Frank Miller on Geeks

March 23rd, 2010 by | Tags: , ,

One thing that really bugs me when I’m signing comics for folks at a shop or convention is how some of you all refer to yourselves as “fanboys” or “geeks,” calling yourselves all kinds of bad names and making it sound like loving comics means being something less than human. I’ve met a lot of you, thousands of you, over the years. You’re a smart bunch, a literate bunch. You’re fun to talk with. The bad eggs, and the much-mentioned crazies, are few and very far between. I’m lucky to have the readers I have, and I’m grateful for your attention and loyalty.

A self-contempt, even a self-hatred, suffuses our amazing little field, expressed as often by publishers and writers and artists as by readers. The origins of this industry-wide inferiority complex are historical and foolish. Yes. We are a bastard industry, much maligned. Ours is a story form considered by many, even most, as juvenile and unworthy. So was the novel, once. So were the movies. And maybe people in my position, writers and artists, haven’t yet produced enough superior work to make the rest of the world think better of us. But superior works have been done, and more are in the pipe. The field is rich, very rich, in talent. The art form is unique in its capabilities. Our best days are ahead of us. Comics readers are likewise ahead of public perception. You know you love this stuff. Give the rest of them time to catch up, sure, but don’t think you’re a geek because you love good drawing or a good, dramatic story told well.

We must admit our love for our crazy little business of comic books. Screwy as our history is, unjust and splattered with the lifeblood of our best as our history is, we must move forward, unashamed, even a bit proud. Only that history can drag us back, and down. Only old, bad habits. Only that old, stupid self-contempt.

We’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.

-Frank Miller, from the letters pages in the fifth chapter of The Big Fat Kill. (That issue also included this excellent and NSFW Sergio Aragones pinup.)

I’ve grown increasingly uncomfortable with the way comics fans embrace nerd and geek as descriptions of a subculture. It feels a little self-loathing and a little high school. I don’t know that I can eloquently articulate why I feel this way, just that it rubs me in a weird way. I think Miller hits it closest when he mentions the self-contempt. Maybe that’s my issue.

Anybody have thoughts?

(While we’re talking Miller, The Life and Times of Martha Washington in the Twenty-First Century, the Miller/Dave Gibbons satirical future epic with one of the best black females in comics, is getting a softcover release in June. 600 pages. 20 bucks. You do the math.)

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23 comments to “Frank Miller on Geeks”

  1. I think it’s less the word itself (certainly comics is not the only ‘geek’ labeled hobby) & more the image associated with geek: SWM with limited social skills. Which not all fanboys/girls and geeks are. You either embrace the wording and break the stereotype as reclamation/redefinition or you decide it’s a slur.

  2. I’m sure there’s plenty of self-contempt among geeks. I’ve had some myself over the years. Much worse when I was in my twenties and before the therapy/zoloft/visit from Xenu.

    I’ve never given much thought to “why” but I enjoy self-identifying as a “geek.” It’s a pretty critical component to my personality, like “father,” “pr/marketing guy,” “husband,” etc. It’s more of a comprehensive viewpoint, though; I read comics but love sci-fi and fantasy and animation and all that jazz in whatever form, movies or TV or whatever.

    I think there may have been a time where self-identifying that way was some kind of ironic or self-deprecating attempt to disarm your detractors from the get-go, but these days, I just see so many people in my life and all over who are “geeks” whether they realize it or not and also, as I said, fathers and professionals and husbands and writers and contributors to many other valid and valuable components of society. So it’s almost like I’m a geek like others are metalheads, and others are sports junkies, and others are home improvers. A fun hobby, that can be a pretty important part of your personality and life if you want, but most often lives alongside whatever else you do and say as a human being.

    does that make any sense whatsoever?

  3. and I realize reading Erica’s comment that I’ve made the idiotic mistake of making it a “he” focused term when of course “geek” is an equal opportunity descriptor. sorry. total oversight on my part.

  4. Well, one could argue that the fan community has been engaged in an effort to reclaim/redefine terms like ‘geek’, ‘nerd’, or ‘fanboy’ to some degree – I think that those words have less of a negative meaning than they did when Miller wrote that response. I sort of respect the effort (Comics Foundry, Ifanboy, Comics Alliance, etc.) – particularly since I do think that it can potentially offer an alternate vision of masculinity/femininity.

