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EDITORIAL: Nerds Need More New Stuff

Recently, a friend shared a YouTube video with me. It was a rather stunning cartoon short done in anime style, depicting a sci-fi universe of fast-moving, hard-working ship pilots hastily gathering in their impressive machines to engage in what promised to be a stunning battle of some sort. It was fast-paced, well-animated, impressively detailed, and exciting to watch. It was also, I hasten to add, intended as a prologue to the 1980 feature film The Empire Strikes Back. The characters were Empire pilots, and the ships were TIE fighters and AT-ATs. It was a fantastic cartoon based on a well-known movie, made independently by a fan.

This is a phenomenon that I have encountered a lot in the most recent decade, which may now be easily dubbed The Age of the Geek. I have been to Comic-Con, galleries, and various other venues for geek art, and have seen enormous paintings, intimately detailed and passionately rendered, of characters like Captain America, Bender from “Futurama,” and Mario. And while these pieces of pop art can be expressive, imaginative, and clearly expertly made (I certainly don’t have the chops to make such an awesome piece of fan animation), I can’t help but feel a pang of ambivalence when I see them. I feel like Nerds and Geeks need a fresh influx of new stuff. Let me explain.

I’m the millionth person to observe this particular cultural detail, but most of the recent cinematic blockbusters have been adaptations, sequels, and remakes. The highest-grossing 2014 film that wasn’t based on a comic book, older film, or pop novel (as of this writing) was Ride Along from back in January. Since then, it’s been animated films based on TV shows, comic book movies, and new versions of Godzilla. Some of these films were merely fair, some of them were rollicking and thrilling entertainments. But none of them where wholly original ideas. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? It’s what I’ve come here to analyze.

Captain America 2

My generation (I was born in 1978) has essentially taken over the world, and we’ve reached the point where what we make (as the filmmakers, the comic book artists, the TV show creators) all dips into a central vital canon of well-known geek properties. What with the success of comic book movies, remakes, and other echoes of Gen-Y beloveds, we seem to have openly announced that we want to see our favorite characters on screen over and over again. We want to see loving rendered versions of Marvel superheroes, Ninja Turtles, and, if we get our way, Goonies and Ghostbusters. We want to see actors play them, see them fight, we take our well-known fantasy entertainments as seriously as we take Oscar bait movies. I could easily author a list of films and comics that come from this central geek canon (call it the Geek Doctrine of Ideas, if I may make a reference to Plato).

And, yes, this has been what we’ve always wanted, if the numbers are any indicator. The Avengers was not just one of the most financially successful films of all time, but a weird final culmination of many childhood fantasies. It was like watching Freddy fight Jason, but writ much, much larger. This constant tapping into the Geek Doctrine of Ideas – polishing off our old pop culture friends and handing them back to us – has proven to not only be successful, but dominate much of Nerd thinking. Heck, much of the news on Nerdist is devoted to new versions of characters we love. Ant-Man and Daredevil were just in the news. Last week, everyone was aflutter with Godzilla. And I don’t think any Nerdist readers would ever dare think “I think I’ll skip the next Avengers movie.” It’s practically required of us to keep abreast of our Geek culture friends’ adventures.

The Avengers

The problem with this approach that has so dominated all of pop culture for so many years – and the central crux of this editorial – is that the Geek Doctrine of Ideas is a limited resource. Sure, we can all sit back and enjoy the 7th, the 8th, the 9th X-Men feature films (provided they’re all enjoyable), but I wonder how long this can hold out. How many characters can we exploit until it becomes uninteresting? Marvel exec Kevin Feige recently let slip that he has Marvel feature films planned through the next fifteen years. Oh sure, this gets many Marvel fans excited for a seemingly unending string of slick superhero films but – if I may wax slightly heretical – this leaves me torn and maybe even a little bummed out. One, because it means Feige probably won’t listen to my idea for a Motormouth feature film (Seriously, I have mailed a treatment to Marvel; we’ll see if it goes anywhere. I’m guessing not), but it also bums me out because, well, we’re going to be going back to the same well perhaps too often. It’s a well that people like drinking from, but after a while, I fear it will all start to taste the same (To some critics, like Kenneth Turan, “Marvel Fatigue” is becoming a thing).

