Because TV and film-based creations like the Enterprise and the Death Star have prompted us to pore over every little detail of fictional universes at the expense of a social life, it's easy to assume that unsettling pop culture obsessions are a relatively new phenomenon. But unless your concept of a "nerd" is a Depression-era newsie shooting pre-YouTube fan trailers, you might be surprised to learn that nerd culture has existed for way, way, way longer than you think. In fact ...
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Cosplay, that thing where fans dress up as their favorite characters and try to bone each other in a conference center, has reached enormous levels of popularity. It seems like something that could really take off only after the rise of the Internet and the subsequent diffusing of shame across all of humanity. But no, it's been happening since the early 1900s, at least: From 1907-1915 newspaper readers could enjoy the adventures of Mr. Skygack, from Mars. Skygack made humorous observations about Earth life and sent them back home on his off-brand wireless notebook. So, basically it was a turn-of-the-century 3rd Rock from the Sun, but without the infinite sexual magnetism of Jane Curtin.
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Or the squintiness of French Stewart.
In 1908, the attendees of a masked skating carnival were delighted by William Fell's Skygack costume. He appeared alongside his wife, dressed as Diana Dillpickles (another character from the same author). Because one instance is not enough to prove a trend: At a masked ball in Monroe, Washington, in 1912, August Olson's impressive homemade Skygack costume, complete with notebook, won him first prize and a place on the front page of the local paper.
And from then on, people in elaborate costumes were always held in the highest regard and never thought of as kinda weird.
These proto-nerds were so dedicated to the art of social ostracization via costume that they even went to jail for it: In March 1910, the front page of the Tacoma Times informed readers: "Mr. Skygack is in jail!" A man named Otto James in a borrowed Skygack costume was arrested and fined $10 for violating laws against masquerading in public. No word on whether he was immediately beaten to death after being thrown in an old-timey jail wearing full dork regalia, so we are forced to assume he was. Rest in peace, brave hero.
These days, if you release a movie, album, or video game, it comes with the virtual guarantee that scores of people will illegally pirate it, because "not free" can never compete with "free."
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We'd be ripping off Trader Joe's round the clock, if it weren't for their "theft reduction associates."
But mass piracy did not begin with Napster. It didn't even begin with cassettes ("home taping is killing music" -- never forget). It began in the 1870s, with the premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore. It was a major hit in their native England, and the duo banked on American audiences being just as enthusiastic. Imagine their shock when, at opening night in New York, audiences were small and subdued. It was almost as if they'd seen such amazing elocution before ...
Well, as it turns out, they had. See, Pinafore premiered in England in May of 1878 but did not officially make it to America until December of 1879. Even back then, 19 months was enough time for an awesome script to make the rounds, even if it had to cross a whole damn ocean on a rickety boat to do so. Those who read the leaked script liked it so much, they decided to stage their own productions, permission be damned. Over 150 episodes of pirate theater played out from sea to shining sea, with countless variations to suit the local audiences, including all-black, German, all-child, and Yiddish adaptations.
The all-cat rendition was not well-received, however.
The piracy was so out of control that, at one point, at least eight different Pinafores were performing in New York City, totally independent of each other. And, shockingly, everything was completely legal (if still an entirely dick move): International copyright law wasn't a thing until 1891, meaning Gilbert and Sullivan's rights to the play they wrote and scored only counted in England. They didn't receive a penny for anything anyone did in America. This justifiably made the blood in their pudding boil, so they premiered their follow-up, The Pirates of Penzance, in New York instead of London, sanctioning several different companies to tour the country so everyone could see it (and, more importantly, give them money for it. Sully and G-Bert got to get paid, son).
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It's one thing to sell merchandise related to a popular franchise -- if, say, we want to put our money toward Street Fighter toys first and rent maybe eighth (if at all), that's our prerogative. But lately it seems like marketers go completely overboard, slapping their characters on everything and in every possible scenario, regardless of whether it belongs. But hey, if molding a line of action figures featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles playing baseball makes the guys in charge an extra $20, who are we to judge?
