Checking in After San Diego

I’m finally home after three weeks of travels, having just returned from Comic Con International in San Diego. I’d like to blog about the con a bit more soon, though I suspect I’ll be playing catch-up and contacting potential interviewees for awhile. Here are three items of particular note, at least:

First, this year’s theme seemed to be “waiting in line.” I know that you’ve had to schedule line-waiting time into things for awhile now, but this year was particularly ridiculous, especially because the big events of 2007 were TV-related but the absolute biggest ballroom tends to go to movie-related panels and showings (neither of which, you’ll note, necessarily have anything to do with “comics”). I arrived over an hour early to wait in line for the first event of the day Saturday, a screening of the new Bionic Woman pilot, and I was roughly 5,000th in a line that snaked outside the convention center.

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Some Notes About Transformers

I just saw the new Transformers movie a couple nights ago. I think it was the first time I ever saw a movie admit at the opening that is was based on a series of action figures, rather than trying to claim the other way around. I’ve been stumbling upon a bunch of Transformers links that seemed worth sharing, too, so here you go:

John Swansburg has an article at Slate comparing the new movie to the 1980s animated Transformers: The Movie. He notes that the creators of that movie sheepishly admit in the DVD commentary track that characters were killed off to make room for more action figures (remember: commentary tracks are underutilized resources for research!), but this actually makes for a more thoughtful and affecting story.

Wired has a gallery of “Best Transformers Fan Photos,” and Gizmodo links to its “Fav Transformers Fan Videos,” largely from BotCon 2007.

Geeks in the News

Today, at the recommendation of Penn library staff member Andrea, I searched through the recent archive of New York Times articles for any references to “geek” or “nerd.” I was looking for an article she saw about “making geeks hip” with regard to TV and movies. Not only did I find a few articles worth blogging about in greater detail, I also found that these terms have found their way into common use even more than I expected.

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What Sparked the Birth of Geek Culture?

The question posed in this post’s title has been at the center of a debate I’ve been having lately. This person, whose opinion I generally value greatly, suggests that “geek culture” as a concept didn’t exist prior to the 1980s; it was born, he suggests, out of the credibility accorded to geeks through their mastery of digital media. Therefore, digital media should be considered at the heart of geek culture as a whole. From my perspective, I do think that digital media have been key in transforming what we know as geek culture, but I have some reservations about the line of reasoning that places such media as the initiator of this culture in the first place.

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Miscellaneous Links for June 20, 2007

While we won’t see the Revenge of the Nerds remake that commanded a giant space at last year’s San Diego Comic Con, that doesn’t mean there’s no market for movies about lovable losers. Case in point, Sydney White and the Seven Dorks hits theaters in 2008. (Link courtesy fellow Annenberger Emily Thorson.)

Slashdot has a comment thread going about a Cool Tech Zone article on the “psychology of fanboys.” Also check out the discussion on whether scientific consensus is a threat to democracy.

And finally, Keith sends me a photo of this weirdly adorably page from the Houston Chronicle. Fortunately, the paper’s website has the whole article on the LOLcats phenomenon online, kicked off with: “Computer geeks have their own niche in pop culture. Sometimes, something crazed from that niche escapes and runs rampant among the masses.”

The Star Wars/Conan Crossover You’ve Been Waiting For

In these YouTube clips, Conan O’Brien visits Lucasfilm. Go ahead and just watch part 1 and part 2 yourself, but if you miss them before the network orders them offline, here are some notes (which, I’ll admit, are mostly for my future reference in the chapter about science-fiction).

In part 1, he brings around a Star Wars geek to criticize the Lucasfilm employee giving them a tour (“Well I just noticed that John had said it’s an original, and I also notice that the chest plate doesn’t have the Hebrew lettering in these three areas which the original has, which led me to believe that maybe it’s actually a replica”). In part 2, Conan is led into a room with a couple guys who do visual FX, one of whom says, “This is our nerd corner here,” to which the reply is, “‘Nerd corner’ … you said it, I didn’t!” Then Conan asks what the fan in the room is for and jokes, “This is so you never have to go outside, simulates a cool breeze.” Then he asks another fellow about his collection of wrestling figures, which the fellow admits his folks just wanted out of the house. Then they get a whole group of people to participate in a joke about the “800 to 1” male to female ratio. It ends with Conan leading the two earlier fellows outside to frolick to action-packed Star Wars music. (Also worth watching for Conan’s drunken C-3PO impersonation, with the aid of motion capture.)

There’s plenty of nerd stereotype humor here, and yet it doesn’t come across like your standard police drama about nerds gone bad. Why not? I think it basically comes back to self-identification as opposed to labeling from outsiders. The ILM guys unapologetically identify themselves as nerds and happily participate in the lighthearted and intentionally exaggerated nerd humor. That’s a far cry from the other example linked above, an episode of Raines where the only people who can read comics or play games without looking like total losers are the elementary school student and the comic book artist who gets killed in a drug-induced hallucination about himself as a superhero (though he’s not exactly a “winner” either).

Participatory Fan Marketing, Minus the Fans

Not necessarily about geeks, but it still seemed relevant: the Wall Street Journal has an article online about music fans getting irked that professionals are winning their favorite bands’ fan-made video competitions. (Link via The Morning News.)

Some fans bristle at contestants who don’t appear to love the artists as much as they do. Eric Perry said he wished more die-hard fans had won the Incubus contest. He said he spent about 30 hours editing his own “Dig” video. “Half of me wants to say, ‘Get out! You aren’t welcomed!’ The other half knows that this was a contest,” said the 21-year-old in Shelby, Mich., who has seen the band perform three times and has his cellphone ringtone set to the Incubus song “Favorite Things.”