Indeed, that idea could be extended to all geek culture. We (that includes you, that includes me) are so happy to re-watch, re-create, and re-visit our favorite films, favorite sci-fi canons, favorite heroes and characters, that we seem to rarely encounter something that is new. Something that can add to the canon, rather than just reflect it.

Doctor Who

Oh sure, we occasionally get a new film or character that we want to rally around. 2004’s Shaun of the Dead leaps to mind, and director Edgar Wright’s subsequent canonization. Christopher Nolan made the rather excellent Inception. But these tentpoles seem so few and far between when viewed next to the big hits based around known properties. So much of our energy goes into re-creation, of making a huge and expressive metaphorical portrait of Darth Vader, that we seem to have forgotten a vital thing: We’re going to need something new before the well runs dry.

I declare that we Nerds need more new stuff. Rather than using your talents as an animator, as a costume designer, as a painter to merely make yet another portrait or short film of, say, Thor, why not make a new hero? Trademark that guy. Think up his own backstory. Sure, it may not sell. But it might. The outright creativity that goes into making a wholly new product can only enrich you as a creator, and can – in the slim chance that it catches on in the pop culture firmament – only enrich Nerd Culture at large. Indie game designers, aspiring animators, independent comic book authors. These are the lifeblood of Nerd Culture. They always have been. And we Nerd consumers could – while still loving the decades of wonderful fantasy tradition that has come before – spend more time seeking out the new. The old nerd stuff is fine, but there’s only so many times one can watch Star Wars before the bloom starts to come off the rose.

Troops

In short: Don’t just look for/write/create the next Star Wars/Avengers/Batman. Look for the first of something. Make the first of something. An influx of creativity could make a financially thriving Nerd Culture more varied, more robust. Biologists will tell you that biodiversity is an indicator of ecological health. And Nerd Culture could always use more biodiversity to promote its health. Its robustness. Its constant need to create its own life. Surely you, dear readers, don’t want all of Nerd Culture to become stale through constant repetition. By all means, continue to love what you love, but being surprised by a new love is good too.

When I was 14 or so, I was addicted to Marvel trading cards. I loved the portraits. I loved the stats. I loved the condensed backstories. I probably spent more time poring over those cards than I did reading actual comic books. I created imaginary Marvel team-ups in my head, pairing Cannonball with Morbius and Daredevil. But after a while, something struck me. I decided to make my own cards. Using carefully cut card stock, I invented about 150 new characters for my own imaginary line of comic books. The characters sucked, of course (don’t ask me about the supervillain who had whips for arms), but I feel that my creative impulse can (at the risk of sounding immodest) serve as an example of what we need more of in Nerd culture. Read your favorites, of course. I would never ask you to stop. But it’s also okay to occasionally invent your own favorites.

It will make us healthier in the long run.

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15 comments

  • That is sound advice.  Does that mean you are going to be turning your considerable writing skills toward generating new material?  Or will you, as indicated by your Motormouth fandom, also continue to develop fanwork related to those still expandable and diverse universes that you are a fan of?

    Not everyone has the spark needed for purely innovative property creation, but many talented people can highlight those talents by using an existing property as a launching off point.  Why discourage that.  We (this means you, this mean me) would be better off cultivating an expansion of the nerdview.  Encourage people to expand their fandoms, while cultivating their creative urge with existing ones.

  • Totally and absolutely agree. Of course creating from scratch takes a lot of time, and it’s difficult to find the energy and time to do that when you have to do something else to pay the bills. …unless you’re guaranteed money, which would be lovely. 

  • This article bummed me out. I understand the mainstream comic well could run dry any day now but have you looked at the indie rack of properties? I mean Rucka, Remender, Brubaker,Fraction, Vaughan the five of them could provide new content for like ten years each. I feel like culture may blow through the characters in the big two in like 15-20 years but then we will get a Saga movie series.

