From fringe to mainstream Rise of geek

Jeff Watkins, owner of Cloud City Comics and Toys in Syracuse, N.Y., wears a retro-looking pair of black-rimmed glasses. It’s not out of necessity, mind you. They’re fake. The lifelong comic book fan dons the accessory as homage to the famously bespectacled Clark Kent, the bumbling alter ego of Superman.

Despite his faux frames’ geeky origins, he finds, time and time again, that his superhero tribute garners a lot of favorable attention from an unlikely demographic.

“Every time I go out to a club, there’s always some super-hot model girl who takes my fake glasses, puts them on and says, ‘Take a picture of me, I’m such a nerd,’ ” Watkins said, both amused and indignant at the gall of such a request.

“You don’t know what a nerd is!” he wanted to say. “When you know Spider-Man’s birthday, you’re a nerd.”

The wild success of television shows like the fantasy adaptation “Game of Thrones” and the sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” as well as comics-inspired movies such as “The Avengers,” are proof positive that subject matter once the domain of nerds and prepubescent boys — comic book superheroes, science fiction and fantasy — is now wholeheartedly embraced by the mainstream.

With the arrival of “The Intergalactic Nemesis,” a pair of stage shows billed as a live-action graphic novel, even Spoleto Festival USA has tipped its hat to the show’s lowbrow DNA of action/adventure radio plays and comic book line art.

“Intergalactic Nemesis” writer/director Jason Neulander attributes the current ubiquity of geek culture to the influence of a pair of films that filled the imaginations of children in the 1970s with light-saber battles and rolling boulders.

“Those kids who grew up on ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ — and I’m one of them — are now parents, are now breadwinners,” Neulander said. “Everybody who came after that basically grew up on ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders,’ particularly ‘Star Wars.’”

W. Scott Poole, an associate professor of courses such as “Monsters in America” at the College of Charleston, brandishes his geek cred by showcasing movie-monster figurines such as the vampire Nosferatu and classic horror movie posters throughout his office. He attributes society’s newfound favorable view of geek culture not only to “Star Wars” but also to underlying factors such as the changing economy, including the shift from an industrial and manufacturing economy to a computer and data-driven one.

“It’s no accident that at the same time geek went from fringe to mainstream in the last 20 years, this is also the time period of Internet startups and Silicon Valley,” Poole said. “Actually, it’s kind of like economic modernity is on the geek’s side. A lot of the skills that go with geekdom suddenly became a commodity.”

Whatever the reasons may be, it seems that the cross-pollination of geek and mainstream cultures has been beneficial and, in some cases, vindicating for all parties involved. “People that, 20 years ago, would’ve wanted to give me a swirly now ask me when they can get the new ‘Walking Dead’ graphic novel,” Watkins said.

Nick DeSantis is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.