Triumph of the nerds

There is a key scene in the forthcoming film American Splendor in which our nerdish hero Harvey Pekar accompanies his still-more-nerdish sidekick, Toby, to a showing of the 1984 comedy Revenge of the Nerds. Toby, it transpires, is a devoted fan of the movie, which he interprets as an exercise in self-empowerment and a clarion call to arms. Harvey is more circumspect. Appraising the film’s cast, he dismisses them as ‘preppy Ivy League nerds. Not real ordinary slob nerds like us.”

The irony here is that American Splendor is everything that Revenge of the Nerds pretended to be and wasn’t. The winner at this year’s Sundance festival, the film offers a salute to your bona fide ‘slob nerd”. In its wry, warts-and-all fashion, American Splendor celebrates the cult of the downtrodden, the sensitive, the occasionally malodorous. It’s the movie that assures us that yes, it’s OK to be a nerd.

Out in the wider world, the revolution is already under way. Over the past decade, those cultural phenomena that we once filed as geeky minority pursuits have become our masters.

This month saw the release of the final installment in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, awash with elves and hobbits and surely the most monumental nerd-fest of the lot.

All of which raises some frightening implications. Could it be that there are more nerds today than there were before? If so, shouldn’t we attempt to make friends with them sharpish, before they start bludgeoning us with plastic light-sabres or introducing viruses into our PCs? And then there is a further, more troubling possibility. Just what constitutes a nerd these days anyway? Might you conceivably qualify as one? Perish the thought, might I?

According to the Collins English Dictionary, a nerd is something you emphatically don’t want to be. It defines the term as referring to ‘1) a boring or unpopular person” or ‘2) a stupid and feeble person”, both of which sound a little harsh. Most likely the definition is a hangover from the old days, when the nerd was relegated to the library and only emerged to have sand kicked in his face. Times have changed.

One might trace the rise of the nerd back to the mid-1970s, when Woody Allen pioneered a new breed of movie hero, who was at once unabashedly wimpish and unaccountably attractive to women. Running parallel to this came the rise of the movie brat, as spearheaded by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg: nebbish film school dweebs who remade themselves as enviable Hollywood billionaires.

More recently the Internet generation found their own poster boys in the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Lynn Bartholome, of the United States-based Popular Culture Association, has argued that the rise of the nerd ‘has a lot to do with the computer revolution, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Those guys were quote-unquote geeks, and for baby boomers, they’ve now got what’s important — prestige, money and power.”

These days, the takeover is complete. In the meantime, the nerd has replicated and subdivided to the extent that it’s tough keeping tabs on him. The fantasy junkies who thrill to The Lord of the Rings and role-play games form one obvious tribe. Yet so do the sci-fi aficionados who have graduated from Star Trek conventions to the sleeker, trench-coat fashions of the Matrix movies. Your standard comic-book buff divides into those who’ve hitched their wagons to Marvel’s high-concept superhero antics and those who appreciated the more esoteric stylings of artists such as Daniel Clowes (Ghost World), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor) and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth).

Distant cousins to this group are the animation nuts who worship at the temples of The Simpsons and Pixar. And then you have the video kids: street-savvy, pop-culture omnivores who dig up Japanese manga and obscure B-movies and find patron saints in Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino.

The trouble is that there is a great deal of movement between these tribes, and a great juggling of different enthusiasms. Could it be that a nerd is defined not so much by his specialist genre than by the nature and intensity of his interest?

When they are not buying Goth dolls or miniature Daleks, evidence suggests that the nerd likes to go to the cinema. This year’s highest-grossing film is set to be Finding Nemo, a comic account of fretful, neurotic fish, animated by the boffins at Pixar and voiced by Albert Brooks (previously one of Hollywood’s great supporting nerds). So what is the nerd dollar worth? The fact that the Matrix and Lord of the Rings movies have pulled in $1,5-billion and counting seems a good ballpark figure to begin with. Moreover, their success seems to hint at a sea-change within the industry as a whole.

‘There has been a huge shift in the marketplace,” reckons Paul Dergarabedian, president of the US box office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. ‘Blockbusters have become very sophisticated versions of what were once seen as exploitation movies: martial-arts films, fantasy films, science-fiction films. All of which people loved, but which were decidedly B-movies that were not aimed at mainstream audiences.”

