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Tag: Sci-Fi

The Geeks Inherit the Earth

Mark Simpson goes over to the Dark Side at Comic-Con

(Out magazine, September 2009 – uncut version)

‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,’ confides Batty, the beserker droid played by Rutger Hauer at the climax of the 1982 sci-fi classic Blade Runner. ‘Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate…’.

That’s nothing. I’ve seen over 125,000 nerds in full flight, nostrils flared with the scent of freebies, limited issue action figures and the possibility of glimpsing Gandalf on the other side of a hall the size of the Death Star’s flight deck.

Every fibre of my body is screaming: RUN! RUN FOR YOUR FUCKING LIFE!!! But I can’t move. An inch. I’m completely surrounded. Who would have thought nerds were such pack animals? The San Diego Convention Centre, all 615,701 square feet of it, is full to bursting point with people who have left their dank, toy-stuffed bedrooms to don their favourite costumes, circulate the hundreds of stands and booths,  countless talks, lectures, panels, fill their ‘swag bags’ with promotional pap – and bash them into me.

Comic-Con is a mindbogglingly huge yearly celebration of pop culture that began forty years ago as a simple swap-meet between geeks with boxes of surplus comic books. Today it includes pretty much every genre of pop culture from video games to card games, anime to fantasy novels and is a favourite stomping ground for Hollywood, featuring promotional appearances by big Hollywood names such as Robert Downey Jr, Johnny Depp, James Cameron and Peter Jackson promoting films like Iron Man 2, Avatar, District 9, G.I. Joe,  The Twilight Saga: New Moon and Alice in Wonderland.

Comic-Con has become the Godzilla of pop culture and has swallowed Hollywood whole – though some old-timers worry that Hollywood and Corporate America has swallowed Comic-Con.

The crowd is moving, and taking me with it.  Towards some escalators that loom up ominously ahead like an unexpected waterfall. ‘STEP THIS WAY!  YOU LOOK AWFULLY TIRED! – STEP THIS WAY! – TRY TO SMILE!!’ bawls a middle-aged escalator supervisor lady to the crowd. But I think she means me. At the bottom of the escalators I pass a booth selling ‘Star Trek Cologne’: ‘Tiberius’, ‘Khan’ and ‘Red Shirt – Because tomorrow may never come.’ A young man dressed as a Vulcan asks the seller ‘Why no Spock fragrance? After Zachary Quinto played him in the new movie he’s the hottest of the lot!’. Pause. ‘Or so my girlfriend tells me,’ he adds quickly.

Swept along by the crowd again towards the Lego stand in the middle of the main hall I bump into Michael and Cesar, Comic-Con veterans in their early thirties doing what a lot of people spend a lot of time doing here: waiting in line. I ask if I can hang with them – and escape the crowd – and very kindly they agree. But what are they lining up for? ‘Limited edition toys and books, explains Michael. ‘You line up for a lottery ticket, which then gives you the chance to line up again to buy a toy.’

‘That doesn’t sound much fun’, I say.

‘Hah! But these are limited edition Star Wars toys!’

‘Guys, I’m the sort of person who gets a rush out of throwing things away. The idea of collecting things fills me with dread. Think of the dusting!

‘Oh, we like to hoard!’ says Michael. ‘I’ve got a garage FULL of SW figures! Over 3000! And hundreds of vehicles!’

‘Do you actually play with the toys?’

‘No,’ says Cesar, ‘I don’t take them out of the box. It decreases the re-sale value’. Cesar is trading to help pay for medical school. Michael for his part always unpacks them: ‘I don’t sell them and I like to play with them a bit before I put them into storage.’

Both from San Diego, Michael is gay and works as an administrative nurse, while Cesar is straight, married father of two, and is studying to be a doctor. Michael is very friendly and talks very fast; Cesar, a shy Mexican American chap, is quieter but has twinkly dark eyes that seem to say a lot. His backpack is completely covered with cute Star Wars badges like ‘Star Wars Republic Commando’, ‘Rogue Squadron’, ‘Revenge of the Jedi’.