    On the other hand, I really don’t think that any effort to ‘reclaim’ a pejorative term will ever be more than empty rhetoric – an expression of self-confidence that doesn’t match reality. There’s still a lot of self-loathing out there, a problem that’s not helped by the fact that we still frequently use these terms (the ever-present ‘sycophantic fanboy’ or ‘babyman’) to describe those who have different tastes and preferences.

    Hm. This gave me a bit to think about. Be back later.

  5. Geek is still a negative term to most? Really? I mean our president poses with Superman statues and plays with lightsabers on the White House lawn. I think we’re as mainstream as anyone else in this fractured culture. It was an insult, but it wouldn’t be the first time a subculture has taken an negative name and made it their own. Gay comes to mind. So does Yankee.

  6. Hey David,

    I just wanted to say that I really like when you pose open-ended posts like this, nobody else I read, expect maybe Valerie D’Orazio, does that with any regularity. One of the downsides of the proliferation of opinions on the interwebs is that you can just look around until you find one that confirms what you already think, but it takes a more agile mind to seek out information or other opinions that might challenge their assumptions. I dig the fact that you didn’t come at this claiming to have the “answers” and were curious what we all thought. Good lookin’ out.

    Anyway, as for the “geek” label, I think there’s a lot to be considered in Erica’s comment about “reclamation” and the power of that process. For example, “liberal” used to be a bad word. But hey, as they said in a West Wing episode, liberals ended slavery in this country, ended segregation, liberals gave women the right to vote, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water act, etc. At some point, it stopped being a slur and is now worn by some as a badge of honor. Digressive analogy over.


  7. Beau Smith wrote about this a few years ago in one of his columns (I wish I could find a date on it so I knew when this was written).
    It starts of lamenting professionals’ contempt for their customers, but then goes into the self-loathing aspect that you point out here.

    I guess the part that really pisses in my beer is when comic book “professionals” call their consumers and readers fanboys. Trust me in 20 years I’ve heard almost every pro my age and younger (Older pros rarely ever said it. They had class and were just that… Pros) refer to their readers and consumers as that at some point if not all too often.
    Sometimes I think we as creators create comics for ourselves/adults because we don’t know or have forgotten how to create comics for all ages as well as adults. I see online and print media talking to their readers in a “dog pile on the rabbit” mentality of “let’s make fun of the fanboys so they won’t call us one.” all the time. I sure as hell hope they’re talking in a mirror when they do this.
    The fanboy term has gotten so readers will even call themselves that name. I hope it’s meant that they have such good, solid self esteem that they really don’t care that the term isn’t that flattering to themselves. I hope that it’s not a case of them making fun of themselves first so they won’t have to hear it used on them by others. Sometimes I think there are too many readers/creators/publishers that are some what ashamed of what they read, create and publish. If so, I’d sure like to see that change as well. I don’t know if most feel that way or not. Only you really know.

  8. Justin,

    I’d agree with you, but I think most liberals still self-identify as ‘progressives’. I think there’s a real stickiness to these negative connotations.

  9. Jamaal,

    Heh. Agreed. In fact, in that very West Wing episode, there is discussion over “rebranding” liberal as progressive, because it loses the old negative stigma associated with the word.

    That said, I’m all for the reclamation of a term like “geek” or “fanboy” to infuse it with powerful insider meaning, but we almost need a new word, ala “progressive” in lieu of “liberal.” Miller talks about the art form, the culture is ahead of public perception. As members of this “new” media, what’s the word we need to invent to describe being ambassadors to our beloved comic book medium/culture? I’m not digging geek or fanboy, it needs more juice, preferably without any negative connotation.


  10. @Patrick Rennie: Geek/nerd is absolutely a negative term to most, even self-described nerds. How often do you see people describing others as drooling fanboys and things like that? It’s more mainstreamed than it was when Millar wrote this letter (some 15 years ago), but it definitely isn’t the norm. And Superman and lightsabers- at this point, those are not exclusively nerd culture. Star Wars didn’t make a billion bucks off the backs of people with pocket protectors and glasses, you know?

