Pathfinder Infinite

Bill Maher, Steve Benson and the social impact of comics books and cartoons

Last week dealt two major blows to comics, especially in Phoenix, if you’re paying attention. Steve Benson’s firing from the Arizona Republic and Bill Maher’s tripling-down on his anti-comic books stance may seem like separate events, but I link them as a challenge to the validity of comics as anything other than kiddie stuff. If a conservative newspaper and a leading liberal voice can both agree that comics are disposable, where can cartoonists make a social impact? Or, worse, CAN cartoonists make a social impact at all?

I’ll spare you my specific thoughts on Maher’s latest anti-comics diatribe, though I will say that I don’t completely disagree with him. Even as comics influence and inspire more media than ever, the insular nature of actual comic BOOKS does little to assert their relevance past blockbuster special effects and the current craze for comic cons and cosplay. Yes, comics are an escapist medium, but the culture has led naysayers like Maher so deeply into our underground getaway, we can’t see its connection to the harsh reality at the start of the tunnel.

I’ll forever insist that the best comic books have roots in the real world. The graphic novels that always make the “all-time best” list betray echoes of reality — The Dark Knight Returns, Maus, The Watchmen, American Splendor, and so on. Mega-arcs like the Superior Spider-man or Dark Knights: Metal are fun to read, but are they as timeless? From an anthropomorphic allegory of the Holocaust to Batman battling a Reagan-era Cold War scare, we like comic book stories a little more when they kind of tell OUR stories, too.

I was pleasantly reminded of that today when I met with someone from a local children’s hospital that wants to help two of her patients tell THEIR stories — and the medium those kids chose was comics. I guess she reached out to a local shop or two, and a few of my self-publishing peers, but I fear the bubble that holds Maher at bay is a regional phenomenon, too. I meander in many creative circles, and while I often see poets and comedians at local comic book-themed events (granted, some of which I organize), I see so few fellow cartoonists at events that don’t involve drawings — even when those causes reach out to them. It’s no wonder critics can point at us as a “them.”

But I digress. I had a delightful conversation with that someone today about the impact of comics, and how her young patients can begin to tell their stories and eventually self-publish. A stranger to comics, she was overwhelmed by the responsibility of helping her patients, but an hour with me alleviated her fears and set a course (and curriculum) for at least a couple more amazing comic book stories to come. As we chatted, I realized those two inevitable tales were the salves I needed for the one-two punch at comics I had felt last week. Comics’ struggle to be impactful IS the impact, because that’s the story we all want to tell — our inherent desire to be remembered. That’s probably why comics always end with that profound promise, too — “to be continued . . .!”

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