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When did DFW get so geeky?

Posted 5:51pm on Thursday, Jun. 13, 2013

Anissa Camp has a screwdriver stuck in her head and an arrow in the right side of her stomach, protruding from a filthy, rotting shirt. Her face is a sickly greenish-gray.

Thankfully, it’s not just another day in the zombie apocalypse for Camp — a bird keeper who works with penguins at the Fort Worth Zoo, a fossil hunter volunteering at the Arlington Archosaur Site and an amateur photographer.

But on one May Friday afternoon in Irving, she is a zombie. Or at least a pretty convincing replication of one. (Camp made that shirt undead-ready by staining it with coffee and putting it in the washing machine too many times, to give it that rotting-zombie look.)

Camp says she has long considered herself a geek, but she has only been attending cons within the past year, including the Texas Frightmare Weekend that preceded Dallas Comic Con by a couple of weeks.

“I like to come to cons and stuff, and dress up,” says Camp, who has attended Dallas Comic Con’s sister conventions, Fan Days and Sci-Fi Expo. “It’s fun. People take pictures. I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead, so I like to dress like a zombie.”

Judging from the crowds of costume-clad fans walking by, Camp isn’t the only one letting her geek flag fly a little higher. And this was only the first day of Dallas Comic Con, a three-day pop-culture fest that took place at the Irving Convention Center in May.

By midday Saturday, crowds were such that some people had to wait an hour in line for parking. The humanity jam inside the convention center — as people tried to get into an exhibits hall filled with merchandise booths or to Q&A sessions with Star Trek’s LeVar Burton or Superman Returns’ Brandon Routh, and other actors and artists — was almost as hard to navigate.

Clearly, cons have come a long way since William Shatner — who was a big draw at this year’s Dallas Comic Con — yelled “Get a life!” at trivia-obsessed Trekkies in a famous 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch. Once heavily mined as a source of embarrassment, geek culture has evolved into something that once only flirted with the mainstream but now verges on downright cool, thanks to superhero movies, geeky TV shows, social media and even the business world. After all, you can’t get much geekier than Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and the late Steve Jobs.

And if you haven’t noticed, DFW has been moving along with the geek curve, faster than a speeding bullet: Not only is Dallas Comic Con gaining a reputation as one of the top five comic cons in the country, but the area has become a burgeoning cradle of fan conventions.

If you have a geek taste, there’s probably a con for it. The same weekend as Dallas Comic Con, a group of Fort Worth-based board-game fans held Texicon, a board-game convention in Sundance Square. A couple of weeks later, A-Kon, an anime convention, drew crowds to the Hilton Anatole Dallas. And consider these upcoming cons (click here for our mini-schedule):

•  North Texas Comic Book Show

•  Quakecon 2013 (a video-game convention)

•  Starfleet International (a Star Trek convention)

•  AnimeFest 2013

•  Fan Days

•  FenCon (science-fiction/fantasy convention)

•  The Vampire Diaries Official Convention

•  Salute to Supernatural

•  Board Game Geek

•  WhoFest, a 50th-anniversary of Doctor Who

• Costumers’ Lost Weekend, a small convention presented by the Dallas-Fort Worth Costumers Guild.

That’s a whole lot of geeks.

The wrath of cons

Fan cons have existed in North Texas since at least the early ’70s, but within the past few years, the amount of people attending them has been growing. Mark Walters, co-founder of Dallas Comic Con, says that the first DCC (in 2002) attracted about 5,000. That was an upgrade from other cons he’d worked on, which drew as few as 2,000 people (Buddy Saunders, who founded Arlington-based Lone Star Comics in 1977, remembers comic-book shows in the ’70s that drew as few as 35 people).

Dallas Comic Con spent several years at locations in Plano and Richardson. Then Irving began courting DCC, and the convention moved to the Irving Convention Center — closer to the center of DFW and more convenient to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport for out-of-town guests — in May 2011. And things changed rapidly.

“All of a sudden, the audience tripled to having 12,000 or more,” Walters says. “Then [in] May 2012, we had 22,000, and this year it was 25,000. We are having to look at our options, because we think in a few years, we will outgrow this [venue]. It’s an interesting problem to have.”

