Never Been Nerdy

Recently, a friend and I discussed what we saw as a palpable shift in “Nerd Culture.” We agreed that a tectonic shift happened once the things “nerds” loved came to dominate popular culture.

I offered what I thought was a neat insight, that “nerds used to be punk rock.”

Nerds Used to Be Punk Rock

The gentle implication of that is that the “nerds” from “our day” were once proud iconoclasts comfortable with being on the outside of social circles, and finding their own tribe.

The more damning read is that the “nerds,” now in the dominant position, are the bullies. They’ve become what was always perceived as the antithesis of the nerds, the “popular kids.”

I’m not going to go through the “litany” of nerdy things that are now “mainstream.” You know them, and I’m not trying for word count this time. The Big Bang Theory leveraged nominal pop culture references to a lengthy television run while cloaked in a patina of “nerdiness.”

It’s the classic conundrum. Have “nerds” become the very thing they hate? Are we all Charles Foster Kane?

Citizen Kane is one of the greatest films ever created. I don’t care whether it’s hip to think otherwise now.

A Passionate Note

While thinking through this all, it seems that the metric for determining if someone is a “nerd” about something is, simply, passion.

Am I passionate about things some people consider “nerdy”? Sure! I’m passionate about a lot of things, from grammar to the the fact that you should eat with your mouth closed. Some have told me through the years that I’m too passionate about some things. I concede

People are passionate about a lot of things, though. There are people who are passionate about watching The Bachelor. There are other people passionate about well-maintained yards.

For that reason, I’d disqualify simple passion as the identifier of a “nerd.” Since people can be passionate about anything, that’s a real broad metric and would mean just about everyone would be a nerd. As attractive a thought as it might be to champion while walking home from the The Breakfast Club, it’s more than a little reductive.

A Question of Fixation

You could postulate, then, that what you’re passionate about would “make you a nerd.” This would follow as a way highlight personality distinctions between someone passionate about Dungeons & Dragons as different sort of person than someone passionate about horticulture.

That sentiment seems primed for a charge of “gatekeeping.” While it’s a very popular thing to do when someone doesn’t comprehend a larger point and so someone wants to undercut your point, it would be a stretch to say that I’m setting criteria to determine membership in a group, or acting as a virtual bouncer at the metaphorical door.

It should be clear I’m not judging anyone’s likes or dislikes, or setting a bar for entry. As an aside, I find such charges curious since no one can determine what you like but you, and can sod off otherwise.

I’m talking about my attempt to figure out what, specifically, causes someone to be called a “nerd” in the first place.

Wikipedia seems to fixate, itself, on the idea of the “nerd stereotype” and have difficulty on its own nailing down the definition. There is a fascinating portion there of it about the possible etymology of the word, which I guess makes me nerdy because I read it?

Napoleon Dynamite nerd used for SEO purposely because it's soulless and manipulative
More of a geek or a dork, honestly.

Closer to the Root

As I kept digging, the question isn’t whether “those things are nerdy anymore,” but rather, “Were they ever nerdy in the first place?

The faint hint of this insight was caused by the thought that things considered “nerdy” when I was younger are “pop culture” now. It made sense that a source of discomfort for older “nerds” was that the things which were niche – comic book characters especially – are now commonplace.

That could make it a function of age, of a giant midlife crisis in slow motion. I’ve seen plenty of people wander that path, insisting what they loved when younger was a better version of what people love now. I’m talking about a different attitude. I’ve seen a discomfiting habit, among “nerds” in my own age range, to phase out of current culture and fixate on things they know from the past the same way our parents’ generation did.

The things we called “nerdy” were always pop culture items for kids. Everything from Transformers to G.I. Joe, to comic books and more, has always been pop culture, and heavily marketed. They were toys given long-running television shows which were 30-minute commercials at their core. The one exception might be the aforementioned Dungeons & Dragons, except even that got a cartoon and a movie I never bothered watching.

In other words, the things that I, and almost all the people I’ve personally known who called themselves nerds, have always been the focus of box office success, televisions shows, and overpriced trinkets for the crapper. Things haven’t changed, it’s that people have refused to let go of the things they loved as kids.