How did Michael get involved in the nerd lifestyle? ‘My dad was in the military and a strict disciplinarian. We weren’t very close to him. He bought us off with toys, I suppose.’ So George Lucas was your adoptive father? ‘Yes, you could say that. I had the entire collection when I was a kid. Sold them when I was a teenager because I wanted to buy a car. But then I regretted it later and bought them back.’ So when you became a man you put away childish things – and then got them out again? ‘Yeah,’ laughs Michael, ‘Adulthood wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be.’ ‘You can say that again,’ says Cesar, who is currently in the process of getting a divorce.

This is probably part of the reason why nerd culture is becoming much more mainstream – if not actually dominant. Nerdism is crossing over and coming out. After all, in a consumerist, single-mom society most boys are being fathered by PlayStation or Nike. ‘Do you like Star Wars?  LOTR?, asked a promotional flyer I was handed as I lined up to enter the Convention Centre. ‘How about Lost?  Harry Potter? Big monsters, talking robots and sexy aliens?’ Well, doesn’t that cover pretty much everyone these days?  Throw in computer games, which are an increasingly important part of Comic-Con (and a bigger industry than Hollywood, even catching up with porn), the nerdish ‘rejects’ of yesteryear are becoming the norm.

Nor is it just a boy thing any more: the arrival at Comic-Con of legions of screaming teen girls for the ‘Twilight’ event prompted some Comic-Con traditionalists to walk around with placards declaring: ‘TWILIGHT RUINED COMIC-CON’.

But what is the deal with the Star Wars figures?  What is so compelling about them for a grown man? ‘They remind me of how I felt watching the film,’ explains Michael.  And what is that feeling? ‘Oh, TOTAL EXCITEMENT!’  Love? ‘Yeah, maybe!’ ‘I think of them like a diary,’ explains Cesar. ‘Or like the way that smells or tastes can remind you of memories.’ Cesar’s family background is very similar to Michael’s. ‘My dad ran a restaurant and worked very long hours. He wasn’t really around. He bought us off with toys.’

It seems toys can buy you love. Cesar and Michael met on the way to the 3rd Star Wars Convention in Indianapolis seven years ago. ‘He was on the same flight as me with his girlfriend,’ recounts Michael. ‘We were stuck on the fucking tarmac for two hours with no air conditioning  MISERABLE. We got to chatting – we were inseparable from that moment on.  In 2008 Cesar stood in my wedding party. He is truly one of my best friends’ says Michael.  Cesar chest swells visibly at this. ‘We go to all the conventions together and are inseparable.’

I ask Larry, Michael’s husband, if he feels jealous of Cesar at all? ‘Oh, no!’ laughs Larry. ‘I’m just glad I don’t have to go to these fucking circuses with Michael!’ Larry shares Michael’s love of Star Wars and 80s Brit band Duran Duran, but not Comic-Con: ‘I’m a proper nerd – I don’t do crowds’. Michael married Larry before same-sex marriage was banned again in California in November last year. Larry, an office manager in his early thirties, has an easy-going demeanour and a wry sense of humour.

SW was the entry drug again: Larry attended the first showing when he was just five years old.  Dad was a USMC Vietnam vet working as an alarm installer who wasn’t easy to get close to.  ‘You didn’t know who was going to walk in the door – the coolest dad in the world or the asshole. He had us help him build a 25ft model of the USS Hornet in our garage – with working elevators. And then he tore that apart and we built a full size Apollo capsule. And then an F-14 cockpit – in which all the electrics worked.’

He sounds a bit manic-depressive, I suggest. ‘He wasn’t very happy with his job. Either way, I ended up keeping my distance from him and became more interested in toys.’ Like Michael he sold his SW collection to buy a car when he thought he’d grown up – but later changed his mind and started buying them back. ‘Being an adult, whatever that is these days, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. As my father kinda demonstrated.’

