ctnow.com/entertainment/time-wasters/chi-borrelli-nerds-c2e2-20130423,0,2169527.column

CTnow

It's a nerd world

No longer a small band of outcasts, nerds face an identity crisis as the mainstream encroaches on their turf

Christopher Borrelli

6:15 PM EDT, April 23, 2013

Advertisement

Once a month, at Third Coast Comics in the Edgewater neighborhood, the store closes for the evening and the knitting comes out. Followed by the drinks. Drink & Draw & Knitting Night is the second Thursday of each month, as it has been since Terry Gant opened Third Coast nearly five years ago. When I asked who actually comes to this, he replied: “Nerds, artists, fiber-arts folks, nerds — by and large, super-nerdy people show up for knitting nights at comic book shops.”

A woman recently made a Ghostbusters needlepoint. Others crochet, burn images into wood blocks, create faux robot parts using portable die-cutting machine presses.

Sounds hip.

But nerdy?

Don't answer yet.

First, consider Gant himself; he looks the archetypal part of the comic book store owner. He's paunchy, appears a decade younger than his 44 years. He wears thick eyeglasses, a goatee, and the permanent expression of the not-particularly-impressed. Still, let me tell you: Should the zombie apocalypse come, you'll want Gant at your side. What he lacks in agility he would make up for in coolness, sharpness. He would make the perfect — should it all go south — last nerd.

But wait: Is he a nerd?

Hard to say.

What makes a nerd most is tougher to define than it used to be. It's also an especially relevant question this week: C2E2 — a.k.a., the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, the best of the Midwest's annual comic book conventions — runs Friday through Sunday at McCormick Place. On cue, expect snickering local TV newscasters to run video of adults in Batman costumes. In fact, if you're not the comic book convention-going type, you are absolved in advance, forgiven for picturing the socially awkward talking about “Star Trek,” aisles of ancient comic books lovingly suspended in dust-free plastic bags, bemused comic book artists and B-list celebrities struggling to answer sweaty, esoteric inquiries from the obsessed. Those stereotypes are not without merit: a quick glance at the many events scheduled for C2E2 turns up nerd-trivia contests, nerd-fitness classes and tutorials on how to talk like a pirate, throw around a big sword or be a knight.

But then, Sunday, there's this: a panel titled “Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl.”

If you're a nerd, it promises to cut to the core of the most heated subject in geekdom:

Identity — in particular, who is and isn't a nerd now?

If you're uninitiated: The fake geek girl (or guy) is not unlike the hipster nerd — they dress the part, claim to have nerd status, but ultimately, they don't know their stuff and their interest in nerdy culture is negligible.

When I mentioned the fake-geek phenomenon to Gant, he exploded: “Identify yourself as you see fit, but just saying you like ‘Game of Thrones' doesn't make you a nerd! That rubs the nerd community the wrong way. These people want to be down, they want to tell you how they read ‘Persepolis,' that they're ‘such nerds' they actually saw ‘Avengers' three times. But, dude, America saw ‘Avengers' three times. The geek-girl issue, though, and this is a real issue in this community, is more complex, because a lot of women got a social workout trying to belong to nerd communities and are just finding a place within geek culture. Now they're fake? Nerds are not used to layers of nerds — we're used to one layer. But it's complicated now.”

Tell me about it.

The Chicago Nerd Social Club, which organized the “Fake Geek Girl” panel, is not even arguing for the banishment of wannabe geeks from geek culture. Michi Trota, who is on the panel (and also part of a Chicago belly-dancing troupe that occasionally performs as Klingons), told me: “Actually, we want to lower barriers of entry to our culture. You shouldn't have to prove your cred to be accepted — remember, referring to yourself as a nerd, for a lot of people in the geek community, came out of becoming socially ostracized.”

Well said. On the other hand, what does it mean to be a nerd when everyone is a nerd?

A decade ago, in one of the final episodes of NBC's “Freaks and Geeks,” James Franco, as a cool-guy burnout, finds himself playing Dungeons & Dragons with geeks on a Saturday night. He also finds himself loving it. Which, at the time, felt like a sweet moment of cultural irony. Now it's richly ironic in a totally new way: Every time Franco appears on “The Colbert Report,” he gets into a “Tolkien-Off” with Stephen Colbert. Because Franco, like Colbert, is a genuine nerd, obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings.”

But at least they proved their nerdom.

