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The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth

5 minute read
Lev Grossman

There was a time–yes, my children, the legends are true–when J.R.R. Tolkien was not cool. Really. Very much not cool. Also video games, and Spider-Man, and the X-Men. There was a time, not even that long ago, when you could get beaten up by jocks in the woods behind the backstop for being down with the X-Men. Not that this happened to me personally. Friend of mine. Friend of mine’s cousin, actually. Lives in Canada. You wouldn’t know him.

The point is, things like that don’t happen so much anymore. Over the past few years, an enormous shift has taken place in American culture, a disturbance in the Force, a rip in the fabric of space-time. What was once hopelessly geeky–video games, fantasy novels, science fiction, superheroes–has now, somehow, become cool.

It’s as if the economic hegemony of the geek in the 1990s, when high tech and the Internet were driving the economy, has somehow been converted into a cultural hegemony. Rappers and athletes trick out their Hummers with Xboxes. Supermodels insist in interviews that they used to be losers in high school. Jon Cryer–Jon Cryer? Duckie from Pretty in Pink?–has a hit TV show. Did we lose a war with Nerdistan?

Just ask two of the ringleaders of this bloodless, prom-dateless coup: archgeek Joss Whedon, the man behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the science-fiction movie Serenity, which opens this Friday; and Neil Gaiman, creator of the classic comic book Sandman and author of the fantasy novel Anansi Boys, which comes out this month. Gaiman also has a movie opening this Friday, the Dark Crystal–flavored fantasy Mirrormask. “It will be national geek day!” he says.

Whedon and Gaiman agree that the line between dork and non-dork has become hopelessly blurred. “When I started doing Sandman, I could look at a group of people lined up to get my autograph, and I knew who was my fan and who was somebody’s mum there to get a signature,” says Gaiman, who’s English. “It doesn’t work that way anymore. They’re people. They’re us. That’s what they look like.”

“They’re a lot more attractive than I am, actually,” Whedon deadpans. “Which kind of disturbs and upsets me.”

For the ectomorphs among us, it’s a great time to be alive. Napoleon Dynamite is a cult hit. There are women, it is said, who find The O.C.’s Seth Cohen sexy, and men who feel the same way about bespectacled SNLer Tina Fey, to say nothing of emerging Harry Potter hottie Emma Watson. And Orlando Bloom–hello? Dude’s an elf? There are even “nerdcore” hip-hop artists, like Atlanta-based mc chris, whose Fett’s Vette is rapped entirely from the point of view of the bounty hunter from the Star Wars movies. “Say my name is Boba Fett, I know my s___ is tight/ Start not actin’ right, you’re frozen in carbonite …”

It’s not hard to see how this happened. It’s partly good business: nerds are highly employable, bursting with disposable income, and the entertainment industry has discovered them as a prime demographic to be marketed to, the same way it discovered teenage girls after Titanic. On a deeper level, there’s something about the nerd’s principled disdain for (or inability to abide by, same difference) ordinary social conventions that strikes Americans–a nation of nonconformists–as noble.

What’s not clear is whether nerds are all that thrilled to be embraced by the same mainstream America that used to make them eat grass during gym class. (Again: or so I’ve heard.) “We’re in this weird world,” Gaiman says bemusedly. “Anansi Boys is coming out, and it’s a fantasy novel, and it’s being published as a mainstream thing. It should have been 10,000 copies, just for people who love them, who would have had to go to a science-fiction specialty shop with a cat in it just to find it.”

Now that everybody wants to get down with the dorks, will they vanish altogether, assimilated into the mainstream the way the Borg assimilated Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager? Will their colorful indigenous culture be lost forever, drowned in an ocean of weenie wannabes?

Not quite yet. “I miss a little of that element. The danger of, Oh, I’m holding this science-fiction magazine,” says Whedon, who’s currently slated to direct a Wonder Woman movie. “That’s pretty much gone. We’ve been co-opted by the Man.” He sighs, then brightens up a bit. “Although when I walk into a restaurant with a stack of comic books, I still do get stared at a little bit.” Thank God for that. If he’s lucky, maybe they’ll even beat him up behind the backstop.

Read the complete conversation with Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon here.

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