This year at San Diego Comic-Con, I stayed with some friends who, by luck of the hotel lottery system, landed a room at a high-end establishment across the street from the convention center. It's the kind of place better known for hosting exclusive, red carpet parties than for housing the regular folks who attend the convention every year.
Throughout the weekend-and-change of festivities, the crowd outside the hotel grew, a mishmash of fans and paparazzi jerking their heads and cameras as they followed nerd royalty from limos to the door. I don't know if anyone famous was actually a guest there. Inside, I saw little more than security guards and publicists, but still had to show a room key to get past the ropes that blocked the route from entrance to elevators.
The movie star rush that comes with this sort of exclusivity wore away after the first adventure past the gatekeepers. As the days passed, the ritual of squeezing through crowds and flashing keys was irritating enough to make even the biggest cynic feel a touch of sympathy for the celebrities who stopped by for a party appearance. This was more like Oscar weekend in Hollywood than a nerdfest.
One might say this is what's wrong with San Diego Comic-Con today, and argue that the convention sold its soul for blockbuster success. There are many who would agree. I kind of agree, but, would add that, for every Comic-Con annoyance, there are still a handful of things to love about it.
Plenty of people will also point out that there are other conventions, smaller ones that haven't hit mainstream press radar and are still fan-friendly. That's true too. San Diego Comic-Con, though, with all its hype, stands out testament to how distorted the words nerd and geek have become. Stargazing isn't nerdy. Just about everyone who has been in the vicinity of fame and fortune has done a bit of gawking.
Similarly, standing in line for an item that might sell out — part of the Comic-Con experience for many — has nothing to do with being a geek. That's an American tradition that happens every Friday following Thanksgiving. Fascinations with celebrity and material items permeate nearly aspect of U.S. culture. In other words, nerds and geeks are just like everyone else, at least if that criteria informs your opinion. If it does, then you don't really know this world.
I started writing about pop culture and conventions in 2008. What blew my mind about these large gatherings of fans had little to do with the high-profile guests, big announcements or exclusive items for sale. It was the attendees. Inside the convention halls, I got to meet so many people who were making amazing things with small budgets and a lot of love for the media they consumed. There were the people who cut up anime footage to make music videos and the guy who crafted samurai-style Darth Vader armor from cardboard. They were channeling fanaticism into big, creative ventures simply because they had the curiosity to figure out how things are made and the passion to see these through to completion.
Then "geek culture," as it's often called, exploded. The geeks got a make-over in the form of hit comic book movies, fashionable attire emblazoned with Droids and Tardises and a massive convention that makes news across the country. The sort of obsession that fueled so many of the passion projects that turned up at conventions gave way to what's essentially general entertainment and consumer news. Who will star in the next blockbuster movie? What new toy will bring out the lines at Comic-Con? Of course, that has always been part of any fan community, but, now, it was more pronounced.
Then came the detractors, folks decrying self-professed nerds and geeks as fakers of some sort since, obviously, the fast-track to popularity is proclaiming to be a person who, by definition, doesn't do well in social situations. There were a lot of rebuttals to the "fake geek" arguments, but it often appears that both sides detract from a greater point.
Reclaiming a word once levied by schoolyard bullies is fine. Dressing up in your best Tardis dress is fine too. So is freaking out in anticipation for the next Star Wars movie. In the end, though, those are all superficial things. What we like isn't as important as how it inspires us to be creative, to enhance our education and to become better people.
In my years covering pop culture and fan conventions for L.A. Weekly, I've met some of the most well-rounded and intelligent people I could hope to encounter. Thanks to conventions, I have a circle of friends big enough to ensure that if I need an opinion on anything from sewing to science, I can get a response. And there are plenty of people still fueled by fandom to make amazing things. Take Trishana Prater, who I interviewed last year. She combined her loves of science and art to start her own doll company. More recently, a friend of mine, Kate Sullivan, made waves by spearheading a fan-made reconstruction of a Sailor Moon episode. It was a massive project featuring the work of over 250 artists re-imagining the anime heroes in their own visual style and it's already generated over one million YouTube views.
Moreover, this community overall can do a lot to help better society. Many have stood up against racism, sexism and homophobia. Others have challenged wrong-headed notions about mental illness and showed support for one another. Sometimes, though, these attributes get lost in the mess entertainment and consumer hype. Geeks and nerds are just people and, like any other group of humans, they're oftentimes seen as little more than the sum of a few outward, easy-to-market symbols. It's time people look deeper.
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