Friday, September 11, 2009

FoG-PoP Revisited: February 2009--Pop on Pop Episode 2: Character Generation

Previously, in Pop on Pop: Introductions were made. A goal was set. Alexa played dress-up.

I want my daughter to grow up “geek,” but that doesn’t mean I want her to be just any kind of geek. I’m not looking to raise a socially awkward mouth breather with a toy collection. I want this kid to be geek chic -- smart, witty, and creative, with an appreciation for the dorky pastimes that her dear old dad enjoys. I want her to be tech savvy, well read, and full of the spunky snark worthy of a Joss Whedon supporting character.

It’s a worthy cause, but I’ll have to be careful that it doesn’t backfire. Push too hard and I might turn her off of “geek” completely. I wouldn’t want to drive my own flesh and blood to rebel against me, Skywalker style. Nevertheless, I also have to avoid pushing her too hard in any one geek direction, lest she become a one-dimensional stereotype. The best kind of geek is the well-rounded geek.

Really, this parental project is just about trying to shape my child’s development so she grows up to like some of what I like. It’s what parents do. Long-term, I’ll be happy if she simply grows up knowing that Wednesday is new comic day. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to saying a silent prayer to Crom every night for more. I don’t want this girl to just watch Attack of the Show -- I want her to host it; or better yet, I want AOTS to have a segment about her! Also, it will be cool for Alexa to like reading comic books or watching sci-fi and horror movies with pop -- but it would be a whole lot cooler for her to make her own. While I’m not giving up on my own creative aspirations, I definitely look forward to the possibility that someday Lady Lex will pick up daddy’s notebook of ideas and be inspired to do some creating of her own.

[SELF-EDITOR’S NOTE: I don’t ever call her “Lady Lex.”]

So, yeah … maybe I’m just another parent planning to live vicariously through his kid and glom off her when I’m old and dusty. But that is only a secondary motivation. The prime directive is to raise her geeky. (We have the technology. We can make her awesome.) Of course, an important step toward steering my child toward being a geek like me is to understand exactly what kind of geek I am. And the more I think about it, my own geek essence is hard to pin down.

(Whoa, that was just the intro?! You better get comfy, dear reader.)

The Coming-of-Age Geek
Saturday morning cartoons, professional wrestling, and hand-me-down comics from my older brother fueled my early childhood. I didn’t sweat the Cold War, but the threat of C.O.B.R.A. was very real. Sure, I liked my regular real-world friends—but I preferred my Amazing friends, like Spider-Man, and my Super friends, like the Justice League. One of my favorite Christmas memories from childhood is of waking up to find the latest He-Man toys (including the elusive Orko) set up in action poses underneath the tree. There was no such thing as a “Harrison Ford,” but Han Solo and Indiana Jones were both heroes of mine.

I was Chewbacca for three Halloweens in a row.

As I grew older, I had a hard time deciding what I wanted more, those awesome new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures or…a girlfriend. I chose Door #3 instead, Dungeons & Dragons. The nice thing about D&D was that, to a 12-year-old kid, it felt more grown up than playing with dolls, while still maintaining the most violent and dorky aspects of make-believe. My older brother, himself a huge dork then and now, invited me to become a regular part of his college role-playing crew, which was awesome to a dopey kid like me.

In retrospect, my brother hooking teenaged me up with beer and/or some college Betties would have been more awesome. (You really blew it in terms of facilitating my “coming of age,” Bro! At least my older sister got me drunk once when I visited her!) Still, it was during those D&D visits that I was first exposed to Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and so much more geeky fun. So it wasn’t all for naught.

All of this, the lack of a corrupting moral influence included, provided a strong foundation for my fanboy future. Plus, I sucked at sports.

Nevertheless, the strength of this foundation would soon be tested by one of geekdom’s greatest natural enemies—puberty.

Teen Geek in Love
I wouldn’t say that puberty is a “geek killer.” In fact, it is often the opposite—a geek enhancer. The hair and hormones of a puberty-stricken teen will make even the coolest kid look, sound, and smell like geek. Generally, this leads to the stricken making a concerted effort to eliminate any unnecessary or voluntary geek characteristics and herding with other non-geek victims, cancelling out any unfair allegations of geekiness. And sometimes, the geek-at-heart will try to deny their geeky urges or may even convince themselves that their prepubescent geekiness was “just a phase,” as they try to socialize with the non-geek herd.

