Saturday, January 26, 2019

Bill Maher And The Ruffled Capes of Comic Book Fandom: A Response

On the January 25, 2019 episode of REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER, Bill took off on his "New Rules" segment to double-down on his own reaction to the passing of Stan Lee back in November 2018, by responding to the collective geek culturati and their angry response towards him.  As you might recall, he had made some dismissive statements best summarized as akin to another "Bill," William Shatner, and his infamous skit on SNL where he told a bunch of Star Trek fans in costume to "grow up."  And, as the online geek culture is anything if not predictable, the response to his comments have been sharply critical.  Nobody likes being told that something they like is childish, just as people on the Right politically don't like it when Bill mocks them for supporting the current president.

My purpose of writing this is not to attack Bill Maher or to defend Bill Maher.  My purpose in writing this is to actually look at his entire statement, so we have full context, and respond accordingly with an attempt to see whether he has valid points buried within his mockery or whether he's just going for cheap laughs at the expense of others.

Here's the actual video clip of the 6-minute segment if you want to watch it:

I've transcribed the entire segment below and will put Bill's words in red, like Jesus's words in the Bible (or Superman's trunks if you prefer), to more easily distinguish between his words and mine.

...and finally to every person on social media who's asked me since November, "Bill what do you have to say about Stan Lee?" and every paparazzi outside a restaurant who's still shouting at me "Bill! What about the Stan Lee thing?"
 Okay, your day has come.
 Tonight's editorial is about Stan Lee, who, if you missed it, died in November and a few days later I posted a blog that was in no way an attack on Mr. Lee but took the occasion of his death to express my dismay at people who think comic books are literature and super-hero movies are great cinema and who, in general, are stuck in an everlasting childhood. 

This is an important distinction for him and it should be to all of us.  He was not disrespecting Stan "The Man."  He was, however, intentionally disrespecting adults who read comic books and/or enjoy super-hero movies.  I'm not going to focus in on the irony of his attitude towards super-hero movies given that he was more than willing to take a paycheck for a cameo in one.  That's an immediate goto, apparently, within much of the geek bloggers and commentators, but it has no merit as far as I'm concerned.  Appearing in a super-hero movie, to Bill, would obviously be no different than appearing in any other "kids' movie."  As he makes plain and clear, he sees a hard line distinction between what is children's entertainment and what is adult entertainment.  This is a topic we will return to throughout this article and we will discuss the merits, or lack thereof, when it comes up.

I think there are two key issues that reveal a certain attitude in Bill.  The first is the conflation of the idea of "comic books are literature" as the equivalent of "super-hero movies are great cinema."  The second is the lump sum opinion that people who think like that are "stuck in an everlasting childhood" and the implication that this is a prima facie bad thing.

To the first point, there is certainly an elitist snobbery in his perspective.  And that's not meant as a criticism, necessarily, but an observation that many have made over the years about Bill Maher.  To be fair, this is part of what makes him entertaining as both a comedian and as a political commentator.  He positions himself within a persona of someone who consistently looks down his nose at others with a knowing smirk of superiority.  I believe this is more shtick than something actual about him, but I do not know him personally and cannot say with certainty.  But I do think I'm right.  So, any statement he makes like this has to be taken within the context of his role as a comedian who intentionally dips his toe over the lines of common propriety for reasons of triggering emotional discomfort in those listening.  He also exposes his own willful ignorance about comic books in that he does not know, or does not care to be informed beyond his limited exposure, that comics at this point is a medium of illustrated storytelling that has achieved much more than merely super-heroes beating up bad guys, even if that is what the general public associates it with.  But his unwillingness to even entertain the notion that it might legitimately be something more than what he already believes it to be is the same sort of closed-mindedness that he criticizes in others.

To the second point, that same elitist snobbery informs his derision of a group of people for being, as he puts it, "stuck in an everlasting childhood."  I think I know what he means here.  I think he means that adults who still like super-heroes have never grown up or matured.  There is a germ of something there that is worth someone exploring (not me and certainly not him) as to why, if you are a "grown up," that you would (A) still primarily entertain yourself with the most simplistic narrative form of "good guy vs. bad guy" type of fiction rather than something more nuanced and applicable to the real world, and (B) get so upset by a comedian making fun of you for liking what you like.

Bragging that you're all about the Marvel Universe is like boasting that your mother still pins your mittens to your sleeves.