Still Pondering

As I kept mulling  these ideas, I began to doubt if I’ve ever truly been a “nerd.” It seems now that it might simply be a mantle I claimed, but don’t deserve. I’ve loved things with a childish love, but as established above, passion isn’t a solid criterion.

Passion would certainly explain the behaviors of some nerds who are now the bullies. Even the ones who claim they’re against bullying are all about proving their…whatever. I don’t pay attention, honestly, and don’t know why other people do.

What’s different is priority, I guess. My own father nurtured a love of model trains for his entire life, but  never got excited enough about model trains to seek out arguments with total strangers about them. Perhaps he would have, if social media had existed.

I doubt it. I knew the guy pretty well, he was fairly grounded. At the end of the day, then it seems that the qualifying characteristic of a nerd is…childishness? That can’t be right.

Can it?

Sybok
OK, maybe the fact that I made this image is evidence I’m a nerd. But if so, a funny one.

The Immutable Impermanence of Character Trivia: The Corollary Argument to The Perpetual Reboot Theory

Previously, I spoke about the Perpetual Reboot Theory I’m forwarding as a counterpoint to the seemingly-popular theory of the “Perpetual Second Act” for comic book characters. In fact, my soundly-argued and robust counter-theory sprang out of a similar debate, also (inevitably) with my pal Craig as we were preparing to record an episode of Words With Nerds.

We were debating whether Wonder Woman’s one weakness remains “being bound by a man.” Setting aside all the “feminist” sensibilities that offends, and the character’s original fetish inspiration, I contended that in these modern times such a thing no longer applied. Wonder Woman has changed through the years, and this aspect of her is undoubtedly lost to the mists of time and previous iterations.

In what appears to be a corollary of the “Perpetual Second Act” theory, Craig contended that what was once true for a comic book character is always true, until it is specifically contradicted.

This thought, while intriguing and creepily Orwellian in some sense, is something with which I cannot agree. After realizing I was making no headway with my point in person, I decided to give voice here in my own public forum. I pay for the URL, I may as well use it.

Everything Changes, Everything’s the Same

As they are quietly reinvented for each decade, comic book characters regularly slough off or retain as much of their personal story as the new creative team wishes. They are, in other words, in a state of perpetual reboot.

As they are reimagined, powers are gained and lost. Aspects of their origins are updated to play better for newer audiences. As audience sensibilities change, so too does much of the accompanying effluvia of a character.

While certain baselines have to remain for the new character to retain identifiability, the new creative team is free to ignore or include whatever they wish from each previous era. Batman’s parents are shot dead during a mugging, but the event from which they were returning can be modified so long as the key element remains. Someone in the future may well decide they’re coming back from a circus, though I’m sure that would anger someone and become its own historical curio as circuses are now out of fashion.

As a side note, what holds true for a comic book character isn’t necessarily going to carry over to their movie doppelgänger, and vice versa. That’s rather obvious, though the two media certainly do inform each other.

Returning to the sticking point that spurred all of this, Wonder Woman’s “only weakness,” as it was revealed decades ago, was being bound by a man. Again, this makes sense in terms of the character’s apparent origin as an S&M fetish character, but I don’t think anyone honestly would argue that it remains her weakness in the modern day.

A wonderful discussion among nerds on Stack Exchange illustrates my point. While Wonder Woman did have the weakness if her bracelets were bound by a man, reference to it has dissipated through time. As with every question about a character, it depends on the time period/iteration.

Let’s use another long-running character as an example. Superman has seen his fair share of weird powers born from the necessity to meet publishing deadlines through the years. A great rundown of the weirdest is here.

I’m sure no one really considers Superman’s powers even to have included generating miniature versions of himself out of his hands. Not just that he doesn’t have the power to do so anymore, but that it didn’t happen in current “continuity.” Yet, going with the idea that an idea is forever in place until specifically contradicted, he did. He must have, so long as you discount the idea that the Superman of the 1950s is not precisely the same Superman as exists in the 2010s.

Bat Shark Repellent

To demonstrate my point, I asked my esteemed Words With Nerds cohost a question regarding Batman.

The question was whether Bat Shark Repellent exists outside the continuity for the 1966 movie, and attendant television series of that era.