Taking a breather outside the convention hall with Michael and Cesar, while a staged fight is going on involving men sweating in the June sun thwacking each other noisily with swords, I ask if Comic-Con a kind of nerd Pride. ‘Yeah, I guess it is in a way,’ agrees Michael. ‘We used to be fearful of those words.  But now we tend to use them of one another. Kind of like gay people with ‘queer’ and ‘faggot’. And like gay people we don’t like it so much when others use them.’

‘I think things are also changing so that you can see a few jocks in their muscle Ts coming to this event now, with their girlfriends.’ Before I can ask him where?? Michael points to the sword-thwackers. ‘I mean, I look at a bunch of guys beating the shit out of each other in plastic armour and think it’s crazy, but is it really so different, or more crazy than collecting action figures?’ Geekiness is in the eye of the beholder.

Touched by Michael and Cesar’s friendship and fired up by their enthusiasm I join them in queuing up for a couple of hours outdoors to see the ‘Star Wars Spectacular. Sweating and blinded by the Southern California sun we’re finally herded into a vast darkened, frigid auditorium where, projected onto a vast video screen Anthony Daniels, AKA C-3PO, is on stage sucking George Lucas’ cock. Metaphorically, of course. Even camper in the flesh than in his famously courtesy droid costume, pursing his lips and flapping his hands about, Mr Daniels, is enthusing in a very scripted fashion about the SW Music Tour (basically: you watch clips from Star Wars while a live orchestra plays the soundtrack). ‘The size of it!’ he exclaims. ‘I didn’t fully realise how big it was until I saw the video of it afterwards!’

Daniels turns out to be the highlight of the ‘Spectacular’: he’s followed by various fat, bearded no-neck George Lucas lookalikes from Lucasfilm’s marketing department, droning on about forthcoming SW computer games, introduced by a couple of lamely ad-libbing male and female local TV presenters in Luke and Leia outfits. Hype about hype isn’t always terribly interesting. Even for die-hard fans.

First Michael and then Cesar turn to me half way through and say: ‘This sucks. Let’s go.’ And we do. I really hope it wasn’t my Dark Side presence that brought them down.


Adam May is not attending Comic-Con this year. ‘I’ve only been to Comic-Con once,’ he tells me on the line from his home in Atlanta.  ‘I have a panic attack just looking at photos!  It’s sensory overload for me.’ I hear you. ‘I manage to make it to Dragon Con here in Atlanta quite often.  And of course the Star Wars Celebration Events.’ Of course. Adam, 33, a graphic artist who describes himself as ‘Atlanta’s answer to the wrong question’ has the distinction of being the first openly gay Star Wars action figure. Many are called; few are chosen.


Adam’s plastic obsession began the first time he saw Princess Leia. ‘Carrie Fisher with those buns on her head – she really was my first gay experience. Star Wars helped Adam grow up, in a manner of speaking: he had a speech impediment as a child, and by repeating Luke Skywalker’s lines over and over he help himself ‘talk it out’. He also  remembers that when his mother took him to see a child shrink she’d buy him a figure. ‘I was a latch-key kid. An “oops” that my parents didn’t expect. We had an “account” at the little shop down the street, so I could get all of the comics and candy that I wanted. My folks never said a word about it.’

Contrary to my impression of Nerd World as somehow pre-sexual in a post-sexual world, it seems there are such things as superhero sex parties. ‘I’ve been along to a gay one as a voyeur’, confesses Adam.  ‘I’m not really into dressing up – or superheroes. My heroes are in music – like Morrissey and James Maker. The parties are not really out-and-out sex. Lots of frottage, and depending on the costume, there is kissing, licking – and whatever else you can do with your mouth. Some bondage and role-play: the Evil Joker tying up Boy Wonder, that kind of thing.’

Other gays mostly recoil in horror though when they find out Adam’s plastic habit. ‘They typically assume I’m some strange man-child. I joke that the 80s jingle: “I don’t want to grow up, I’m a toys R Us kid!” wasn’t just a jingle. It was an oath!’

