Why It Still Matters

I’ve been a nerd for nearly 40 years.

Well, actually, probably longer than that if you count a four year old kid loving Spider-Man and Batman as being a nerd.  I wouldn't, but that's a reflection for another day.

It might have gone different for me, had a couple of things happened (or not).  I could have outgrown it like so many othes, gotten more into sports (although I am a sports fan-love my Chicago teams and follow them regularly), dirt bikes, cars, partying, getting drunk/high, high school athletics…the whole deal. To speak plainly, these are socially accepted norms in America, probably a lot of the rest of the world too.  The kinds of things I enjoy, like comic books, video games and so forth, are considered hobbies one ‘matures out of’ as they get older, seek gainful employment, establish careers, start families and settle down.

The well worn path of Joe Average was never for me.  That is not meant to disparage the millions of people that have done this very thing over the years.  They are happy, successful and can provide for their loved ones.  Good on them.  It’s just not my path. 

And I think I have Star Wars to thank/blame for that.

I was seven years old, it was the summer of 1977 and I was hanging out with my friend David Mccormick in his amazing ranch home in the expensive nearby subdivision of Timberline. My own neighborhood of Burr Oaks, separated from Timberline by nothing more than a thick row of trees was nothing to sneeze at, but Dave’s sylvan glade was in a wooded area, secluded and heavily shaded and secluded from the prying eyes of men. It was a neighborhood in a forest, it’s still there to this day and still represents a certain degree of status if you can afford a house there. I remember Dave and I were drinking Kool-Aid (don’t remember the flavor) in his kitchen when he asked me if I’d seen this movie called ‘Star Wars’. I admitted that I hadn’t even heard of it, which was strange considering what a sensation it was that year. It wasn’t until after he pointed out to me  that such a thing even existed that I began to see it all over my school.  Kids were really excited about it and talked about it all the time, but I strangely only noticed the conversations after I’d been made aware it was even a thing.

Feeling equal parts excited and left out of the joy of it all, I asked my mother to take me to see Star Wars and, God bless her, she acquiesced without even the slightest hing of a struggle. Back in those days, the whole family went to the movies together, so me, my parents and my sister all loaded up in the car, a green Bonneville whose year of manufacture I don’t recall that would likely be considered a tank by modern standards, went to the General Cinema at the Jefferson Square Mall in Joliet, IL, got our tickets, walked down that long hall to the concession stand, got our popcorn and cokes, found seats in a theater that had no arena seating or cup holders, no stereo sound, felt a mile long from back to front and was the kind of venue where you entered at the back and the further you went in, the lower the floor descended, so you basically wanted to be more to towards the rear both to be able to see over the people in front of you and to more quickly depart when the screening was concluded. The chars were tyrannical constructs of iron and wood, with worn out, torn and faded cushions to provide little, if any, comfort.  The floor was sticky with spilled soft drinks that weren’t properly cleaned up until the end of the night when the theater closed for the evening.  I’m still surprised to this day that I never had to abandon a shoe, but I did lose a few toys in that theater up until the age when I stopped bringing them along (more because I eventually learned better than because of any maturation process). 

None of us knew what we were in for when the lights dimmed, the 20th Century Fox fanfare blared and then everything went silent just before the words ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ appeared in blue on a field of black. Then that music hit a thick yellow wall of text scrolled upwards and even though my seven year old mind couldn’t comprehend the complexities, such as they were, of the conflict at hand as detailed in that textual primer, I was easily able to grasp who heroes and villains were when I saw that CRV-90 Corellian Corvette, called the ‘Rebel Blockade Runner’ back in those days, get attacked, disabled and swallowed up by the vastly superior Imperial Star Destroyer.  I understood the tension of rebel soldiers getting into position, the desperation and concern in their faces, as C3-PO and R2-D2 exchanged banter about the state of things. I didn’t know who this ‘Princess Leia’ was, nor did I know what the Spice Mines of Kessel were, but I could sense that she was in trouble and that this place the droids referenced were not a nice location to find one’s self in. When the fighting began and the Stormtroopers, um, stormed the halls of the rebel ship, I knew that these grim, faceless and emotionless armored soldiers were the servants of evil and I felt real fear as I understood that no matter how many of them were defeated, they would just keep coming like with all the implacable persistence of a hurricane at sea. And then, when the smoke cleared and the darkly cloaked form of Darth Vader emerged through the door (surely one of the most important moments in all of cinematic history) and heard that rhythmic robotic breathing, I understood the gravity of the struggle.  Vader looked like the stormtroopers in that he was armored and expressionless but he was bigger, scarier and had tha ominous iron lung that may as well have been the threatening sound of distant thunder set to engulf my neighborhood within the hour.

