Bill Maher is a comedian who has, on many an occasion, said things that ruffle the feathers of specific communities or beliefs. It’s what comedians do, which is to observe, to take apart society and lay our ugly truths out in a way that we cannot deny. Comedians offer biting criticism framed in jokes so that we are automatically humbled, our laughter being proof of a point well made. Like so many comedians, Maher doesn’t care if he offends people, because people taking offense to his observations are largely in denial of the basic ugly truths that comedy so often brings to the surface. It’s a tough gig, comedy is, and when done thoughtfully and with courage, it is capable of great change. It is a bonafide art form, and one of the most incredibly difficult things to do.
For all of its profundity, comedy is also rife with immaturity. Comedy legends like Bill Hicks, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor would often punctuate their socially poignant observations with poop humor, juvenile insults and funny faces. Every moment of high intellectualism was grounded by a dick joke.
The same could be said of all great art, the juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. Comic books are no different. A crusted bloodstain on a yellow smiley-faced pin. Men who wear underwear on the outside of their trousers and women in bustiers and heels trying to save the world from destruction. A 6-year old boy and his stuffed tiger friend discussing what is deemed high and low art.
Which is why Maher’s recent comments about comic books being a juvenile medium responsible for the infantilization of America is so incredibly puzzling. Here is a man who tells dick jokes for a living suddenly calling another art form childish, an attempt to strip comic books of any kind of artistic merit. Which we all know is unequivocally false.
Here’s the truth. No one should care what Maher thinks about comic books. He doesn’t create them. He doesn’t drive sales or make any creative decisions on who the Batman should battle next. He’s just a man with an opinion – a poor one at that – who is using his wider platform and legion of followers to make his opinion appear to be gospel. Irrespective of the obtuseness of his argument, there is no one next to him to directly challenge his beliefs, so he gets to bloviate uncontested and unchallenged. When provided such protections, trolls of Maher’s ilk feel safe to make the most ludicrous of assertions. There is false bravado afforded by the distance between his cameras and viewers at home; the internet is a security blanket of anonymity for most trolls. Communities are instantly found and echo chambers are hastily built. Maher proves that you don’t have to be a conservative to be a misguided mansplainer, all you need to do is sound like you know what you’re talking about, say it loud enough, and have a small community of loyal followers who will believe just about anything you say. In that way, Maher is no different than Trump or any other politician who peddle in the currency of lies.
Perhaps then the greater contributor to the infantilization of America is not comic books but rather the ability to proffer opinions disguised as facts. Alternative truths. Outright lies. The authority of these “facts” comes not from contextual research or lived experiences, but rather through the person who can say the “fact” the loudest, the fastest, and the cleverest. Children do this all the time, as do today’s adults, especially in social media. Veracity is gauged in likes, subscriptions, and comments. Sample sizes are irrelevant, all it takes is one person to devalue the steadfast beliefs of many. It’s like looking up a restaurant on Yelp. It might have 200 five-star reviews, but what is the one review you read? It’s the guy who gave it a two-star review. His is the one which will be most read, which will determine people’s decision-making process.
The few don’t speak for the many, but the few whose hubris remains unchecked can influence the many.
Another factor of the infantilization of culture is likely nostalgia, the pining for a time when things were purportedly “better.” We see it in the current lexicon, be they from the various “Gates” to nationalist movements talking about the “good ol’ days” when things were purely for entertainment, intentions were unmuddled by politics and identity, when comics were just for kids (aka young boys), and the sole intention was to give those kids an action-packed adventure. Which brings us back to Maher’s assertion that the medium is for children, and that we have to grow up and move on from comics. What Maher and the others who subscribe to the “good ol’ days” fail to acknowledge is the context of their memories. Maher read comics as a kid, and he let them go, as so many of us do. So his only memories of comic books are those as a child, a time of innocence and immaturity. He pairs that with the disease of manchildren in our current landscape, and makes the false correlation that one feeds into the other. It’s not even Socratic.
Of course, Maher fails to go into the granular details of what constitutes an entitled manchild; he wouldn’t have time for it because he has other things to complain about, because that’s his livelihood. The grand irony is that by belittling an entire medium and its constituents, he himself is acting like an entitled manchild. An immature bully. It’s unfortunate to watch a man of clear intelligence and moral compass (I’ve agreed with him on many an occasion) lower himself to that level.
It’s not that Maher is wrong – entitlement and immaturity is an issue, just look at our government and the rash of bitter mass shooters – it’s that he wholeheartedly believes his myopic reasoning is right, and he’s arrogant enough to assert that his sole, limited experience is enough of a sample size to make a broad, sweeping statement about an entire medium and community that is centuries old. That’s not stupidity; it’s just being an arrogant liar, which always makes you look stupid.