It's a nerd world

No longer a small band of outcasts, nerds face an identity crisis as the mainstream encroaches on their turf

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Terry Gant

Terry Gant, owner of Third Coast Comics. (Cheryl Waity/Tribune photo / April 23, 2013)

Once a month, at Third Coast Comics in the Edgewater neighborhood, the store closes for the evening and the knitting comes out. Followed by the drinks. Drink & Draw & Knitting Night is the second Thursday of each month, as it has been since Terry Gant opened Third Coast nearly five years ago. When I asked who actually comes to this, he replied: “Nerds, artists, fiber-arts folks, nerds — by and large, super-nerdy people show up for knitting nights at comic book shops.”

A woman recently made a Ghostbusters needlepoint. Others crochet, burn images into wood blocks, create faux robot parts using portable die-cutting machine presses.

Sounds hip.

But nerdy?

Don't answer yet.

First, consider Gant himself; he looks the archetypal part of the comic book store owner. He's paunchy, appears a decade younger than his 44 years. He wears thick eyeglasses, a goatee, and the permanent expression of the not-particularly-impressed. Still, let me tell you: Should the zombie apocalypse come, you'll want Gant at your side. What he lacks in agility he would make up for in coolness, sharpness. He would make the perfect — should it all go south — last nerd.

But wait: Is he a nerd?

Hard to say.

What makes a nerd most is tougher to define than it used to be. It's also an especially relevant question this week: C2E2 — a.k.a., the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, the best of the Midwest's annual comic book conventions — runs Friday through Sunday at McCormick Place. On cue, expect snickering local TV newscasters to run video of adults in Batman costumes. In fact, if you're not the comic book convention-going type, you are absolved in advance, forgiven for picturing the socially awkward talking about “Star Trek,” aisles of ancient comic books lovingly suspended in dust-free plastic bags, bemused comic book artists and B-list celebrities struggling to answer sweaty, esoteric inquiries from the obsessed. Those stereotypes are not without merit: a quick glance at the many events scheduled for C2E2 turns up nerd-trivia contests, nerd-fitness classes and tutorials on how to talk like a pirate, throw around a big sword or be a knight.

But then, Sunday, there's this: a panel titled “Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl.”

If you're a nerd, it promises to cut to the core of the most heated subject in geekdom:

Identity — in particular, who is and isn't a nerd now?

If you're uninitiated: The fake geek girl (or guy) is not unlike the hipster nerd — they dress the part, claim to have nerd status, but ultimately, they don't know their stuff and their interest in nerdy culture is negligible.

When I mentioned the fake-geek phenomenon to Gant, he exploded: “Identify yourself as you see fit, but just saying you like ‘Game of Thrones' doesn't make you a nerd! That rubs the nerd community the wrong way. These people want to be down, they want to tell you how they read ‘Persepolis,' that they're ‘such nerds' they actually saw ‘Avengers' three times. But, dude, America saw ‘Avengers' three times. The geek-girl issue, though, and this is a real issue in this community, is more complex, because a lot of women got a social workout trying to belong to nerd communities and are just finding a place within geek culture. Now they're fake? Nerds are not used to layers of nerds — we're used to one layer. But it's complicated now.”

Tell me about it.

The Chicago Nerd Social Club, which organized the “Fake Geek Girl” panel, is not even arguing for the banishment of wannabe geeks from geek culture. Michi Trota, who is on the panel (and also part of a Chicago belly-dancing troupe that occasionally performs as Klingons), told me: “Actually, we want to lower barriers of entry to our culture. You shouldn't have to prove your cred to be accepted — remember, referring to yourself as a nerd, for a lot of people in the geek community, came out of becoming socially ostracized.”

Well said. On the other hand, what does it mean to be a nerd when everyone is a nerd?

A decade ago, in one of the final episodes of NBC's “Freaks and Geeks,” James Franco, as a cool-guy burnout, finds himself playing Dungeons & Dragons with geeks on a Saturday night. He also finds himself loving it. Which, at the time, felt like a sweet moment of cultural irony. Now it's richly ironic in a totally new way: Every time Franco appears on “The Colbert Report,” he gets into a “Tolkien-Off” with Stephen Colbert. Because Franco, like Colbert, is a genuine nerd, obsessed with J.R.R. Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings.”

But at least they proved their nerdom.

If we lower the bar on geek identification, we would have to accept most of our major contemporary stars: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Taylor Swift, Daniel Craig, Anne Hathaway — it has become de rigueur in celebrity interviews for subjects to refer to themselves as dorks, nerds, dweebs. Perhaps because, in a culture obsessed with video games, science fiction, superheroes, computers — with the defining trait of nerdom itself, obsession — nerd culture is the culture. Do you binge-watch TV series? Read (or write) exhaustive blog recaps about last night's episode of “The Following”? Do deep-dives on niche subjects? The movies are arguably the last major mass-entertainment, the last medium a sizable part of the nation takes in at the same time — and those movies are about superheroes. Do you read the latest graphic novels? You're just ahead of the curve now. Do you spend every waking moment staring at a video screen? Well, who doesn't? And yet, there was a time when activities that myopic were what being a nerd was all about.

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