There's a handful of fan communities to which I have belonged for pretty much my entire life, because being a member of a fan community is pretty much the only type of club you can join that doesn't require you to interact with more than two or three people at a time, and I excel at this. You don't have to carry on a dynamic conversation to buy a Cursive CD or a Ghost Rider comic -- you just have to be able to grunt enough syllables to exchange money and scurry back to your father's Mercury Sable for a spirited ride to your empty bedroom.
All of the groups to which I claim allegiance are "outsider" communities that espouse a culture of inclusiveness, support, and non-judgment and depend on constant influxes of new members in order to continue existing, yet at some point the fans of these communities decided it was up to them to prevent new people from joining them at all costs. And even if you've been a member for years, your fellow Hellboy and Modest Mouse enthusiasts are waiting for the first sign of weakness to swoop in and boot you straight out the door.
I have spent more money on comic books and superhero merchandise than I have on my wedding. I used to mow lawns to pay for comic books. Tim Burton's Batman was the first movie I remember seeing in an American movie theater. I own a M.O.D.O.K. T-shirt, a M.O.D.O.K. action figure, and a M.O.D.O.K. coffee mug. M.O.D.O.K. is not a bandwagon character. M.O.D.O.K. is the equivalent of a teardrop tattoo. You know somebody is hardcore if they're talking about goddamned M.O.D.O.K.
Psychic Head Balloon is no one's favorite character.
And despite all that, I still get nervous every time I walk into a comic book shop, like they're all silently judging me. This is a holdover from when I was a little kid and would walk into comic book stores and the guys behind the counter would instantly start making fun of me if I stupidly asked them any questions, thereby admitting my shameless audacity for not having committed the layout of their store to memory. For some reason, the default setting for comic book nerds is "ridicule." The secondary setting is "snacks."
"Put the pizza away, Tim! This kid is asking us where we keep our Pogs!"
It's not a groundless fear -- comic fans are ruthless. The instant you say something about a character or storyline that they disagree with, they immediately do their very best to exclude you from the community. Girls get it the worst -- a girl can't wear an Aquaman T-shirt to any kind of nerdy gathering without getting accused of not being a true fan (whatever the hell that means) and being grilled with Aquaman trivia questions that no human being should be able to answer. (The correct answer to "If you're such a big fan, then in what issue of Aquaman did we learn the name of Aquaman's father?" is "Fuck you -- Arthur, Prince of the Sea, belongs to everyone.")
When I wrote a column a few months back outlining the reasons that Ben Affleck will probably be totally fine as Batman, I was inundated with people accusing me of never having read a comic book before in my life. Many rage-quaking Batman fans wanted my comic book membership card burned in an iron brazier and extinguished with the tears of my friends and family. It was as if I had broken into their bedrooms and shotgunned a violent Batman-shaped dump into their pillowcases (which are likely also decorated with pictures of Batman, making it a hate crime according to current federal legislation).
Warner Bros. via Amazon.com
In all fairness, this bed is probably no stranger to poop.
I think this is because many people in the comic book community are unable to separate themselves from their favorite characters or understand that the specific connection they feel to a particular character or storyline is literally the same personal connection that every single other fan feels. It's like the feeling you get when listening to a favorite album; it takes you to a specific time and place in your life, and the experience can be almost religious. But the thing is, every other comic fan has that exact same connection. Their fan worship is but one in a sea of millions. So why is any one person's idea of what is cool for Batman any more or less correct than anyone else's? (Unless you are Joel Schumacher, in which case your concept of Batman is so incorrect that it stabs straight through the X-axis of every "Batman Correctness" graph like a dagger of spiteful hatred.)
According to the ruling of the Batman and Robin War Tribunal, Joel Schumacher is no longer allowed within 500 yards of a comic book.
Comics are a business; they depend on fans to survive. And yet the influx of new fans that comes along with every comic book movie is something that the comic community in general greets with elitist derision. Why is it so terrible if a pretty girl who'd never heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy until two months ago suddenly walks into your comic shop and wants to read about them? Nobody erupted from the womb implanted with the knowledge of the mystical origin story of Dr. Stephen Strange -- somebody introduced you to that character, and the community grew by extension. Other people should be allowed to join, too, regardless of whether they were introduced by some movie they liked.
Again, there are exceptions.
