Nerds! Nerds! Nerds!
Does the Wizard World Sacramento Comic Con signal the democratization of nerds—or the profit-hungry mainstreaming of geek culture?
At age 12, Stephanie Rector went to her first Star Trek convention. As she marveled at her costumed peers, she immediately felt at home.
And that’s when she knew she was a geek.
“I was a shy kid and didn’t have a lot of friends,” Rector says, her eyes bright behind thick glasses. “It was nice to find a group I fit in with.”
And that’s why Rector still goes to conventions. She’s been to at least a dozen—Comic-Con International in San Diego, WonderCon Anaheim, Sac-Con in Sacramento—and the novelty has somewhat worn off. These days, she attends to meet other geeks obsessed with the likes of Star Trek, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica.
Now, Rector is gearing up for a new convention in town: Wizard World Sacramento Comic Con, the largest convention of its kind in Sacramento yet. While not at the 150,000-person level of San Diego’s super-famous rendition, Wizard World promises a spectacle. From March 7 to 9, thousands of pop-culture buffs will gather at the Sacramento Convention Center for an all-around geek-out.
Guests include legendary comic-book creator Stan Lee (Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four), animator Phil Ortiz (The Simpsons) and plenty of artists, such as Neal Adams (Batman, Green Lantern) and Paolo Rivera (All-New X-Men, Spider-Man). And, of course, there’s a cast of A-list celebrities, including Chris Hemsworth (The Avengers, Thor), Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) and William Shatner (Star Trek).
Yes, many of those names are famous away from the comic world. Perhaps because the comic world isn’t the hyper-nerdy, closed-off place it once was. With Hollywood’s blockbusters so often being derived from comics—The Avengers, Iron Man, X-Men, Spider-Man, to name a few—and television shows like The Walking Dead creating a frenzy, geek culture has become mainstream culture.What’s a geek, anyway?
There are conflicting definitions of “geek.” And Rector, who runs the 2,000-person Meetup group Sac Geeks, says the term has been “watered down” in recent years. Geeks were once considered eccentric enthusiasts of offbeat culture, while nerds were more achievement-oriented in their hobbies. Now they blend together, along with dorks and fans. And maybe even hipsters.
“Geeks hold on to the obscure stuff that no one else likes, and that goes along with hipster territory,” Rector says, recalling the nostalgic games—Magic: The Gathering and Street Fighter, for example—once played at the Bows & Arrows semiregular event, Nerd Night.
Only, to Rector, most people at Nerd Night (currently on hiatus following Bows’ recent closure) aren’t really nerds. “They’re being ironic. A real geek likes these things [unironically].”
Still, Rector adds, that’s fine, too.
“They’re still showing an homage to that time,” she says. “A lot of geekdom is nostalgia, for when we were growing up in the ’70s or ’80s watching Star Trek.”
Drew Walker, the man behind Nerd Night, argues that just about everyone is a nerd, unless they’re actively fighting it.
“It’s more of an emotion,” he explains. “Like, I feel nerdy because I care about something that might be silly. It’s clinging to your fun and not caring what other people think.”
That “fun” can be just about anything—movies, television, books, video games and board games are the go-to choices. So, the fact that comic cons aren’t strictly about comics anymore can be a major bummer for certain nostalgic enthusiasts.
Tim Watts is not one of those enthusiasts, though he knows plenty of them. Watts, co-creator of a comic called The Nice Guy and co-host of a podcast about post-apocalyptic pop culture, fondly remembers going to his first Sac-Con at age 13 and thinking it was the coolest thing in the world. It took place in a small room, with a bunch of guys selling comics and not much else.
“It’s very, very different now,” he says. “I can see why people get bent out of shape, because it’s so precious to them.”
But Watts loves the big cons, and Wizard World’s represents all sorts of new opportunities for Sacramento. He’s most excited that the special guests are giving practical lessons in subjects such as figure drawing and filmmaking. Meanwhile, Rector appreciates the variety of social programs, which includes a masquerade ball, film festival, fashion show and costume contest for cosplayers, and the panel discussions—cosplay as a lifestyle, geeky feminism, multicultural heroes—but it’s the one-on-one panel with James Marsters (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel) that will place her in line at least an hour early.
But for some convention regulars, Wizard World’s seems too corporate and disorganized. The programming schedule wasn’t released until mid-February, which meant many purchased single-day tickets without an idea of what events were scheduled, and cosplayers started designing costumes without knowing rules or regulations, or if there was an opportunity to compete in them at all.
Plus, local fan groups had been planning to set up tables, like they are accustomed to at Sac-Con, since last summer when they submitted applications. But after realizing the size limitations of the Convention Center, Wizard World revoked the fan tables and offered some discounted tickets instead. That didn’t sit well with the Sacramento Steampunk Society, according to member Lon Lee.
“It doesn’t seem to be about local community support, it’s just about how much money are they’re going to make,” Lee says, adding that he and other steampunkers no longer plan to attend.
Rector agrees, and she’s not too keen on Wizard World, either, due to the fan-table debacle—she applied for a table for Sac Geeks—and the high costs. Three-day tickets sold out in January at $65, and single-day tickets range from $35 to $45. But VIP packages, which include photo ops, autographs, gifts and other perks, range from $175 to $450. Meanwhile, individual photo ops start at $35 for David Della Rocco (Boondock Saints) and go up to $250 for a snapshot with Chris Hemsworth and Stan Lee. Autographs are a premium as well: $30 to $199.99.
Perhaps Wizard World—and convention culture in general—is growing too quickly for its own good. Wizard World held nine conventions last year across the country, and this year it’s added seven new cities, including Sacramento.
It’s a rapid expansion, which Wizard World CEO John Macaluso admits is not just because of the company’s ability to attract Hollywood talent.
“We’re not the reason we’re growing so fast,” he says. “It’s because the fan base itself has gotten so huge.”Revenge of the nerds
Watts has a love-hate relationship with the state of nerddom. On one hand, he enjoys the proliferation of comic-book-themed movies and shows. On the other hand, he had to suffer a stigma growing up that youngsters nowadays don’t really have to deal with.
“I see guys now in their early 20s, and they’re into comic books and video games, and they still have girlfriends,” he says. “And I think, ’Hey, that’s not fair. I should get some credit.’”
There are plenty of theories as to how nerds went from weak-armed outcasts to cool underdogs.
Watts points to Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the first geeky television show to attract a different crowd—women—and bring on the transformation. In 2000, X-Men became one of the first major comic-based hits, bringing Halle Berry to San Diego’s Comic-Con.
More generally, sitcoms have popularized nerds in shows like The Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowd. Likewise, Netflix gave nongeeks a chance to binge watch—and inevitably obsess over—Battlestar Galactica several years later.
Then there’s the tech boom. Silicon Valley turned the nerd into the boss, suddenly rolling in dough and partying in San Francisco’s ritziest clubs.
Perhaps more telling is last year’s addition of “geek chic” to the Oxford Dictionaries (noun: “The dress, appearance, and culture associated with computing and technology enthusiasts, regarded as stylish or fashionable”).
“It’s funny. Nerds always said they’d take over the world, and they did,” Walker says. “But not in the way they thought they would. They didn’t destroy the jocks in a blaze of glory; just everyone else became one of them.”