Yes, this is a joke.  But, it's also a mean-spirited and belittling joke that is especially demeaning when applied to an entire group of people that Bill, by his own admission, does NOT know and does NOT care to know, and does NOT care to learn about.  It's not even a clever joke as it is essentially just another variation of the "lives in your parents' basement" type of joke.  It's swinging at a tee ball rather than actually trying to hit a fast ball.  It's lazy.

You can, if you want, like the exact same things you liked when you were 10 but if you do—you need to grow up.

Bill's elitist, or superior, persona dangles the possibility that you have the RIGHT to like the same things you liked when you were 10, but then he uses that just to smack you across the face with a demand that you "grow up."  The reason that rubs people the wrong way is that no matter who you are, whether an adult or a child, telling someone to "grow up" is about as effective and helpful as telling your significant other to "calm down" in the middle of an argument.   Basically, Bill is just posturing at this point.  He's performing for his audience and the other celebrities on the stage with him, who he feels are fellow intellectuals and will join him in his mockery.

That was the point of my blog. I'm not glad Stan Lee is dead—I'm sad you're alive!

This is arguably a funny one-liner, but the pointed truth within it is that he does not care who Stan was or what Stan did and this is the source of his smugness in this context.  The fact that he doesn't know anything about Stan somehow inexplicably makes him conduct himself as if he is better than those who do.  The reason why this is troublesome is that it is the same basic elitist bigotry that magnifies divisions in our culture rather than the non-judgmental acceptance of an enlightened society.  It is troublesome because, in his ignorance, he's assuming he knows enough about a certain group to make a judgment call even though he's made it clear he does NOT know much at all about the group he is criticizing. And he's taking the moment of his opportunity as a celebrity with a bully pulpit to essentially...bully these people.  This is much like the sort of verbal behavior that is construed as bullying in any other context.

And, by the way, if someone says you're being childish and you react by throwing a tantrum—you're not iron man you're 'iron-y' man.

He is 100% correct here.  A tantrum just proves his point and ends any possibility of broadening his mind. You don't get any further than the South- and North-going Zax if you're just going to hurtle insults back and forth.

Well, let me tell you, people were pissed about this post.
I wasn't even aware that I had ruffled so many capes until I saw that 40,000 Twittefollowers unfollowed me like that!
To which I say 'good riddence!'
Follow Yogi Bear!

Yes.  He thinks it's funny to dismiss comic book fans with a reference to Yogi Bear.  So what?  Seems pretty....I don't know....childish?

Director Kevin Smith accused me of taking a shot when no shots are necessary.
Except, again, my shot wasn't at Stan Lee. It was at, you know, grown men who still dress like kids!

Really? Bill's most strident and personal criticism of someone is that they dress like a kid?

First of all, this elitism problem that Bill is exhibiting smacks more about a larger societal problem going on and that is of adults who arbitrarily ascribe notions of maturity to things as insignificant as hair styles and clothing choices.  If we're really aspiring to a society in which we are judged by our character and by the merits of our achievements, then I would expect that the manner in which you dress yourself only matters insofar as you are clean.  If a childish idiot dresses in a suit and tie, but conducts himself like we expect an adult to be, that does not make him any less childish or less of an idiot.  Look at the president as an example of that one.  Clothing is not an indicationof maturity but may be rather a reflection of authenticity or inauthenticity.  If the way you dress is a reflection of, and expression of, who you are inside, then I don't see any problem with the way Kevin Smith dresses or anyone else. And shame on Bill Maher for using his bully pulpit to shame Kevin over something so subjective and silly.  Doing something like that is childish.  Bill needs to grow up, I think.

One commenter said that Stan Lee 'has inspired children to believe in something bigger than them' and then added 'Congrats you're a cunt on the same level that Ann Coulter is a cunt!'
Other people tweeted things like 'I learned about social justice and racial tolerance by reading comic books.'
Okay, but now you have pubic hair—read James Baldwin, read Toni Morrison, read Michael Eric Dyson.
Even a book as dumb as the Bible gets this: 'When I was a child I spoke as a child; I understood as a child; I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things' . . . including my X-Men bedsheets!

Bill keeps hitting this same drum but he's missing the point.  What are the "childish things" that the Bible was speaking to?  I would say the Bible was not speaking about putting away your toys as much as it was speaking about putting away your petty judgments of others, your petulant stubborness, your unwillingness to understand others, your inclination to pick on others who are different than you.   Within that interpretation, I would say the admonition is to Bill to put away his "childish things" and "grow up"—in other words, stop demeaning others simply for enjoying the life they have in the way that they choose to.

