2018 is nearly over, and unfortunately, we lost many media icons, especially children’s media icons. In August, the portrayer of antagonist Robbie Rotten on the kids’ show “LazyTown,” Stefán Karl Stefánsson, succumbed to cancer, but not before being the subject of countless memes and remixes honoring him and raising money for his treatment. In November, we saw the death of Stan Lee, the comic book legend who created much of the Marvel universe we know today and characters like Spider-Man, Black Panther, and the X-Men. Lastly in December, Stephen Hillenburg, the marine biologist who created the global sensation “SpongeBob SquarePants,” died of ALS. All three tragic passings were followed by outpourings of grief and commemoration — and for good reason. These men shaped our childhoods and helped make us who we are today.
Most of us grew up consuming some kind of media: books, movies, TV shows, audiobooks, etc. And behind all media is at least one creator, and sometimes multiple creators. While people like Hillenburg and Lee were not alone in bringing their creations to life, and people like Stefánsson were just one part of the cast, there’s been this outpouring of grief because they were all a big part of what people grew up with. We may look back on those creations with fondness, and maybe even continue to watch them as an adult. That’s normal, and sometimes helpful, as the lessons passed on by the programs we grew up with stay with us throughout our lives. In this case, “LazyTown”taught us the importance of physical fitness and exercise, Lee and the Marvel universe taught us to dream and be courageous, and Hillenburg and SpongeBob taught us to laugh and enjoy life.
Alas, not everyone sees things that way. One notable example would be comedian Bill Maher, who after Lee’s death, wrote a blog post criticizing those mourning his death. Maher suggested comic books were merely kids’ fare, and he slammed the trend of adults choosing not to give up kid stuff. Thankfully, Maher received swift criticism for his remarks, with both those who were and those who weren’t involved in Marvel defending the significance of Lee’s works. Maher refused to back down despite the criticism, but the message was clear: Maher’s view is narrow-minded and ignorant of the big impact of things he derides as simply “kid stuff.”
However, to get back to the subject at hand, people like Stephen Hillenburg and Stan Lee shaped many of us and influenced us from an early age. And they weren’t alone in this regard. Those who are a little older might cite Mr. Rogers, the kind and friendly TV show host who presented tales from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe while doling out life lessons. Me personally, I’ve grown up with the creations of people like Hillenburg, but I also grew up with other shows by creators like Butch Hartman (“Fairly Oddparents” and “Danny Phantom”) and Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino (“Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra”). However, when I was a very young child, I was obsessed with the misadventures of Thomas the Tank Engine and his locomotive friends; for that I have Britt Allcroft (creator of the “Thomas the Tank Engine” TV series) and the Reverend Wilbert Awdry (creator of the book series upon which the TV show was based) to thank.
So in honor of Stephen Hillenburg, Stan Lee, and Stefán Stefánsson, I encourage you to embrace your inner child! Look back on the works you grew up with and shaped you, and even if they don’t hold up through the more critical lens of an adult, at least appreciate them for what they achieved, and remember them with fondness. Doing so doesn’t make us any less worthy or less productive members of society; that’s what Bill Maher doesn’t understand. Yes, Bill, adults are deciding that they don’t necessarily have to give up “kid stuff,” and that’s not a bad thing.
Jason Zappulla is a UF history junior. His column normally appears on Mondays.