The Secret Origin of Nerds and Fandom

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There’s been no small amount of discussion as of late about the exact definition of the term ‘nerd’, and the qualifiers for being one . . .

. . . if, sadly, only to be able to point and quickly judge someone else as not a nerd.

(Which, really, can stop anytime now.  If someone wants to call themselves a nerd, let ’em.  It’s not a competition to see who’s got the biggest lightsaber, Adamantium claws, or sonic screwdriver, and if you’re worried that someone else is going to dilute your self-worth because you’re sharing a descriptor they didn’t ‘earn’ or ‘deserve’, I’ll put forth the theory that you’re a little too insecure about your own identity and you should spend a little more time and effort on overcoming that, rather than trying to be a self-righteous douche.)

While we’re caught up in etymology and precise classification, did you ever stop to wonder who the first nerds — at least in our current cultural context as obsessive, passionate fans of something — were?

I recently started reading a book titled Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, by Gerard Jones, and there’s a fantastic recounting in the initial chapters of what might have been one of the first examples of organized fandom –in the 1920s, long before most of the first generation of Whovians and Trekkies were even born.

And one of the most avid members of that proto-nerd clique is a name that is one whom without we very well might not be here in this space today: Jerry Siegel, writer and co-creator of Superman, the archetype of the modern superhero.

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In that era, the pulp magazines were the favored mediums for tales of the fantastic and weird, and as such, had a very special place in the hearts of kids.

As Jones describes them:

” They were cheap and fat, hundreds of brown-tinged pages of fiction a month, enclosed in painted covers contrived to inspire dread, excitement, desire, and desperate curiosity.  Some were aimed at adults but many at eight-to-fourteen-year-old boys — “the age of hero worship”, as one pulp editor called it.

School libraries didn’t carry them and few parents bought them.  Many parents, in fact, actively wrenched them from their children’s hands and threw them onto their trash incinerators.  But boys of the Twenties and Thirties hungered for them. ”

(If this suspiciously sounds an awful lot like a way to describe comic books, as well, gold star for you — the pulps were the precursor to the comics, which didn’t come along until 1933, and would eventually drive their progenitors into extinction in the coming years.  And parents were all too willing to chuck them in the trash as well.)

Quoteth your mother, 'nevermore'.

Quoteth your mother, ‘nevermore’. Sorry, Eddie, you gotta burn.

Luckily for us, Jerry Siegel’s mother, Sarah Siegel, was cool with Jerry picking out his own reading material, and she even provided him with an allowance to do so with.

Otherwise he might not have seen a particular issue of Amazing Stories from August, 1928, which may have provided Jerry with a very key inspiration: a flying hero clad in a skintight costume.

According to Jones, Jerry loved this issue and the story that inspired the cover, ‘The Skylark of Space’, by Edward Elmer Smith, about an inventor who discovered a jetpack gizmo that would let him fly into space, where he discovered an interplanetary war, and hooked up with a Green Lantern Corps-style space police force.

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It wasn’t until years later when Skylark and his sweetheart Janie tied the knot and started a family that he questioned the design choice of the enriched uranium fuel rods positioned directly against his groin. Ah well, the twins were healthy and had their mother’s beautiful blue eyes. Six pairs of them, each.

This particular issue of Amazing Stories was key, Jones states, because many science-based adventures in pulps focused on dread, menace, and vaguely apocalyptic themes, and this was a rare instance of a smiling hero on the cover, a non-too-subtle means of saying the future wasn’t going to be as bad or scary as, say, H.G. Wells painted it in his tales of the fantastic (one of which, ironically, appeared in that very issue).

As with most pulp stories, Smith’s ‘Skylark’ story was serialized, so young master Siegel would have to pick up September’s issue of Amazing Stories to see how things turned out.

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That cover, too, may have been a milestone in nerd history: the first use of the admittedly somewhat awkward term ‘scientifiction’, which was what you got when you mixed ‘fact’ with ‘theory’.

The editor and publisher of Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback, wrote an editorial inside that issue where he publicly stated his desire to popularize this new type of literature — which”would wage war against superstition and ignorance and illuminate the technological paradise that awaited mankind.”

(And if that didn’t grab you, you could always stick to competitor publication Weird Tales and watch H.P Lovecraft, among others, use superstition and ignorance to terrorize and remind us no matter how big our technological britches, we were still just insignificant gnats in the greater cosmological scheme of things.)

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This was actually one of the more tame ‘Weird Tales’ covers I could find as the punchline, and there *was* a Lovecraft story in this issue. Besides, Google seems to love it any time I mention Batgirl and always dumps a few unsuspecting web surfers into this madhouse I call a blog.