Puberty is like Rumspringa for dweebs.

Inevitably, many of my old geek ways were put on hiatus when I became a teenager, particularly when I finally did get that girlfriend. Suddenly, I had far more important things to spend my allowance on than comic books, and I certainly couldn’t give up valuable homework-free date time watching cartoons or wrestling. Also, my personal puberpalooza took place during the rise of grunge, so I had to put in several hours a day deciphering Nirvana lyrics and coordinating my flannel/long-john combos. Thankfully, I didn’t deny all of my geekly desires. For example, I still loved to draw caricatures and comics, and people seemed to like me for it (I swear my funny drawings are what helped an unathletic runt like me survive high school). Also, when I finally joined the workforce, my first real job was (wait for it) in a comic shop.

I blame the girlfriends for my missing the entire “Attitude” era of pro wrestling and for making me limit my comic reading to what I could flip through in each 4 to 6 hour shift at the comic shop. It wouldn’t be until a few years later, after college, when my professional life brought me into sequential art hotbed Manhattan, that I was regularly and enthusiastically back on track with comics.

The most significant expression of my lingering geekiness during this period was that I never stopped gaming. I always managed to break away once or twice a month for the short train ride to my brother’s college for one of our 17-hour marathon gaming sessions. After my brother graduated, the games continued—usually in my apartment. New friends entered the gaming crew and new girlfriends cocked their eyebrows at me huddling over a hex map, speaking with weird accents, and rolling our strangely colored dice. (Years later, I finally married one of those girlfriends, and I remember trying to hide my dorky hobby from her, specifically. Once, she asked over the phone, “So what are you guys doing, playing poker?” “Yeah… something like that,” I replied, then quickly hung up with her, needing to cast invisibility before entering a liche's crypt. It’s all about the element of surprise when facing the undead, you see.)

Oddly enough, with more than a decade of regular, enthusiastic gaming under my utility belt, I’ve never been so much into the game as I was into the storytelling aspect of role-playing. Through the years, I’ve played under various rules systems, as basic warriors, superheroes, plane-hopping elves, cyber-punk technomancers, and even Jedi. It was never about the rulebooks. To this day, I couldn’t tell you how THAC0 works or figure the radius of a fireball cast by an 8th-level warrior monk. So, despite being a definite role-playing geek, I was never very good at it.

The Goal-Oriented Geek
Out of college and well into my twenties, I was living with my not-yet wife, who, in the intervening years, finally learned the ugly truth about my gaming and she had become fully aware of my geekiness. Two giant Alex Ross prints—a mock Madman movie poster and the giant Crisis on Infinite Earths poster—hung in the living room of our tiny apartment and, now that I was working only a few subway stops away from mega-comic shops like Midtown, Hanley’s, and Forbidden Planet, my comic collecting was at an all-time high. My geekiness was at peak levels about a year into a D&D campaign I was playing with long-time friends and (at the time) co-workers, Peat and Jeremy. My character was a tattooed barbarian half-ogre named Oz the Half-Man.

This had to be the third or fourth campaign we played together, but there was something different about it. It was getting harder to get together, and when we did, the game sessions were shorter and involved a lot more out-of-game chitchat. I think something had clicked in me, and I’m sure it clicked in Peat and Jeremy too. Just like playing with my action figures longer than I should have, I was rolling up new D&D characters (even painting pewter figurines of them) past the age where it was cute or charming. And I couldn’t help but wonder, “What was the point?”

You see, kids, there comes a time in every geek’s life when he or she has to look at all of the creative energy being spent on make-believe and figure out whether it has some practical, productive application (not that there is anything wrong with escapism for the sake of escapism). Creating new D&D characters, memorizing the line-up of the Legion of Super Heroes, drawings comics in the back of school notebooks, building custom action figures out of the scattered broken parts leftover from childhood, or rocking the high score on Guitar Hero World Tour—it all takes a tremendous amount of time, and sometimes it even takes talent. So this was that time for me. For all of us, really. We had to ask ourselves if we were being the best geeks we could be. We had to test our mettle.

