Oh God, What Is It This Time?
The Internet has an upset tum-tum again. This time it's because Bill Maher has said some mean things about comic book fans. With tone-deaf timing, Maher picked the passing of revered comic book creator and legend Stan Lee to trash comic fans. First in November 2018 came his blog post on his own Real Time website - didn't even know he had a blog, did you?
"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."
After fans sent him the requisite flame-back, Maher appeared on Larry King live a few days later and dug a trench where he stood:
So he clarifies he's not attacking Stan Lee, but the fandom.
Fade out, fade in: Bill Maher's Real Time returns after the first of the year with a brand new season, and by golly if he didn't throw some more gas on the comic-book-fan kindling:
Now, Bill's position is that comic books are for kids, as are cartoons, cards, figurines, Legos, and whatnot.
I don't think "just for kids" is the nut of the matter. I can kinda see where he's coming from, but his point is smothered under the handicap of not having the Present Author's analytical talent for mining out the bloody heart of the controversy and joyously devouring it. Have no fear, it's my time to shine.
By happenstance, we just wrote a week ago about toxic Internet cultures, that time being "male supremacy." And we have the other half of that same crappy coin here before us today:
The REAL Problem Is Toxic Fandom!
Get ready for a shocker: I'm a fan too. You wouldn't know that unless you read me extensively, however. Just on this site, I've nattered about:
- Star Wars and Star Trek
- Horror movies
- Black Mirror and scifi anthology shows
- Manga and its adaptations
- And to put the geekiest point on it: Magic: the Gathering
By way of establishing cred, I own tens of thousands of dollars in Magic: the Gathering cards. I play regularly at my local gaming store, under posters of Iron Man and Dragon Ball Z, sitting across from other dorks wearing Zelda shirts and Rick and Morty hats and whatnot, and we banter about the latest X-Men sequel or the upcoming Diablo III patch while my 4/5 zombie blocks somebody's 3/6 giant.
Didn't know this about me before? Good! Because that's my point: I collect my cards, I play my game, I have my geeky time with my geeky friends...
...AND THEN I SHUT UP ABOUT IT!!!
I don't go around evangelizing it, I don't think myself superior to everyone who doesn't play, I don't even consider myself superior to the less experienced players, I don't consider it particularly deep or enriching. It's a hobby to me, nothing more. I don't attack people for not liking Magic: the Gathering. I don't care if you think it's childish. I'll freely admit, it does have a childish aspect, while also still being far too expensive for any child and most adults to enjoy
Likewise, I read comics too, and manga, and watch cartoons and anime, and scifi movies and horror movies. Video games, I play the crap out of those! I might even wander into a convention once in awhile. I even published my own webcomic for five years (that thing's so old now it's decrepit!), the topic of which was devoted to geek culture.
Has everybody got that?
Now here's what else I do: I'm also a married father of four going on 26 years marriage. I also have a career. Along with the kiddie stuff, I've also read the big, heavy grown-up novels and watched the grown-up movies and been to stage plays and theater performances. I've also watched figure skating and ballet. I've also played chess, checkers, Go, poker, and backgammon.
Sure I've listened to punk rock and heavy metal and MTV - but also Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Handel, and Mozart. I can name about a dozen X-Men characters - and I can also name about a dozen computer programming languages. I have an equal ability to appreciate an art museum and a laser tag tournament. There's a time for Mountain Dew and there's a time for scotch on the rocks.
The point is not that anything is "just for kids"! The point is you file your taxes first, and then you can indulge yourself with Scooby-Doo cartoons over a bowl of Lucky Charms.
It's called "being a well-rounded person." It's called "having some perspective." Most defining of the point of this rant, it's called "not confusing fantasy with reality." In that way, I'm able to both be familiar with the intricacies of Studio Ghibli movies and yet there are no rooms in my house which look like this:
Whenever you're a fan of something to the point where you pull that thing over yourself to substitute for a personality, it's no longer about that thing. It's just an excuse for you to be an obnoxious prick. Toxic fanbases have been part of our vernacular for a while. Just about any cultural blog can reel off a list of fans they can't stand.
Toxic fanbases are what Bill Maher is referring to. Toxic fanbases are what the rest of us, including the deepest, truest fans, are sick of.
Sometimes the toxicity gets so bad that the creators themselves lash back against them. In fact, it gets worse than that...
The Point Is Being Able To Tell Reality From Fantasy!
You can make this mistake with any medium, after all, not just comic books.
Mark David Chapman shot John Lennon in 1980 and then calmly stood on the sidewalk reading The Catcher in the Rye until the police showed up. He claimed the novel as his manifesto and reason for killing Lennon. Mark David Chapman failed to distinguish reality from fantasy.
John Hinkley Jr. attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan in 1981 because he was obsessed with actress Jodie Foster after seeing her in the movie Taxi Driver. He thought the assassination would impress her. John Hinkley Jr. failed to distinguish reality from fantasy.