Click here for more on DCC co-founder Mark Walters.

Where are all the new comic-book and sci-fi fans coming from? Or are the mainstream media just noticing them more?

“It’s a combination of both,” says Walters, 38. “Everybody’s to some extent a geek. Everybody has the one thing they’re into that’s a little bit weird and odd. It’s become more socially acceptable. When I was in high school, it wasn’t that accepted to be into anime or collecting comic books. Now, girls have anime backpacks and guys are trading comic books in school.”

Scott Hinze — who has hosted Fanboy Radio, a comic-book/pop-culture show on KTCU/88.7 FM, for more than 10 years — says that he thinks the recession has something to do with the increase in fan culture.

“Escapism has definitely been on the rise,” Hinze says. “People have a whole lot of avenues to do it through, and because of those avenues, there has been more specification of geekdom. [If] you want to get caught up on who the heck Thanos is at the end of The Avengers, you need to buy nothing. You don’t need [the Avengers comics]; you can check Wikipedia and now you’re an expert.”

Hinze says the currency of geekdom has switched from knowledge to passion, and there’s plenty of passion to go around. The Walking Dead TV series, based on a series of graphic novels by Robert Kirkman, is the highest-rated show on AMC, and the show leads newbies to Kirkman’s books. Doctor Who, a staple of BBC America’s “Supernatural Saturdays,” is more popular than ever — and this is an ever-evolving show that began its life in 1963. Even the five major broadcast networks usually have at least one science-fiction- or comic-book-inspired show in their lineups, with series such as Fox’s recently concluded Fringe inspiring ardent followings.

Of course, feature films have been mining geek culture for decades — this weekend’s Man of Steel is the latest of many go-rounds at a Superman franchise, and this summer has also seen hit “Star Trek” and “Iron Man” sequels, with the graphic-novel-based zombie thriller World War Z coming up.

But it’s not a blockbuster that keeps coming up in conversations about the increase in fan culture. It’s a sitcom.

The ‘Big Bang Theory’ effect

Big Bang Theory has been a gold mine,” says Chris Highberg of Area 51, a Grapevine comic/gaming store that had a booth at Dallas Comic Con, where he said his biggest seller was a button featuring the likeness of Sheldon Cooper, the brilliant lead character played by Houstonian Jim Parsons. Sheldon isn’t so much socially awkward as someone who doesn’t understand social rules and why people follow them, choosing instead to invent his own. “Anything with Big Bang Theory on it sells,” Highberg says. “It’s all about Sheldon.”

For the uninitiated, CBS’s hit show The Big Bang Theory was co-created by Bill Prady, a former computer programmer inspired in part by his smart but often socially inept former colleagues. (One of Prady’s favorite anecdotes is about a former co-worker who would get stuck at restaurants while he struggled to come up with a proper tip amount, because of the variables in food and service.)

The show started out as a comedy about four smart but awkward guys and the pretty, average-intelligence woman who lived across the hall from two of them. The show’s cast has grown as the male characters acquired wives and girlfriends who can be just as nerdy. OK, almost as nerdy.

It has attracted cameos and guest spots from geek-culture celebrities as varied as physicist Stephen Hawking, comic-book god Stan Lee and actress Summer Glau, who has fanboy cred from her roles in cult shows Firefly and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. And that list of cons a few paragraphs back? Almost all their topics have been referenced at least once in The Big Bang Theory.

But not all geeks get a bang out of it.

Do a Web search for “Big Bang Theory/geek culture,” and you’ll find several articles and blog posts filled with backlash over the show’s excessive (and sometimes inaccurate) pop-culture references, increased focus on Sheldon during the course of the show’s six seasons and the way the men react to the “rare” sighting of a woman in a comic-book store, where these four scientists spend more time than in the lab. The comic-book store owner, a recurring sad-sack character named Stuart, is portrayed as a loser who can’t get women and is in such financial straits that he occasionally has to sleep in his store.

Real comic-book store owners, however, say the show has been good for geek culture.

