Category Archives: Comics

Revenge of the Nerds

This work was originally published by the University Observer in September 2015.

David Monaghan looks at how the archetype of the nerd has changed in and outside of Film and TV.

We are all familiar with the trope of the nerd: a bespectacled, basement-dwelling mess, usually depicted with horn-rimmed glasses and a love for niche science-fiction. This image permeates nearly every aspect of popular culture, from movies to TV, comic books to literature. Almost anyone can identify these characters through appearance alone, but how true is this archetype to reality?

Typically portrayed as outsiders, traditional ‘nerds’ are usually defined by their difference to other more ‘normal’ characters. Steve Urkel, protagonist of the long-running American sitcom, Family Matters, wears braces, a striped cardigan, and speaks in a shrill, high-pitched voice, much to the chagrin of the Winslow family. Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons displays more negative characteristics, using his differences and love of niche subjects as a means to belittle other people.

A brief visit to both Dublin Comic-Con and its sister event MCM Comic-Con, it can be said that the archetype of the nerd, which will be forever embedded in our collective pop culture conscience, holds very little bearing in reality. Or rather, the reality is a little more complicated than one might initially imagine. Movements like ‘Gamergate’, a campaign of harassment against female games journalists, seem to only reaffirm the standards set by characters like Comic Book Guy. Events like aforementioned conventions show that the communities can be both welcoming and warm.

“It’s okay to like [comic books] now. It’s the cool thing to do,” says Trudie Mitchell, a student, dressed from head to toe in Captain America’s familiar red, white and blue. “Due to the movies and the popularity of the video games, it has gotten big for all generations,” says Darragh Gallagher, complimenting Trudie’s outfit with his very own spin on Peter Parker. One glance around the halls at both events proves them right. Parents and children, dressed as a selection of characters from the world of popular culture, like Groot and Rocket fromGuardians of the Galaxy, or Geralt the Witcher from the eponymous video game, run from stall to stall buying a mix of comic books, games, and movies – a far cry from the basement-dwellers of popular myth.

So why has attending cons become the ‘cool’ thing to do? Why has a nerd gone from a subject of derision to being dominant in popular culture? This might have a lot to do with how accessible certain niche media has become. In the 1980s and 1990s, the ‘nerd’ character in fiction typically had an encyclopaedic knowledge of certain subject areas, like science fiction or comic books. This knowledge was often obtained with great patience and difficulty (for example, finding a copy of the difficult-to-source Star Wars Christmas Special, or obsessively watching episodes of a TV show), and was therefore inaccessible or alien to most other characters. This was the perception of nerds in and outside the land of Film and TV.

In the 1990s, however, we begin to see a shift. Filmmakers Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, amongst others, use their love of comic books and movies to litter their own films with pop culture references. Smith’sClerks and Mallrats contain normal, everyday people discussing, without irony, the architecture of the Death Star, as well as their favourite Star Wars films. Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction contains numerous references to, and replicates many shots from, his favourite films, including Psycho, It’s A Wonderful Life, and The Great Train Robbery. ‘Nerd’ characters are no longer the socially-awkward, loud, annoying tropes we expect them to be, but instead they have become the people we see everyday; the man in the corner shop or on the street. In Tarantino’s case, becoming obsessive over something will not lead to derision, but instead will lead to a successful movie career. Indeed, with the development of the internet and the ability to share information with a mass of people, these filtered versions of all things ‘nerdy,’ once thought impenetrable, have now opened up to allow more and more people to feel welcomed.

It would not be strange to suggest, then, that this only opened the gate to the development of more comic book and sci-fi films. No longer seen as something alien or strange, people now flock to see films that would not have been made as often or as regularly nearly twenty years ago. Speaking to Simon Fisher-Becker, Doctor Who’s Dorium Maldovar, at MCM Comic-Con, he offered up a differing view: “I totally accept that there are a lot of people who think sci-fi is just phooey and they don’t understand it at all. For human beings, and for society as a whole, sci-fi is important because the fantasies of today become the realities of tomorrow, and the proof of that is Star Trek! I mean, Captain Kirk had the original flip-phone. We all use a video screen of some sort nowadays. And now with the 3D printing, that’s the start of the replicator! And there are writers of the past – Jules Verne, HG Welles, and to some extent George Orwell – I mean, 1984! We have CCTV everywhere. Big Brother is here.”

Many of our anxieties about the future are reflected in the popular media we consume. Bryan Singer’s X-Men films look at persecution through the mutant metaphor. The Dark Knight examines terrorism through the anarchic Joker, and every Fantastic Four film successfully reminds us how terrifyingly bad superhero films can still be.

While the trope of the isolated nerd will never truly go away, more and more people feel welcomed now than ever before by media once deemed inaccessible. Despite protestations from hate groups like Gamergate, people of all races, genders, backgrounds, and sexualities find comfort in attending conventions and speaking about their love of games, movies, and comics. The nerd is no longer an outsider. The nerd is now the everyman.


LGBT* Outreach — Printing the right colours

This work was originally published by the University Observer in November 2013.

Growing up a geeky, bespeckled teenager in rural Ireland was far from ideal. This, coupled with the fact that I was struggling with my sexual identity, left me feeling confused even at the best of times, and so I found refuge in the pages of comic books. One comic book in particular struck a chord with me: Ultimate Spider-Man.

