world of the imagination, wonder and possibility.  Thank you very much Stanley Martin Lieberman. RIP. Excelsior!

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