    @Jamaal: I think that you’re talking around the same brainwave I had earlier when I read this– whether or not a person (or a people) can reclaim nigger and have it actually mean something. I’ve made my peace (or something like it) with the word, but I know from history what my reaction is when faced with it as an insult, and I know that if forced to justify it, I’d only have gut feelings to go on, no actual facts or reasonable arguments. My grandparents tolerate it, I guess is the word? I know I used to watch The Boondocks on the big screen, and though my grandmom didn’t like it, she didn’t exactly shout at us to turn it off, either.

    I think that, though the issue is several thousand orders of magnitude less sensitive/important, nerd sits in the same realm. At its heart, it is still a word meant to denigrate, something that should have been left in high school with love letters and the word “jock.” I know that the word “fen” was coined by sci-fi fans specifically to differentiate themselves from fans of sports or cars, which again plays into the jock vs nerd high school mentality.

    Some of the geek culture rhetoric seems to fit into that same place– kind of a “you picked on us then, but now it’s a badge of honor” thing. Maybe less so now, but I think that’s still floating around in there somewhere.

    @Justin: Yeah, I try to be honest when I have no idea or I’m unsure of something or just uninformed. Talking at y’all is fine, but sometimes talking to is good, too.

  11. For some reason, I really want to come up with a descriptor that supplants geek or fanboy, but can’t seem to muster anything. I keep thesaurus-ing around in my brain on the same tired stuff: fan, enthusiast, follower… “insider” was the best I got on single words.

    Then I started thinking about what Miller really said, being ahead of public perception and being like… members of a movement, a shift in the collective consciousness. (I work in a museum, so forgive me), but I started thinking about artistic movements, you had pop and pointilism, and expressionism, dadaism, etc… which led me to snobby sounding things like being a member of the “Sequential Art Movement,” or haughty junk like afficionado of “The Ninth Art.” Invented stuff like part of the “Comic Nation” (too militant?). They all suck, they’re all mouthfuls. So yeah, I’m drawing a blank.

    But I want a new term damn it! I hope someone coins a new term that will stick.

  12. @Justin: Another question is “Do we need a term?” To use rap as an example, backpackers were a sub-part of rap culture. They tended toward “underground” music, talked up so-called conscious rappers like Mos Def and Common, and helped perpetuate the myth that underground was more authentic than mainstream, etc etc. Kind of the indie comics fans of the rap world.

    Other rap fans, though, the people who liked Jay-Z or TI or UGK or Beanie Sigel, didn’t have a catchy name for their group. They were just rap fans.

    I guess basically, what’s wrong with just being “____ fans?”

  13. Yeah, I hear you. I was sitting here trying to settle down with “comic reader” and basically got to the same place you got with “comics fan.” Ultimately, it’s not the label that’s important, but the activity associated with it.

    So let me play devil’s advocate. You’re out in the city somewhere grooving on the latest manga masterpiece of volume of Aya or whatever. Some random notices and is really not trying to be pejorative, but earnestly says “oh, hey, are you a comic book geek?” Your retort would be like “Umm, yeah, I’m a comics fan, why do you ask?” I’m honestly curious, not sure how I’d handle that one. I think my knee jerk would be a little defensive and want to “correct” the person to a more neutral term.

  14. I think “geek” and “nerd” don’t always translate to being negative, and describing oneself as such does not necessarily imply self-contempt. I think why most comics fans, sci-fi readers, gamers, whatever, apply that “geek” label to themselves is simply because it gives a name to an identity they feel they share. If I’m among people who read superhero comics, I can drop obscure references to Star Trek and Harry Potter, and the chances are much, much higher that they won’t be met with blank stares. That’s “geek” culture. It’s true that it can be, and has been, used as an insult, but there’s that aspect of reclaiming language, re-defining the word to mean what comic fans and other geeks/nerds/fanboys want it to mean.

