Much Ado About Nerding: The Comic-Con Name Game

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With pop-culture industry executives, creative talent, and fans all packing their bags for San Diego and Comic-Con International, it seems like the right time to wrestle with the big issue:

What’s the difference between a nerd and a geek?

As part of the flurry of analysis about ways that the new Spider-Man reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man, differs from the previous films in the series, Linda Holmes took a stab at the distinction, arguing that Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker was “a classic nerd archetype,” while Andrew Garfield’s version is “the modern notion of a geek…more oddball than outcast.”

Holmes makes an interesting argument, though I’ll admit I thought Garfield was playing the John Romita version of Spidey, Maguire the more Ditko-flavored version. But maybe that’s because I’m just a big comics nerd at heart. Or am I a geek? It’s hard to keep track, especially when the labels are kind of arbitrary.

“Geek” has become the catch-all for fans who are passionate about anything other than math and science, in which case you’re a nerd, or sports, in which case you’re a fan, which is a totally normal lifestyle choice. Mainly because advertisers sell “fans” beer and cars.

But if you’re a math whiz who also likes football, we don’t know what to call you. A baseball player who loves Alfred Hitchcock? Can’t help ya. (I’m pretty sure the latter one’s a jock, but one with hidden depths or something.)

“Nerd” mainly endures today as a term of derision. It means more than just “outcast”, it implies that you kind of deserve to be on the outside looking in, because your interests are obsessive and, well, decidedly not cool.

These vague, all-over-the-place distinctions divide genre fans into smaller subgroups, making them easier to write off as an obscure subculture. Hey, did you know “fans” comes from fanatics, which was a form of derision for outcasts and oddballs alike until it stopped being one? Of course you did. If you’re reading this, in addition to being a pop-culture geek, there’s a good chance you’re also a word nerd.

Since rhyming and puns in headlines are an excellent way for the mainstream media to marginalize what they don’t understand/respect, you’ll see some even more painful nerd rhymes in this week’s Comic-Con coverage. (“Nerd Herd Arrives In/Descends On San Diego” is my pick for the Weekend sections of this Friday’s California papers and USA Today.) “Nerd Words” might get used to head a glossary of Comic-Con jargon that some reporter gets tasked with making up. You know, where they claim that Hall H is filled with attendees angry that “Prometheus really ‘Jar-Jarred’ the franchise” or other nonsense.

But “geek” goes with stuff. Phrases like “Geek Chic” and “Geek Out” are fun to say, especially now that ”geek” no longer calls up images of sideshow performers biting the heads off of chickens. There’s a reason we at the Bonfire Agency use “The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth” on our home page. It’s really, really catchy.

It’s also less limited. “Nerd” still generally implies glasses-wearing lover of math and science with few other interests. Geeks come in a wider variety, and although I’m not sure you can be a “baseball geek” or a “fashion geek” just yet, that day will come. Of course, once it does the so-called mainstream will have to come up with a new way to write off the millions of people who like things like Doctor Who, grindhouse movies, and radio comedy. At that point, I bet “nerd” gets yanked away from the pocket-protector set.

But until then let’s enjoy this moment, where geeks headline number-one movies at the box office, people proudly read their George R.R. Martin novels in public, and Twilight fan-fiction can become a best-selling porn trilogy. Geekdom is a big tent, and there’s plenty of room for nerds in there.

Unlike Hall H, where there’s no room for anybody.

See you at Comic-Con!