The Value of Comic Books
Like many comic book fans around the world, I was devastated by the loss of Stan Lee, the godfather of Marvel Comics (and arguably of post-1960s comic books in general), in November at the age of 95. In terms of the impact on American pop culture, the loss of a creative force like Lee can only be compared to the loss of someone like Walt Disney. While 95 years is certainly a great amount of time to have Lee’s prolific presence, his imagination, and his significant talents around, I think what struck people (including myself) the most was that Lee’s passing symbolized the end of an era. Here was the poster child for not just comic books, but someone who promoted the inherent value of reading and staying engaged with them. From his famous editorial quips in the pages of Marvel comic books to his constant cameos in big-screen blockbusters based on his work, Lee was the comic book medium’s defender and idol. He was not only promoting comic books but also their inherent significance in the lives of Americans everywhere, particularly for children who constituted comics’ key demographic for many decades.
However, losses like Lee are always used as a soapbox by pundits seeking to have an irreverent response as fans and admirers process their grief. This time, the contrarian response to Lee’s passing has been publicly led by HBO talk-show host and professional asshole Bill Maher. It all began when Maher posted a blog shortly after Lee’s death, saying in part:
The guy who created Spider-Man and the Hulk has died, and America is in mourning. 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…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. But then twenty years or so ago, something happened – adults decided they didn’t have to give up kid stuff. And so they pretended comic books were actually sophisticated literature…I’m not saying we’ve necessarily gotten stupider. The average Joe is smarter in a lot of ways than he was in, say, the 1940s, when a big night out was a Three Stooges short and a Carmen Miranda musical. The problem is, we’re using our smarts on stupid stuff. 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.
Maher’s comments received immediate backlash, with many calling his comments ill-informed and insensitive. Rather than backing down or apologizing, Maher doubled down on his criticism of Lee and comic book culture on his January 24th episode of his HBO late-night talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher. During the final segment called “New Rules,” Maher singled out his segment on Lee to be the concluding editorial that usually lasts much longer than the quick jokes in the rest of the segment.
Smugly assuring viewers who had asked him to respond to the backlash against his Lee post that “[their] day has come,” Maher claims that his blog was “in no way an attack on Mr. Lee,” but that he “took the occasion of his death to express my dismay at people who think comic books are literature, and superhero movies are great cinema, and who, in general, are stuck in an everlasting childhood.”
Maher goes on, continuing to claim that his gripe was not with Lee, but with people not “growing up” out of reading comic books. When this comes up again, Maher asks his audience “can we stop pretending that the writing in comic books is so good?” Despite comic books being the target of that question, he then goes into a rant about how the plot of every comic book movie is the same. He then goes onto to say that there is something wrong about adults who think comic books are “profound.”
In so doing, Maher casually and off-handedly dismissed the canon of the great comic and graphic storytelling accomplishments, from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (considered the gold standard of superhero stories, and included on Time magazine’s top 100 novels of the 20th century) to Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which won a Pulitzer Prize for its unique depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust), from Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated animated film) to Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (which was adapted into a Tony-award winning musical). By not even attempting to acknowledge the accomplishments of the medium, Maher looks even pettier and more ill-informed than ever.
Moreover, his comments about superhero movies seem to dismiss classics like Superman (considered so significant that it was added to the prestigious Library of Congress National Film Registry more than a year ago) and The Dark Knight (universally applauded and beloved, with an Oscar-winning performance from the late Heath Ledger), and more recent films like Logan (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominee) and Black Panther (winner of multiple Oscars and a Best Picture nominee). By dismissing all this as “kid’s stuff,” Maher commits a logical fallacy in order to claim that there is no value, artistic or otherwise, to be gleaned from such an immature medium. Maher then bemoans the fact that these readers are reading comic books and not, say, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, an ultimate display of his inherent elitism and snobbery when it comes to the mere idea of taking comic books seriously.
