It's a nerd world

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Terry Gant

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

Lance Fensterman, the 36-year-old producer of C2E2 (and New York Comic Con), said he expects 50,000 people to attend C2E2 this weekend based on advance ticket sales. Which is a pretty broad niche. When I asked for his definition of nerdiness, he said: “Being nerdy is about where you spend your money now, I think.” Albeit, with a degree of shame: “I'm moving out of my apartment, so I just went into the elevator with 3,000 Lego kits. This woman asked ‘Have a son?' I said, ‘Yeah, I do.' And I don't. I just spend a lot of money on Legos.

“But I can see where the resentment toward the fake geek comes from,” he added. “The starlet on Letterman who says she's geek is just trying to seem appealing and ordinary. But she can also slide in and out of that label. She receives a social hall pass in a way that people with truly geeky tendencies don't always enjoy.”

The most visible airing of this grudge — a grudge that's been bubbling within nerd communities for a few years now — came last winter during an episode of IFC's comedy series “Portlandia,” in a clever parody of NBC's old “One to Grow On” public service announcements: An attractive women in black-framed eyeglasses tells a guy she's a nerd. The camera drifts to the side to reveal an obese, actual nerd with mutton chops, a Hawaiian shirt and a pained, sweaty face. He speaks to the camera. He says his name is Brian and he needs glasses to see. He can't fit into skinny jeans. He's not wearing a nerd costume, he says — he's just not really that comfortable with people. “So please, get real: If you're not a nerd, don't call yourself one.”

It's funny and touching.

The classically nerdy, the sincerely uncomfortable, often lack the social mobility of the hipster nerd “who self-identifies as a nerd but has zero at stake,” Gant said. No wonder nerds can feel co-opted and alienated. They get a new Spock and he's Zachary Quinto, who would look at ease at a comic-con or a GQ shoot. They're getting a new “Star Wars” and it's from J.J. Abrams, a hipster nerd compared to George Lucas' total nerd. They have nerd comedians, Patton Oswalt, Brian Posehn — both are at C2E2 — but those guys appeal to everyone now. Not to mention that the nerd stock-in-trade, vast knowledge of a narrow subject — I remember, as a kid, spending entire weekends ingesting Japanese monster flicks — has become a clickable activity.

Or maybe the anxiety here is just a generational thing, offered Bathsheba Birman, who co-founded Nerds at Heart, a Chicago-based nerd dating service, in 2006: “For Gen Y and later, because of how it's applied culturally, to Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, ‘nerd' comes with more of a hint of success now.” Playwright Qui Nguyen, whose D&D-inspired “She Kills Monsters” was a recent hit at Steppenwolf Theatre Garage Rep, told me about teaching a theater class for kids in New York: “There was this nerdy kid reading manga (Japanese comics) and, no joke, these cheerleaders walk into the class and eyeball him. I'm (thinking) ‘Oh, no.' Turns out, one of the cheerleaders taught herself Japanese to read manga. So, whoa. Kids are different.”

Which, to follow that to its logical conclusion, suggests, gulp, the inevitable end of the nerd.

Indeed, Jeff Smith, founder of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, a local umbrella club for all things geeky, said geek culture has broadened so much that the very definition of his club's namesake is “a divisive issue among us now.” Kevin Reader, of The Nerdologues, a Chicago geek-centric comedy troupe (also performing at C2E2), echoed him.

“We've had so many conversations about identity, we had to settle on: ‘Being nerdy is not what you like, it's how you like it.' It's a healthy obsession, not hipster-liking something, not cynically-liking. But a genuine, hard love.” Then he added: “You say you're not a nerd, but what do you love?”

I told him I had nerdy tendencies. Recently, I began to dream about “Pacific Rim,” the big-robots-vs.-big-monsters movie coming this summer. I've played D&D only once (but still play video games often). I love “Star Wars” but could never get into “Star Trek.” I've seen a handful of “Dr. Who” episodes (and had no idea what was happening). I subscribed to the early online network CompuServe in the 1980s; now I'd rather read a book. Also, I read comics casually, and sci-fi novels maybe twice a year.

But I didn't see myself as a nerd, I said. Reader asked if there was any geeky thing I was obsessed with.

I hesitated, then mumbled, “Well … I have a Godzilla thing?”

“OK, I contest your assumption that you're not a nerd,” he said. “Hope you feel comfortable with that.” | Twitter @borrelli
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