On Saturday, six days after the death of Marvel comics creator and impresario Stan Lee, Bill Maher posted a short editorial on his website wondering what the fuss was about. Titled “Adulting,” the post slid in at under 300 words, about the length of an involved internet comment—and far less enlightening.
“The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning,” Maher began. “Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess... 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.”
The current interest in comics, Maher decreed, was due to the arrested development of the American public. Ivory-tower clowns had decided comics—could you believe this?—were sophisticated literature. “We’re using our smarts on stupid stuff,” Maher concluded. “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.”
Yawn. But as intended, the post has riled up the comics-adjacent internet. Many commenters on Maher’s site and on Facebook took great offense; comics creators on twitter made their displeasure clear.
There’s not a great deal to say about the editorial itself, because Maher doesn’t actually make much in the way of an argument. His two-line dismissal of Stan Lee is particularly tiresome. Lee was a genuinely interesting figure in his own right: both an effective writer and a huckster and salesman par excellence, who lived to see many of his co-creations up in lights, where he’d always thought they belonged. He was a wheeler and dealer, and had a bad habit of accepting credit that wasn’t his. But the mourning that accompanied Lee’s passing in the comics community was genuine, with a lot of smart people reckoning honestly with the man’s complicated legacy. (Spencer Ackerman here at The Daily Beast wrote a good example; Tegan O’Neill’s lucid, elliptical and funny piece at The Comics Journal is another.)
As is the way of these things, Maher observes that comics are for kids. This remains a sore point in the industry, and understandably so. In the late 1940s, mounting public hysteria around comics—fed by the work of psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham—led to the eventual formation of the Comics Code Authority, a censorship body that barred comics from discussing difficult or adult material of any kind. Horror, crime and science-fiction comics were hit particularly hard; superheroes, then a dwindling genre, squeaked through by being as inoffensive and child-friendly as possible—a state of affairs that began to be shaken up by people like Stan Lee and his colleagues at Marvel Comics in the 1960s.
Since then, the comics industry has steadily recovered and diversified. While modern comics have their business woes, they’re in the middle of a sustained renaissance outside of the big corporate companies, and within them as well. Forget the fact that superhero movies regularly make a billion dollars and comics adaptations are popping up everywhere in mass media—the simple fact of the matter is that, from webcomics to graphic novels, the medium has more cultural cachet and respect than it’s ever had. But the inferiority complex remains; comics aren’t just for kids anymore became a refrain in the 1980s, a cliché in the 1990s, and a joke in the 2000s. Kids hardly read mainstream corporate comics anymore in any case. Comics won! There’s really no need to go to the mat with the likes of Bill Maher about it; it’s an unedifying spectacle for everybody.
In fairness, Maher does drift against a useful observation: there is a problem in popular culture of adults invading or colonizing children’s media spaces, and children’s media being endlessly readapted for adults. The raw material of much of our current popular culture is mined from the toyetic substrate of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Yet this didn’t happen, as Maher claims, because “some dumb people got to be professors by writing theses with titles like Otherness and Heterodoxy in the Silver Surfer.” It happened in part because the Reagan administration stopped the Federal Trade Commission from regulating marketing aimed at children in 1981, which had the effect of creating shows designed purely to sell toys and other merchandise, and gave rise to the all-consuming merchandising blitzes we’re all familiar with today. The result has been the creation of a permanent, weaponized nostalgia, which companies like Disney continue to exploit to this day, endlessly repackaging our childhoods back to us. If the average American exists in a state of arrested development, capitalism and its standard-bearers in the culture industries share a lot of the blame.
But Maher doesn’t have an actual analysis to make here, for the simple reason that he clearly hasn’t given this a great deal of thought. This should not be a surprise: Bill Maher is a punishing provocateur, one whose stock-in-trade is a bone-deep smugness, mixed with a superior delight in the offense he causes. There was the time he mentioned the need to “civilize” Arab men. There was his 2008 characterization of Hillary Clinton (and by extension, all women) as “crying” to get their way, and the time he defended Paula Deen’s use of racial slurs before joking about Chris Brown “beating the shit out of her,” and of course the time he had fun with the topic of domestic abuse: “Stop acting surprised someone choked Tila Tequila! The surprise is that someone hadn’t choked the bitch sooner.” And who could forget the time in 2001 when he got in hot water for equating dogs with “retarded children,” or his own casual use of a racial slur in 2017?
Maher glories in the sort of dime-store Islamophobia, racism and misogyny common among online libertarians. If Maher is considered a liberal, it’s only because he occasionally makes fun of conservative Christians and Republican presidents he considers stupider than him. He springs instead from the sort of offhandedly libertarian, New Atheist ferment that values free speech over everything, but can never figure out anything interesting to say with it. His embrace of people like Jordan Peterson and Bret Stephens alone is a sign that we’re not dealing with an intellectual heavyweight here; his bro-down with Milo Yiannopoulos, alt-right flash-in-the-pan and fascist grifter, gives the game away as well.
There is thus a degree to which the outrage from the comics industry, while understandable and deeply felt, is also a bit silly. What else could they possibly expect? Bill Maher has always been this: a 13-year-old boy’s idea of world-weary debate, a man whose comedic sense got trapped in a bathroom stall in the 1980s, a knee-jerk “politically incorrect” reactionary who views everything but himself with a slathering of unthinking contempt. H.L Mencken he ain’t. Hell, as contrarians go, he’s barely even a J. Jonah Jameson. As a friend of mine remarked, the man’s a pizza cutter: all edge, no point.