Setting aside the fact that there is a reference to it in Lego Batman, which is a sendup of the entire history of the franchise, I don’t think any fan would seriously maintain that such a thing is in Batman’s arsenal. Frank Miller’s Year One and Dark Knight Returns, key reinventions of the character that informed many later versions, certainly don’t use it. I’m pretty sure that Alan Moore would cook and eat your family if you suggested it had a place in The Killing Joke.

Moving to film for the sake of normal people, Christopher Nolan’s Batman works don’t seem like the sort to keep it in stock; given we see the origin rebooted to fit the modern era, we certainly see neither its creation nor its application. Bat Shark Repellent doesn’t exist for Tim Burton’s envisioning of the character. It doesn’t even exist for Joel Schumacher’s, though one could argue it would seem to belong there.

The retort to this could easily be that movies are “different from comics.” But they are different only in terms of the medium used to reboot the character. It’s not really different than when a new team takes over Wonder Woman.

I’m sure some creator has also included nods to such a thing, and I’m not going to bother debating the fun they certainly have with meta nods to character history. Those meta nods are in fun, a wink at the audience through the fourth wall, though I’m sure some consider them validation when necessary.

To Be Perfectly Clear

The problem, then, has become fans themselves. That’s a theme that I’ve come back to repeatedly over time, usually throwing stones at my fellow Star Wars fans.

Possessed by an obsession with “continuity” and “connectedness,” fans have become rigid interpreters of back story and what is inviolate about it. They will accept change, but it must be on their specific and rigorous terms only. Again, you will find similar Star Wars and Star Trek fans demanding their place as the arbiter of something is specifically contradicted, they hold it as sacrosanct and inviolable.

To be sure, I’m speaking broadly of one set of fans. I have to believe that there are plenty of others who have recognized that this is all supposed to be fun, and if an iteration of the character from the 1960s reflected those times, it’s OK to ignore it now.

But more importantly, there is the question of who among the fans is the more authoritative voice for what may be disregarded. Sales obviously play a role, but perhaps a Ruling Fan Council should be brought into play. If a majority of that Council likes an element that hasn’t been mentioned in a while, the publishers are duty-bound to bring it back.

Perhaps certain demographics can be given more weight. Perhaps to have a vote you must prove you’re one of the best and most knowledgeable fans of all in a trivia contest. Then, at least, all that esteem you’re due for knowing minor trivia about a character’s history pays off.

Honestly, I’d love it if the worthless things I remember about Star Wars could get me a seat at that table. Because then Hoojibs are back and my #Hoojibs4Life campaign wasn’t for nothing.

The Concluding Untenability

It’s plainly untenable to contend that once a story or character element exists, it remains in effect until specifically contradicted. This gets muddied further when current creative teams acknowledge or use elements of previous iterations. A default position could become that those “consistencies” don’t exist until the creative team decides to bring it into their own continuity.

However, as stated above, that doesn’t equate to a blanket claim that every character element is destroyed with each reinvention. After all, despite the changing times, Captain America is still the poster child for Performance Enhancing Drugs.

In fact, it is further tempting to avoid the argument as a whole and think of it as Schrodinger’s Comic, where an element both does and does not exist until the current creative team decides to acknowledge or discard it. But that gets us back to the problematic idea that an item is inviolate until negative acknowledgement, which is again an untenable position.

Perhaps what you insist on retaining for a character reveals more about how you want to see them than the current state of the property about which you’re talking. I’m no psychiatrist, so I wouldn’t know.

I just know that I should, after all, be class president.

The Perpetual Reboot

Some time ago, Kevin Smith offered the insight that comic books are the “perpetual second act.” Since Smith carries so much “cred” within the nerd community, his theory was heartily embraced and advanced in blogs and articles. (One could argue that I am speaking redundantly here since there is no real difference between blogs and articles anymore, and that’s not necessarily a positive thing.) One example is a piece which enthusiastically demonstrated the point as decisively as one can in reference to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Also Wonder Woman is in It and We’re Establishing a Franchise.

My cohost from Words with Nerds, Craig Sorrell, also subscribes to this theory. He’s advanced it on and off air in many conversations.

