The Story Arc of the Nerd: A Comic Book Ballad
Spider-Man swings through the streets of Midtown Manhattan. He dives and jumps, laughs at the bumper-to-bumper traffic 80 stories below and swerves around well-aimed volleys of pigeon poop. Finally, he alights on the side of a building overlooking Times Square. He's home. And so am I.
Alas, I'm not Spider-Man. I may live in New York City and aspire to some version of great power and responsibility but sadly, I didn't grow up in Forest Hills, Queens. However, I maintain that like the Hogwarts owl, my radioactive spider simply hasn't found me yet. But I can still find the spider myself. I find him every Wednesday in Midtown. Beneath the real visage of Spider-Man and up a daunting, Rocky-esque flight of stairs, I find myself in the Land of Oz, only full of comic books and the people who covet them instead of Munchkins.
Inside: A towering wall of comic books. Tight rows of graphic novels. Crowds of people whisking their way down the wall, eyes carefully attuned for just the right issue. They glance over Captain America, peruse Green Lantern, squabble over which of last week’s issues was the most absurd. This is the main branch of Midtown Comics, the store that claims the title of the largest retailer of comic books and related items in the United States.
Every single Wednesday, more than 150 brand new comics crowd these shelves; brand names and independent titles, single issue one-shots and the latest chapter in a story that goes back years, often decades. Hundreds of people file past this great wall of comics each day, perhaps picking out a single copy of one of those 150, perhaps picking out several dozen. There's plenty to go around because as both a major comics hub and powerful tourist attraction, Midtown orders far larger quantities of copies for the issues they sell than many of their smaller cousins across the country.
In my case, my eyes go straight for "Spider-Man, Batman and the X-Men. They have been my friends since I was a kid, rotting my brain on Saturday morning television, turning me into a blissful little comic book gremlin. Today, the little gremlin has grown up — I think. I've managed to eschew the Saturday morning cartoons in favor of their Alpha and Omega, the comics that despite Hollywood's best efforts, remain the backbone of superhero culture in the United States. And yes, there is a real, living subculture of superhero comic book fans and yes; we don't all live in our parents' basements. My room is on the main floor.
My identification as Comex nerdicus is a conflicted one, grasping as I do onto the vestiges of a subculture that has mutated far beyond the Children of the Atom of the 1960s. Superheroes by themselves are no longer hidden away in corners, menacing the night only in the imaginations of pre-adolescent boys. They can now be found in several dozen movies and almost as many television shows. They’re on lunch pails, backpacks and t-shirts. Can we still say that the caped crusaders and (wo)men of tomorrow are really a subculture? Can nerds still claim, as we are wont to do, that our utility belts belong to us and us alone, and you in the mainstream really can't have them?
We do occasionally share. At least the big stuff. We'll let the Hulk out to play once in a while but he stays in our sight at all times. You may know the generalities: the green skin, the anger, the eloquent smashing. But only we get to know the niche bona fides.
“Comic books are kind of a religion,” said Mitch Waxman, a longtime comic book artist who left the industry in 2008. Everyone knows the big stories of religion, Waxman said: Jesus, Moses, David. The religion of comic books has become too well-known to be ignored by the mainstream, too ubiquitous for most people to not at least know that Superman's alter ego is a guy named Clark Kent. But the religion of comics still has its adherents, the people who look past the big stuff and dive greedily into the minutiae, the “hidden cult knowledge,” Waxman talks about. It is there, in back issues and web fluid, that the true measure of a comic book nerd is found.
We comic book connoisseurs weren't always relegated to the obscurity of shops like Midtown. When characters like Superman first appeared, it was on the newsstand, a place comic books stayed from the 1930s through the 1960s, a place where they were far more visible and far more mainstream than their modern descendants.
Comic books were “not always co-opted by nerd/geek culture,” says Charles Steinback, a cartoonist and lifelong comics fan. Steinback equates that culture with a passion for little details, such as The Flash's exact top speed, or the max lift capacity of Wonder Woman's invisible jet. In eras past, he says, comics weren’t “a thing to get all trivia about.”
Comic books became a lot more insular when they moved off the newsstands, with fewer newsstands carrying issues and a specialized collector culture growing around the medium. The comic book shops that have introduced most readers today to the medium popped up in 1970s, and with those shops a new policy by publishers that meant unsold issues couldn't be returned by stores.
“They put themselves into the ghetto,” Waxman said of publishers’ move off the newsstands and into specialty comic book shops. It was a conscious decision to rely not on general sales but on a fixed customer base, a customer base that despite the ballooning popularity of superheroes, has been shrinking for some time now. Yes, there are shrinking superheroes, but no, shrinking sales is not a superpower. Comic books no longer represent the backbone of revenue for the major retailers, the lords of all superhero comics, Marvel and DC. Instead, their profits have increasingly come from merchandize and other media, Waxman said. Comic sales are simply not what they once were, seen in a progression charted by the Comics Chronicles that shows about 11 million copies of comics sold by industry giant Diamond Comic Distributors in September of 1996. Sales for March, 2011? About six million copies.
