American TV host Bill Maher hit the headlines recently with some controversial opinions about the death of Marvel legend Stan Lee. In an essay titled Adulting, Maher bemoaned the mass mourning for “a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess,” before recalling how, when he was a kid, “comics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures.”
It’s a point of view designed to elicit the exact response it received, from a man who by his own admission had never been a comic book reader. He is, of course entitled to that opinion. But had he bothered to speak to any of the millions of grown adults who devour comic books pics and all, he would know that the medium has far more to it than capes and catchphrases, and can in some instances be considered one of the finer art forms of our time. Here’s why.
They’ve historically been pretty progressive
You can accuse comics of many things – promoting unhealthy body shapes, misogyny, poor ethnic minority representation – but there are notable ways in which they’ve progressed the cultural conversation more than most comparable artforms.
It’s true to say that comics have their gems and their turkeys, but looking across the vast history, however, there are as many profound observations on the world made by Stan Lee and other comic book writers. While not the original intention, Marvel’s X-Men has come to be seen as a metaphor for the Civil Right Movement of the 1960s. Black Panther would present a hero of African descent in American culture years before cinema or television, offering a level of diversity both mediums are still catching up with. Captain America, initially a symbol of patriotic propaganda, has evolved over time to reflect society’s trust in its leaders. Iron Man battled alcoholism, Superman comics have dealt many times with grief, Green Lantern faced accusations of racial profiling. While their adventures may be fantastic, the emotions behind comics are often very real.
Comic books have also grown up with their readers
Sure, there are comics aimed at kids; there are also many that explore more adult situations in stories that were anything but child-friendly – and we’re not just talking about that one with Batman’s dick in it. British writer Alan Moore would produce several classics that deal with immensely serious subjects – deconstructing the superhero myth in Watchmen; reinventing The Joker in The Killing Joke; and creating a powerful political allegory in V For Vendetta, used as a symbol for anarchy to this day. Frank Miller would weave complex issues into stories such as The Dark Knight Returns; while Neil Gaiman’s ambitious mythology The Sandman proved so popular it made The New York Times Best Seller lists, alongside all the ‘Big-Boy books’. That’s all before we get to the countless political, satirical, and socially relevant stories that happen to use illustration. Would Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World be any more affecting a portrayal of adolescence with more words and fewer pictures?
Stan Lee’s creations promoted righteousness
So yes, politics and world affairs are important, but that doesn’t mean comic books can’t be. Far from being a sign that society is ‘dumb’, Stan Lee’s death showed how good art (yes, art) can touch many lives. On social platforms that see daily wars of words over politics, culture, and even the colour of a particular dress, the consensus on all sides seemed to be sadness that Stan Lee had passed, and gratitude for what he had brought us.
Like a great song, these stories can help us navigate our way through life, Just as we can listen to the bands of our youth through the years without jettisoning them for more ‘grown up’ music, our love of comic books provides a link to the past and a way of dealing with the present. More than inspire people to watch a movie, the creations of Stan Lee and others inspired people to live better lives, and even to ‘adult’ better than they might have.