Pop culture: Bill Maher: Classroom bully or just another scared kid?

The passing of Stan Lee, a man who brought immeasurable joy to millions through his work, left many of us feeling like something great had been lost. I didn’t know the man, but few could argue his ability to connect with audiences on the page, in person, or in movies, made it feel like we did.

Lee had a way of reaching out beyond the world he’d co-created to make you feel part of it. An inspirational character who spoke with words of hope and left us with characters that could lift our hearts, give us strength, fill us with confidence, or just allow us to escape our troubles once in a while.

After Lee’s death, comedian and TV personality Bill Maher took to his blog to tell us Lee was no big deal and we shouldn’t be reading comics anyway. He called Lee “the guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk” and poked fun at America’s “deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess.” He went on to say that “twenty years or so ago”, people decided to carry on liking the things they liked as kids and that this is evidence “we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff.”

It was an unnecessary, pointless post, in which Maher reduced the life’s work of a man who’d died just five days earlier to a trivialism – and used it to moan about… I don’t know, people not appreciating trees or something. As you’d expect (and as I’m sure Maher wanted), a lot of people pointed out he was missing the big picture and, you know, dissing a dead guy wasn’t really that cool. Maher responded on TV by doubling, then tripling down on his comments. And now, it’s starting to look a little bit like it’s the hill his career might well die on.

Now, I’m a comic book reader. I was when I was a kid and I am today. I had a few years in the middle where I decided I was too cool for them, but for the most part they’ve played a big part in my life. I’m not about to say I’d class any of them as “great literature” in the sense Maher would like me to, but they’ve given me a lot of joy that Im now seeing passed on to my kids. I have a good job, a wife and family, ambitions to learn and grow as a person, and hopefully I’ll leave this world in a better place when I found it. I’m not under the illusion I’ll do that by dropping a mountain on Doctor Doom, but I’ll do what’s within my limited, un-enhanced power.

It’s probably no surprise to anyone then, that Maher’s one-man tirade against comics didn’t sit well with me. Aside from being rude and unnecessary, it just seemed ill informed and hypocritical. My first response was “fuck him”.

My second was to reference Maher’s love of marijuana – a drug that will stunt your ability to get, and keep, a job – as an example of his hypocrisy.

But it was the third thing I came to that really brought home how Maher is clearly also “stuck in an everlasting childhood”. The only difference is, it’s a part of his childhood that “twenty years or so ago” was more acceptable.

Back in about 1987, when US comic books first came into my life, I’d have been about ten years old. As you’d expect, I’d have been filled with all the enthusiasm and naivety of a kid that age, but I was on the precipice of becoming a cynical teenager. Within a couple of years, I’d realised comic books weren’t that cool and that I should keep my love of them to myself. A friend and I used to visit comic stores at the weekend and seek out local newsagents that carried DC and Marvel stuff (not many back then). But we’d never speak of comics during school time, despite often having a rucksack full of them, for fear we’d be outed as pariahs for the rest of our short school lives.

In fact, on one occasion, it actually happened to me. I can’t remember the exact circumstances (but I remember the people in question), but a comic was spotted when I opened my bag, snatched and paraded around the class. The news was out, at 12 years old, I was not an adult. The shame of it. But it was how and by whom I was shamed that was important. I wasn’t one of the cool kids at school, but I wasn’t a helpless geek either. I was smart, but not too smart. Funny, but not too funny. I played football, but I was bad at it. I wasn’t a threat to anyone, because I sat right in the middle of the popularity scale. The discovery that I had a Batman comic in my bag though, was evidence I belonged further down that scale than my previously assigned grade. It was also something the kids who were good at football could use to bump up their own grade, for a day at least, by waving the evidence around and announcing that – unlike them – I liked things that were ‘babyish’.

The truth is, “twenty years or so ago” comics were, for kids like me, a dirty secret. Sport, on the other hand, was a ticket to popularity. If you could catch a ball, hit it with a stick, throw it through a hoop or kick it into a hole, you were golden. And why was/is that the case? Well, I suppose it’s because sport is ‘real’. Comics are based on the imagination of someone who writes, creates art or – in Stan Lee’s case – enables others. Comics aren’t real, balls are real. Stories aren’t real, scores are real. Maybe that’s why sport has always been accepted as the one thing you can take from your childhood into adulthood, because when you dress up in the brightly coloured, logo-branded clothing of your team, it’s to go watch them throw/kick a ball around for a couple of hours. You know, using your smarts for… erm, smart stuff?

I only mention all this, because Bill Maher is not only a very vocal supporter of weed smoking (something I gave up many years ago because it was literally trapping me in childhood and stopping me from facing my responsibilities), he’s also a massive New York Mets fan – something I can only assume started in his childhood. In 2012, he even went so far as to become a stakeholder of the club. As I understand it, the Mets play baseball (or as we call it in the UK ‘rounders’), which is a team game where individuals get paid millions of dollars to throw balls, hit balls, catch balls and run away from balls. Like many kids, I’d bet Maher dreamed that one day he might throw, hit, catch or runaway from balls on behalf of that team. It’s not uncommon. There are literally billions of kids all over the world right now with similar dreams. Deeply unrealistic dreams, with virtually no chance of coming true, but isn’t that what dreams are supposed to be?

I’m not here to say sport is for kids, that adults shouldn’t enjoy it, as that would be hypocritical, particularly as I enjoy it myself from time to time (not so much these days, I have responsibilities). My point is, in many ways, sport is no different from comics. Like comics, sport provides escapism, something to connects us to our childhood that we get to keep our whole lives. In childhood, sport teaches us to be healthy, play as part of a team and set personal goals. Comics, on the other hand, teach us more emotive, moral lessons about right and wrong, while allowing us to feed our creativity and share our love of the medium with others. In the pages of Marvel and DC comics, we’ve seen a lot of white males become heroes, but we’ve also seen women and people of colour given role models to aspire to – both on the page and on film. Elsewhere, publishers like Image Comics continue to push incredible ‘real world’ stuff like Ed Brubaker’s My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies and Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards. In fact, the latter actually deals with the toxicity of sport in a small town, and how it can ruin lives, cultivate hatred and breed intolerance.

Unfortunately, Maher sees comics as silly superhero stories where “a person who doesn’t have powers, gets them, has to figure out how they work, and then has to find a glowy thing.” And that’s fine, because he doesn’t read them, he just sees the movie posters. It’s a bit like me boiling baseball down to people being “paid millions of dollars to throw balls, hit balls, catch balls and run away from balls”. I’m sure baseball is way more complex than that, but I’m not invested in it, so that’s what I see. For Maher, it’s not “a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important”. I’m not sure Trump has ever really expressed an interest in comics myself, but if we’re going to make unsubstantiated claims about the likes and dislikes of Trump supporters, wouldn’t it be a safer to assume they’re more likely to watch baseball at the weekend than pick up a copy of Ms. Marvel?   

Maybe Maher was just stirring up publicity for his TV show. If he was, it was a pretty tasteless and uninformed move, but it worked. For me though, all his comments do is shine a humiliating light on a man who is not only desperately out of touch, but willing to speak out on things he knows nothing about in a desperate bid for relevance. He is, frankly, the guy in my school class waving around a Batman comic and crying: “Ewwwwww! This is babyish!!” As comic book fans though, we learned an important lesson about those people as we grew into adulthood. We learned they’re usually the ones who quickly find that their best years are behind them.

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