Despite the decline in sales for their books, superheroes are bigger than ever, big enough that some of the highest grossing films of all time were full of capes and cowls. According to IMDB, the Avengers and Dark Knight Rises each pulled in over $1 billion this summer. The huge cultural presence of superhero films have managed to bridge some of the gap between the mainstream and off-stream comic book readers.
“We just look at them as multimillion dollar commercials,” says the Marketing and Events Coordinator for Midtown Comics. A lot of the people who went to see the Avengers movie had never picked up a single issue of the comic. But it made them want to, drawing new customers into the store after each premier, says Thor Parker. And yes, that’s his real name.
The films have in some ways created a veneer of elitism among comic book fans. Part of it is a sense that we found the capes and tights crowd first. There is also a sense that true appreciation of superheroes is some kind of rite that has to be earned. Where “true” baseball fans expect one another to know detailed histories and statistics, there are instances of individuals, even comic book artists, accusing various people of being only “fake” comic book nerds. Our secret handshake is some kind of deep, memorized knowledge of our superhero lore; the number of characters to wear the Robin costume, the Green Lantern Corps oath. This lore is still very much an element that eludes the “mainstream.”
Regardless of how nerdily qualifications are judged, the films have still added a new demographic to readership that has eluded comic books for years. “A lot more women are involved in the comics scene,” says Parker. You need look no further than New York Comic-Con for proof. This October, 100,000 of my closest friends (not really) and I descended on the Javits Center in lower Manhattan for the second largest annual comic book convention in the United States. Rather than an assembly of asthma inhalers and pocket protectors that the uninitiated might expect, the crowd was a wide panoply of young and old, men and women.
Of course, the diversity was partially hidden by the costumes, myself included. I went dressed in slacks, dress shoes, shirt, vest and a loosened tie around my throat. My hair was no longer the typical dark brown but had been died gray, complemented by a fake mustache under my nose and a comically large prop cigar jutting from my mouth. This year I was the grizzled newsman personified, J. Jonah Jameson, wrathful publisher of the Daily Bugle in the Spider-Man universe, played to growling fame by J.K. Simmons in the Tobey Maguire films. I went with my girlfriend, who was dressed as the perky personification of Death from the Sandman comics (an awesome character, trust me). And she was not the only woman there, not by a long shot.
For me, Comic-Con is one of the few times where I can ignore the lingering words I hear my parents try to tell me. “You don't look like a nerd,” they’ve said on more than one occasion. In jeans and a dress shirt or running sneakers, I suppose I really don't look the part. But I know I do at Comic-Con.
The first words out of my mouth as we approached the teaming throngs of ravenous fans in and out of costume: “These are our people.” It was more than just a joke. I felt camaraderie, a sense of belonging far removed from simple enjoyment of a particular medium. These were more than fans. They were nerdicus, those dedicated enough to spend $35 for a single ticket for just one day out of the four-day event. We paraded around en masse, gleeful in our costumes, with our collectibles and collections, soaking in an atmosphere not even Halloween can recreate.
Artists, writers and publishers come out to Comic-Con in force. Hundreds of tables allow fans to get autographs, meet creators and get hyped up about the latest story arc coming down the pipeline. It is here that we see some of the lengths fans will go to for their idols. Some creators actually charge money for an autograph and the lines of people sometimes dozens deep showed plenty were willing to pay.
Those who have never been to a “con,” beware, they are not for the faint of heart. Or the claustrophobic. The lines were long and the going was slow. But it was worth every second of it. Fans will often spend hundreds on the collectibles and back issues at Comic-Con. Dozens of stores come out to sell their wares: costumes, toys, statues and of course, comic books. This is one of the cheapest places for readers to buy comics, seasoned collectors will meticulously pour through issues in search of the mint condition and the rare. Issues that normally sell for $3 or $4 off the shelves can be had for $1, $0.50 in some instances.
Leafing through those comic books are individuals who could have been pulled straight from their pages. Serious participants spend hundreds of hours and sometimes thousands of dollars readying themselves for the display. There is a palpable sense of comparison among participants between cheap, store-bought and ‘authentically’ handmade costumes. Despite our efforts, my costume and that of my girlfriend paled in comparison to faithful, head-to-toe recreations of The Doctor from Doctor Who, Wolverine, Blade and even a few people who’d fashioned metallic wings in order to become fully believable as Hawkman and Hawkgirl. The spectacle must be documented, and not just with crowd shots. Participants think nothing of asking the best costumed to pose with them for photos. I knew I’d arrived as a nerd when someone asked to take a photo of me as J. J.
Women, too seem to have “arrived” on the comic book scene. Regardless of how you may feel about the depiction of women in comics, their presence is growing on the page and off. Like my girlfriend, scores of women came to Comic-Con, in costume and just as ready to embrace an expanding but nevertheless walled-off subculture. There was Poison Ivy, Supergirl, the Black Cat, Storm and many more.