“On television in particular, because it’s so accessible to everybody, when a show says something is acceptable and fun, it lets everybody take that as a sign,” says Brent Erwin, co-owner of Collected, a recently opened comics/pop-culture store on Blue Bonnet Circle in Fort Worth. “Like, ‘I can take my geek side out and let it shine,’ because it’s become socially acceptable.”

Erwin and Collected’s other co-owner, Ron Killingsworth, both have a long history of comic-book store ownership, with Erwin having owned stores in Waco and Killingsworth having founded a former Fort Worth chain, Heroes, that lasted from 1984 to 1996.

Both extend friendly greetings to customers entering the store, and their hospitality shows in events such as Cartoons and Cereal, which takes place every third Saturday of the month and is exactly what it sounds like — people watching cartoons and eating Froot Loops and Pop-Tarts. Neither Erwin nor Killingsworth seems anything like the downbeat Stuart or The Simpsons’ snobby, slovenly Comic Book Guy.

But Killingsworth says that the Big Bang stereotypes and the comics-store owner stereotypes exist for a reason.

“I consider myself a big geek, and I love The Big Bang Theory,” he says. “We all have little foibles that we should be able to laugh at. Some people just get a little defensive, I think. I love The Simpsons, but if you want to talk about a stereotypical comics-store owner, you could get offended by Comic Book Guy. But it’s fun. Stereotypes exist because there are people out there like them.”

Superheroes have come to feast

Killingsworth also works for the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, which will have a Super Saturday on June 15, in which children 12 and younger who come dressed as their favorite superhero will receive half-price admission and a free comic book. The museum has been doing this for the past three years, but this year’s event happens to fall on Man of Steel’s release weekend — and during the 75th anniversary month of the first Superman comic book, issued in June 1938.

Expectations for Man of Steel are high, and it’s no wonder: More than half of the movies in the all-time domestic box-office top 10 have geek cred, and three of them — The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers — were released in 2008 or later. All three of those have their roots in graphic novels, and the movies’ comic-book obsession is seen as another reason for the rise in geek culture here and elsewhere.

But movies were lifting from comic books even before the campy Batman TV series and feature film of the mid-’60s, and still, such respected superhero movies as 1978’s Superman or Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman didn’t inspire geek revolutions like the one we’re seeing today. Killingsworth says that’s because the movies are staying truer to their sources.

“With the original Christopher Reeve Superman, those were good movies — the first two, at least — but they weren’t real true to the source material,” Killingsworth says. “Now, starting with the ‘Dark Knight’ series with [director] Christopher Nolan, I think they’ve been extremely true to the source.”

Lone Star Comics’ Buddy Saunders agrees, adding that Hollywood used to try to fix what wasn’t broken when it came to comic-book adaptations. He says that changed when Marvel Comics created a studio division in the ’90s, leading to more fidelity in the comics movies.

“When I went to see [Spider-Man 3] and Sandman was wearing the same green-and-yellow T-shirt he wore in the [artist Steve] Ditko comics, and I recognized him as Sandman — to people who come to it fresh, they don’t care what he’s dressed in,” Saunders says. “But I do, and fans do, and so that makes us really happy, and we create good word of mouth.”

That seems like something that would appeal to people who are already comic-book fans, rather than something that would expand the culture. But Killingsworth says it’s all about the stories.

“I think that if it’s a strong enough story, people who would never read a comic book because they already have comic books pigeonholed can actually see that the art form has more value than they originally gave it credit for,” Killingsworth says.

Get your geek on

Dallas Comic Con holds a Saturday-afternoon costume contest, but the Darth Mauls, Darth Vaders, Storm Troopers, Batmen, Jokers, Wonder Women, Princess Leias, Doctor Whos (one guy was a dead ringer for Matt Smith, the latest in the show’s long line of Doctors) were there all three days.

“One thing that really struck me about this last [Comic Con] was the number of people who dress up in costumes,” says Saunders. “That has really gone up. There didn’t used to be nearly that many. But you’ll have families where the mother and father will dress up for their kids, I think, mainly. And then the little kids are the most fun to watch.”

Camp, the Walking Dead fan who zombified herself at Dallas Comic Con, says the costuming — or cosplay, as it’s known in the fan community — was one of the things that led her to start attending cons. After The Walking Dead began airing, she became interested in the special effects and makeup effects that made the show’s “walkers” look so convincingly undead.