Looking for images from Rogue One A Star Wars Story? The Closest You'll Get Here is Crai Gerrera

Defining the Perpetual Second Act

If you’re not familiar with the “perpetual second act,” the idea is that comic book characters can’t truly resolve things. Whether internal or external trauma, if they were to resolve it, they would no longer have their raison d’etre. Forward progress is a Sisyphean torment for each character.

The theory has now come to explain, as mentioned above, why movies based on comic properties are caught in a never-resolving loop. It’s an interesting thought, and it holds up at a glance. But as I’ve continued to turn it over in my head, I think that Smith, and his acolytes, are wrong.

Let’s take one of my favorite characters as a convenient example.

Batman, Et Al. v. The Perpetual Second Act: Dawn of Arguments

The theory of the Perpetual Second Act supports two thoughts. One is that the story of the character is never ending, cursed never to resolve. The other is that the character can never progress past a certain point.

The first part I dismiss because if you really want to split hairs, no character is able to absolutely resolve their story until they die. So long as they are alive, their story can continue. The story you want to tell may be gone and buried, but so long as there’s the spark of life their tale can be brought back. It’s why Luke can come back in The Force Awakens. It’s why “Flynn Lives” in Tron Legacy. It’s why the Godfather series is so maddening. Technically, if you really want Michael Corleone’s story permanently resolved you have to accept The Godfather Part III, which is just a silly thought overall.

Let’s state it more plainly. Anyone would see the obviously be a fallacy to argue that, just because more stories can be found, no story ever resolves. You’d have to maintain that no story arc has a resolution unless every character dies. (To that end, though, creativity can overcome even that, as evidenced by Escape from the Planet of the Apes.)

In addition to story resolution, to accept the “perpetual second act” you’d have to accept the idea that characters never develop either. As an example, you’d subscribe to the theory that Bruce Wayne never overcomes the grief at his parents’ death. For if he did, he would cease to be “Batman.”

Would he, though?

The problem here is that, taken to its logical extreme, the Perpetual Second Act would have to concede that a character’s origin story is never-ending; if no story ever resolves, then they are never resolved about anything. This is in conflict with the fact that an origin story is by its nature limited, and it exposes a key flaw in the theory.

The players alter, swapping villains and allies, but these heroes aren’t what the audience wants if Superman dedicates himself to filling every pothole in Metropolis and advocating for healthier school lunches. So the stories have to carry a same basic familiarity, regardless of the players brought in for that arc.

However, this is not the same as a story never resolving. Batman is broken by Bane in the comic series Knightfall, and things proceed until they resolve. Moving to film for the sake of an example accessible to a wider audience, even Joel Schumacher demonstrated the same thing (or at least “Lee Batchler & Janet Scott Batchler and Akiva Goldsman” did) with the resolution of the Red Book plotline in Batman Forever. Then, new villains show up in Batman & Robin and Batman resolves that story…only to be reborn in the hands of a new storyteller.

The Perpetual Reboot

I contend that, instead of a “perpetual second act,” it’s rather that comic book characters, and by extension their movie doppelgängers, exist in a state of perpetual reboot.

So long as they continue, they will be be updated and adapted to fit the times in which they’re being published. While characters’ base foci and origin points has remained similar, the details change to fit the times.

What we’re seeing is a continual postulation of themes using the characters as a constant and everything else as a variable and updated as necessary.

The perpetual reboot is naturally a continual reset button on a long enough plot line. Fans reject a story arc? They resolve it, hit the reset button and…Spider-Man was a clone. The New 52 falls apart? Hit the reset button and start again.

So it’s not that the characters don’t progress, it’s that they resolve, reset, and resolve again. As time progresses, this continual reset also gives creative teams the opportunity to incorporate changes in the world outside to appeal to newer audiences with different sensibilities while retaining the cachet of a baseline familiarity.

Lather, Rinse, Reboot. For all time.

The Reboot Signal! Quick, to the Reboot Cave!

In Closing

While it may seem to long-time comics readers that there’s been no progress with a character, what’s really at issue is that they’ve become inured to it because they know that no matter how successful or unsuccessful it is, it will be rebooted. This creates a sense of inescapable non-progress since you know that no matter what happens, in the end it won’t matter…as the character is reimagined again.