And then there's this asshole:
Yeah, remember him?
He was so into The Dark Knight that he actually believed he was the Joker, full stop. And then he went to a theater showing a Dark Knight sequel in 2012 and he shot the place up; 12 dead, 70 injured. His apartment was later found to be festooned with Dark Knight memorabilia and booby traps as if he expected Batman himself to show up. James Holmes also failed to distinguish reality from fantasy.
The Dark Knight brings us back to our story: Ironically enough, comic hack Rob Liefeld responded to the Bill Maher controversy just recently by challenging him to check out the works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, as if Maher is suddenly going to be converted by being exposed to the RIGHT comic books. Remember, Rob Liefeld is the guy who draws women like this:
...maybe not the best guy to defend toxic fanbases here. If you rounded up all the Liefeld fans, all the Alan Moore fans, and all the Frank Miller fans, you've gotten rid of 90% of the toxic fans in the world and probably a goodly percentage of the manbois we talked about last time too.
Is Any Of This The Fault Of Comic Books?
I've often agonized and soul-searched over this question:
How responsible is the artist for the toxicity of their fan base?
I'm prompted to say "none." Depending on a philosophical viewpoint, you could say that art is never responsible for the reactions of the beholder. Or you could say that intense hate-mongering, well, breeds hate.
At no point will you find people defending Alex Jones and Infowars; his outrageous, militant bigot fan base is blamed always squarely on him. On the other hand, not even a fool would say that Martin Scorsese directed Taxi Driver with the express intention of goading somebody into shooting Ronald Reagan. Between these two extremes, the line is drawn.
Where is it?
The Dark Knight kisses that line wherever it is. Frank Miller's interpretation of the Batman mythos is actually so dark and grim that you could come away with the message that the Joker is actually in the right.
Granted, only a feeble-minded psycho would take a movie made from a graphic novel and take it as a license for a mass spree killing. But those Alex Jones fans should know better than to take his blustering rhetoric seriously either, right?
Just remember it was Alan Moore who gave us these twerps:
This is no lone crazy nut interpreting a work of fiction as his life plan. This is a whole worldwide movement which Moore very much admitted to proudly spurring. The Guy Fawkes' mask movement - AKA 4chan's "Anonymous" - has become synonymous with ignorant, self-indulgent armchair activism, protests that actually harm otherwise noble causes by association, and worldwide criminal activity amounting to petty vandalism perpetrated by Millennial adult losers living in mommy's basement and living on chicken tendies.
So what's my answer?
Contrary to the standard blogger trope, when you see me put a question mark on a headline, it's because I genuinely don't know the answer. I can say this much:
Superheroes are nothing but a re-tread of mythical heroes and gods from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. There is no difference between Hercules and Batman; none between Hermes and Superman. Yeah, some details and backstory: whoopee.
If you can't see a little bit of Prometheus or Icarus in Spider-Man, or hell even in Bugs Bunny, you're missing out on that "it's important to be well-rounded" jazz I was espousing back there.
The superhero medium is an inherently limited one. The genre is, after all, based on simple moralism with good guys and bad guys; there's no room for advanced social debate in them no matter how much we try to cram into it.
There was a time when comics were constrained by the Comics Code Authority, a set of standards which dictated strict guidelines over their content, which goes to show that at some point, legally artists were forced to take some responsibility for the audience's reactions. It got abandoned at the turn of the century, and coincidentally the comics dark age started.
The fact that our comic book superheroes have evolved so far and so indelibly in a couple decades says scary things about Western culture. Batman used to be FUN, in fact, entertainment used to be FUN! Batman used to be campy and silly. Adults loved it just fine back then. Then the creators noticed "Whoops, some grown-ups in the audience, better murk this up!"
And the next thing you know, everything has to be GRIIIIMMM and DAAAAAARK and SERIOUUUUUS!!! It has to be so full of itself, it has to be so self-dignified.
That's actually a case where the artists perhaps took a bit too much responsibility for the audience reaction. Too many fedora-wearing neckbeards complained about getting beat up outside the comic store, so the creators decided to make comic books a million times more pompous and bombastic than Shakespeare on his windiest day, just so comic fans could brandish it and say "Don't you DARE make fun of me!"
Was abandoning the CCA a mistake?
I don't know. Certainly, graphic novels, underground comix, and manga across the Pacific weren't fettered by it. There was a line, a distinction drawn, between kids' entertainment and adult entertainment. Now, not so much.
In the end, it's probably most correct to say "We are all responsible for our own behavior."
Audience and artist alike. I read Spider-Man as a kid too. I respected Stan Lee, even outside the studio. I just didn't worship him as a god. I like Bill Maher too, even though I don't always agree with him. Which is funny, because we're back to yet another recent post of mine - comedians aren't responsible for their audience's reactions either.
Because you're not supposed to worship them like a god. You're not supposed to hold any art form up as a Bible, because a few centuries later it becomes one. Comics included.