Brian Michael Bendis’ take on the classic hero updated him for the 21stcentury, made him younger, and pitted him against his greatest foe yet: teenage angst. Though I loved this series very, very much, it was in the pages of Ultimate X-Men that I first encountered LGBTQ+ issues in comic books.

Bundled with Ultimate Spider-Man for the newsstand market, Ultimate X-Men was often printed in the backpages, overshadowed by the former. I wasn’t a major X-Men fan particularly, so I took a general apathetic approach to the series. That was until I became aware of the interactions between two fan favourites: Collosus and Nightcrawler.

Collosus, in the Ultimate Marvel continuity, was openly gay and his acceptance of his sexuality created a rift between him and his former best friend, Nightcrawler. My interest was piqued. Never before had I seen gay characters in comic books, and Nightcrawler’s refusal to accept Collosus for who he was represented all the apprehensions I had about fully embracing my sexuality.

Marvel’s decision to include an openly gay character in an X-Men series complimented the book’s inherent themes of acceptance and equality. Many have even interpreted the ‘mutant gene’ as a comic book metaphor for sexuality. You can’t choose to be a mutant after all.

Comic books like Ultimate X-Men had begun to portray LGBTQ+ characters in a more positive light by the turn of the century, it had been a long journey prior, mainly due to the Comics Code Authority (CCA).

The CCA was formed in the 1950s as a response to anxieties perpetuated by psychiatrist Fredric Wertham in his book Seduction of the Innocent. He claimed that comic books were one of the main causes of juvenile delinquency because of their violent nature, and that characters like Batman and Robin were “psychologically homosexual.”

Wertham’s theories created major panic upon publication, and the CCA was formed to quell public fears. It set strict guidelines to which comics now had to adhere. This included a ban on referencing homosexuality, meaning LGBTQ+ peoples would not be overtly represented for many years; though a few writers attempted to bypass this guideline through the use of subtext.

In an early attempt by DC to dispel any notions of homosexual undertones present in their comics, Batwoman was introduced in the 1950s as a love interest for Batman. She appeared sporadically as a supporting character for many years before fading out completely in the 1980s.

She was then reintroduced in 2006 as openly lesbian, making her one of the most prominent LGBTQ+ characters in mainstream comic books. In an ironic move by DC, the character that had been introduced to highlight Batman’s heterosexuality was now proudly queer.

The character again received widespread media attention earlier this year when writers J.H. Williams and W. Haden Blackman announced that they would be stepping down from the Batwoman title, due to creative conflicts with DC over the character.

Among these creative conflicts with DC was the company’s refusal to allow the writers to marry Batwoman to her long-time girlfriend, Maggie Sawyer. According to DC, this move did not stem from blatant homophobia, but rather from the company’s creative standpoint that “superheroes should not have happy personal lives.” This caused outrage among fans who had hoped to see a more realistic depiction of LGBTQ+ characters in the medium.

This was not the first time DC had faced criticism for their treatment of LGBTQ+ characters. In 2012, DC teased that they would yet again reintroduce a pre-existing character as gay, stirring much fan speculation.

The comics company also stated that the character had not yet been seen in the new 52 (their new rebooted universe) as of yet, ruling out the company’s ‘big three’ – Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. It was finally revealed on June 1st, 2012 that Alan Scott, the first Green Lantern, was the character in question.

While many believed that having such a leading character who embraced his sexuality fully was a step forward for LGBTQ+ representation, others were disappointed to discover that this version of the Lantern existed on Earth 2, an ‘alternate’ reality, placing him outside of mainstream continuity. This was considered a cop-out by some fans.

Counter to DC’s decision to keep Batwoman unwed is Marvel’s decision to allow Northstar, of X-Men, to marry his partner Kyle Jinadu, in a major comic book wedding in Astonishing X-Men #51.

Northstar was one of comic’s first openly gay characters, having come out in an issue of Alpha Flight in the early 90s. Though creator John Byrne had always intended his character be openly gay, the CCA’s guidelines, combined with Marvel’s strict ‘no gay superheroes allowed’ policy in the 1980s, prevented him from addressing it fully.

Instead, Northstar’s disinterest in women was credited to his competitive nature; having a girlfriend would only hinder him. Despite coming out in the early 90s, Northstar would not share a kiss with a boyfriend character for over a decade, and there was little reference to his sexuality in the years following, either by supporting characters, or Northstar himself.

Although gay characters have come to the fore in comic books in recent years, trans* people remain surprisingly under-represented in the medium. Despite the potential that characters like Marvel’s shape-shifting Mystique hold, very little has been done to make use of them for trans* storylines.

Gail Simone, writer of DC’s Batgirl, recently revealed that Alysia Yeoh, a supporting character in the book, is transgender. An activist and roommate of Barbara Gordon’s, Yeoh has been featured in the book since 2011, and is also bisexual. Simone has made efforts to distinguish between gender identity and sexual orientation.

It was also announced very recently that one of Marvel’s classic villains, Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston in the Marvel cinematic universe, is not only gender fluid, but also bisexual. These issues will be addressed by writer Al Ewing in the upcoming Loki: Agent of Asgard series.

The CCA and all its strict guidelines became increasingly flexible over the years, and depictions of gender and sexuality became clearer and more realistic as a result. Now completely defunct, the CCA exists only in memory, allowing for better representations of LGBTQ+ people in mainstream comic books.

Although there is still a long journey ahead, there is some solace to be found in the pages of comic books for confused, bespeckled LGBTQ+ teens worldwide, and that makes me very happy.