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Blessed are the Geek, For They Shall Inherit the Earth…

It’s a good time to be a nerd. When exactly did it happen? How did Star Trek become cool again? When did nearly half of all blockbusters find their roots in the oft-mocked comic book artform? When did Comic Con become a major event in the Hollywood calendar? When did it become truly hip to be square?

Haute culture?

Haute culture?

Even going back ten years, the media was a very different place. Event films were pictures like Titanic or Saving Private Ryan or Apollo 13 or Forrest Gump. The Star Trek franchise was dying a slow death in popular consciousness, to be squeezed off UPN by more popular entertainment like wrestling. The comic book movie genre was a joke after the lacklustre third and fourth entries in the Superman and Batman franchises (remember when DC was the major producer of comic book films)?

Sure, there were occasional nerdy trappings, but it was at most a sideshow. You can point in particular to blockbusters like Stargate or Independence Day or Men in Black, but these were the exception rather than the norm. James Cameron had to navigate away from his groundbreaking work on the Terminator franchise to win an Oscar, for example. It was frowned upon to be a nerd or a geek or to really engage with these kind of sub-cultures.

Then the wind changed. It is hard to pinpoint where exactly it happened. Nineties television shows – The X-Files, Buffy – may have paved the way for the future developments, both in showing public taste for something a bit more fringe, but also in providing a launching base for writing and production talent that would go on to influence the production of more media in Hollywood. JJ Abrams, for example, began as a producer of the show Alias before leveraging that to make the mythical “good Godzilla film” (Cloverfield) and then rejuvinating Star Trek.

At the same time, films like X-Men and Spider-Man demonstrated that four-colour heroes could transition to the silver screen. What was really odd about this transition though was that the directors who chose to herald it, like Bryan Singer or Sam Raimi, – while established – were not your typical blockbuster directors. The studios evidently rolled the dice and won. Big.

I’m still very curious about when this shift in popular culture happened; when it become somewhat more acceptable to base a mega-blockbuster (indeed an entire franchise) on a range of children’s toys, for example; when movies based on Japanese anime became possible; when studios decided to attempt a comic book cross over on the big screen. All these things would have seemed a lot less likely a decade ago (though I am hesitant to say ‘impossible’).

And it’s not necessarily just blockbuster fare that these niche bits and pieces have infiltrated. Awards season fare – famously exclusionist and pretentious – have included works based on graphic novels (the more artsy cousins of comic books) such as A History of Violence and Road to Perdition. Not that anyone would admit it.

I had never heard of Comic Con until a few years ago, despite the fact it has been running for the bones of forty years. Where did this massive shift in cultural consciousness come from? What caused it? The studios are producing more and more movies that would see to be aimed at the geek femographic, but – more and more – they seem to make a wider splash. And it isn’t just obviously geeky stuff like Star Trek or comics. Current fads (and the demographics that they seem to be a hit with) defy the past.

Twilight – perhaps the first mainstream nerd property driven by women – has a huge impact even outside the hoards of screaming fans at comic con. My aunt reads it. My little sister who scoffs at my taste in science fiction has picked up a book. These are people who would have a hard time accepting classic science fiction books – Dune, for example – as classic literature.

Arguably the oddest reaction to this newfound popularity has come from geeks and nerds themselves – well, fanboys, to be particular. I should clarify that the vast, vast, vaaaaaast majority of fans are nice, polite and patient people. It is a very vocal minority that tends to tar all those associated or interested in particular cult followings. Like a child asked to share their toys (even though they don’t own these properties), the fanboys typically sulk very loudly about how the mainstream has treated their interest – in particular adaptations. While these complaint are – of themselves – legitimate in the same way that discussion and debate over virtually every adaptation ever is, they tend to be conducted in an impolite and quite personal manner. It isn’t a case that the discussion might be good in and of itself or to exchange ideas or inspire thought on the production – the criticism is only intended to prove the fanboy right in their assertions or belief that the work has been ‘dumbed down’ or ‘ruined’ by offering it to the masses. They look petty and may lead the mainstream to stereotype these fanbases, and tends to make these contributions to popular culture a lot more contentious than the bulk of TV shows or movies. Sometimes it’s just remarkably petty and condescending treatment of those sharing an interest not too different from the fanboys’ own (or maybe they’re afraid of girls). Again, it’s a small minority that earn this reputation, but I find myself frequently amused that these are the people who in the same breath demand respect for their own interests.

So, are we buying all this stuff because Hollywood is producing it (and, thus, would we watch anything put in front of us)? If it were that simple I have no doubt that Hollywood would find a more cost effective way of taking our money. Has the decline in the people watching movies (in cinemas and at home) somehow inflated the buying power of the nerds? Maybe, but it is still the mainstream media and average consumers who talk about and purchase these items – though it is the nerds who will buy three versions of Watchmen, for example. Is it simply to take advantage of established bases for these cult phenomena? I doubt it – Hollywood needs more than the 50,000 eople following the comic book to see the film and direct pequels or sequels to established properties (which they are also doing) offer a wider base.

I don’t know when or why or how exactly this transition of geek properties from the fringe of popular consciousness to the front and centre occurred. I am glad of it, though. It isn’t a suffocating interest. Though it’s easy to mock the dozen-or-so nerdy franchises getting installments each year, is it any worse than the banal mainstream trash that used to occupy the space? Is The Last Action Hero better than, say, Wolverine? Not really. Nor is it particularly worse, but at least Wolverine is (relatively) fresh. Maybe I’ll complain if popular taste has not migrated in the next decade or so, but for now it’s still relatively new.

So, does this mean that these nerdy pursuits enjoy anymore respect in the echilons of art? I wish. The comic book is one of the few remaining forms of expression that can be casually and snobbishly defined as “not art” by people who haven’t read Sandman or Maus or Watchmen (and, yes, there is a lot of trash, but there is in any medium). The newspaper reviews which praise Star Trek will, in the same line, dismiss the forty years of great ideas that came before (and, again, yes, there is a lot of trash, same as anything else).

Still, that’s a minor complaint in an era where James Cameron is under Oscar consideration for directing a 3D science-fiction epic, or where a Batman film sits as the second-largest film of all time, or where an Oscar-nominated actor is playing Freddy Krueger. It’s a marvellous tonal shift that has taken place in a relatively short period of time (yet has been so gradual that we haven’t noticed it), but one that hasn’t completely dominated the media which we consume. The remake/reboot/prequel/sequel fad threatens to do that.

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy this wave while it lasts.

2 Responses

  1. Trends are fickle. I think the ’80s taught us that. But every once in a great while they stick, and I hope that will be the case with the Geek Renaissance we’re enjoying in the ’00s. Graphic novels, in particular, are enjoying a surge in popularity among casual readers and critics alike. (Case in point: The university where I work is developing a course on graphic novels.) Whatever the reason for this trend, here’s to hoping it lasts a long, long time.

    M. Carter at the Movies

    • Yep, you never know. In ten years time we might be complaining about the Western fad that’ll end up sweeping movies/television. You never can tell with these things.

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