Do Comic Books Matter?
The rise of the 19th Century marked the rise of industrial giants in the west. The old world, one of rural agrarians whose most important tool was their backs was replaced with a vast network of human-operated machinery. Things were complicated in the 20th Century by the addition of a new type of individual: The motorist. Americans and Europeans (and later others) could now zip around their continents at unprecedented speeds on a whim. It was this, as much as anything else, which led to the success of the German blitzkrieg strikes upon Western Europe during the Second World War. Atomic power followed shortly thereafter—which was undoubtedly the defining reality of the second-half of the 20th Century. Since the turn of the millennium, the world has shifted again. Broadband internet and the smartphone have infiltrated society at an impressively deep level. Information is now disseminated with a rapidity that could only have been dreamt of even fifty-years ago.
Despite these revolutions, however, humanity remains relatively unchanged. We endure the same moral and existential difficulties. The dilemmas of our foremothers and forefathers remain our own. This is perhaps one of the reasons why the death of an iconic artist, particularly one responsible for several elements of a widespread cultural mythos, is so defining an event. Talking head Bill Maher raised quite a storm over the past year with his comments about the death of comic book legend Stan Lee, none of which were particularly affirming. Responses to Maher’s response felt, at the time, to be almost uniformly negative. Mark Hughes, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, encapsulated much of the public feeling in his critique of Maher’s soapbox rant: “Maher bizarrely mocks the belief that superhero movies are like mythology, either because he's simply really that ignorant of the history and themes of comic books and/or mythology, or he knows but feigns ignorance because it just makes it easier (i.e. lazier) to mock fans while they mourn an artist who inspired them”. Hughes went on to eviscerate Maher’s persona as much as his comments about the deceased Lee, making for entertaining reading. Clearly, Maher did not gain a fan at Forbes.
The question remains valid, though, and the jury is far from out on whether comic books are really a vital part of the American mythos. At least, so individuals like Maher would have us believe. One of the inherent weaknesses of individuals like Maher, who sits squarely on the left with regards to fiscal policy, is that they miss out on the insights into human identity offered by capitalism. For fiscal (though not social) conservatives, following the box office is a matter of course. Assuming with Rousseau that ideas of property or appropriation are a devious lie, radical leftists are deprived of opportunities to watch the truths revealed by cash exchange. Happily, in recent years, this seems to be changing. Voices on the left seem to be increasingly tied to the large cultural industries, such as the Marvel franchise of comic books (and their film adaptations). This synthesis of the left’s concern for human well-being with the powerful economic engines of the sometimes less humanitarian right have produced a powerful new voice in western discussion of morality in the information age.
This new voice is preaching an old message: Human individuals should aspire to cosmic significance. This is a surprising development. In an age as impersonal as our own, renewed importance on our humanity (whatever that is) comes as something of a shock. Yet this is common to almost all of the major comic book mythologies which have thrived onscreen. Batman vs. Superman put to rest the debate whether it was the mortality of human beings or our spirituality that mattered. In the dual between the human Batman and the divine Superman, it was revealed that both were the scions of the same mother—Martha—and that their real foe ought to be radical ideologies that regard human life as worthless. There could be no better emblem for the threat of deterministic science than Lex Luthor.
Unless, of course, it is Thanos. The notion of cleansing human beings en masse, as though they were some sort of cancer, his now the prime concern of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even when its primary conceit is conflict between heroes, Marvel has elevated the value of human beings. The battle between Captain America and Iron Man in Civil War, in which “Cap” stands up for the individual rights of Bucky while Iron Man embodies the rule of civil law, marked one such critical moment. In painting Captain America in a more positive light than his opponent, Marvel signaled to the world its rejection of collectivist thinking. For Marvel, the individual matters. Judging from the incredible sales figures of films like Black Panther and Infinity War, they are on to something.
In the end, this is why Maher seems to out of touch. Both progressive ideals (dating all the way back to the Wilson Presidency) and neoconservative notions (which have been around in the great number since the Cold War) are becoming irrelevant in the information age. Hughes wrote scathingly of Maher that, “Of course, there are always small-minded, uninformed people who insist this or that particular type of art they don't personally enjoy isn't really art at all”. Of course, in traditional lingo this is hardly all that damning. It sounds like something a young woman or man in high school might say. Probably because it is. In an age of constant availability of information, ignorance is far less forgivable than in times past.
Yet worst of all is an entrenched ignorance, one that set its roots in the soil and dug deep. Maher lambasted the work of a cultural icon responsible for some of the most widely appreciated understandings of personal value, responsibility, and the potential of life. When he did, he did not upset some basement-dwelling thirty-eight-year old white males. Rather, he revealed that he has lost the plot. The world has moved on to a different (and, in many ways, returned to an older) view of what is laudable than his own.
Am I an avid comic book reader? No. In fact, I've never actually owned a comic book. And that testifies, in a sense, to the power of the graphic novel as a format. I've never bought one--but I know dozens of characters that sprang from their pages. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Hulk, Captain Marvel, these are our ideals. And in an age of cynicism, a good hero is hard to find. Maybe that's because you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain...
Now where did I hear that?
Hughes, Mark. “Why Bill Maher Doesn’t Understand Stan Lee Or Comic Books.” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/markhughes/2019/02/01/why-bill-maher-doesnt-understand-stan-lee-or-comic-books/. Accessed 18 Feb. 2019.