Gernsback himself deserves a title of nerd royalty.  A European immigrant from an upper-class background, Gernsback had a deep love for science and technology and had developed a new type of electrical battery but couldn’t get a patent on it thanks to the extremely difficult process of doing so in Europe at the time.

America seemed like a better bet in that regard, so Hugo (an avid reader of ‘cheap American novels’, according to Jones) crossed the Atlantic in hopes of becoming an inventor . . . but he couldn’t find anyone to financially back him.

Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967): quite possibly the first modern nerd, and as such, role model extraordinaire.

Hugo Gernsback (1884-1967): visionary, inventor, author, editor, quite possibly the first modern nerd, and as such, role model extraordinaire.

Undaunted, Gernsback still had a passion for science and tech, and started selling electrical supplies via mail order.  His catalog descriptions became so elaborate and entertaining that Hugo spun them off into a magazine called Modern Electrics, which would later become Science and Invention.

It was in Science and Invention that Gernsback became something of a visionary, and literal pioneer in what he would later dub as sci-fi, running a strange novel he wrote himself called ‘Ralph 124C 41+’, where, Jones recounts in Men of Tomorrow, Hugo “forecast television, radar, fluorescent lights, tape recording, and even jukeboxes, and first demonstrated an idea for fiction that would excite the masses about technology and the future.”

This was, by the way, 1911 we’re talking about.  Keep in mind the Ford Motor Company had just introduced the Model T three years prior, and the automobile was the pinnacle of modern technology at the time.

At one point, this was the equvalent of Tony Stark posing with the Iron Man armor.

Henry Ford and his Model T.
The period equvalent of Tony Stark posing with the Iron Man armor.

Gernsback not only went on to considerable success as a publisher, but also was one of the early supporters of radio and television — he founded WRNY, one of the first commercial radio stations in the country, and later dedicated WRNY to researching the idea of broadcasting visual images as well as audio signals.

In 1928 — the same year a thirteen-year-old Jerry Siegel was freaking out over ‘Skylark’ in Amazing Stories, and perhaps the first seeds of a certain smiling, square-jawed Kryptonian were planted in his subconscious — the first scheduled television broadcasts were made from WRNY, thanks to Gernsback.

One of the things Gernsback popularized in Amazing Stories was a sense of community among its readership, by not only devoting pages in the magazine to printing mail from readers, but also printing their addresses so fans could write to each other and communicate directly, one-on-one.

A teenage Jerry Siegel took full advantage of this ancient form of analog Twitter to reach out to other like-minded individuals.  Encouraging one another, many of the fans of Amazing began to write and create their own stories to submit for publication.

Gernsback would eventually have to give up Amazing Stories in 1929 after a legal dispute, but that wasn’t going to even slow him down, as he formed a new magazine titled Science Wonder Stories and took his legions of fans with him.

watchme

Gernsback also accurately predicted 21st century mankind’s need to walk around with an Internet-enabled video screen plastered to his face. In 1930 this was science fiction. In 2013, we call it the Apple iHelmet, available this holiday season. Why make uncomfortable eye contact during a conversation when you could be checking your Facebook wall?

It was in Science Wonder Stories where Gernsback dumped the cumbersome mouthful of ‘scientifiction’ for the more aesthetically pleasing ‘science fiction’, and the fans did likewise . . . and before long, Gernsback’s motley crew of early nerds and geeks began to formally refer to themselves as ‘fandom’.

‘Fandom’ caught on with the general public, and when other groups of non-related aficionados of a given subject began to use it, the Gernsbackian sci-fi contingent got a little hot under the collar about having their identity usurped, and started calling themselves ‘The One True Fandom” in response.

A few of them even had a sly smile and a wink when they did so.

Some most assuredly did not.

Later along, members of “The One True Fandom” began to be ostracized — often, as Jones put it, by “the athletic, social, realistic boys who saw their more oddball classmates reading these spaceman-spangled magazines alone at lunch hour.”

The reaction of some of the more hardcore One Truers?

A heated debate in the early 1930s amongst themselves as whether sci-fi fans were, as in Men of Tomorrow states it,  ” ‘a superior order of human,’ marked as a higher rung on the evolutionary ladder by ‘his vast imagination and openness to possibility’. ”

Heady thoughts to consider, especially when the thinkers were likely nursing bloody noses from having been pegged in the face by those dodgeball-wielding over-testosteroned evolutionary dead-ends.

Nerds: angry since 1932.

Nerds: angry and outraged since 1932.

So what did our great-grandnerds discuss amongst themselves back then?

