Professional curmudgeon and Real Time host Bill Maher enraged vast swaths of the comics community Saturday with a blog post that referenced the death of Stan Lee, arguing briefly that his cultural importance is over-inflated given the entertainment icon’s origins in a medium the comedian essentially deemed infantile. I suppose the kneejerk vitriol on social media spouted over Maher’s repudiation of a beloved, famed figure still being mourned and an entire entertainment medium is to be expected, but my reaction was thus:
Maher has made a career out of complaining. That’s not a criticism; that’s his schtick, and it’s sustained him as a media figure for decades. Perhaps the juxtaposition of such a negative voice slamming a recently passed embodiment of enthusiasm and optimism is part of the problem. But Maher (and his writers on his show) work daily to find things to gripe about. While there’s certainly no shortage of political and cultural developments that ought to spark concern and criticism, they no doubt find themselves scrambling to cover new topics, to diversify the conversation and to remain topical. Stan Lee’s death was topical, and this is what Maher came up with.
I agree it was short-sighted, ill-informed and perhaps even a little insensitive (though sensitivity isn’t exactly Maher’s brand). But it reflects, probably, Maher’s perception of comics and culture. So what if his concept of pop culture is outdated? He’s wrong. Maher is often wrong about a lot of things. He’s right about others. He’s just churning this stuff out as part of his job, the unwritten description of which is to piss people off, to spark outrage.
What I find most puzzling about the outcry is that it’s over a blog post. This wasn’t a segment from “New Rules” from his show or a crack in his monologue. The visibility of the blog post was staggeringly low as compared to his HBO program. Comics fans and professionals railing on about a three-paragraph commentary likely tossed off during a commercial break in whatever the comedian was watching at the time has done little more than boost its signal, to spread Maher’s “message,” such as it is, to a wider audience. He sneezed on a tissue, and hundreds grabbed it and wiped their keyboards with it. Maher infected you.
The pushback against Maher’s post didn’t counter his argument, because the debate wasn’t necessary. We live in a world today in which people who don’t read comics know what Watchmen is, know who Harvey Pekar was. The comics community is fighting a battle with Maher that it already won; the medium has achieved relevance and acceptance, albeit at a time when its audience, at least in western society, is at its smallest.
What the reaction to Maher’s words has revealed is our continued insecurities. Despite the cultural and commercial successes of comics in recent years, consumers of and creators in the medium had a defensive, over-the-top reaction that belies a lingering, secret shame of something we love, a sense from years ago that we had to hide a passion for something deemed nerdy, childish and silly by the mainstream. While some, like Maher, still hold that perception of comics, it’s certainly not the pervasive attitude anymore.
Maher needs to let go of his outdated thinking about comics, but so do many who love the medium.