Can we stop pretending that the writing in comic books is so good?
Oh please, every super-hero movie is the same thing: a person who doesn't have powers gets them; has to figure out how they work; and then, has to find a glowy thing!Justice League—glowy thing. Iron Man—glowy thing. Spider-Man—glowy thing. Captain America—glowy thing. Glowy thing! Glowy thing! Glowy thing!

Here is a prime example of Bill conflating comic books with super-heroes and with super-hero movies in particular.  They are connected but they are not the same thing.  What he's criticizing here, in the guise of demeaning adults who like movies with super-heroes in them, is the formulaic storytelling of Hollywood and the inability to break from the established format.  This is a totally valid criticism.  But it is a criticism that can be extended to many more genres of films than simply super-hero films.  You know what the "glowy thing" is?  That's what Alfred Hitchcock called the "McGuffin" and it is in nearly every popular movie in history.   This is not a problem found solely within super-hero films.  This is just Bill looking for something to mock, but it's a logical fallacy to isolate one group like this for criticism while ignoring the fact that it is a general problem with an entire industry.

And again there's nothing wrong with a man writing comic books.
There is something wrong with adults thinking they're profound.
The folks at Stan's company, Team Stan, wrote an open letter to me and said "You have a right to your opinion that comics are childish and unsophisticated. Many said the same about Dickens Steinbeck Melville and even Shakespeare."
No they didn't!
No! No one ever said that!
No one ever said "King Lear" or "Moby Dick" was childish and unsophisticated.if you ever read a book without pictures you'd know that!
Team Shakespeare should write YOU an open letter!
Yes, Howard the Duck...Hamlet—same diff!
"To thine own self be true" meet "Hulk smash!"Comics are for kids! That's why they sell them next to the 'Pokey Man' cards and not on the aisle with the condoms and the lube!

Okay. Fair point UP to a point.  Yes, the vast amount of super-hero comics are anything BUT "profound."  And, yes, those of us within the geek culture probably should stop pretending that they are.  That's not to say that over the course of decades in which millions of super-hero stories have been told that there have never been any "profound" stories.  But from a generalized standpoint, comic books—super-hero comics particularly—are a hack production churned out within a proven simplistic formula.  Nobody is out there arguing the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew are "profound literature" and we may want to stop expecting everyone else in the world to treat Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN or Grant Morrison's INVISIBLES as "profound literature."

They are certainly very good comics and have merit, but it is a stretch to elevate them beyond the level of some of the best that monthly comic books have produced.

Even those writers who have elevated the super-hero genre are still trapped within the limits of the medium and the culture that surrounds it.  We may occasionally get an exceptionally well-written Batman or Superman story, but to rise to the level of profundity?  Highly unlikely.  What tends to happen is that we project profundity onto our comics as a way of justifying to ourselves their worth as something more than shiny baubles of nostalgia that we cling to.  And I do not say that with any hint of criticism of myself or of anyone else.  But I do think it is a more objectively accurate statement.

 And by that same token, I'm going to say that there are exceedingly few TV shows, books, and films that truly deserve to be labeled as "profound."  Fans like to point to graphic novels like BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS by Frank Miller and WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons as great examples of super-heroes as literature.   Perhaps they are.  However, I'm going to disagree by saying that in my opinion, between those two, WATCHMEN comes the closest to achieving that designation. It may still miss the mark, though, because its entire conception and execution is intentionally a commentary on the super-hero story form from within the form and for fans of super-heroes who are maturing.  It is a deconstruction of the super-hero genre, but by being integrally a part of that very same genre, it forces itself into that level that does not quite achieve the designation of true literature.

But that's probably for experts in academia to debate.

In terms of comic books that I personally believe are actually profound, there are a few that I own, but I would point you to just one from 2011:  HABIBI by Craig Thompson.  No super-heroes in this Islamic fairy tale but it is as much literature as Shakespeare or Melville.  The blending of words and art are integral to the reading experience and puts the lie to the idea that no comic books can be profound literature.

However, Bill's criticism here smacks of the same sort of thing you hear from adults who can't find any way to muster an interest in an animated film because "it's a cartoon" and "cartoons are for kids."  That's a willfully ignorant point of view.  I cannot stand willful ignorance.

I'm sorry, but if you are an adult playing with super-hero dolls—I'm sorry, I mean 'collectible action figures'—why not go all the way and drive to work on a big wheel?

Cheap shot.  Not worth addressing. As with any cheap shot, it speaks more of the one who says it than the target.