  • I agree with this one hundred percent. As someone who works with children, one of the hurdles I see way too often is that we live in a society where creativity and individualism is not really nurtured. Rather, today’s kids are being stream lined to get a certain score in standardized testing and taught to learn how to follow a process instead of using critical thinking to find a solution to a question.  In short, we are terrified of failure. If there is a formula that is working, we milk it to death and wrongly believe that a “one size fits all” mentality is good. I apologize for the rant, and I know this is not the only reason, but that is simply what I noticed from my neck of the woods. 

  • I would disagree with this article. Though the sentiment behind over saturation of old favorites seems sound, it discounts the recent creation of titles such as Harry Potter, Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Invincible. Numerous new titles are being generated, even if they are not given the spotlight like what Marvel has right now. This articles’ focus would be better served in exploring options to highlight independent creators and give them a voice amongst the corporate backed artists and titles. 

  • I agree, but – I wouldn’t put the blame on the creators. Especially if you’re talking about film, an industry that traditionally seeks out “the next ___”. It’s about safe investment for them. Even indie creators have this problem with their audience. I make plush toys and jewelry of my own design, which I sell at comics conventions alongside mass-produced fandom goods. Do I sell stuff? Yes. Do I talk to a WHOLE lot of people who are looking for a connection to “that thing they like”? Oh yes. A constant stream of people say “oh, Minecraft!” when they see my 8-bit jewelry designs. If I say it’s NOT Minecraft, they walk away. People have said “oh, I don’t watch this show” about my plush (yeah, me either!). I get begged for commission work of licensed characters – even ones that would overlap with commercial goods – which I refuse, turning away guaranteed money for the sake of integrity. I show them a monster that there will only ever be one of in the world, and they ask me for the 1000th iteration of a Wampa.

    I completely understand where they’re coming from, but I’m trying to describe how much it’s a FIGHT to get the spotlight on anything people don’t recognize from something else, or that doesn’t reference something familiar (it’s a bunny, but it’s the 11th Doctor!). So it’s hard for me to look at other creators and say they’re being lazy by letting the market demand push them into fan or derivative works. Fan works get WAY more attention than original ones, offline and on. I’ve heard it from other independent creators as well, before you think “well maybe you’re just not good enough” (trust me, I ask that question).

    We ALL have to retrain ourselves as AUDIENCE members to seek out and take chances on new, unfamiliar works, rather than being safe and making a beeline to what we recognize. Sure, you’ll buy some random comic and it’ll be awful; but maybe that podcast you gave a shot is your new religion.

    Otherwise, I fully agree – nerd culture may collapse into a singularity.

  • tl;dr of my comment, sorry; you hit a nerve: Don’t put too much shame on creators for trying to stay afloat by following audience interest. Let’s all try new things. Maybe Nerdist.com could do a feature on nerds who make independent, original works in different media – not referencing any existing properties?

  • If anyone is interested in adapting some new material, they’re more than welcome to contact me or my husband. We’re both writers and would be more than happy to entertain offers to adapt our novels. Both series feature female leads thrust into a new subsection of the world where they have to rely on their wits, their new friends, and their instincts to survive and thrive.

    His: The Children of Divinity Series by Garth Reasby presents a world where not only do superheroes exist, but they may be this millennia’s version of legendary heroes of old like Achilles. Think Marvel’s Avengers crossed with the Bond movies with just a dash of Bourne-esque action.
    Book One: AwakenBook Two: EvolveBook Three: Ascend (coming soon)

    Mine: The Sekhmet’s Light Series by H.L. Reasby brings us a modern setting infused with Ancient Egyptian mythology. Dr. Nicole Salem is an archaeologist that is chosen by the Ancient Egyptian goddess of warfare and vengeance, Sekhmet, to serve as her agent on earth. Gifted with a small portion of the goddess’ divine power, Nicole is set on a course that takes her head-to-head with the god of evil and darkness, Apep. 
    Book One: AkhetBook Two: PeretBook Three: Shomu

    It’s not that there’s not new stuff out there. It’s that producers aren’t inclined to go looking for it. 