Wizards of the Coast via Amazon.com
I always backed the wrong nerd games growing up. When Magic: The Gathering came out, I bought Spellfire. Warhammer 40K? No thanks, guys, I'll play Mutant Chronicles. Pokemon, you say? Keep it -- I'm going to ride this Marvel Overpower wave and see where it takes me.
Anyway, when I used to go into my local gaming shop, which was located right next door to the sandwich shop where I would later work and witness several felonies, the guys behind the counter wasted no time informing me how incorrect all of my interests were. I'm not talking about friendly jests, either -- if you go into a hardcore gaming boutique and ask for the wrong thing, the proprietor will tremulously stroke his Scott Ian wizard beard and tell you in no uncertain terms to never come back ever again as long as you live. You could be a golden avatar of disposable income who sweats cash and farts diamond dust, and it wouldn't matter -- they don't want any of your dirty, wrong-game-playing money.
FaceMePLS via Commons.Wikimedia.org
"Feel free to wait outside until hell freezes over and glittery moonbeams explode from the devil's anus."
It's a niche market, to be sure, but even niche markets have to grow (see "comics," above). For example, Magic: The Gathering is a fairly new game on the timeline of nerdery -- it came out in 1993. We were already decades deep into Dungeons & Dragons and all the Games Workshop stuff. The first kid who bought a box of Magic cards probably received the tabletop nerd equivalent of an ass-kicking, which is "adults firing malicious barbs of sarcasm at meek children." But then Magic hung in there, and now it's a grizzled old mainstay that can no longer appreciate how ridiculous it is, like those fantasy gaming magazines with elaborately painted covers featuring scantily clad warrior princesses with chest orbs so massive, they have their own gravitational pull. Magic: The Gathering went from edgy fringe lunatic Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon making joyful Three Stooges references while winking at the camera to Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon 4 talking about Joe Pesci's pet frog over his dead wife's tombstone, completely unaware that cameras are anywhere in the area.
Wizards of the Coast
"I'm gettin' too old for this shit."
Even if you purchase the right game, you aren't immediately granted entry into the Kingdom of Nerdaria. You will invariably get grilled to test your knowledge about whatever game it is you claim to be a fan of. Essentially, you have to prove your knowledge before you will be allowed to cross the Bridge of Champions unmolested. Only Red Otis Thunderdump, the shift manager at the Hardee's down the street, has ever answered all of his indoctrinating gaming trivia questions correctly, and he had a subscription to Dragon magazine.
Wizards of the Coast
Pictured: the utterly real thing I just mentioned.
Your chances of being invited to join a play group are slim, and even if you get there, your chances of enjoying yourself are even slimmer. You see, every game, even cooperative ones like D&D, becomes a poisonous competition designed to ruin friendships before they even begin. It's the scorched earth method of social interaction, which is what happens when aggressively antisocial people are forced to be around each other for an entire evening. That's especially baffling because tabletop gaming is a community that literally depends on interacting with other people. It's way different from playing games on Xbox Live -- threats and insults take on a psychologically bitter reality when you're actually sitting in the same room with a person calling you a "faggot foot" in a scream-cloud of spittle-flecked fury. It makes no sense for people who hate other human beings so much to join a community that requires you to gather a group of them around a table for several hours a night.
Anonymous homophobic racism is what Call of Duty is for.
As I mentioned, even cooperative role-playing games, where you're supposed to be working together as a team, can be a troller-coaster ride of petty wounding. And like the comic book scene, it is worse for girls. My fiancee joined a Dungeons & Dragons group wherein the DM (that's nerd shorthand for Dungeon Master, the guy who runs the game) decided that he would make the game so brutally unfun for her that she would never want to play again. Imagine a referee forbidding your little league team to use bats or gloves, then following you to Chuck E. Cheese's after the game to shit all over everyone's pizza and rape the animatronic characters to death with a hedge trimmer. That's basically the same thing. Even her fellow players worked against her -- one of her teammates stole her character's only possession and threw it into a river, for no other reason than to be a dick. It didn't advance the game in any way, and it had no other strategic purpose. He just wanted to hurt her feelings. Making it so that she never wanted to play again was more important to them than actually enjoying the game, because somewhere along the line, the tabletop and video gaming community decided its sole purpose was to make sure that nobody has any fun.
carmichaellibrary via Commons.Wikimedia.org