Jones quips that early nerds ” strutted with florid self-advertisement masked as self-parody, held onto each other with in-jokes and acerbic wit, like fifth graders with collegiate vocabularies.

“They craved clearly marked categories.  They argued endlessly, obsessively, about whether science fiction must be based on proven concepts or could stray into speculation, whether the purpose of a story was the imparting scientific understanding or simply adventure in scientific form.

“Was time travel ‘science’, or should it be dismissed as ‘fantasy’ like sorcery or gods?  They labeled and listed and ranked and included and excluded and collected with passionate exactitiude — such hyperrational ordering being the most entertaining way to keep the disorder of life and emotion in check.”

In other words, pretty much the same as we do now … but with the Internet printed on dead trees and comments posted via snail-mail.

weirdnames

— mal

Thanks for stopping by Public Domain!  Excerpts in this post are from Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones, published by Basic Books, 2004, and which I highly recommend as a great read.

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6 Comments

  1. “They craved clearly marked categories.” That sums up my experiences with the wild and wacky world of comics fandom most clearly. Most fans I meet, lovely people all, really do have an insatiable lust for order and rules – ‘but we KNOW the Flash can outrun Supergirl because…’ ‘yes, but, according to the OFFICIAL HANDBOOK Rhino can only lift 300 tons…’ ‘CLEARLY so-and-so writer doesn’t even care about comics like I do or he would remember Kraven the Hunter and Impossible Man HAVE met several times…’ I always think about where this comes from. It may be just as straightforward as being scared and alone in a world that’s afraid of you and trying to grab onto power in any way you can. I’m not trying to cast all geeks as lonely cave-dwellers or anything, but the majority of us are of the anti-social variety. As always, this was a really interesting article! Your beginning paragraph is spot on-with sci-fi and superheroes now having a firm place in the mainstream, we really have to let this ‘true fan’ stuff go. It can get pretty embarrassing.

    • Thanks! This ‘true fan’ stuff bugs me in particular, because I’m old enough to appreciate the fact that nerds have been given the keys to the kingdom. I was lucky enough to not have been ostracized too much growing up (and I just didn’t give a damn about the people who did give me the stink eye), but it’s amazing to watch the cultural shift from sometimes having to hide your fandom in mixed company to being able to flat-out celebrate it — and we don’t need to lord being early adopters over the latecomers.

      Nerds should be the last ones to exclude anyone, having spent so much time on the outside looking in. Now that we’re all of a sudden ‘cool’ we should strive to change that idea of the ‘in crowd’ looking down upon the ‘unwashed masses’.

      As for the obsession with minutae, I think every fandom has that type — for sports fans it’s the ones who can rattle off stats, for comics ones it’s how much the Hulk can lift or how fast the Flash can run. When I was younger I used to absorb that sort of stuff, but as I get older I look for the things that resonate on an emotional level — it’s sort of like, okay, now let’s explore what they do with these abilities and why they do it rather than how they can.

      It’s not a bad trait per se, if that’s your thing and you enjoy it, then by all means engage in it . . . just don’t let it be the seeds of a superiority complex.

  2. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this! Such an interesting article, and so true on so many levels. As a girl reading comics, I am constantly asked “trivia” questions to prove I am really a “comic geek.”

    I’m sorry, I haven’t memorized everything that ever happened in every Batman comic ever made. That said, though, there are people who are truly passionate about the medium and introduce me to things I have never even heard of because they want more “geeks” or “nerds” to talk about things with.

    Great article. Followed 🙂

    • Thanks for the compliments! And that’s my other pet peeve, that there’s some serious gender inequality, for reasons I can’t even begin to fathom or rationalize.

      Truth is there’s probably going to be a much higher ratio of females coming into different aspects of fandom in the coming years because there’s a mass influx that got started in a short period of time on Twilight or Hunger Games and now that being a fan of fantasy-type material isn’t as frowned upon as childish or immature they may move more freely along the ‘spectrum’ to discover other things — once someone belongs to that sort of tribe and has that communal experience, that can be an addicting thing, so they’ll continue to seek it out and find new things to be passionate about, join new circles and get exposed to a wider variety of things.

      So it’s sort of a ‘get with the times or get left behind’ thing . . . the ones giving the ladies the hard time will end up being the outcasts that they crave to be and aren’t anymore because the niche is mainstream — it’s not because they like a certain obscure thing a larger group can’t relate to, or are judged by others for liking it, but because they just can’t play well with others outside a very narrow definition of ‘people exactly like them’.

  3. “Portlandia” did a great skit on people impersonating being a ‘nerd.”


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