THE FALL OF NERD ROME, PART TWO: Endgame?



As discussed in Part One, Geek Culture is destroying itself from the inside, and the toxic fandom elements among us make you sometimes wish there could be a “Thanos Snap” to return balance to the geek media and convention scene. Of course, nobody is literally suggesting that we vaporize half of all nerds (despite the extreme gullibility recently displayed by whiners on Facebook, in response to a local group’s cheeky “bad guy” graphic choices). One does wonder how this all plays out, and what will still be standing when fandom finally implodes on itself.

We’ve identified the problem: Pettiness, deception and self-entitlement abound in the modern-era of nerdery. How does it play out now? What is the state of the culture, as influenced by those who actively pursue the shattering of once-united geeks and freaks into factions on a local and global level? Those of us who paid our dues and built this empire before it was stolen and chipped away find ourselves in the strangest of dispositions, often, and the outlook is bleak many times.


Entitlement: The Final Frontier

It is not likely that the state of being referred to as “millennial” will persist. It is expected that “Generation Y” as the proper collective term for the cohort will prevail in the long run, and not carry the same infamous something-for-little-or-nothing, important-just-because-they-were-born, and I-know-better-just-because-I-do traits of the group commonly considered referenced. There are a ton of great, normal, well-adjusted, even-keel, grown-up “millennials” who will define what Y will be in history. But those poster-children of generational frustration are certainly at play in the destruction of fandom as we know it. Younger fandom at-large (under 35 or so) has no idea what it was like when there were not a dozen comic book TV shows to choose from. No inkling of life without streaming options for binge-watching your favorite franchises. They’re clueless about the concept that we had to once chance the odds of rubbing up against another living organism and go physically to our comic or game store to see if what we wanted was in stock — and if not, wait five to eight weeks for the special order. But it is easy to dismiss these laments as just the rambling of an “old guy,” right?

Luckily for the point herein, there is a vast entitlement present in more “seasoned” nerds as well, making the arrogant and obnoxious trait a universal talking point. The massively irritating compulsion among many of the traditional fandom crowd to oppose any and all change or re-imagining of any franchise in any genre is maddening. The expectation that nothing will ever adapt to a modern context escapes all logic — especially when the young (the adaptors of all things in life) are the ones crying the loudest. We see it all the time, from Star Wars to Star Trek. Marvel. DC. Video games. Just because something was once great one way, there is a conviction by some that it must not ever be updated or improved — or not improved, as everything is hardly perfect, of course. While a pleasant and nostalgic appreciation for what once was is commendable, polluting the culture with one’s resentment on the topic just gets old, and further splinters all of us.

These self-centered concepts among the demographics of fandom play out in all kinds of ridiculous ways. Geeks are too picky to enjoy almost anything. There is a consistent ruin of a potential good time, by way of the endless need to piss on all media, and to manipulate the content and scope of fandom groups or events based on singular biases. Instead of looking at a film or show with an openness to how the story will be told or the franchise represented, outspoken nerds will grouse about details or decisions in production. Instead of welcoming all types of content and subject matter to the convention scene, many in the background will play gatekeeper based on their own interests — even if that means making a grossly hypocritical decision (and resulting social media shit-show).

[Full disclosure: Earlier this year a Nashville-area convention, Hypericon, recruited Nicholas Brendon, a risky and abusive guest after bending to unfounded rumors, holding a secret meeting, and parting ways with one of their own organizers — myself — regarding supposed unreported “inappropriateness” over the years that mysteriously, of course, only emerged when convenient just a couple of months from the event.] 

Nicholas Brendon, a former Buffy star, has been on an “apology tour” for his many missteps (and charges for actual crimes) in the years after his time in the spotlight. Normally, a guest like this would be a boon for a small, growing convention. In this case, it was a shocking duplicity and liability. This is a man who faced bona fide domestic abuse charges, was known for trashing his convention hotel room and has made a scene through various exaggerated hypersensitivity ever since. Apology tour or not, he was a terrible optic for a convention caught in controversy, because unlike the old grudges being played out in the local-level rumor mill, his story included actual evidence, actual crimes and actual charges filed.

Depression and mental illness are no joke, and Mr. Brendon deserved and continues to deserve the chance to heal and to make amends. It just was not appropriate for the situation — a fact that was lost on the organizers and fan groups involved, who were clearly blinded by the stars in their eyes. This is an affliction all-too-common in “me first” fandom circles, where those sloppily attempting the business of cons lose sight of it in the name of their own fanboy/girl spasms.

(Us “old-guys” know these folks as “star-fuckers” — a term not just limited to the actual act, but applicable to the blind loyalty and wide leeway offered to various famous people when their own peers would be shunned for the same.)