    I can sort of get behind that, but there are still a couple of problems. One lies in that lingering negative connotation, because it won’t completely disappear. A fanboy, is still being called a boy, not a man, even if he is an adult. (When it comes to comics fandom, I’ve found “fangirl” tends to mean something entirely different than it does in other fandoms. In comics fandom, I take it to mean something like, “yes, there ARE girls who are into comics” as a contrast to fanboys being the only audience for comics. But in other fandoms it’s often derogatory–a word to sum up the squeeing and obsessive affection for whatever character/band/actor they love, and implies that there is something embarrassing and wrong with those girls/women for behaving/feeling that way. I know it’s hardly scientific, but the definition for “fangirl” on UrbanDictionary generally supports my impression.)

    I think the other problem with it, and I suspect it’s sort of what Frank Miller is getting at, is that by labelling comics as a niche of the geeks, it could be prolonging its existence as a subculture, rather than being accepted as a respected part of the mainstream, like novels and movies. If it’s only for geeks, and even we geeks say it’s only for geeks, then that’s what people might continue to think.

    Personally, I do think that comics are becoming more mainstream, eventually moving beyond a “they’re just for kids/just for geeks/just superheroes and Family Circus” mentality or whatever perception non-comics-readers have of the medium. Remaining a subculture isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but being a sports fan still brings fewer negative connotations than being a comics fan or being a part of any other “geek” subculture, and that is a bad thing.

  15. Yikes, that was a long comment! Sorry for rambling. =/

  16. To be honest, David, “fan” – while it’s a word I’d love to reclaim – has equally as many negative connotations as whatever, because it’s short for fanatic. That’s straight OED facts thur.

    I don’t… I would really dissociate with terms like ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ or ‘fanboy’, but partly because I know, in the pit of my heart, there are associative, negative behaviours to these words, and I know they are a teeny-weeny bit true of me (and, I think, of Frank Miller, much as I love him.) Also, I like sports, and I was okay at them at school, and I don’t know if there’s quite the bipartisan streaming of thinking/doing cultures at UK high schools.

    As someone who writes (3% of what you do) about comics on the internets, I’m equally uncomfortable with ‘critic’ because it assigns a dignity and responsibility I don’t consider myself up to – really the only term I find acceptable is “reader”, I think.

  17. I see it like “nigger” but without the historical depth – which works in its favor.

    That said, I’ll consider alternatives… as soon as I think of some.

  18. @Justin: Well, switching POVs a bit- what do you say when someone asks you about the new Jackie Chan, Will Smith, or Robert Downey Jr movie? Do people even ask questions like that?

    But, if someone’s like ‘Haha what’re you, one of those comics nerds?” I’d probably just tell them that I like to read them sometimes. Basically the same answer I’d give if I got caught checking out some Japanese cartoon or french movie or stupid comedy. Maybe I’d say “I’m just a fan.”

    @Duncan: Touche on the word fan! So perhaps reclamation is possible.

    And yeah, part of the dissociation is wanting to get away from the fat smelly countersocial goon, the guy who can tell you every single fact about the last five years of Green Lantern but can’t tell you the last girl he’s talked to.

    I also struggle with naming what I do here, but found “critic” to be the most apt. My Twitter bio is “I write about comics and easily have tens of fans,” and that’s about how seriously I take myself.

    @Maddy: I think the other problem with it, and I suspect it’s sort of what Frank Miller is getting at, is that by labelling comics as a niche of the geeks, it could be prolonging its existence as a subculture, rather than being accepted as a respected part of the mainstream, like novels and movies. If it’s only for geeks, and even we geeks say it’s only for geeks, then that’s what people might continue to think.

    That’s a great observation, and one I missed when reading and thinking this over. Geek as a kind of self-perpetuating cycle– I was picked on for reading this, but now I am geek, hear me roar->You’re a nerd, dude->I was picked on for reading this, etc.

  19. I don’t see a problem with people embracing the terms it reminds me of something actually. “Never forget who you are, for surely the world won’t. Make it your strength. Then it can never be your weakness. Armor yourself in it, and it will never be used to hurt you”

    They are just words and taking them too seriously can lead to problems.

  20. It must be different for everyone, of course, but I don’t even see the term “geek” as any kind of negative descriptor anymore. Definitely not within the geek culture and even outside of it. I’ll grant you “fanboy” although that’s almost more of a negative descriptor now that geeks use on OTHER geeks; I’d argue the average person on the street doesn’t have any reference for that term. They’d probably get “nerd” though.