If we lower the bar on geek identification, we would have to accept most of our major contemporary stars: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Taylor Swift, Daniel Craig, Anne Hathaway — it has become de rigueur in celebrity interviews for subjects to refer to themselves as dorks, nerds, dweebs. Perhaps because, in a culture obsessed with video games, science fiction, superheroes, computers — with the defining trait of nerdom itself, obsession — nerd culture is the culture. Do you binge-watch TV series? Read (or write) exhaustive blog recaps about last night's episode of “The Following”? Do deep-dives on niche subjects? The movies are arguably the last major mass-entertainment, the last medium a sizable part of the nation takes in at the same time — and those movies are about superheroes. Do you read the latest graphic novels? You're just ahead of the curve now. Do you spend every waking moment staring at a video screen? Well, who doesn't? And yet, there was a time when activities that myopic were what being a nerd was all about.

Lance Fensterman, the 36-year-old producer of C2E2 (and New York Comic Con), said he expects 50,000 people to attend C2E2 this weekend based on advance ticket sales. Which is a pretty broad niche. When I asked for his definition of nerdiness, he said: “Being nerdy is about where you spend your money now, I think.” Albeit, with a degree of shame: “I'm moving out of my apartment, so I just went into the elevator with 3,000 Lego kits. This woman asked ‘Have a son?' I said, ‘Yeah, I do.' And I don't. I just spend a lot of money on Legos.

“But I can see where the resentment toward the fake geek comes from,” he added. “The starlet on Letterman who says she's geek is just trying to seem appealing and ordinary. But she can also slide in and out of that label. She receives a social hall pass in a way that people with truly geeky tendencies don't always enjoy.”

The most visible airing of this grudge — a grudge that's been bubbling within nerd communities for a few years now — came last winter during an episode of IFC's comedy series “Portlandia,” in a clever parody of NBC's old “One to Grow On” public service announcements: An attractive women in black-framed eyeglasses tells a guy she's a nerd. The camera drifts to the side to reveal an obese, actual nerd with mutton chops, a Hawaiian shirt and a pained, sweaty face. He speaks to the camera. He says his name is Brian and he needs glasses to see. He can't fit into skinny jeans. He's not wearing a nerd costume, he says — he's just not really that comfortable with people. “So please, get real: If you're not a nerd, don't call yourself one.”

It's funny and touching.

The classically nerdy, the sincerely uncomfortable, often lack the social mobility of the hipster nerd “who self-identifies as a nerd but has zero at stake,” Gant said. No wonder nerds can feel co-opted and alienated. They get a new Spock and he's Zachary Quinto, who would look at ease at a comic-con or a GQ shoot. They're getting a new “Star Wars” and it's from J.J. Abrams, a hipster nerd compared to George Lucas' total nerd. They have nerd comedians, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn — both are at C2E2 — but those guys appeal to everyone now. Not to mention that the nerd stock-in-trade, vast knowledge of a narrow subject — I remember, as a kid, spending entire weekends ingesting Japanese monster flicks — has become a clickable activity.

Or maybe the anxiety here is just a generational thing, offered Bathsheba Birman, who co-founded Nerds at Heart, a Chicago-based nerd dating service, in 2006: “For Gen Y and later, because of how it's applied culturally, to Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, ‘nerd' comes with more of a hint of success now.” Playwright Qui Nguyen, whose D&D-inspired “She Kills Monsters” was a recent hit at Steppenwolf Theatre Garage Rep, told me about teaching a theater class for kids in New York: “There was this nerdy kid reading manga (Japanese comics) and, no joke, these cheerleaders walk into the class and eyeball him. I'm (thinking) ‘Oh, no.' Turns out, one of the cheerleaders taught herself Japanese to read manga. So, whoa. Kids are different.”

Which, to follow that to its logical conclusion, suggests, gulp, the inevitable end of the nerd.

Indeed, Jeff Smith, founder of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, a local umbrella club for all things geeky, said geek culture has broadened so much that the very definition of his club's namesake is “a divisive issue among us now.” Kevin Reader, of The Nerdologues, a Chicago geek-centric comedy troupe (also performing at C2E2), echoed him.

“We've had so many conversations about identity, we had to settle on: ‘Being nerdy is not what you like, it's how you like it.' It's a healthy obsession, not hipster-liking something, not cynically-liking. But a genuine, hard love.” Then he added: “You say you're not a nerd, but what do you love?”

I told him I had nerdy tendencies. Recently, I began to dream about “Pacific Rim,” the big-robots-vs.-big-monsters movie coming this summer. I've played D&D only once (but still play video games often). I love “Star Wars” but could never get into “Star Trek.” I've seen a handful of “Dr. Who” episodes (and had no idea what was happening). I subscribed to the early online network CompuServe in the 1980s; now I'd rather read a book. Also, I read comics casually, and sci-fi novels maybe twice a year.

But I didn't see myself as a nerd, I said. Reader asked if there was any geeky thing I was obsessed with.

I hesitated, then mumbled, “Well … I have a Godzilla thing?”

“OK, I contest your assumption that you're not a nerd,” he said. “Hope you feel comfortable with that.”

cborrelli@tribune.com | Twitter @borrelli