“We’re all stories in the end” — so says the Doctor in what might be my favorite nerd quote of all time. I love stories. What else could be more important to a writer than stories? And what else is more essential, more human than telling and listening to stories? They’re history, mythology, culture, society, art — everything. Here’s a story about my nerd origins:
I loved Saturday morning cartoons as a kid. My mom usually worked on Saturdays, so it would be just me and my dad, teaming up to watch the glorious hour-and-a-half block of superhero cartoons that ran in the early ’90s. We watched Batman: The Animated Series, Spider-Man, and X-Men. Occasionally we might watch an episode of Superman: The Animated Series, but we never kid ourselves on our interest level in Clark Kent. My dad would run off facts as we watched, point out characters and tell their backstories. I was supposed to remember, of course. This was my education. He would quiz me on the essentials: Where does Peter Parker live? Queens. Batman is Marvel or DC? DC. Who are the five original X-Men? Angel, Iceman, Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Beast.
That wasn’t all: He showed me his old Thor comics. He was the one who told me to read The Hobbit. We watched Speed Racer and he told me about Akira and Vampire Hunter D. We had a VHS boxed set of the three Star Wars movies, which I remember watching before I even learned my multiplication tables. As the long introductory paragraphs leading into a story of “a galaxy far far away” scrolled up and away in that unforgettable yellow type, my father would always read the words aloud, and it was a type of tradition, an oral history that I was a part of — though I didn’t think much of it at the time. When the Lord of the Rings movies came out, when the new Star Wars movies came out, we saw them — some of them at midnight, and I loved the importance of it all — bedtime could wait until the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, even if that meant bed at 3 a.m. He loved these stories of impossible heroes, supernatural beings, worlds of fantasy and imagination, and it was infectious. I loved them too.
Who are the five original X-Men? Angel, Iceman, Jean Gray, Cyclops, and Beast.
Easy. I never got tripped up on that one. I knew Wolverine came later. I was a nerd, and my daddy taught me better than that.
I love stories that come at me from more than one angle: the book that suddenly shifts perspective from one character to another, the sudden turn of events that allows us to rethink everything that has occurred, etc. Think, for example, of how we returned to the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in Angel, and we experienced a totally different narrative. Here’s another version of my story:
My father and I never consistently got along. By the time Hollywood had really sunken its nails into comic book fandom, we had not spoken more than sporadically in the previous year or so. By the time he died last year, we had not spoken at all in about four years. In that time, more than two dozen big-budget comic book movies were released. Captain America: Winter Soldier came out on April 4, 2014. On April 7, 2014, my father was gone.
Being a nerd is so popular these days. It seems like every year more superhero movies are being released and the conventions are getting increasingly harder to get into. I like to imagine my father’s reaction to all of these new movies: Ben Affleck as the new Batman, the greatness of the first Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy, the new Star Wars movies on the horizon, the lesser-known heroes who are getting the limelight, etc. I imagine him watching Netflix’s Daredevil and crooning So cooool in the way he always did when he came across some awesome bit of nerddom — stretching out the vowels, his eyes getting wide like a young boy amazed for the first time. I imagine his amazement and pleasure at the fact that Black Panther will be showing up in the next Captain America movie, that a black actor is featured so prominently in the promos for the new Star Wars (They got a brother?!). I imagine him talking about the Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack for days, saying how they got it right; it took them a while, but finally they got it right, and here it is — all the stories of his childhood on the big screen.
Recently someone asked me how I became a nerd, what drew me to these aspects of pop culture. When I watch Star Wars or Firefly or Guardians, when I read Attack on Titan or Fairy Tail, when I watch The Lord of the Rings, I’m not just mindlessly consuming. I’m not just shoving popcorn into my mouth and noting snippets of dialogue or action to recount to my friends later. Well… sometimes I am. But I’m mostly taking parts of these stories for myself. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a child, whether or not I consciously knew it: if I think my story is too mundane, I look for the extraordinary. If the family in my story is too broken, I look for stories of fellowships, faithful crews, magical guilds. If I think the story of me and my father is incomplete or unfulfilled, there is still nerddom. Even if my father, and my relationship with him, was too complicated to be narrowed down to the first version of the story, and even if he is no longer here, in a time when his childhood heroes grace the big screen, I can still craft my own narrative out of what he left behind: these stories.
I can watch Thor knowing about the comics my father unearthed from his childhood that night, showing me and talking about Norse mythology. I can watch Daredevil remembering him talking about Matt Murdock even before Netflix blew up — when Ben Affleck’s Matt Murdock disappointed but we saw it anyway because my dad was excited that the movie was even made in the first place. Despite our silence over the last few years of his life, at least we can converse here, in these stories of extraordinary people and fantastical worlds, where he can be more than the inconsistent shades of a character that I knew.
When the next Star Wars movie comes out, he won’t be around to read the scrolling words on the screen, but I still always hear them in his voice. This is my inheritance; the stories that my father loved. They’re mine, so I watch and read and listen the way he did. And of course, I still remember: Angel, Iceman, Jean Gray, Cyclops, and Beast. You won’t trip me up on that one. My daddy taught me better.