I imagine this must present something of a complicated dilemma to the people behind these contests. On the one hand, you want to engage your fans, make them feel more connected to the artist; on the other hand, you want to make sure you don’t end up with a lousy video, and contests of this kind typically produce pretty lousy results unless your reward is great enough to lure in pros.

I would think that the best bet of the people running such contests would be to either disallow professional entries or to do their own video alongside the contest and avoid a single “winner,” giving smaller prizes to a more diverse pool of fans. That way you get around the issue of the promo being co-opted for something it never openly claimed to be: a pitch process for spec work, which some professional communities consider unethical for anything less than multimillion dollar contracts.

Of course, the problem with both of these options is that it’s quite possible that the people running the contests do want them to be a pitch process for spec work under the flimsy guise of fan community outreach. In this case, perhaps fans are quite justified in feeling irate, and may have better luck screening fan-made films on their own terms, as various geeky fan communities (Star Wars fan films, anime music videos, etc.) have been doing for a while.

Emphasis on the “Sub”’s The Pulse has an interview up with the creators of a comic book called SubCulture, a story about media fans.

KEVIN FREEMAN: The primary focus is on fans of comics, gaming, anime, science fiction, and the like. As a group, we’re an interesting lot, and deserving of a closer look. But we wanted the book to be more than a series of jokes. Yes, there’s humor, but it’s set within the confines of a more serious story. […]

THE PULSE: Do you think people like to laugh at themselves and see comics like this? Are you worried you might be offending your target audience with their portrayal in SubCulture?

FREEMAN: I like to think that most of us don’t take ourselves too seriously. We’re an odd lot, but most of us embrace that fact. We like being different. I admit, the book does take a dangerous path. But I think the story is written in such a way that it ultimately portrays fans in a positive way. Sure, we’re all a little strange, but we’re also genuinely good people. I hope that’s what the readers get out of it.

STAN YAN: Honestly, I think that many of us that do take ourselves too seriously might not be able to see ourselves in the characters that share our “quirks”.

Mostly I’m just linking this because I like to keep track of when people specifically link the audiences of what are ostensibly diverse media (what do games have to do with comics?). It’s also interesting to note how the people involved in this interview all fancy themselves as part of the group being poked fun at here, but are still aware that some people might not find it so funny.

I’m inclined to agree with Freeman that the kind of folks who would even pick up a (somewhat harder-to-find) comic in the first place are also probably used to making fun of the stereotypes associated with fandom, especially as the creators are clearly part of the in-group. Certainly enough people can get behind that sentiment that you can sell t-shirts about self-deprecating geek humor. Maybe it helps to go the extra mile by portraying an avatar of yourself as the demented nerd in question.

Beaming Between the Lines

Geek Monthly has an interesting take on some recent quotes by J.J. Abrams about his upcoming Star Trek prequel film. Noting a couple key phrases spoken by the director in a magazine interview and a science-fiction con, Anthony Pascale says:

Notice the use of ‘canon’ and ‘Roddenberry’s vision.’ These are code words to Trekkies promising to not do a Ron Moore’s BSG style ‘reimagining’ of the 40 year old franchise.

Every now and then, one of my more quantitatively-oriented friends in Communication asks me how to do a qualitative textual analysis for a paper in a required class. I should send them to Anthony Pascale. He knows that you can find meaning in things without doing a word count, and he is probably less likely to bore them with structuralist theory than most of my favorite books on the subject. (But I hear that the fans prefer ‘Trekkers,’ no?)

It may seem odd that J.J. Abrams (the man behind Alias and partially-behind Lost) would bother trying to reassure fans, but properly motivated fans can almost certainly boost sales. (People seem to believe that Snakes on a Plane proved otherwise, but I’m inclined to believe that without the fan support, it would have lost money.) Plus, if his dinner with Kevin Smith, Mark Hamill, and Stan Lee is any indication, he’s a pretty big geek himself.

Notes on Combat and Spectatorship

To some critics, a movie with cardboard characterization, fetishized violence, and unsubtle themes must be like a video game. As noted in a recent article in Variety, the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300 has been unfavorably compared to video games for just these reasons. This Variety writer is joined by some game bloggers in calling foul at the unfair characterization of games, a medium with so much more potential and some excellent examples to the contrary.

I certainly agree that games can indeed be more artful and intelligent than some film critics recognize, though I think it’s important to note two things: first, that 300 is still a record-breaking box office hit, despite being pretty vapid; and second, that intelligently written narrative games are still probably rarer than the action-driven hits. The Variety writer, for example, cites Shadow of the Colossus as a game that breaks stereotypes, and this is indeed a unique and thought-provoking game. Critically acclaimed though it was, however, God of War certainly moved more copies, and even seemed to rank more frequently as “game of the year” among online reviewers. As much as I enjoyed God of War, I can’t say that the plot, themes, or characterization are its selling points. It’s a fun game, more fully realizing the long-held game industry vision of action-packed epics than games before it, but it’s not exactly thought-provoking.

Let’s assume, then, that there is something else about such movies and games that people find enjoyable. For some movies and games, a combination of striking visuals and visceral thrill may be what people find most attractive, and so much the better if there is something thoughtful in there to boot. Given that this kind of draw seems particularly relevant to game sales and reviews, however, I find it interesting that games have not gone even further in exploring the visual style of fight scenes. As a longtime gamer and moviegoer, I’d still argue that game designers stand to learn a lot from how combat is portrayed in cinema.

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