The Once and Future Geek: A Call for Inclusivity among the Geek Community

2014-07-04 13.57.52 Where once upon a time, geeks were generally relegated to dark basements, comic book caverns, and landscapes of social isolation, the geek is now seen as somewhat chic. If the popularity of this weekend’s Comic-Con festivities in San Diego don’t prove this, next weekend’s release of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy should. Keep in mind, we’re talking about a big-budget production featuring a cast of obscure b- (if not c-) list comic book characters. And if early reviews are to be trusted, Marvel has taken another step in its quest for cinematic dominance. So, in this cultural landscape of geek fantastique, it’s amazing that the formerly-outcasted would complain. Yet, it happens.

 

I suppose it can be attributed to the concept of exclusivity. Comic book culture used to be something that was unique to a certain group. Once upon a time, you could find that special geek in the crowd by yelling “Rocket Raccon” or “I’m a level four Paladin,” and listen for the mating call of a fellow soul. You were bonded by something exclusively yours, which you owned. Nowadays, with the mass-production of comic book materials, it can often feel like something special was stolen and repackaged for a larger audience. This mentality can inspire “true geeks” to cast doubt on the credibility of the fake geeks; in particular, they castigate the sexy “faux geek girl” or the teenager who shouldn’t be wearing that Thor t-shirt, because they couldn’t possibly know the history of Beta Ray Bill.

In my younger days, I often endorsed this mentality. I believed the title of “geek” was reserved for those who devoted themselves heart and soul to the geeky practices, instead of merely wearing a shirt with a cool superhero symbol or “nerdy” glasses. Basically, I was, as Kerry Jackson of The Geekshow Podcast claims, “one of those geeks”. Thinking back on those misguided days, I realize this was simply resentment over years of being ostracized due to my geeky nature. Luckily, I’ve moved past that geek elite mentality, inspired by two elements: a realization that my alienation was probably due to a greater social ineptitude, and the birth of my nephew, Jack.

While I could devote anthologies to my social ineptitude, I won’t force you to endure that awkwardness. Instead, I’d like to focus on Jack, because I see him as the future of geek. Since his birth almost seven years ago, we’ve become extremely close. His recent desire to engage in geeky activities has reinvigorated my own love of the lifestyle. June and July were especially significant in his development as a geek. Around the beginning of June, I took him into his first comic book shop: Dr. Volts. It was like watching Charlie exploring Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Sadly, no Oompa-Lumpas were present. Dr-Volts-logo3

He rushed from section to section, checking out the treasure trove of colorful comic book characters and detailed collectibles, occasionally exclaiming, “Mikey, what’s that?” I attempted to school my nephew on certain characters, hoping that a few would take residence somewhere in his mind. I was a little terrified whenever he grabbed for an item, aware that some stores detested younger patrons handling their products. When I was twelve, I was perusing comics in a Fresno shop and the owner asked me leave, because he thought I was loitering. Perhaps this can be attributed to the geek elite mentality. Maybe he thought I didn’t take the practice seriously, or I didn’t deserve to touch his product. Luckily, Dr. Volts endorses inclusivity. Dave, the proprietor, spoke to Jack like a fellow geek, answering any questions he had, and even told us where to find the family-friendly comics (which my nephew ignored). He even led me to a somewhat tame Deadpool title that wouldn’t make his parents regret entrusting me with the psychological welfare of their child. Dave understood that geek isn’t about ownership and exclusivity, holding something back from someone who doesn’t “deserve it”. It should be about sharing the love to a larger community. Those who espouse that the geek community has somehow been tarnished by the recent mass commodification of the medium seem to have lost sight of what pulled them into the lifestyle. It isn’t the history of the characters or the deeper subtext; it’s the overall badass coolness of the whole world.

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When I bought my first comic, X-Men #1 by Jim Lee and Christ Claremont, I was eleven. I didn’t know anything about the civil rights subtext or the rich history of Magneto. I was simply enraptured by the cover, displaying a buff dude with awesome blades extending from his knuckles and another guy shooting optic beams from his visor. All that other deeper analytical crap came later.

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A month later, Jack was immersed into a pool of geekiness again, attending the first annual FantasyCon with me. It was his, and my, first major convention. I planned to go on Friday and Saturday, committing the first day to doing whatever Jack wanted, and the second day to doing whatever I wanted without the little guy by my side. While I looked forward to taking the little dude, I assumed I would enjoy the second day a little more, as I could go to all the panels and take pictures with celebrities (which doesn’t appeal to most six-year-olds). What surprised me about the event is that I enjoyed the first day with Jack more than the second. FantasyCon was extremely successful in creating an interactive immersive experience. Much like Dave at Dr. Volts, every vendor, exhibit, and celebrity endorsed a very hands-on approach, acknowledging that geek culture can’t merely be witnessed; it should be experienced. In a desire to capture a magical landscape, the organizers constructed multiple fantasy-themed statues throughout the convention center, including massive stone sentinels at the entrance, a building-size red dragon belching smoke in the back, a replica of a castle’s entrance, among other fantasy-inspired creations.