  • I agree completely with this article but I think it should go even further. American geek culture (or whatever you want to call it) has become horribly derivative and quite frankly BORING as hell. I don’t begrudge anyone their right to enjoy whatever art they like. If you like watching another pointless and trite Batman movie then be my guest, but I really can’t be bothered with most of it anymore. We keep seeing the same cliches over and over again and I quite honestly don’t know how people can keep gobbling all this stuff up. (Sorry but I hated that Avengers movie for exactly this reason.) I don’t think people should just dream up new superheroes. I think they should be trying to come up with completely new kinds of stories. The world is far, far more interesting than the same formulaic tales being rehashed in slightly different packaging. How about some fresh ideas? How many unexceptional and indistinguishable zombie, vampire and superhero stories can you stomach? How about some originality? If you absolutely must rehash these same genres at least do something unique with them. (Alan Moore’s Watchmen comes to mind but by now even that’s a cliche.) And really what this ends up coming down to is companies like Marvel churning out the same boring, uninspired stories while they laugh all the way to the bank.  If you support this kind of drivel its only going to get progressively worse. Art suffers when it stagnates. Take a chance and try something new. Who cares if it doesn’t make you a bajillion dollars? That’s not what art is about. (And to counter any potential ‘Oh yeah? What are you doing that’s so great?’ arguments, I’ll just say….I’m working on it and at least I’m trying.)

  • 1. Link to ESB anime prequel????2. You’ve got to share your Marvel cards, if you still have them! I was really into them as well, and was introduced to the broader Marvel universe through them. I may still have them in storage somewhere…3. I think it’s a really fine balance between visiting existing universes (be they MCU, Star Wars, Buffyverse, etc.) and creating new ones. Not every new universe is that great (*cough*Twilight*cough*) and for every good one that succeeds there are dozens that flop. I don’t think we can complain about the overabundance of stories set in existing canons (I’ve had two SW stories in my head for almost 20 years & have yet to write them) when we so scrutinize every new thing that comes out.

  • Part of the problem comes down to WHY studios produce movies… TO MAKE MONEY. Bam. Plain and simple. They’re not in it to make something epic and enduring in our culture; they’re in it to make a fast buck. (Exception: the occasional ego movie meant to win awards and prestige… Which then also skyrocket the $$$ from the movie.) Trying something new is a risk, a gamble.. But the current string of (great) Marvel movies in the Avenger franchise for example, that’s guaranteed money in the bank.

    Star Wars (original movies) is a great example of a truly timeless saga, something that touched a nerve in the collective unconscious. It was, as I have said many times, a space *opera*, with all the same kinds of enduring themes that make such stories timeless. (For example, Andrew Lloyd Webber modernized Puccini’s Madame Butterfly into Miss Saigon; the core of the story resounds in any time.) But the only reason that Star Wars got made is because George Lucas did it his own damn self. It was his pet project. It was his *passion*. Could something that risky, and that resounding, be made today when all the decisions are made by huge media conglomerate companies..? Who knows…

  • I’m currently working with a young studio called NEWMYTHIC that’s creating a scifi space action series inspired by Gundam Wing, Cowboy Bebop, and of course SW. We’ve been pitching it as a live action anime, a pilot is currently in post-production. So far everyone who’s worked on it has been a fan and donated their time (including pro actors). People are starved for this type of content, and we’re lucky that many talented people want to be part of the next big scifi brand. Ours is called THE MARS SOLUTION, it takes place “After-Colony 55″ (Gundam fans should like that :) This summer we’re going to launch a crowdfunding campaign for $50K to complete the post-production, so far we’re completely bootstrapped and independent.
    You can watch a short teaser here: http://newmythic.com. Please tell your friends, and subscribe to our youtube channel or facebook if you’re interested in updates: https://youtube.com/newmythicdotcom 

  • As an indie writer, it’s tough to get your stuff out there. We debuted at New York Comic Con and a vast majority of the people there had ZERO interest in learning about what is new & fresh. Mind you with vanity presses popping out there is new crap churning out every day, but most of it is just some of the same (Google Zombie lit). The indie community is great, exciting and super supportive, we just need some bigger voices to help us get the word out!