‘I know many SW collectors, straight and gay, who refer to their spouses as SW widows. My partner thinks a smattering are cool – he has a pristine Maximus Prime toy – though most are tedious to him. But I’ve reach the point where I don’t care what anyone thinks about my toy fetish. That said, I do try to keep my gay friends away from the Three Storey Toy Box. I have a collection of about 10,000 action figures –  with all of the accoutrements that go with them (space ships, play sets, light-sabres). The stairwell in my house has a wall that is 2 1/2 stories of shelving, acrylic risers and every SW figure that Hasbro made.’

Including the one they made of Adam himself after he won a competition to have a SW action figure based on him.  He chose the name Stormy Sevenspire – an anagram for Steven P. Morrissey. ‘I had hired a make-up artist to paint me up as I wanted to be in action figure likeness. I made sure the hair was just the right kind of quiff.’

Adam knows this kind of thing can make some people dangerously envious, but isn’t sure who is most likely to ‘shank’ him: hardcore Morrissey fans or Star Wars obsessives. Watch your back, dude.


‘Please. Again.  No flash photography,’ announces the MC.  ‘This is an amateur contest.  So, if we want to encourage people to dress up in off-balance outfits they can’t see properly out of for us to laugh at for nothing – and I think we do – it’s probably not a good idea to kill them.’

It’s the final night of Comic-Con and I’m attending the famous Masquerade Ball with my new best friends Michael and Cesar, in which those not fortunate enough to have been turned into an action figure by George Lucas have to do it themselves. With papier mache and sticky-backed plastic.

So someone dressed as an AT-ST Walker stalks the stage, followed a little later by someone dressed as Luke Skywalker singing ‘Star Wars Cantina’ to the tune of Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana’.  But my own personal favourite is She-Woman confronting Skeletor with a full backing troupe and singing Britney Spears’ ‘Womanizer’ at him while wagging her finger in time to the music.

‘Yes, I’m sure he learned something from that,’ comments the MC drily.

Skeletor may not have done, but I certainly did. By way of confession: I had been a little miffed that San Diego airport on my way to Comic-Con: the bearish airport security officer looked me up and down, smiled and asked: ‘Here for Comic-Con?’ But I needn’t have worried. I’m not a nerd. And that’s not just the voice of denial.

Truth is: I’m not nearly man enough to be a nerd.

Adam May’s Star Wars blog

Earth to Keanu: You’re a Bit Late (But You Look Great!)

Mark Simpson on the metrosexual from outer space

‘It’s going to take a while for me to get used to this body.’ So says a shaking Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still, staring wide-eyed at his disobedient hands trying to hold a glass of water and convey pathos. Both end up all over the floor.

Keanu is now a 44 year-old highly-paid Hollywood actor, so one can’t help but wonder whether he will ever quite get used to his body.

To be fair, he’s talking as Klaatu, the alien from outer space with bad news for the human race, who has just been reborn into human shape because his original form ‘would only scare you’. I don’t know about you, but I find the shape of Keanu Reeve’s hyper-plucked eyebrows a little scary as well.

In the superlative 1951 original directed by Robert Wise, still a gold-standard for Sci-Fi more than half a century later, Klaatu was played by a 42 year-old Michael Rennie who was a rather better alien and actor. As in the remake, Klaatu is shot by the Yanks for parking his flying saucer on the grass and generally being alien. At the hospital where his wound is treated the doctors, all of them male and all of them smoking like emphysema hasn’t been invented, excitedly discuss the exotic new admission, like a 1950s blokey version of contemporary gossipy celeb watchers. ‘How old do you think he is?’ asks one. ’35, maybe 38’, replies another, unfiltered, high tar superking-dong dangling from his lower lip.

‘He’s actually 78!’ ‘No!!


Time travel not space travel turned out to be the industry of the future. Much as I love the angular, aquiline Michael Rennie’s performance in the original  – and unlike Reeves, he actually inhabits his own body – by the suspended animation standards of today’s male Hollywood star he looks much closer to 78 than 38. He looks, in other words, rather more like today’s Clint Eastwood than Keanu Reeves.  Keanu is actually two years older than Rennie’s Klaatu, but looks about 30 if a day. But then, I’ll bet he doesn’t smoke, or eat anything served in a diner.