When Heroes Fail, Villains Emerge

When fandom collapses from a perch of onetime greatness, what remains? What emerges from the rubble? Sometimes the result of such self-destruction is… nothing. Sometimes, others step in. Recently, in Nashville, the void has been claimed by a fan-group of “villains” who proclaimed Geek Media Expo (GMX) — one of the cons yours truly had created and led for many years — to be dead. (This is not a shocking revelation, as those who took it by force ruined it, bankrupted it and left its brand for dead for a number of years.) The “villains” have been threatening their own event — to take up the onetime fall time slot of the now-dead GMX. The nature of this event is somewhat to-be-determined, but the mere mention of all of these realities has created a staggering amount of “butthurt” among the local fans. Displaying more gusto and loyalty than they had in these last few years of their once-loved convention’s failure and absence, many have been calling for the heads of the “villains.”

Super Villain Summit,” as they call themselves, have employed purposeful controversy to skyrocket to notability. Onlookers can easily note that the goading concept from the “SVS” is based on a long tradition of pro-wrestling promo styles where fictional “smack talk” and over-the-top caricature is used to create controversy. The first video by the group made a very controversial social media splash, but the subsequent weeks have seen a growth in social media followers of more than five-times over their starting numbers, and a rate of increase that is faster in just a few weeks time than any other local group or event has seen in the past — ever.

Group spokesperson John Pyka is no stranger to various entertainment gimmicks, and takes the harsh reaction of the over-sensitive sensationalists in stride. “We play the villains, and when we produced an announcement video obviously poking fun the long-gone con, the oversensitive crowd turned it into something else and used it to personally attack other people in the community: revealing their own hypocrisies,” said Pyka. “Many in the community have thanked us and rallied to support us.”

A recent highlight of the childish obsession some groups have with creating unnecessary division is among the malformed reactions to the SVS folks. Cosplay Collective — an otherwise noble and accepting group of charity costumers — openly melted down about the “bad guys” continuing to support both the overall scene, and the charitable efforts of various groups. Such noble aims have been put aside expressing anger that those they don’t happen to like would dare set aside their “beef” and promote their holiday toy drive.

Along the way, the SVS made mention of other events by name, causing some of these inept show-runners to threaten intellectual-property enforcement action for the mere mention of their events. (This is not legally actionable in a single way.) Perhaps they were incensed by the use of the GMX logo, but that logo still legally belongs to this author, and SVS was given permission to use it for their mocking debut. Imaginations and delusions of grandeur do run deep, though, and the lunacy is off the charts.

Another “villain” for many is any traveling corporate comic-con or event. Granted, there are some who fit the bill as villains (like the local-fandom-predatory-bookers at Wizard), but many are just reasonably good events that happen to be for-profit (like Heroes & Villains and Walker-Stalker) and are run by phenomenal professionals who also embrace roots fandom. One thing they have in common? A growing base of attendees who see them as “no bullshit” ways to enjoy a taste of the scene, without the potential for baggage and personal reputation assaults that seems to be the hobby and pastime of “local” fandom shows. The once-proud and fun night life of the fan-run con has given way to a “The hell with it, I’ll just go out with my friends after the show closes” mentality among those whose tendency toward adulthood and a lack of drama has driven them away from petty fandom’s proverbial ball-pit.

Those who painted themselves as the do-gooders among fandom have failed at their endeavors, betrayed the trust of their constituents, or outright sold their souls for the cheap thrills of their petty and cliquy world. In some cases, there is nothing to replace what they’ve destroyed, but in many ways, there are a litany of options which will prove out to fill in the gaps and shed this no-win scenario being forced onto the geek scene. Sometimes it takes a “good bad guy” to get it done, and that seems to be the bet being made by the SVS group, and the happenstance being enjoyed by some very successful entities in the business of fandom.

Left Holding The Bag

When the vast betrayal of my own time at the helm of Nashville’s most successful fandom events in history (MTAC and GMX, prior to 2014) took place, the parties on the other side of the “divorce” were inconceivably unreasonable and destructive to all that we’d built. Many things transpired that should have been far more civilized, but that’s in the past. One thing that still lingers is the way in which power was transferred to one of the people left in charge. The meekest, most weak-willed, soft-spoken candidate to take over was almost literally left holding the bag — forced into a position of leadership he never expressed an interest in. It was wrong, and not what he deserved. Instead, he deserved to be groomed and to be introduced with fanfare to the adoring masses. It never happened, and it used to be a lot more of a shame to consider, before he made a staggering sell-out to a clique of the exact kind of twisted and underhanded, petty self-servers who’ve ruined our once-grandiose scene. The DNA of such preferences toward drama-over-business continue even recently, such as the ever-turbulent waters of Akaicon (website once again bricked, as of press time), where the hits just keep on coming in the Super Bowl of Backstabbing.

Sadly, fandom’s own social dumpster fire has shot it in the foot and robbed the greater culture of the success of its most talented crafters of culture. As we touched on earlier, Hypericon has stumbled greatly — off a steady 2x annual growth pattern to flatline attendance and a vast  personal debt carried by one of its now-primary organizers. The promise of the Nashville Mini Maker Faire has been tarnished by a lackluster year of dwindling participation and sloppy planning at the hands of the same individual (to expose a common thread), against a backdrop of in-fighting among leaders at the associated maker space, Make Nashville, and whispers about allegations of misconduct by this fumbling individual — an officer of the organization. All of these tales are drenched with vast irony and glass-house realities that could fill a novel.