She geared up for her first con: Fan Days, last October. “And two of the Walking Dead actors were supposed to be at that convention, so that made me want to go even more.”

Since then, she has met such Walking Dead stars as Jon Bernthal, Laurie Holden, Emma Bell and Danai Gurira, who plays the katana-wielding fan favorite, Michonne.

Walters says that DCC encourages costuming — and that he doesn’t always see that at cons he has attended out of state. And cosplay (and hence cons in general) has benefited from the rise of social media — people at Dallas Comic Con would stop complete strangers dressed in costumes to take their pictures, then post the pics on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other sites. And there was little doubt that the strangers wanted to be stopped.

“It’s fun for everybody, the people in costume and the people taking their pictures,” Saunders says. “And the little kids — you say, ‘Spider-Man, let me take your picture,’ and boy, they strike the exact pose they’ve seen in the movie. For that second, they are Iron Man or Superman or Batman or Spider-Man.”

Cosplay may have made cons more kid- and female-friendly, but Hinze, the Fanboy Radio host, wonders if the costuming is entirely a good thing for geek culture.

“I think the reason cosplay is exploding is you go more to be seen, more than to have your questions answered,” Hinze says. “And you go for the spectacle. It was never a spectacle before; you’d go and wait in line to get autographs and sketches, and have an opportunity to talk to artists.”

But Q&A sessions, whether they were for Shatner or for Mighty Morphin Power Rangers actors Jason David Frank and Catherine Sutherland, played to packed ballrooms. And they may not have generated as many tweets as the costumes, but the panels were getting a lot of chatter on social media. It’s hardly a coincidence that the rise of geek culture has paralleled the rise of social media.

“[Social media] let people know that there were other people out there like them,” Killingsworth says. “All of a sudden, you could create groups. That goes back as far as AOL and CompuServe and things like that. I remember all the comic-group lists. But with social media, you could share pictures, and the big thing about the Internet is you become a consumer and a creator at the same time. … Then you get to start tailoring your geekdom into what you like, and then other people like it, and that encourages you to do more.”

Friendly fires

Saunders cites another reason geekdom is growing in DFW: Dallas Comic Con itself, or more accurately, its founders and organizers.

“The people that run it really know what they’re doing,” Saunders says. “They combine the two things that you have to have to be successful. They are fans themselves, so they understand what the fans think and what they want. And they’re good businessmen.”

For Walters, the feeling is mutual — he says that Lone Star Comics, now a six-store DFW chain that has developed a national reputation, as well as Dallas’ Zeus Comics and Collectibles and other stores, are part of what makes Comic Con and the DFW geek culture thrive.

“You would be surprised how bland some of the comic-book stores in other states are,” Walters says. “Dallas and Texas, there’s more pride in what they do. Our stores are customer-friendly. [It’s] all about the environment and the locations supporting that fandom.”

Walters gives the fans credit as well — especially the fans in North Texas. Dallas Comic Con might never reach the level of San Diego Comic Con, the pop-culture fest that’s become the biggest and best-known convention. But DCC has been drawing bigger names and more artists, and it has come into its own as a strong con.

“California is a hub because that’s where Hollywood is,” Walters says. “But we’re getting more [names] because a lot of the artists like to come here, because it feeds into the concept of Southern hospitality, and when these people experience that, it’s the kind of thing they like to come back to. People here are just so nice. In New York, you have people at the conventions asking the artists to hurry it up.”

Will this current round of geekery last? People within the comics and cons worlds believe that it will — and that it will continue growing.

“In the early ’90s, there was huge speculation in comic books,” Walters says. “People were buying 10 copies of first issues; now those same books are worthless. What we saw was the industry fizzle out a bit and slowly growing back up. What we didn’t have back then was the social aspect of it. Reading comic books on iPads and online gives you different ways to approach it.

“And even if print media dies out, the comic book will survive. What do you have a favorite creator sign?”

Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872 Twitter: @rphilpot Cary Darling, 817-390-7571 Twitter: @carydar

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