Recently, a friend shared a YouTube video with me. It was a rather stunning cartoon short done in anime style, depicting a sci-fi universe of fast-moving, hard-working ship pilots hastily gathering in their impressive machines to engage in what promised to be a stunning battle of some sort. It was fast-paced, well-animated, impressively detailed, and exciting to watch. It was also, I hasten to add, intended as a prologue to the 1980 feature film The Empire Strikes Back. The characters were Empire pilots, and the ships were TIE fighters and AT-ATs. It was a fantastic cartoon based on a well-known movie, made independently by a fan.
This is a phenomenon that I have encountered a lot in the most recent decade, which may now be easily dubbed The Age of the Geek. I have been to Comic-Con, galleries, and various other venues for geek art, and have seen enormous paintings, intimately detailed and passionately rendered, of characters like Captain America, Bender from “Futurama,” and Mario. And while these pieces of pop art can be expressive, imaginative, and clearly expertly made (I certainly don’t have the chops to make such an awesome piece of fan animation), I can’t help but feel a pang of ambivalence when I see them. I feel like Nerds and Geeks need a fresh influx of new stuff. Let me explain.
I’m the millionth person to observe this particular cultural detail, but most of the recent cinematic blockbusters have been adaptations, sequels, and remakes. The highest-grossing 2014 film that wasn’t based on a comic book, older film, or pop novel (as of this writing) was Ride Along from back in January. Since then, it’s been animated films based on TV shows, comic book movies, and new versions of Godzilla. Some of these films were merely fair, some of them were rollicking and thrilling entertainments. But none of them where wholly original ideas. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It’s what I’ve come here to analyze.
My generation (I was born in 1978) has essentially taken over the world, and we’ve reached the point where what we make (as the filmmakers, the comic book artists, the TV show creators) all dips into a central vital canon of well-known geek properties. What with the success of comic book movies, remakes, and other echoes of Gen-Y beloveds, we seem to have openly announced that we want to see our favorite characters on screen over and over again. We want to see loving rendered versions of Marvel superheroes, Ninja Turtles, and, if we get our way, Goonies and Ghostbusters. We want to see actors play them, see them fight, we take our well-known fantasy entertainments as seriously as we take Oscar bait movies. I could easily author a list of films and comics that come from this central geek canon (call it the Geek Doctrine of Ideas, if I may make a reference to Plato).
And, yes, this has been what we’ve always wanted, if the numbers are any indicator. The Avengers was not just one of the most financially successful films of all time, but a weird final culmination of many childhood fantasies. It was like watching Freddy fight Jason, but writ much, much larger. This constant tapping into the Geek Doctrine of Ideas – polishing off our old pop culture friends and handing them back to us – has proven to not only be successful, but dominate much of Nerd thinking. Heck, much of the news on Nerdist is devoted to new versions of characters we love. Ant-Man and Daredevil were just in the news. Last week, everyone was aflutter with Godzilla. And I don’t think any Nerdist readers would ever dare think “I think I’ll skip the next Avengers movie.” It’s practically required of us to keep abreast of our Geek culture friends’ adventures.
The problem with this approach that has so dominated all of pop culture for so many years – and the central crux of this editorial – is that the Geek Doctrine of Ideas is a limited resource. Sure, we can all sit back and enjoy the 7th, the 8th, the 9th X-Men feature films (provided they’re all enjoyable), but I wonder how long this can hold out. How many characters can we exploit until it becomes uninteresting? Marvel exec Kevin Feige recently let slip that he has Marvel feature films planned through the next fifteen years. Oh sure, this gets many Marvel fans excited for a seemingly unending string of slick superhero films but – if I may wax slightly heretical – this leaves me torn and maybe even a little bummed out. One, because it means Feige probably won’t listen to my idea for a Motormouth feature film (Seriously, I have mailed a treatment to Marvel; we’ll see if it goes anywhere. I’m guessing not), but it also bums me out because, well, we’re going to be going back to the same well perhaps too often. It’s a well that people like drinking from, but after a while, I fear it will all start to taste the same (To some critics, like Kenneth Turan, “Marvel Fatigue” is becoming a thing).
Indeed, that idea could be extended to all geek culture. We (that includes you, that includes me) are so happy to re-watch, re-create, and re-visit our favorite films, favorite sci-fi canons, favorite heroes and characters, that we seem to rarely encounter something that is new. Something that can add to the canon, rather than just reflect it.
Oh sure, we occasionally get a new film or character that we want to rally around. 2004’s Shaun of the Dead leaps to mind, and director Edgar Wright’s subsequent canonization. Christopher Nolan made the rather excellent Inception. But these tentpoles seem so few and far between when viewed next to the big hits based around known properties. So much of our energy goes into re-creation, of making a huge and expressive metaphorical portrait of Darth Vader, that we seem to have forgotten a vital thing: We’re going to need something new before the well runs dry.
I declare that we Nerds need more new stuff. Rather than using your talents as an animator, as a costume designer, as a painter to merely make yet another portrait or short film of, say, Thor, why not make a new hero? Trademark that guy. Think up his own backstory. Sure, it may not sell. But it might. The outright creativity that goes into making a wholly new product can only enrich you as a creator, and can – in the slim chance that it catches on in the pop culture firmament – only enrich Nerd Culture at large. Indie game designers, aspiring animators, independent comic book authors. These are the lifeblood of Nerd Culture. They always have been. And we Nerd consumers could – while still loving the decades of wonderful fantasy tradition that has come before – spend more time seeking out the new. The old nerd stuff is fine, but there’s only so many times one can watch Star Wars before the bloom starts to come off the rose.
In short: Don’t just look for/write/create the next Star Wars/Avengers/Batman. Look for the first of something. Make the first of something. An influx of creativity could make a financially thriving Nerd Culture more varied, more robust. Biologists will tell you that biodiversity is an indicator of ecological health. And Nerd Culture could always use more biodiversity to promote its health. Its robustness. Its constant need to create its own life. Surely you, dear readers, don’t want all of Nerd Culture to become stale through constant repetition. By all means, continue to love what you love, but being surprised by a new love is good too.
When I was 14 or so, I was addicted to Marvel trading cards. I loved the portraits. I loved the stats. I loved the condensed backstories. I probably spent more time poring over those cards than I did reading actual comic books. I created imaginary Marvel team-ups in my head, pairing Cannonball with Morbius and Daredevil. But after a while, something struck me. I decided to make my own cards. Using carefully cut card stock, I invented about 150 new characters for my own imaginary line of comic books. The characters sucked, of course (don’t ask me about the supervillain who had whips for arms), but I feel that my creative impulse can (at the risk of sounding immodest) serve as an example of what we need more of in Nerd culture. Read your favorites, of course. I would never ask you to stop. But it’s also okay to occasionally invent your own favorites.
It will make us healthier in the long run.