While this sort of thing can often lead to disappointment, frustration, or complacency, our nerd trinity actually benefited from the self-applied triple kick in the ass. It didn’t take long at all for us to pack up our campaign module, for the game to fade into memory, and for each of us to channel our dorky powers into something fruitful. Peat decided to get serious about his writing (he’d been writing for years, but this would be the first time he started writing pitches with the goal of securing a literary agent) and, within a few years had sold his first fantasy novel, The Warded Man, to a bunch of publishers worldwide. Jeremy and I went in a slightly different way. We teamed up to work on a comic book, Division 18: The Union of Novelty Costumed Performers. Jeremy focused on the art and built us a website, while I took care of the lion’s share of writing and promotion. We managed to put out our first issue through Diamond and sold in stores—in itself, a satisfying bit of wish fulfillment—and the comic is still going strong online. The point: sometimes a geek can evolve…into a professional geek.

So, What Kind of Geek Am I Now?
My geek net had been cast wide at an early age and made my awkward teen years extra awkward, until I discovered girls and almost threw it all away. Then, as a working college graduate with a live-in girlfriend, my inner geek resurfaced in the form of a $50/week comic book habit and a standing monthly engagement to pretend I was a questing adventurer in a fantasy realm. I even put out my own comic book, which got my foot in the door for maybe someday making a career catering to other geeks. And, at some point during the making of that comic, I knocked up my wife.

During the pregnancy, my wife and I watched the entire runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel on DVD, and I started reading the Dark Tower series of novels (way better than the comics!). Days before the due date, we went to a rock concert (the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs) and a comedy show (Louis C.K.). Instead of lullabies and classical music, I played Johnny Cash and Kings of Leon albums for the baby through my wife’s pregnant belly. These are not geeky, per se, but they are part of my pop culture addiction -- a mainstream offshoot of the geekiness of old. Geek is chic. And lately, it seems to be all encompassing.

What Is a Geek, Anyway?
You’d think I would have asked this earlier. I tend to flip-flop a lot with my characterization of “geek” as a positive or negative thing. Even in this essay, I’ve suggested a geek spectrum ranging from mouth breathing to godliness. And this website (every nook and cranny of the web, really) is full of essays exploring the many aspects of geek obsession.

But do you know what a geek really is? Technically?

It’s a carnie who bites the heads off of chickens and other varmints in sideshows. (FYI, This is not the kind of geek I am or that I want Alexa to be.)

And for a long time after that, it was just a derogatory term for the loser caste, a la nerds and dorks. But somewhere along the way, some of those outcasts were able to reclaim the insult and wear it like a badge of honor. The Wikipedia entry on “Geek” sums this phenomenon up so I don’t have to. But the bottom line is that now, everyone’s a geek.

Think about it -- What is so different about obsessing over superheroes compared with obsessing over celebrities? Aside from taste, is there really a difference between the person who watches every Vh1 reality show and the person who watches every episode of Lost? Considering the fact that my wife and I fall into both groups, I say not. We’re pop culture junkies, gobbling up every nibble of pseudo-escapism on the DVR menu. With the mainstreaming of traditional geek culture, thanks in great part to Hollywood latching onto the San Diego Comic Con and the multimedia success of geek advocates like Whedon and Kevin Smith, it is becoming harder to define which pop culture obsessions qualify you for fanboy status and which ones just make you a fan. I guess if a fanbase has a nickname—Trekkers, Losties, Marvel Zombies—that’s pretty geeky (and I’m definitely two of those three examples). But what about the women (and men) who go gaga over Sex and the City or The Sopranos? Is a collection of commemorative Elvis plates any less geeky to own than a complete set of Lord of the Rings action figures? “Jocks” identify themselves now as “Sports Geeks.” “Princesses” identify themselves as “Fashion Geeks.” Why draw a line? Why differentiate?

It’s great to see old labels fade and know that the good guys won. But we all know that the true geeks are the ones who would have been geeks before it was cool. Geeks like me.

NEXT TIME: Baby's first comic con!

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