So I can also understand why Kevin Smith’s theory makes sense to him, given his own approaches to character and story, as well as altered brain chemistry through continual drug use. He was close to the mark, but missed it ever so slightly.

Unfortunately, since he has such a large platform within the nerd world, his opinions tend to be taken as correct by default. I will publish this to see it languish, and for the sake of just getting the thoughts out of my head already. In short, “perpetual reboot” doesn’t see great chance for acceptance.

This is why I shouldn’t be Class President. I should be Class Tyrant.

Tune in Next Time for….The Corollary Argument – The Immutable Impermanence of Character Trivia*!

* Title subject to change

Sick of Thinking Happy Thoughts

Important note: You may notice that I’m not releasing the How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Star Wars: The Force Awakens blogs sequentially. The simple reason is that the blogs are evolving as I write. As I finish each part, they will be released. No wine before its time.

I believe in positivity. We need more of it in the world.

I led the charge years ago among the fabled “convocation” that The Empire Strikes Back has a hopeful ending, a view that’s seen growing acceptance over the years. I’ve often pointed out the good in Star Trek V, and that’s even seen a rehabilitation in fan estimation over time. Granted, that’s been because they released Star Trek movies far less satisfying and thematically sound along the way, but still.

In short, I enjoy looking for the “good” in things and trying to drag out filmmaker intent as a means of absolution for missteps in execution. Someone trying to make a statement about an important topic, especially one with which I agree, is often cause to look past what they couldn’t put together quite right.

This is an attitude that’s gained acceptance online in a number of geek circles. In an inevitable reaction to hyperbolic rantings against an entertainment, there are the new champions of “looking at it from a positive angle.”

At first, it was a refreshing wave in a churning sea of negativity. But like finding yourself in the dream land of It’s a Good Life (the Twilight Zone episode with the little boy who could shape reality), the blessing turned out to be a curse.

Twilight Zone It's a Good Life
You thought bad things about something I like! To the cornfield with you!

The pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. It’s becoming virtually mandated that you never offer harsh words for a comic book property, or movie, or television show, lest you be the target of crusade to remember that tastes differ and to offer token acknowledgement that your opinion can never, ever be of more value than those that like something.

The fact that you have to offer such a disclaimer, or obeisance to a fan’s sensitive defensiveness about the value of their opinion by default, is complete garbage.

Of course a person’s tastes account for what they think of something. Someone who likes Masterpiece Theatre didn’t typically enjoy the slasher flicks of the 1980s. But if they called Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers garbage, no one asked them to qualify to a young kesseljunkie that his love for it was still a good thing.

People tangle up their identities with their entertainments so intrinsically that they’ve lost perspective. I’ve been there. I used to have so much of my personal identity wrapped up in Star Wars that I took insults directed toward any of the movies as a personal insult.

It wasn’t even a conscious thing! It led to a lot of arguments.

Anthony Hopkins Emilio Estevez Mick Jagger Freejack
I’ll note no one defended Freejack. NO ONE.

The Lesson

The lesson I learned is that you have to learn to separate yourself from the things you love. You have to separate yourself from the self-importance you assign your own opinion. Because if you’re going to force the critic to admit that no one’s opinion is better than another’s, then neither is yours, and by default you’re the bully for jumping in to shame them for their “negativity.”

If you spend time online, accept that you will see a large flood of negativity about what you love, and none of it is about you until you make it so. People don’t state negative opinions because they want to hurt anyone. They just want to declare their own opinion, the same way you want to declare yours. You have to accept that a declaration of a negative opinion, generally spoken, is not a specific critique of you.

I will take a moment to say that this is, of course, a large generalization; there are people who insult the things you love because it’s a passive-aggressive way to insult you. They may even glory in the attention they get from it. Those people can be consciously excised from your life.

So I’m calling for a new embrace of critical argument. Brutal criticism is just fine, too, as it has its place. If someone wants to go nuclear and say they hate something, more power to them.

Hate it. Throw your passion at it. Declare it dumb and say it’s the ridiculous result of an incompetent creator.

Have an argument about it.

And if it really bothers you, as Paul Anka might sing, “Just don’t look.”