We'd never be that greedy. So, therefore, you should buy more of our stuff, right?
It is tempting to think of this as an exclusively modern problem: There weren't any "I'm Daft for Taft" lunchboxes cluttering up the shelves back in the day. It's only recently we really sold out our cultural soul to such a degree. But even the legendarily whorish Turtles would have retreated to their sewer playset in embarrassment had they known the shameful lengths that Tarzan went to in the 1930s. Bored with selling the expected bows and arrows and trading cards to children and fans of the property, the marketing geniuses behind the Yodeling Ape Man strove instead to make him a part of every aspect of your daily life.
And we mean every aspect. If you wanted to buy a loaf of Tarzan bread (20 million loaves sold in four months), you could put on a Tarzan pith helmet and Tarzan sweatshirt, hitch up your pants with a Tarzan belt, and get to driving. Don't forget to fill up with official Tarzan gasoline along the way!
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The only gasoline good enough for a guy who never drove a minute in his life.
Or you could just stay home and get drunk on the official Tarzan cocktail, because if there's one thing the King of the Jungle was known for, it was his crippling alcoholism. Hey, suddenly all the fistfights with animals make a terrifying amount of sense. Not a drinker? How about a delicious bowl of Tarzan ice cream?
Mmm! You can really taste the stabbed leopard!
You might recognize these products as having absolutely nothing to do with Tarzan whatsoever (his drink wasn't even banana flavored -- that's a missed opportunity that will haunt some poor marketer to the grave). It's enough to make the Power Rangers look like absolute paragons of commercial integrity.
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Anyone who's heard and shuddered at the phrase "Extended Universe" understands the issues nerds face when deciding what is and is not canon. But that's not a symptom of our modern movie-obsessed culture cultivating a bunch of die-hard fanboys -- devotees of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes novels have been having this same angry, asthmatic, spit-flying argument since the turn of the 20th century.
"See here, Carruthers! Rupert Downington II is a more authorized Sherlock than Benjamin Margarethatch, and that's that!"
By the early 1900s, Holmes was so popular that anybody with a pen and the ability to use the word "elementary" as an insult gave writing him a shot. This resulted in such memorable adventures as "the case of Holmes dying from sniffing too much anesthetic." And so the canon debate began. Which is nowhere near as cool as a cannon debate.
Two Doyle stories, "The Lost Special" and "The Man With the Watches," feature an unnamed amateur detective. Some say it was Holmes, others say it was not, and the bloodshed has not let up since. Then there are the parodies. Doyle wrote two silly little short stories, "How Watson Learned the Trick" and "The Field Bazaar," that technically fit all the criteria for canon, even though there's no crime, Holmes solves no mystery, and one of them ("Trick") began life as a prop in Queen Mary's dollhouse. But hey, if you ever wondered how Holmes and Watson ate breakfast, these are the depressingly mundane tales for you.
Arguing about the canonical status of stories was just the start for old-timey obsessive Holmes nerds. One long-running fan club, The Speckled Band of Boston (their slogan: "For us, it is always 1895." Presumably their clubhouse is period-authentic with penny-farthings and rampaging syphilis), went so far as to research old train schedules to track exactly which town Holmes visits in "The Adventure of the Empty House." Another group of obsessive fans, The Baker Street Irregulars, has spent thousands of hours trying to decipher clues about the more mundane details of the stories, such as Holmes' birthday and whether Watson was wounded in the arm or leg. This is demonstrated in their collection of internal correspondence and history (think a slower, more dignified predecessor to forums and message boards). This collection fills five volumes. It only collects up until the late 1940s. The group was founded in 1934.
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Their pub burned to the ground in the Great Flame War of 1948.
Next time you picture those noble, stubble-jawed, old-fashioned soldiers fighting in the trenches, remember that at least some of them were fighting about whether or not the extended universe "counts."