Of course, for all the women who came to Comic-Con as part of an expansion of comic book culture, the stereotypical reader still makes up most of Midtown's customers, says Parker: men in their 20s and 30s (I fall firmly into this category). Despite common perceptions of superhero comics as kids’ stuff, Midtown's base has actually been getting older, with fewer young readers coming through the door. Younger fans are far more familiar with comic books via other media, Parker said.
For those still reading comics, Midtown and stores like it represent a unique physical space where fans can recreate their own personal Comic-Con. They don't come in costume but they do come to mingle, one of the few spaces in the real world where they can. The physical space is part of what keeps the culture intact. Fans seek the culture out at Midtown and other stores; every Wednesday is a ritualized outing we look forward to all week long. Comics are “a very social and opinionated form of entertainment,” Parker said. In Midtown, there is “definitely a sense of community.”
Employees, too, form a far closer bond with customers than in your typical store. It's a relationship born of mutual passion, fans love the comics and so do the employees. All four of Midtown's locations have established regulars, customers that come in each week, building a relationship not unlike that of a barista at the coffee shop you go to every week.
Readers continue to seek out physical comics rather than buying them online for two reasons: the aforementioned social aspect of a store, and collectability. Reader and collector are frequently interchangeable within the comic subculture. I should know, I have well over 1,000 issues tucked into comfortable white boxes at home.
But we readers don't just collect comics. We eat, sleep and breathe them. Comic book readers represent some of the most engaged nerds on the interwebs. Midtown Comics alone boasts nearly 40,000 followers between Facebook and Twitter. We fans are a rowdy bunch. Rowdy and active in a way not typically seen in other mediums. Steven Spielberg fans may engage with each other, but how often do fans get to really speak with the object of their adulation in person? At Comic-Con and beyond, superhero fans can do so regularly, online and in-person.
Some of the largest names in comic book writing and art often meet with their readers, taking part in signings and other events at numerous stores like Midtown. Fans are able to ask questions and provide feedback that can find a way into the stories themselves.
Fans of superhero comics are attracted at least in part to the basic moral dilemmas between good and evil. But there is more to their interest, said Jonathan Santlofer, an artist and visiting assistant professor in the Pratt Institute's Writing Program. Santlofer teaches a course on graphic novels (the big brother to comic books). Any book can be art, no matter how popular in its aesthetic. After all, “Dickens was a popular form.”
A cursory review of the comics on my shelf reveals what I've been justifying to myself and my wallet for years. Yes, the Joker is crazy, but he's also an existential foil, the court jester who fights against the absurdities of our own obsessions. This time, he’s out to kill all of Batman’s allies in order to return to the “purity” of their eternal struggle. It begs the question, does the villain, the tragedy, the horror, make the hero?
The X-Men don't only fight aliens, they fight racism and they fight themselves, wondering always what lies at the heart of their nature. We all fight that same fight. We struggle to understand the stigmas that surround our origins and wonder how exactly they define us, who we are and how we fit into society.
One thinks of the second grave The Punisher must have dug before setting out on his course of revenge. The story of Frank Castle is what happens when we pursue vengeance to the point at which we are consumed.
We as a subculture are united by these stories. But of course, even among we nerds there are divisions. Kirk v. Picard. Hulk v. Thing. And superhero versus independent comic. Not everything that graces the glossy pages wears tights and fights crime. Some stories don't have a clear-cut villain, no plucky hero. Graham Yarrington wants to draw some of those independent, un-caped stories. He's an illustration major at Pratt's communications department who’s attracted to more complex stories found in ‘independent’ comics that veer away from the mainstream superhero traditions of Marvel and DC. “People are drawn towards comics that have like this weird emotional aspect to them,” he said, describing comics layered in thought. “What usually draws me in is when there's some kind of intimate, emotional aspect to the story, one that makes me feel like I'm actually in touch with whoever wrote it and I'm actually getting a window into their thought process.”
As for superhero comics fans, they devote vast mental energies to debates that the “mainstream” may deem trivial. Of course, “trivial” is a label most superhero fans would fight to the death but still it persists. In some circles, a stigma of inferiority surrounds the idea of comic books, Santlofer said, which drives readers deeper into the comic book subculture.
Within that culture, certain anthropological trends tend to emerge. You know how Trekkies speak Klingon? Well, superhero fans also have something of their own dialect, one rife with references to secret government conspiracies and vats of toxic waste. “It's easier to relate to someone who can speak the same language as you,” cartoonist Steinback said.
I’m drawn to that language. I speak it myself. I do when I leave Midtown Comics on the 1 train, brown bag of storied joy tucked under my arm. When I go to see Iron Man 3 next summer, it will be among teaming throngs of people far removed from anything that could be called a nerd. But I will still be speaking of the Silver Centurion armor and the Armor Wars, separated from the main by a vocabulary that works better than any pocket protector. Amongst the uninitiated, it's that vocabulary that ultimately reminds me of just how much of a nerd I am.