Comic-Con 2013: The pros and cons of mainstreaming geek

To me, Bumblebee will always be a Volkswagen Beetle.

That’s how it was for countless children who grew up watching and playing with Transformers in the early 1980s. Yeah, the Beetle isn’t as badass as most cars. It’s small, goofy, and cute — not very powerful. But the same was true of the kids who loved him, 6-to-10 year-olds who longed to prove, like that little battling ‘bot, that they could be brave and strong like the big ones around them.

When Michael Bay’s big-screen smash-and-grab blockbuster Transformers came out in 2007, the characters I loved as a boy were all back, and more popular than ever. Only this time Bumblebee took the far more formidable form of a Camaro muscle car.

The little boy inside me, who still keeps one of those old shapeshifting VW toys dangling from his rearview mirror, has never recovered. Since the Transformers movies are machines that make a billion dollars every time they are turned on, most fans now would be outraged if the character ever switched back.

That is the cost when geek goes mainstream. You get more of what you love, but you have to share your toys with others. 

“I like it. But it’s weird that the geeks are no longer the downtrodden or the minority,” says Chris Ryall, creative director of IDW Publishing, which just sold writer Joe Hill’s Locke & Key horror graphic-novel as a potential movie for Universal. “It used to be geeks vs. the world, and now geeks sort of run the world – or at least run Hollywood.”

IDW also still publishes new comics based on old-school ‘80s versions of the Transformers and GI Joe, and taps the ‘90s nostalgia vein with a new comic book that picks up as the print version of “Season 10,” which is where The X-Files TV series left off. Ryall says mainstream movies only help those nostalgia titles, instead of obliterating them. And he is regularly surprised at just how deep into geek lore Hollywood is now willing to go. “Could you ever imagine 20 years ago that there would be a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, that was actually a giant mainstream release?” he asks.

That Marvel Studios title, which just started shooting 10 days ago, had one of the biggest receptions of any other film at Comic-Con this year thanks to some ridiculously fun early footage. The story follows a team of deep-space, crimefighting misfits (including a gun-toting raccoon, a warrior tree, and a previously chubby Chris Pratt from Parks & Recreation, now ripped and starring as Star-Lord). Only a small subset of devoted readers followed this comic book series before Marvel announced it as one of its Phase Two movies last year. Now, it’s one of the most anticipated movies of 2014.

Similarly, Marvel’s Avengers sequel has now inspired everyone to scrambled to learn more about a nasty bit of mechanical business named Ultron.

But admirers of cult comic books, cartoons, and sci-fi/fantasy literature increasingly find their sacred texts altered for the sake of being more accessible to new fans. “That’s always the fear, that they’re going to take this thing I love and mess it up,” says Jenna Busch, a comic book author, editor of Fanhattan.com, and co-host with Stan Lee of the podcast Cocktails With Stan. “On the good side, it’s great that I don’t feel like my favorite sci-fi show is going to be canceled because nobody cares about it.”

While being a purist is admirable, there’s also a case to be made for inclusivity. One of cult fandom’s more unpleasant traits is how insular it can be, especially as a sort of No Girls Allowed club. “I’ll never forget after the Thor movie came out, I was in a comics shop and a girl came in and said ‘Hey, I just saw the movie, could you guys point me toward the best place to start with Thor comics?’” Busch says. “And this guy behind the counter was terrible: ‘You just like him because he’s hot.’ Who cares what it is that gets you into geekdom? Either way, you’re a fan.”

I recently took my 3-year-old daughter to a screening of My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, a feature film version in which the ponies become human teenagers, which is actually targeted solely at two niches: little girls and “bronies,” adult guys who enjoy the cutesy cartoon series semi-ironically. I felt like I was watching a foreign-language film without subtitles. Jokes flew by my head, while girls giggled and Bronies guffawed.

I can’t say my little girl has converted me into a Bronie, but she’s still trying. I don’t mind sitting with her to watch the Hub Network’s My Little Pony cartoon, and in return she tolerates watching my old 1980s Transformers cartoons. It’s good to share the thing we love.

And as far as she is concerned, Bumblebee is a Volkswagen Beetle.

Illustration by DANIEL KRALL for EW

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