Sunday, 2 December 2018

It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a comics fan!

© Miika Laaksonen/Unsplash

Bill Maher, political commentator and television host, was accused of mocking comic-book fans for mourning the death, November 12, of Marvel legend Stan Lee. He wrote on his blog, “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,” and added, somewhat self-righteously, “Personally, I’m grateful I lived in a world that included oxygen and trees, but to each his own.”

As a comic-book fan, reading and collecting comics for over four decades, I wasn’t offended by the American comedian’s ill-conceived remarks. Maybe he was trying to be funny, except no one felt like laughing. Comics are a serious business, an alternate religion, even for the lighthearted among diehard fans.

Here’s what happened next. Like dirty linen, Lee fans took Maher to the cleaners, to be washed, rinsed, spun and dried on social media. His attempts to clarify that he meant no disrespect to Stan Lee failed to cut ice with his legion of followers.


Stan Lee and Peter Parker in Spider-Man 3. © Sony/Marvel

The outrage against Maher can perhaps be explained in the words of Hollywood actor Chris Evans who, in an unrelated context, said, “The comic book world is so dangerous. You know what I mean? You say one thing and people—they’re ravenous—they are very opinionated fans. But they're great fans.” Who better to tell us than the man who plays Captain America and the Human Torch in Marvel’s Avengers and Fantastic Four?

What Maher probably didn't realise is that, comics, in spite of spawning a global cultural phenomena for nearly a century, is a personal thing. We may share and enjoy comic-books collectively, swear lifelong allegiance to the sequential panels of vivid characters, images and balloons, but we read them as individuals, in the seclusion of our mental cocoons where no outsiders are allowed and trespassers like Maher are prosecuted.

Most of us, and certainly those who grew up in the second half of the 2oth century, have fond memories of spending many a summer holiday borrowing and reading comics, and then exchanging those for new ones from the circulating library. Mine are no different.

Here, I'm going to digress.


I recall the first time I stepped inside the world of comics. I was around eight years old when an uncle from San Diego, California, sent my dad 40 DC and Marvel comics by post. The crisp and glossy Silver Age (1956-1970) and Bronze Age (1970-1985) comics, neatly packed in a carton, travelled nearly 7,000 miles and inspired him to start collecting comics and rope me in as his young co-conspirator.

It was the beginning of a delightful adventure with an eclectic roster of valiant heroes and superheroes—the Pandavas and the Maurya Kings, Justice League and the Avengers, and so many others—dedicated to fighting evil and making the world a better place.


© Amar Chitra Katha
One evening, my dad picked up Gopal and the Cowherd, a popular Bengali folktale from Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Stories)—India’s largest-selling comic-book imprint—and read it out to me.

In the comic-book, Gopal, a poor young lad who lives with his devout mother in a tiny village, must walk alone through a dark forest to get to school on the other side. Naturally, he is afraid to make the journey alone. His mother calmly tells her son, “Whenever you’re scared, call out to your brother. He is a cowherd and his name is also Gopal. He will come and protect you.” Relieved, the boy happily sets off for school. As he is passing through the forest, Gopal calls out to his “brother” who materialises out of nowhere—wearing peacock feathers in his golden crown and playing a flute—and escorts the boy to school and back. When his mother hears about the mysterious brother and the herd of cows with tinkling bells, she realises that her son’s saviour was none other than Lord Krishna. She prays with silent gratitude, “You took care of my son, my Lord. I called and you came.”

It was one of the most beautiful and poignant stories I had heard and read at the time. It was also one of my earliest inspirational lessons in values and virtues. And that’s what comic-books are all about; often, a better teacher than pedantic textbooks.

Over the years, since then, I frequently turned to comic-books, to such brave and self-sacrificing heroes as Arjuna, the maverick archer in the great Indian epic Mahabharata and Captain America, the patriotic super-soldier, for both inspiration and entertainment. I found the richly illustrated panels and speech balloons riveting. In difficult times, comics were a form of escapism, a secret place where you overcame fear and despair, replaced negative emotions with hope, wonder and positive choices, and steered through life’s inevitable challenges with a new strength and optimism.

In that sense, comic-books, notwithstanding their digital avatars and billion-dollar movie franchises, are a liberating medium primarily because of their emotional appeal and visual influence and because, as Peter Parker’s Aunt May tells us so eloquently in Spider-Man 2, “There’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

May Parker’s eulogy, in many ways, is a tribute to comic-book fans who yearn to be like the mortal, supernatural and other-world heroes they admire and venerate so much. Actually, the rest of the world isn’t very different. Everyone, at some point, imagines living vicariously through the lives of those they look up to. Even Bill Maher.

12 comments:

  1. Prashant, this is a lovely, well-considered post and I was glad to read it and get some perspective on the controversy. I was shocked to hear that Maher had said those things, because I felt like he was mocking the people who enjoy comics. I don't like anyone to mock the choices of others. But my son, who is much more a fan of comics than I, was not so bothered.

    I also enjoyed your story of reading comics in your youth and your father reading to you. Thanks so much.

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    1. Thank you, Tracy. Maher's comments did not bother me. He is entitled to his opinion, however unpalatable it was to Stan Lee and comic-book fans. I have many memories of comics, most of all my Dad encouraging me to both read and collect comics as if it were the last thing left in the world. He really was passionate about the medium.

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  2. Prashant – Thanks for sharing your memories, and for this very nice line: “…we read them as individuals, in the privacy of our mental cocoons where no outsiders are allowed…”

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    1. Thank you, Elgin. As I mentioned to Tracy above, most of my memories revolve around comic-books and the many good things my Dad introduced me to, chess, books, crosswords, Scrabble, philosophy. I'm glad you liked that line.

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  3. Very thoughtful post, thanks Prashant.

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    1. Thanks, Col. Sometimes I wonder what I'd be doing if not reading comics.

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  4. Thank you, Prashant, for sharing your personal perspective. And it's a fitting and thoughtful tribute to Lee.

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    1. You're welcome, Margot. Thanks for your appreciation. I'm glad that I've still retained my passion for comic-books. It's such a creative and culturally rich medium.

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  5. Nostalgia at my end, Prashath! Thanks!!!

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    1. Thank you, Cass. I appreciate your dropping by. I can "talk" comics only with people of my generation. The current generation is happy with superhero movies.

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  6. What a lovely piece Prashant. I was aware of Stan Lee's death, but not of the controversy, so you brought me up to date. And then your memories of the role of comics in your own life were absolutely lovely, I enjoyed reading them very much.

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    1. Thank you very much, Moira. My dad was instrumental in encouraging me to take up the arts including reading and writing, collecting comic-books, and drawing and painting. In fact, he taught me just about everything I needed to know.

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