Even parts of the nerd culture which are auxiliary to fandom have taken hits in the war of the drama-panderers. A quick glance at Nashville’s now-large burlesque scene exposes the reality that drama wins the day, nine out of 10 times, and groups continue to splinter and splinter until the market is saturated, and hardly anyone will work with each other. The huge strides made for the Adventure Science Center’s Way Late Play Date events have suffered because of the inability for groups to “just get along” — with petty passing interactions between fans and production quality nose-dives in some of the fan-produced events included in those evenings. None of it is fair to the ASC or the fandom and attendees, but there seems to be a slim minority of those of us in the geek scene who understand such adult realities.

As a measure of ineptitude in the business of fandom, one needs only to look at the recent track-record of MTAC — an organization which has been playing loose with its legal status, operating in gray areas of organization, running without its charter-mandated leadership properly installed, and which has only just recently reformatted into a new entity (Southeast Pop Arts & Culture, Inc. or SEPOP) — the fourth such reformat in as many years. There is no reason to believe that the lacking leadership and absent hard business and marketing acumen not just missing from them, but other fandom groups as well, will improve. This is the first sign of actual formal progress from the group in years, though, and that may be a sign of improvement. We shall see.

When everything once great and meaningful in local geek culture is falling apart due to some small groups of very vocal bad actors serving their grudges or petty needs to take down those who were too driven for their meek aims, the true victims — those left “holding the bag” — are the fans. The peers, friends, family and neighbors we were supposed to be gloriously uniting in a mutual love of all things geek. The splintering is impossible to ignore, and regions like Nashville have gained a reputation of being a “hot mess” among fandom circles. This is a truly sad exchange of status for a city once spoken of halfway around the globe as having an exploding fandom scene that must be experienced at least once, by all.

The most important people in the whole story have always been the fans but now they’re the victims of the collapse of structures once held in place by the iron will of those not willing to kowtow to whiney, high-maintenance, victim-seeking culture. Over time, those fans have joined into the fray, but even those loud and conniving core members of the movements that are destroying the true inclusiveness of fandom have not absorbed a majority of the community. They are outliers who have turned things problematic for all of us.

The people deserve better, but that may not come to pass until the state of culture — inside and outside fandom — burns the rest of the way to the ground and the enablers of these fools realize the vast error of their ways. There are shining examples of fandom moving forward in Nashville and other areas, without a lot of these biases. The Nashville Zombie Walk is in good hands again, and back on track. Local social group Music City Geeks remains a good-natured “Switzerland” among the deeply fractured scene. Various smaller happenings in various genres come and go in the calendar. Several gaming groups and tech-geek gatherings are also prevalent and going strong, as well as a set of local comic shows by Marc Ballard, one of Nashville’s longest-running purveyors of such.

Epilogue

Who knows, maybe the wretches will just get bored and move on. At that point, we will just have to hope the forthcoming cohorts of fans are better-adjusted to the world. It is clear that the business of geekery is not going to slow down. The unstoppable train of progress in media and events does exist, we just have to pay attention to who the conductors are. All things ebb and flow, and shifts in markets are entirely normal. So, too, are social shifts. Hopefully those who’ve hijacked — nay, stolen — noble ideas of inclusion, diversity and even the political correctness that once was an aspirational value for many of us will continue to see their two-faced and flimsy collusions prove out to be failures and blights on their reputation.

Once that Darwinian cycle plays out, we can stand back and observe the next generation rebuilding fandom into something they can be proud of. With hope, it will be something more like that which was built by those of us who truly paid our dues — not those who pillaged and ruined our great halls and colosseums. Where we can, we should counter the stranglehold placed on the culture. Where we cannot counter, we can at least tell the story of what once was, the cautionary tales of how it was demolished, and encourage the Younglings to exceed even our own visions of geeky greatness.

The most important thing is to resist the demands of silence. The one thing they all wish those of us who always have known better, and always achieved higher, would do — is to just go away. We cannot. These ruiners of our culture — from all sides — need to know that they can never muzzle the vanguards of fandom and everyone can tell where they’re just a cheap imitation of the proud culture we built.

Back this notion up with your dollar. Support media, groups and events that makes the butthurt crowd yelp. Provide a holistic and uninsulated exposure to your little ones of various franchises and versions of lore. Use the values and lessons of so many fantasy, sci-fi and comic book tales to impart the values to future nerd-movers-and-shakers that the impostors are currently ignoring.

Stand back and watch, or build new. Whatever works for you. Perhaps even the ruins of our Rome will one day be protected and revered while new bold minds imagine a scene to rival what’s been crumbling of late.



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