 

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In addition, there were many exhibits from sci-fi and fantasy landscapes, including life-size replicas of Jabba the Hut and the entranceway to a dwarve mine shaft. While a certain distance was often required between participant and exhibit, the organizers still captured the essence of inclusivity. There weren’t overbearing exhibit bouncers or guards. Participants could stand next to the exhibit, examine it, and immerse themselves in the atmosphere it created. Viewing each exhibit, Jack was basking in the same escapism that pulled me into the lifestyle. We wasn’t merely observing it from afar; he was embracing it. Beyond the exhibits, the convention practically demanded activism through multiple hands-on demonstrations and live performers that interacted with guests. Participants could fight in arenas (LARPer-style), take archery lessons, learn fantasy-related trades, and handle wild animals, among other activities. One of our favorite moments in the day involved handling tarantulas and large snakes.

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While handling live animals might not seem geeky, or fantasy-related, it definitely transported Jack into an alternate landscape, one where he could command wild beasts. Each demonstration and exhibit carried him outside the limitations of reality. It’s easy to criticize certain elements of geek culture, but this is one thing that a committed geek will always have: the ability to lead a richer life through the fantastical act of escapist play. FantasyCon understood that such an atmosphere is necessary to nurture further generations.

Like most conventions, the swarm of vendors can make any skeptic (me) question the sellers’ devotion. Are they committed to the crafts or to the cash? While certain high-priced items raised my skeptical red flag, the overall vibe of the vendors was one of geek appreciation. First off, the assortment of niche items was fabulous enough: fantasy crafts and clothing; sci-fi, fantasy, and comic-related toys; rare movie memorabilia; etc. Vendors frequently engaged with Jack and I as equals, allowing us to handle their products. Very vendors pushed for the hard sell, showing me that most simply wanted to share their eccentricities and unique crafts. I’m aware they were seeking financial gain, and a lot of these items, or similar ones, can probably be found online at a cheaper price. But the passion exhibited by the FantasyCon vendors can’t be experienced on Amazon or Ebay. When the toy vendor excitedly told me about finding the rare Old Man Logan figure, he wasn’t merely seeking the sale; he wanted to share his enthusiasm. And, I wanted to share my enthusiasm with Jack. I noticed a drastic shift in personal engagement on the second day of FantasyCon. Don’t get me wrong; there some fantastically-amazing moments. As always, the convention environment, with its fanatic cosplayers, outrageous circus-type performers, and celebrity guests allowed for fun times. From watching Billy Boyd use fans to direct the second breakfast scene from Lord of the Rings to Simon Pegg’s enthusiastic, obscenity-laden panel, I’ve collected some fabulous memories. And my pictures with The Lord of the Rings trio (Billy Boyd, Sean Astin, and John Rhys-Davies) will serve as the highlight of any photo album. Yet, at the same time, there was something missing. I wasn’t sharing the atmosphere with the geek paduwan. I couldn’t explain something geeky with the same enthusiasm as I had the day before. Scan0003

So, in this atmosphere of mass geek commodification, I try to hold my analytical skepticism at bay. While the current boom in comic books may merely represent a cash grab by the powers that be, and certain narratives are being adapted in ways that might be contrary to “canon,” keep in mind the attention and enthusiasm they’re directing toward the industry as a whole. While we can mock recent adaptations of things we hold dear, we can only hope they lead a larger audience to the source material. Who knows? My nephew’s love of the Lego Batman games may lead to his reading The Killing Joke or The Dark Knight Returns. His love of the action sequences in The Avengers film will lead to a deeper discussion of Marvel’s Civil War. But, these possibilities can only be achieved through the type of inclusivity seen at Dr. Volts and at FantasyCon. We can’t cast doubts on “those types of geeks,” because it simply does not matter. Geek fanaticism begins at “Hey, what’s that?” When we spout ridiculous phrases, such as “don’t touch that” or “you wouldn’t understand,” the interest dies and artists won’t have incentive to create. More than anything, I can say that, much like Christmas, as I get older, I take more joy from sharing the culture than simply basking in my own personal interaction with the material. I look forward to watching my little geek grow, and to seeing the evolution of the geek community.

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