Nick Hunt, reviews editor at Screen International, thinks that this has a lot to do with the directors themselves. ‘We are witnes- sing a new synergy,” he explains. ‘There’s a new breed of filmmaker who has more sympathy to this kind of material than your typical bunch of Hollywood suits. You have Sam Raimi and Quentin Tarantino, who has been described as resembling the Marvel superhero The Thing. Peter Jackson is your obvious example, in that he even looks like your typical fan-boy.

‘There’s a whole generation of film-makers who grew up in the golden age of the 1970s comic, and I think that there’s a natural progression from comic strips into movies, because the visual language is so similar.”

But the fans play a major role too. In the end, it’s hard to overstate the impact of the Internet on this new world order. It has been argued that fan sites and chat forums have legitimised the nerds, giving them a voice and making them an important demographic to be catered to.

When embarking on their Lord of the Rings trilogy, backers New Line assiduously courted the Tolkien fan sites, keeping them appraised of fresh developments, lavishing them with sneak previews of the script and flying über-nerd Harry Knowles (founder of influential website Ain’t It Cool News) out to the shoot in New Zealand.

‘We reverse-marketed,” explains Gordon Paddison, New Line’s senior vice-president of global interactive marketing. ‘We had to get to the fans first. They are our evangelists.”

Over at Marvel studios, there is a similar respect for the Web user. ‘I used to hate the Internet,” studio chief Ari Avad recently confessed to USA Today. ‘I thought it was just a place where people stole our ideas. But I see how influential the fans can be in building a consensus. I now consider them as filmmaking partners.”

In popular parlance, at least, the image of the Internet-user shares much with the image of the nerd, suggesting a cerebral, solitary enthusiast with a sophisticated palate. In terms of marketing, however, US Web users are seen as the perfect demographic, in that they tend to be non TV-watchers with an income over $60 000, ‘pre-marital interests” and a strong brand awareness.

According to Yankee Group analyst Rob Lancaster, ‘technology users are a great group for marketing products to because they’re very loyal to products and their interest is heavy. They get very passionate.”

The genius of a franchise such as Lord of the Rings, however, was in broadening its following. Having begun by soothing the online fanbase, it proceeded to break out of its pigeonhole and make converts of us all. Surveys show that films like the Lord of the Rings, the Matrix trilogy and Harry Potter appeal to all four demographic ‘quadrants” (young male, older male, young female, older female).

Adam Dawtrey, European editor of Variety, attempts to put this in context. ‘In 1999 fantasy was still considered a relatively small earner. With The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, it has become vast. It’s not that there are more spotty teenage boys around, it’s simply that we’ve all become more like spotty teenage boys. There’s been a trend in popular culture towards legitimising child-like or adolescent pursuits. Previously, we were supposed to grow out of stuff like that. Now that notion has broken down.”

This cultural blurring is reflected in a new lexicon of marketing spiel, spotlighting such emergent consumer groups as the ‘kidult” or ‘adultescent” (whose age ranges from 25 to 35), the ‘middle youther” (35 to 45) and the ‘silver surfer” (Internet users in their dotage). Playmate Toys recently revealed that the largest market for Simpsons merchandise came from those aged between 18 and 35. In recent years the cartoon’s creators have slyly acknowledged this breed of adult fan in the shape of the Comic Book Guy, an overweight, pony-tailed malcontent who scoffs ‘breakfast burritos” and is given to complaining in clipped tones that last night’s show was the ‘Worst. Episode. Ever”. It’s a safe bet that a good many Simpsons buffs snicker at the Comic Book Guy without quite twigging that they are, in fact, laughing at themselves.

Alternatively, one could argue that the Comic Book Guy harks back to an obsolete image: the ‘boring, unpopular” loser of the Collins English Dictionary or the bespectacled stripling of a thousand Gary Larson cartoons. In years to come, such stereotypes may prove dangerous. Because if you class everyone who uses the Internet, or digs Star Wars, or plays a video game as a nerd, then you automatically risk offending a community that numbers in the hundreds of millions.

In the past decade, this once-derided minority has mutated and metastasised. The unloved school swots of the 20th century have blossomed into the alpha group of the 21st. They have gold cards and chat rooms and a whole rash of ‘pre-marital” (and sometimes post-marital) interests that demand satisfaction. They have dictated the mainstream and spirited us all along for the ride.

I am reminded of the circus performers’ chant at the end of Tod Browning’s 1932 classic Freaks: ‘One of us. One of us.” —

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