    For me, the term “geek” began being reclaimed or whatever when I started reading Harry Knowles when he started out in the late nineties. He used terms like “geeking out” and “geekgasm” (okay, NOT so comfortable with that one). But he wasn’t just talking about traditional geek stuff; he was talking about his enthusiasm for film, in whatever genre.

    That’s when it clicked, that being a geek (at least for me, how I use the term) is about being enthusiastic for something. I love that.

    (but as I type it, I realize that I sometimes call myself a “geek” when talking to my boss, and she gives me this weird look, like I’m admitting I like to eat paste or something. so maybe you’re right, David.)

    I guess maybe I am a big reclamation advocate or something–part of the reason I keep a few Star Wars and superhero toys on my desk at work is because it is a big part of my life, stuff I really do enjoy, and I don’t think I should be any more ashamed to show it than the guy with the picture of his boat on his desk or the guy with the baseball on his shelf in a special plastic holder (NERD).

    Also, I think Maddy’s description is important because being a “geek” can’t often be summed up as “comics fan” or “sci-fi fan” or “gamer”; it encompasses all of those, even though all of it isn’t true for every geek. That’s a big part of why I like the word.

  21. Geek and nerd arguably denigrate the reader (I think they do), but “fanboy” denigrates the artist. The geek/nerd/fan is someone well-versed in the topic, and perhaps obsessive (but baseball lovers are only “fans,” because loving baseball isn’t/hasn’t been considered pathetic), and the disrespect is only toward his/her interest in this field at all. Whereas “fanboy” generally refers to idiots slavering over inferior material, or with base instincts.

    A “comics geek” might go ape for the Fantagraphics catalogue, but a “fanboy” wants more murder in Teen Titans, more rape in Justice League, more female readers to shut up about refrigerators, already, more Superboy Prime punching the universe, more vomit-powered space lanterns and more letters demanding that the minute details of continuity be observed.

    At least that’s how I see the terms used. Geek = obsessed with uncommon, uncool interests; fanboy = obsessed, aggressive/hostile, with preference for artless, hollow spectacle.

  22. Also — I don’t like the terms geek, nerd or even fan because, “reclaimed” or not, they still set comics readers apart from consumers of other entertainment. Reading books doesn’t make you a “novel geek.” Season tickets don’t make you a “theater geek.” Five hours of TV a night? You’re sad, you’re American, but you’re not a “TV nerd.” Cinema or DVD every weekend? You’re audience, my friend, not a “movie geek.”

    You might have a “John Cusack” fan, or a “James Bond” fan, and thus I see “Batman fans,” “Gail Simone fans,” “Love & Rockets fans.

    Sports comes closest. There are, of course, “football fans.” But these men (mostly) who rearrange something like 20, 25 weekends and Monday nights a year based on who’s playing and when, for their entire lives, and we don’t call them “football nerds.” Largely because they can kick our asses. (Ha! Double stereotype humor!)

    So, I dunno. I think the terms geek and nerd connote more about a person’s life than the entertainment they consume, and to the degree that you feel your overall life aligns with “geek” or “nerd,” go with it. But when you use the term as defense, telling someone you’re a “comics nerd” up front so they’ll excuse you in advance (“I teased myself! Now you don’t have to! Please?”), that would be sad. I always see that discomfort when someone calls themselves a geek/nerd around people not sharing those interests.

  23. I like Guy’s thoughts about being a consumer of other pop culture venues and a member of an audience that is larger than the comics sub-culture. If I’m reading the comments right, perhaps terms like geek, fanboy, or even fan, kinda’ segregates, ghettoizes, and marginalizes comics as a lesser “separate is inherently not equal” art form. As they become more mainstream (did any of us think that growing up we’d see comics coverage in Entertainment Weekly, GQ, Esquire, etc.?), perhaps this is no longer appropriate to accept.

    I mean, I love movies, I love comics, I love (some) TV, I read tons of magazines, tons of books, work in a museum and consume an inordinate amount of contemporary art, consider myself a foodie, etc, etc. Maybe I’ll just be an erudite prick and start calling myself a “pop culturist,” ha!