To his credit, Maher is best when he is focused on politics. I always saw him more as a counterweight to a conservative comedian like Dennis Miller, a liberal know-it-all who is as funny and insightful as he is insufferable. In fact, despite not having tuned in for years, I (until recently, for reasons you probably suspect) have been watching Maher’s monologues in the Trump era, and was relieved to see that he is ever-resolute, funny and vigilant in his quest to mock those on the right even though they’re the ones in power. Indeed, Maher keeps the “equal-opportunity offender” mantle that Jon Stewart and the South Park guys first coined by being critical of the left at times, particularly when it comes to political correctness and identity politics. But, when Maher moves on from politics to other topics, say, religion (as in his condescending, talking-down, insufferable pseudo-documentary Religulous), or, in this case, popular culture, he loses his biting wit and replaces it with the lamentations of the most detestable guy in a freshman intro-to-philosophy class. Maher’s nihilism, when applied to politics, is funny, because politics is nothing if not cynical. When this logic is applied to things people are actually passionate about, it seems less like a court jester mocking the week’s events and more like a lecturer bragging about how much smarter, wiser and more insightful he is than you.
But, for a so-called “public intellectual” of Maher’s stature, particularly one associated with the left and liberal values, he seems quick to forget that the incendiary rhetoric he employs in response to Lee’s passing and comic book culture greatly resemble that which resulted in the heavy censorship of comic books more than 60 years ago. In the era of McCarthyism and Cold War-paranoia, very few topics were perceived as grave of a threat as juvenile delinquency. From Holden Caulfield to “Gee, Officer Krupke” in West Side Story, the art of that era is saturated with rebellious, post-war American youth complaining that adult forces had it out for them, and this was not unfounded. It is in this stew of cultural forces, political realignment, and a newly-empowered, post-war American youth market that emerged Dr. Fredric Wertham. Wertham was a noted psychologist: his friends included Sigmund Freud and H.L. Mencken; his patients included Zelda Fitzgerald and Ethel Rosenberg; he was the sole psychiatric consultant to the U.S. Senate Subcommittee for the Study of Organized Crime; his research on the benefits of integration was used by Thurgood Marshall in support of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. However, Wertham is most infamously remembered for literally writing the book on comic book censorship, Seduction of the Innocent, in 1954. Wertham claimed that comic books led to decreases in childhood intelligence and literacy, promoted homosexuality (in the cases of Batman/Robin and Wonder Woman) or fascism (in the case of Superman), and exposed children to images and concepts that he found to be psychologically ruinous. He seemed entirely opposed to the idea of superheroism itself, saying in part, “is that the best we can do for children, that we teach them the Green Lantern will help?”
Today, Seduction of the Innocent is dismissed as essentially anti-comic book propaganda, with the writer Carol L. Tilley going as far to say that Wertham intentionally “manipulated, overstated, compromised, and fabricated evidence” in support of the claims in the book. One of Wertham’s claims, not dissimilar from those of Maher’s, was that “the comic book format is an invitation to illiteracy.” Later, he claims “our researches have proved that there is a significant correlation between crime-comics reading and the more serious forms of juvenile delinquency” without publishing said research or saying what exactly it was and how it was conducted. He refers to the comic book industry as “the Devil’s allies.” And like Maher, Wertham bemoans that children were reading Classics Illustrated instead of the classics themselves, saying that he had “never seen any good effects from comic books that condense classics.”
In the most egregious quote from the book, Wertham writes “I have sometimes indulged in the fantasy that I am at the gate of Heaven. St. Peter questions me about what good I have done on Earth. I reply proudly that I have read and analyzed thousands of comic books – a horrible task and really a labor of love…I have also read all the articles and speeches and press releases by the experts for the defense. ‘Okay,’ says St. Peter. ‘Come in! You deserve it!’” (Wertham was Jewish, and therefore did not believe in St. Peter, the Pearly Gates, or the Christian notion of Heaven generally. I also find it hilarious that he would have St. Peter use a word like “okay,” a word that came about many centuries after St. Peter’s time on Earth.)