Grown-ups these days, they cling so desperately to their childhood that when they do attempt to act their age they have a special word for it now..."adulting!""Hey world, look at me! I just made my own eye appointment"—hashtag adulting! "Eating vegetables"—adulting! "Today I wiped my own ass! I guess I'm turning into my dad!"
Marriages have been destroyed because the husbands—adult men—can't stop playing video games!
When your wife wants to have sex and you can't come to bed because you're about to level up in Fortnite, don't be surprised when your relationship does this:  GAME OVER!

Another fair point here.

And this is why Bill's commentary and criticism is worth hearing.

We live in a time where a good many of us are explicitly embracing our inner child and the question is whether we have allowed the inner child to take over.  Is this good or bad?

I think that the answer to the problem here is that everyone needs to achieve a balance.  If you do not achieve a balance between your grown-up outside and your inner child then you run the risk of becoming an angry, jaded adult elitist who frowns upon anyone who does not fit your perception of what it means to be an adult OR you wind up being an adult who cannot process and manage those things that adults must handle.

Dr. Stephen Diamon, Ph.D. wrote something that describes Bill Maher and his reaction to folks like Kevin Smith when he wrote: "'Grown-ups' are convinced they have successfully outgrown, jettisoned, and left this child—and its emotional baggage—long behind. But this is far from the truth.

In fact, these so-called grown-ups or adults are unwittingly being constantly influenced or covertly controlled by this unconscious inner child. For many, it is not an adult self directing their lives, but rather an emotionally wounded inner child inhabiting an adult body. A five-year-old running around in a forty-year-old frame. It is a hurt, angry, fearful little boy or girl calling the shots, making adult decisions. A boy or girl being sent out into the world to do a man's or woman's job."

As with most bullies, what the bully is most critical of tends to be what he is jealous of.  Bill comes off here as someone who maybe actually wishes, or needs, to reconnect with his inner child but he is afraid of what others might think—which is sad.

I think most of us recognize the obvious when it comes to the geek fan culture and that is that many of us are obsessive compulsive types and the attachment to these comics, toys, and games is not normal, or rather I should say...normative.  So why do we do it?  Is it that we are simply childish?  Are we unwilling to grow up?

For some of us....yes.

Let's not dance around it.

We all know people like this that use their collecting hobby as an excuse to avoid growing up.  And, unfortunately, these tend to be the loudest and most obnoxious of us.  These are the tantrum throwers.  These are the misogynists who bully female fans and pros online, for one example.  They are grown up babies who never matured and their emotional and intellectual reactions are stunted in childhood.

But for most of us this is not the case.  For Kevin Smith, this is not the case.  Jim Henson once said The most sophisticated people I know—inside they are all children."  I think that's the key here.

For us, Bill, we are adults who take our adulthood seriously but also enjoy life by remembering what it is like to be a child.  When we make a joke online that we are "adulting" we expect that everyone who reads that actually gets the self-aware joke in it—the wistfulness of what was and never will be again.  For any of us to live in the current zeitgeist where a malignant narcissist like Donald Trump is president and "white power" is a thing again and social media attacks without mercy anyone for anything they may have ever said or done without any sense of compassion or allowance for personal growth or evolution—is it any wonder that we find comfort in memories attached to the safer and simpler days of our youth?  There are no adults playing with their dolls.  That's a mischaracterization, a caricature, of the collector culture.

There's much to criticize but if you're going to criticize, Bill, at least have the integrity to learn more about what you're criticizing.

In fact, if you open your mind, you might find that there's quite a bit that is exceptional within this "super-hero" culture than you are aware of.  There is a camaraderie within the best parts that you rarely find elsewhere.  There is wanton LACK of judgment and rather a culture of acceptance.  These are the people who give freely of their time and talents to volunteer at Children's Hospitals, just as one simple example, to bring a smile and a moment of awe and wonder to sick children.  These are people, overall, who read a lot more than just super-hero comics and your blanket insults demean you rather than them.

To sum up, Bill Maher does not know enough about comic books or the culture of comic book fandom for anyone to take his criticisms too seriously.  But if it really riles you up to hear his words, then I would challenge you to ask yourself whether there's a germ of truth, as applied to your own life, behind whatever pissed you off so much.

Socrates wrote "An unexamined life is not worth living."

We should all take a breath and examine our own lives and wherever there is room for improvement, we should take steps to do so.  One of the easiest ways to self-improve is to educate yourself about something before criticizing it.  I would hope Bill could do that rather than reflexively insult and mock those he doesn't understand.

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