A few weeks ago, as I was riding the train home from work, I saw a man—probably in his 40s or 50s, in a business suit—reading Fairy Tail on his giant, convertible laptop screen. And just a few days ago, I found yet another person openly reading manga during their commute. No big deal, right? Wrong. It’s a big deal to me.
Let me take you back a bit: Before Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, before Agents of Shield and Agent Carter, before Game of Thrones, before Christian Bale’s Batman, before getting tickets to New York Comic Con became a more difficult task than destroying the One Ring, I didn’t talk about my nerd interests to people outside of the trusted few who I knew shared my interests—and they were very few. I couldn’t pinpoint why, but certain nerd topics just felt under the radar, and I had no interest in being given the side-eye or all-too-familiar judgmental line of questioning. This was a big favorite of mine: Why would I, a black girl, be interested in Star Wars, comics, and anime? I felt like a minority within an already small minority, and nerd pride just didn’t feel as prevalent back then. Still, don’t take this to mean that I was ashamed of it. Sure, I was affected by nerd-shaming, but I also unapologetically watched hours and hours of anime and racked up hours of Saturday morning superhero cartoons. But I became wary of labeling myself as the “nerd” after hearing classmates and acquaintances denigrate my interests as “weird” or “lame,” so I became careful in my social interactions. I’d ease into the nerdy conversations, feel out potential nerds with a safe, neutral nerddom—slip a Buffy reference into the conversation, see if that could segue into something more nerdy.
So whenever I see someone out in the world openly repping their brand of nerddom—whether it’s by unapologetically whipping out the Attack on Titan cosplay or wearing a League of Evil Exes T-shirt or making a Ghost in the Shell reference at work—it really makes me happy. I still see it as an act of rebellion, a “fuck you” to the majority basking in mainstream pop culture—shows and movies and books that have already been approved by whatever secret cool society and packaged as the next best thing—and scoffing at the other stuff. But oh, have times and trends changed.
I feel like I can’t go into a clothing store without seeing at least ten vintage comic book screen tees—and no, I’m not talking about the XL one-size-fits-all men’s Green Lantern T-shirt that I wore in middle school because that was all the store had. I’m talking about the stuff you see on hipsters everywhere. Hell, even the fashionable little New York City children I see on the subway are rocking sleek-looking nerd gear. And while fashion is one of the most visible signifiers of the trend, it’s not exclusive to a Spidey hoodie or X-Men screen tee.
You can see it at the conventions—well, that is, if you’re lucky enough to get into the convention to see anything. Strategizing the best way to nab online tickets, camping out for 48 hours at comic book stores for the physical tickets, calling in favors, looking out for day-of ticket scalpers: it’s all becoming a part of the big convention experience, and people wear that as a nerdy badge of honor. Besides, what else says “I’m a hardcore nerd” than waiting in front of a Midtown Comics for 48 hours for a three-day ticket to New York Comic Con, right? That definitely screams “nerd” more so than actually enjoying the nerddom.
Bitterness aside, where did these hordes and hordes of people come from all of a sudden? Were they too busy being buried under the piles of manga in their rooms? Were they lying low like me, waiting for their day in the sun? Or is this a brand of new nerds, of next-generation nerds and late-bloomer nerds who conveniently came with the tide of Hollywood promotions?
We had Hollywood pushing out some nerdy movies in the ’80s through the ’00s, but what they lacked in diversity and edge they made up for in corniness. And we all know the golden age of Saturday morning superhero cartoons that happened in the ’90s. But still, I think a lot of people were soured on messes like the super ’90s-tastic Batman movies and those god-awful Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies (don’t forget Dashboard Confessional crying it out on the soundtrack).
But in waltzes Christian Bale’s truly dark and tortured knight, and that, along with some other intriguing nerddom of the time, seems to open the floodgates to a more serious, more earnest take on nerddom. Now we’re going darker, we’re going edgier, moving toward dystopias, anti-heroes, complex characters, serious villains. And that introduces us to nerddom that may not have been introduced otherwise; who would have thought that Guardians of the Galaxy, a relatively obscure piece of the greater Marvel universe, would have the space to become such a major blockbuster? I wouldn’t have thought that a decade ago. So as a result, I’m sitting on the train next to a very hip girl wearing a distressed Star-Lord tee and trying to figure out how to camp out for Comic Con tickets this year.
It seems unfair, right? To have been a part of something so private, something you really truly knew was cool before it was cool, then to see it appropriated and changed.
At the risk of sounding like a selfish, jaded youngster or old lady griping, let me point out that I know this changed landscape isn’t necessarily bad. People are going to like what they’re going to like, and if they haven’t been diehard fans since birth, who am I to nerd-shame? Besides, this exposure gives artists more visibility, and it opens up the floor for new brands of nerddom that may not have gotten a chance to shine before. And it opens up the community of nerds, so that there aren’t as many side-eyes when you mention you’re a hopeless otaku or comic book collector.
But let me also say that these same changes may also alienate the original community from which this one has grown. For example, conventions used to be more of trade events, for artists and collectors. Now they’re frequently pushed to the side to make room for the money-makers: the Walking Dead panels or Disney panels and screenings. And I admit, I like those money-makers too, but since when have comic conventions been more about everything but actual comics?
As for the nerddom itself, how has it changed? How have movie and television adaptations changed the stories to make them more palatable or marketable? At the end of the day, all of these products are just that—products, commodities to be sold, so things are going to be moved around and changed and adapted, and more people are going to be attracted to them. But what’s sometimes forgotten is that these products are also first and foremost art, they’re stories, they’re mythologies that, for many people (and not the people who buy the tickets and get the T-shirts, but the people who grew up with these characters and stories) are more than just bits of media you mindlessly consume.
So when our favorite shows are getting reboots, or our favorite books are getting movie adaptations, when our childhoods—our stories, our mythologies—are blown up and become the next best thing, where does that leave us? Sometimes, it leaves us at the back of the line, waiting behind hordes of new fans to get into that midnight showing or convention. And sometimes, if we’re truly lucky, it brings us back to our beginning, when we read those Thor comics with our fathers and had marathons of the original Star Wars trilogy with our friends and woke up on Saturday mornings to watch Batman: The Animated Series—whether or not it was hip or cool to do so.