The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth

One of my first features for The Lance, a cover story from August, 2004. It reads pretty dated now [I actually thought that title was original back then] but it got picked up by papers all over Canada.

If the current pop culture barometer is any indication, I may be one of the coolest people alive today.

I realize this is no small statement, but the evidence speaks for itself.
As I write this, I am wearing a t-shirt for Japanese rock band The Pillows, in a room filled with toys and knickknacks, stacks of anime tapes, DVDs (both legitimate and bootlegged), and an ever-growing collection of nearly two thousand comic books. The funny looks were starting to get to me, but geek culture seems to be everywhere lately.

Finally, it’s a good time to be a geek.

Spider-Man 2is making truckloads of money. In the coming year, the Hollywood machine, hoping to echo the wall-crawler’s success, will spit another slew of comic properties out. Catwoman has made her attempt, and in no time John Constantine, Batman, and The Fantastic Fourwill try their luck. And if the planets align properly, I may actually see a new
Superman movie before I die.

For those who prefer their comics more highbrow, the new issue of McSweeney’s, a quarterly magazine from literary darling Dave Eggers, is dedicated to comics; and a cover story from a recent issue of the New York Times Magazine covered graphic novels and the people who create them.

As for anime, it has progressed from bootlegged videotapes with no subtitles to crystal clear DVD releases of just about every film that comes out of Japan. If you can’t afford the DVDs, you can watch any number of shows on YTV, Teletoon, or MTV.
In 2003, a film by renowned director Hayao Miyazaki won the Academy Award for best animated feature, something none of us in the nerd gallery ever expected to happen.

Even locally, the trends are easy to spot. I remember stopping by Cartoon Kingdom in the local mall shortly after it opened, only to be surrounded by Spongebob, Mickey, and Dora. I stopped by last week and was greeted by Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Wolverine.

Yes, it’s a good time to be a geek.

Possibly the biggest indication that Geek has arrived happened a couple of weeks ago. Comic-Con International took place in San Diego, as it has every summer for about 30 years. For people like me, Comic-Con is the Super Bowl and the Oscars rolled into one. Comics writer Warren Ellis calls it “Nerd Prom,” an analogy that’s pretty accurate.

Every year, geekery flock to the web looking to consume every bit of news, every teaser of storylines, every rumour of upcoming projects. San Diego is the centre of our universe.

In recent years, a change has been taking place. Real, honest-to-God movie stars are putting in appearances at Comic-Con. This year alone saw Keanu Reeves, Jessica Alba, and Jude Law stopping by to plug projects and attend panel discussions.

Jude Law? At a comic convention? I mean, Keanu makes a little more sense; he’s ascended into the hallowed ranks of geek royalty ever since The Matrix. But Jude Law walking the halls with the guy who played Jawa #6 inThe Empire Strikes Back? That’s just unimaginable. (Author’s note: Please do not write in to tell me there weren’t any Jawas in The Empire Strikes Back. You just make us all look bad.)

When the weekend was over, I think I saw more footage on Entertainment Tonight from San Diego than from the Democratic National Convention.
With this glut of media attention, the optimists begin to unfurl the banners of victory, proclaiming that, finally, the geeks have inherited the Earth.
But did we win? And what were we fighting for in the first place? I sat down with a few of my comrades in arms to conduct a sort of informal roundtable on the state of geekdom.

“It’s great, I love it,” said Jeff, a 26-year-old teacher who could be considered a closet geek: you’d never know it to look at him, but any suspicion would be confirmed once you asked him what he thought of Spider-Man 2.
“I mean, it doesn’t validate me or anything one way or the other,” he told me. “I got back into collecting comics before the explosion happened, and you were scoring bootleg anime tapes when the only thing on the air in North America was Pokemon. We didn’t need society at large to make us feel okay for enjoying the things we do.”

Scott, a 25-year-old computer programmer, expressed a more pragmatic view.
“I think the movers and shakers in Hollywood are a younger generation, and they’re optioning the things they like, regardless of what Old Hollywood thinks,” he said. “Maybe the niche isn’t becoming mainstream, just some high rolling niche members are in control.”

Glenn, the 24-year-old graphic designer, was quiet. Then explosive.
“There was a time I looked forward to anime and a good action flick. . . . It pisses me off that little Suzie Know-Nothing is sitting down with Lord of the Rings and thinks she’s awesome because Legolas is so dreamy.”

I watched in stunned silence as he went on.
“At one point, we were trying to win a small portion of the media pie, but the higher-ups got greedy. I now have nothing that is specifically my own anymore. It’s everyone else’s.”

Glenn’s comments gave me pause – for the sheer emotion in his responses, but also for what he said. It struck me as the same song-and-dance that accompanies any fringe form of entertainment that gains a certain level of popularity.

That frustration struck me as eerily similar to that which music geeks feel whenever their favourite indie bands gain wider exposure from being used as background music on the WB’s latest hour-long teen drama.

But it’s not exactly the same. Using Death Cab for Cutie to add emotional resonance in a “very special” episode of The O.C.is not the same as making a movie about them, which is what we have to deal with. Our private pleasures are getting tossed onto a screen 20-feet-tall in luminous Technicolor for everyone to see.

Maybe geeks care less about the attention itself and more about what that attention means.

Most geeks are introverted; they don’t want to be the centre of attention. Standing stunned in the cold noise of media buzz, are we afraid that we’ll be exposed as the losers we think we are, deep down? Recently, a lovely young woman, upon discovering my interests, asked me what my favourite comic series was. What should have been a two-minute response turned into a 15-minute exposition, followed by an awkward pause. Nicely done, fanboy.

This lack of self-esteem isn’t limited to the fans; creators are just as guilty of it.

If the story in theNew York Times Magazineis any indication, the shining stars of alternative cartooning are some of the most self-loathing people walking the planet.

Chris Ware, author of Jimmy Corrigan and guest editor for the new issue of McSweeney’s, told the Times, “This is just an incredibly inefficient way to tell a story . . . [a strip] involved maybe eight to ten seconds [at] actual narrative time . . . but it took me three days to do it, at 12 hours a day. And I’m thinking any writer would go through this passage in eight minutes of work. And I think: Why am I doing this? . . . Whole years go by now that I can barely account for. I’m not even being facetious.”

Montreal cartoonist Julie Doucet expressed her frustration at the amount of time her creative outlet costs her.
“It was killing me. . . . Trying to make a living from it – I could never stop, never have a break. I was doing it all the time.”

National Public Radio host Ira Glass, in an essay inMcSweeney’s, discussed Peanuts creator Charles Schulz.
“If he’d written 400-page novels, I’d never have sat down to read them. And sad, barely-read losers like me – we need art, too.”

Art for losers? Isn’t this sort of talk a self-fulfilling prophecy? Clearly, meaningful art rarely comes out of completely stable people, but how am I supposed to feel good in what I enjoy if the people who create it argue its worthlessness inTheNew York Times of all places?

Geek commentator and blog writer extraordinaire Heidi MacDonald summed it up nicely, I think.
“Show some frickin’ pride! The fact is, for the last 10 to 20 years the comics-gentsia has been longing for critical acceptance and hoping for some kind of mainstream breakthrough.. . . And now that it’s happening are people making hay while the sun shines? No, they’re worrying that it’s all a dream, a hoax, an imaginary story . . . if you don’t believe in yourself . . . no one will believe in you.”

Hear, hear, Heidi.

It’s a good time to be a geek. It’s good to be a geek, period.

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