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If your favorite show or movie franchise has jumped the shark so hard it left a shark carcass in low-Earth orbit, you can always make your own version. Fan films are a big thing nowadays, and technology has made it so that a Modern Warfare film shot for $200 can aaaalmost pass for a legitimate movie. Get a bigger budget, and your Tomb Raider or Wolverine film rivals any direct-to-video sequel starring somebody who kind of looks like the famous actor that played the character in the first film.
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And, for reasons that escape us all, nobody will give Gambit a movie.
But producing a technically illegal homage to your favorite characters is not a new nerd pastime. Fans have been doing this since the mid 1920s, when a couple amateur filmmakers decided to make their very own Our Gang episode. More commonly known as The Little Rascals, Our Gang ran from 1922 to 1944 and showcased the semi-scripted antics of a fat kid whose personality consisted of being fat, a black kid who was certainly both black and a kid, and a girl, who performed a gripping portrayal of somebody who is not a boy. It was a less complicated time for filmic narrative.
The "Anderson Our Gang" silent film, made in 1925, did not deviate much from the actual show, aside from assigning new names to the characters. These names did not, unfortunately, break new creative ground: The freckled kid was named "Freckles," the fat one was named "Fat," and the bully was named "Toughy."
Much like most modern fan films, there's no real plot to speak of -- just a series of sketches where the kids run around and do Our Gang kinds of things. At the end of the reel, the kids terrorize a newly married couple like good little psychopaths, and the cops punish them by taking them to ... a parade? That can't be right. Ah! There's a lost second reel to the film, where the Gang breaks into a circus and completely fucks up the place. Once caught, the exasperated owner punishes them with ... ice cream. What? Did we invert the concept of punishment sometime in the 1950s?
It was decided that sentencing the Nazis at Nuremberg to puppy cuddling would send the wrong message.
Science fiction knows what it likes, and likes to do those things over and over again. Why change? Aliens and spaceships and laser-blasters are all awesome. But where did these ideas come from? Gene Roddenberry? The pulp magazines of the 1930s? H.G. Wells or Jules Verne or one of those other old-timey dudes with the hats? Nope -- as it turns out, pretty much every space theme imaginable came to light damn near 2,000 years ago. And the guy who invented them did so as a complete joke.
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Which he tried to explain, unsuccessfully, as they nailed him to a cross.
Syrian author Lucian's "True History" was a satirical literary reaction to people like Ctesias and Iambulus, who wrote of incredible adventures in exotic locales they had never visited. Lucian took that practice to its logical limit and created an entire literary genre in the process.
The tale itself relates the time a giant whirlwind plops Lucian and his friends on the moon. From there, Lucian and company take part in a great space war between Endymion, the leader of the moon, and Phaethon, the king of the sun. There are Dog-Acorns, Cloud-Centaurs, and Tree-Men that reproduce by planting their own testicles in the lunar surface, from which a giant dick tree grows. Makes "green women" and "aliens with slightly messed up foreheads" seem downright tame by comparison.
Go home, lusty alien woman. We no longer need you.
Some of Lucian's ideas are more outlandish and implausible than dick-trees. For example, the sun people's plot to build a giant sun wall to block light to the moon likely breaks the reader's suspension of disbelief, no matter how invested in the plight of the treesticles they've become. But for the most part, Lucian nailed all the basics of the modern science fiction epic -- he just did it all in a whiny, mockingly high-pitched voice to show you how stupid you were for liking that kind of crap.
Oh, and at the end of the book, Lucian promises to tell further stories in the future. As far as we know, this never happened, meaning it's been two millennia without any kind of follow-up. So the next time you whine about George R.R. Martin taking a decade between A Song of Ice and Fire books, just know that the hardcore Lucianites have it worse.
Like a classical-era Gabe Newell.
Related Reading: Look, every harbinger of nerd culture isn't positive. Like the idea that the creators of our favorite series somehow owe us. On the the other hand, the popularity of geeky things has made the word "nerd" officially meaningless. And that's why it's so surprising that people keep calling out fangirls for being fake. Can't we all just geek along?