1951 would have been much more amazed by 21st Century man than anything from outer space. If Keanu Reeves had landed in Central Park in 1951 the US Army wouldn’t have known whether to shoot him or kiss him. The original film was made just before post-war consumerism really got into it’s 50s stride and the America it portrays looks almost pre-war. Dowdy, even. All the civilian men save Klaatu wear big hats and lumpy suits and look rather bovine and almost deliberately unappealing.

Patricia Neal & Michael Rennie

Director Scott Derrickson seems to have noticed this too, and cast John Hamm, nasty retrosexist – but very appealing – Don Draper in Mad Men, the TV drama set in the early 60s, when men were men and women were secretaries, as the tweed-jacketed leader of the scientific team charged with saving the planet. Underlining that the patriarchal past is indeed history, Hamm turns out to be a false saviour, and instead Mother Earth is saved by a single female astrobiologist and her ringleted mixed-race stepson whose soldier dad died in the Iraq war. The film seems to suggest he’s better off without him: the US Armed Forces, not the alien bent on wiping us out are cast as the movie’s bad guys – trigger-happy idiots with seriously dodgy moustaches whose machismo just hastens our demise.

In the original, Klaatu’s human helpmeet Helen is played by the wonderful Patricia Neal, a woman who had one the most concave and most hypnotic faces in Hollywood – it’s practically a radar dish of emotion – who works as a secretary.  In the remake, the Secretary of Defence is a woman: Kathy Bates doing her best Hillary Clinton/Madeleine Albright.

The biggest changes that the future held out for us turned out not to be flying cars or Martian colonies, and certainly not Ipods and email, but alien gender roles.  Unfortunately for the remake, and possibly for the future we’re actually living in, Neal’s character is much feistier, sympathetic and more watchable than the latter-day career (super)woman played by Jennifer Connolly.

1951’s Klaatu spoke with an English accent: partly because Rennie was from Wakefield, in Northern England, and partly because in 1951 English was the scary foreign voice of authority. Keanu’s Klaatu on the other hand speaks with a Neo accent: this remake was developed as a (hybrid) vehicle for The One. Unfortunately, in an attempt to make the film eco-friendly and now-ish, there’s more than a little Al Gore in Klaatu too, which in movies not actually made with PowerPoint is not a good thing, and his character falls between two melting icebergs.

Where 1951’s Cold War Klaatu was a warning against our warlike instincts, 2008’s Klaatu is recast as the avenging angel of Gaia: the earth is a living organism and we’re an infection that has to be zapped. ‘It’s not your planet,’ he tells Kathy Bates.  Accordingly, instead of a polluting flying saucer, Keanu flies around in a giant glowing zero emissions new age crystal ball.  Eco show-off.

But if the Earth/America is dying as a result of our voracious consumerism, then Mr Reeves must bear quite a bit of responsibility for that himself. You don’t get to look fourteen years younger than your birth certificate without using a lot of product.

Hypocrisy however is the least of the film’s problems.  The present has, as it usually does, undone our dreams for the future – even the dystopian dreams.  Since it went into production a couple of years ago, the environmentalist message – or conceit – of the film that human industriousness threatens to destroy the world has been upstaged by what increasingly looks like the collapse of the global economy. A special effect to end all special effects.

When Klaatu unleashes his Day of Judgement whirlwind, a huge CGI swarm of unstoppable nano-locusts laying waste to everything in their path – trucks, tanks, oil refineries, Manhattan – it looks a bit underwhelming and pointless.  After all, we know something even more voracious and destructive has been there first. Called bankers.

Once upon a time Hollywood movies could make the world stop and stare and sometimes even ponder.  Stand still. The magical 1951 original helped define an era and fired young imaginations for decades. Those days are long gone. This remake, like most movies today, won’t persuade anyone to even sit still.

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