Much of Wertham’s claims in the book were about more mature true-crime comic books that, while not primarily aimed at children, younger children could still certainly buy and read. While the case could be made that was indeed a problem, Wertham’s claims were so incendiary and led to such a moral panic that they resulted in the United States government getting involved. The United States Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (yes, a real thing that existed in the 50s) convened a hearing about comic books, and humiliatingly interrogated many people associated with the industry. In response, the government suggested the formation of what ultimately became the Comics Code Authority, which is considered by many (myself included) to among the most egregious acts of censorship ever imposed on American soil. This included that good had to triumph over evil in every issue (meaning if a bad guy was introduced, by the time the comic ended, he had to be behind bars). Depictions of such fantasy and horror tropes such as vampires, werewolves, ghouls and zombies were all banned. Also in the rules were provisions that said things like “excessive use [of slang and colloquialisms] should be discouraged and, wherever possible, good grammar shall be employed,” or “suggestive posture is unacceptable,” or that “the treatment of live-romance stories shall emphasize the value of the home and the sanctity of marriage…passion or romantic interest shall never be treated in such a way as to stimulate the lower and baser emotions.” The industry tried its best to adapt, but there were casualties, most notably EC Comics, the original publisher of Tales from the Crypt, which ceased operation shortly after the Seduction of the Innocent scandal. (It wasn’t a total loss, as the staff moved on, they ultimately found bigger success with Mad magazine. As Alfred E. Neuman would say, “What, me worry?”)
Stan Lee himself once famously rebuked the authority of the Comics Code Authority. Lee, after being asked by the government (of all things) to create an anti-drug storyline, wanted to do it featuring his most famous creation, Spider-Man. The Comics Code Authority banned any depiction of any drug for any reason whatsoever. Lee requested an exception, and he was denied one by the CCA. The Amazing Spider-Man #96 became not only the first major comic book to deal with the issue of drugs, but the first issue from either Marvel or DC to be published without the seal of approval of the Comics Code Authority since its inception. The issue sold like gangbusters, resulting in a huge blow in the CCA’s credibility. (They later revised their rules, in part because of the issue’s success.) DC followed suit very shortly, publishing an anti-drug story starring Green Arrow mere weeks after Spider-Man had beat them to the punch. This began the CCA’s slow but inevitable death, culminating in Marvel leaving it in 2001, followed by its eventual complete dissolution in 2011. In an interview in 1998, Stan Lee had this to say of the incident: “The Code mentioned that you mustn’t mention drugs and, according to their rules, they were right. So I didn’t even get mad at them then. I said, ‘Screw it’ and just took the Code seal off for those three issues.” He added “I never thought about the Code when I was writing a story, because basically I never wanted to do anything that was to my mind too violent or too sexy. I was aware that young people were reading these books and had there not been a Code, I don’t think that I would have done the stories any differently.”
I met former DC Comics president Paul Levitz and acclaimed comic writer/artist Dan Jurgens for an event celebrating the 80th anniversary of Superman at the Library of Congress last year. (That’s right, Bill Maher, Superman is considered so significant to the American zeitgeist that the nation’s government and library chose to honor his birthday.) I mentioned Seduction of the Innocent and the Comics Code Authority to them, noting the irony of celebrating the comic book medium’s most famous character in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, the seat of government that so heavily censored it. I could tell from the looks on their faces that the collective pain of those events and what they did to the industry, even if it didn’t necessarily interfere with their own respective careers, was still there. For someone who supposedly values free speech as much as Maher, you would think he would at least be aware of how rhetoric similar to the one he has been employing was used to crush all dissent and bring an entire media industry to align with what the government thought it should be in one of 20th century America’s most-embarrassing political and social hysterias. (It’s no coincidence that this all happened at the height of McCarthyism.)
When Maher goes on and on about how nostalgia for comic book superheroes puts Americans in a sort of nationwide arrested development, I can’t help but remember Wertham employing similar logic and the incredible harm that did to artists, writers, creators, businesspeople, readers, aficionados, and fans. Despite being the medium of the day in the 40s (even Orson Welles openly admitted how much he read and loved comic books), comics went underground. It would be decades before comic books and the characters within came anywhere close to displaying the cultural dominance and ubiquity they once had precisely because of the damage that Wertham and the Comics Code Authority had wrought.
Stan Lee once said of Fredric Wertham that he “was a fanatic, pure and simple…his arguments were patently sophistic.” I would say the same of Bill Maher. History has proven just how wrong Wertham and his rhetoric were. I can only hope that, eventually, the same will be true of Maher and his.