Once a month, at Third Coast Comics in the Edgewater neighborhood, the store closes for the evening and the knitting comes out. Followed by the drinks. Drink & Draw & Knitting Night is the second Thursday of each month, as it has been since Terry Gant opened Third Coast nearly five years ago. When I asked who actually comes to this, he replied: "Nerds, artists, fiber-arts folks, nerds — by and large, super-nerdy people show up for knitting nights at comic book shops."
A woman recently made a Ghostbusters needlepoint. Others crochet, burn images into wood blocks, create faux robot parts using portable die-cutting machine presses.
Don't answer yet.
First, consider Gant himself; he looks the archetypal part of the comic book store owner. He's paunchy, appears a decade younger than his 44 years. He wears thick eyeglasses, a goatee, and the permanent expression of the not-particularly-impressed. Still, let me tell you: Should the zombie apocalypse come, you'll want Gant at your side. What he lacks in agility he would make up for in coolness, sharpness. He would make the perfect — should it all go south — last nerd.
But wait: Is he a nerd?
Hard to say.
What makes a nerd most is tougher to define than it used to be. It's also an especially relevant question this week:
But then, Sunday, there's this: a panel titled "Exorcising the Spectre of the Fake Geek Girl."
If you're a nerd, it promises to cut to the core of the most heated subject in geekdom:
Identity — in particular, who is and isn't a nerd now?
If you're uninitiated: The fake geek girl (or guy) is not unlike the hipster nerd — they dress the part, claim to have nerd status, but ultimately, they don't know their stuff and their interest in nerdy culture is negligible.
When I mentioned the fake-geek phenomenon to Gant, he exploded: “Identify yourself as you see fit, but just saying you like ‘
Tell me about it.
The Chicago Nerd Social Club, which organized the "Fake Geek Girl" panel, is not even arguing for the banishment of wannabe geeks from geek culture. Michi Trota, who is on the panel (and also part of a Chicago belly-dancing troupe that occasionally performs as Klingons), told me: "Actually, we want to lower barriers of entry to our culture. You shouldn't have to prove your cred to be accepted — remember, referring to yourself as a nerd, for a lot of people in the geek community, came out of becoming socially ostracized."
Well said. On the other hand, what does it mean to be a nerd when everyone is a nerd?
A decade ago, in one of the final episodes of
But at least they proved their nerdom.
If we lower the bar on geek identification, we would have to accept most of our major contemporary stars:
Lance Fensterman, the 36-year-old producer of C2E2 (and New York Comic Con), said he expects 50,000 people to attend C2E2 this weekend based on advance ticket sales. Which is a pretty broad niche. When I asked for his definition of nerdiness, he said: “Being nerdy is about where you spend your money now, I think.” Albeit, with a degree of shame: “I'm moving out of my apartment, so I just went into the elevator with 3,000
"But I can see where the resentment toward the fake geek comes from," he added. "The starlet on Letterman who says she's geek is just trying to seem appealing and ordinary. But she can also slide in and out of that label. She receives a social hall pass in a way that people with truly geeky tendencies don't always enjoy."
The most visible airing of this grudge — a grudge that's been bubbling within nerd communities for a few years now — came last winter during an episode of
It's funny and touching.
The classically nerdy, the sincerely uncomfortable, often lack the social mobility of the hipster nerd “who self-identifies as a nerd but has zero at stake,” Gant said. No wonder nerds can feel co-opted and alienated. They get a new Spock and he's
Or maybe the anxiety here is just a generational thing, offered Bathsheba Birman, who co-founded Nerds at Heart, a Chicago-based nerd dating service, in 2006: “For Gen Y and later, because of how it's applied culturally, to Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, ‘nerd' comes with more of a hint of success now.” Playwright Qui Nguyen, whose D&D-inspired “She Kills Monsters” was a recent hit at
Which, to follow that to its logical conclusion, suggests, gulp, the inevitable end of the nerd.
Indeed, Jeff Smith, founder of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, a local umbrella club for all things geeky, said geek culture has broadened so much that the very definition of his club's namesake is "a divisive issue among us now." Kevin Reader, of The Nerdologues, a Chicago geek-centric comedy troupe (also performing at C2E2), echoed him.
"We've had so many conversations about identity, we had to settle on: 'Being nerdy is not what you like, it's how you like it.' It's a healthy obsession, not hipster-liking something, not cynically-liking. But a genuine, hard love." Then he added: "You say you're not a nerd, but what do you love?"
I told him I had nerdy tendencies. Recently, I began to dream about “
But I didn't see myself as a nerd, I said. Reader asked if there was any geeky thing I was obsessed with.
I hesitated, then mumbled, “Well … I have a
"OK, I contest your assumption that you're not a nerd," he said. "Hope you feel comfortable with that."