Of course, we know what happened in that movie and its many sequels, how it all turned out and that in the end, good triumphed over evil, but it can’t be underscored enough that Star Wars was the first time I understood the concept of things like narrative and character development.  Before then, my childhood heroes like Spider-Man and Batman existed to me, but they were people that had adventures, stopped bad guys and saved the city.  Then they did it all over again the next day in a new struggle against the next in an endless rotisserie of nemeses. I was never aware of the complex back stories these characters had.  None of the tragedy regarding their origins was revealed to me in the TV shows that were in perpetual rerun.  But with Star Wars, I watched as I saw heroes in the kind of desperate circumstances I’d never witnessed before.  I always knew that Batman would rescue Robin at the beginning of the next episode and that no matter how many times Spidey was knocked off of a wall or swatted aside, he’d swing to safety and get back in the fight.  Star Wars showed a galaxy in decline, with an oppressive authority that terrorized innocent people and took what it wanted when it wanted.  I was watching a story where the bad guys had won a long time ago and the heroes were always on the run, never afforded respite.

It was an apocalyptic revelation to me.  And I realized…I liked the tension.  I wanted to know more about it.  How did it happen?  Where did these people come from?  How long were they fighting?  Who gave them their spaceships?  Why did Han owe Jabba money?  How did the Empire have a Death Star?  Who was Luke’s father and why did Vader kill him (remember, in 1977, no one knew the truth yet)? Would Luke and Leia become a couple (again, no one knew they were siblings in the six years prior to Jedi’s release).  What did Darth Vader look like under the helmet?  What did Stormtroopers look like?  Where did Ben Kenobi go after he sacrificed himself in the fight with Vader?  How could Han understand Chewie?

I was dropped into a universe in media res, and my desire for knowledge was sparked over and over and over again with each passing minute.  After that day, I had to know more about everything I read, everything I watched, everything I enjoyed.  It wasn’t enough for me to just know the conflict and the players.  I wanted the backstory.  I wanted the details.  And I found, more often than not, that exposing myself to the lore of these worlds and stories enriched the experience and invigorated me.  Quite simply, it made everything about it better to me. I appreciated the disputes and struggles all the more when I had a deeper grasp of why and where they were happening and of all the various elements that went into the details.  To take it back to Spider-Man, knowing WHY he became Spider-Man made me respect him all the more.  Understanding that he created his web shooters himself and had to struggle financially to keep them loaded, that they were a finite resource, made me more cognizant when he fired them off because I never knew just when he would run out of ammunition.  I feared for the safety of Aunt May and understood with a greater sense of urgency why Peter kept his identity secret.

As my understanding of the things I was interested in grew, my love for them expanded as well.  As I reached my teen years, I grew to appreciate and respect the creators of these characters and stories for the effort they put into creating vivid adventures for me to enjoy.  I started learning the names of the people behind these wonderful interpretations and creations.  John Byrne, George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, Haruhiko Mikimoto, Len Wein, Yoshiyuki Tomino, Chris Claremont, David Michelene, Bob Layton, Roy Thomas, Stan Lee, Tetsuo Hara, Katsuhiro Otomo. These people, and more, were my mentors. They were the ones that showed me the limitless potential of dreaming.  Of creating.  Of taking imagination and using it to fashion sagas for others to enjoy. They weren’t just writers and artists.  They were the makers of myth, purveyors of pop culture legend, the geniuses that sparked my interest and gave me something to care about because the nerdy knowledge they imparted excited me, invigorated me, inspired me.

I’ve never let that go.  That sense of wonder as I learn something new about the worlds that I enjoy reading about, or as I analyze and interpret new adventures taking place in those well worn, familiar planes of adventure that have stayed with me since my youth  I suppose that’s why I’m such a stickler for continuity.  The creators tell me how things work in their world, so any time there’s a new series of events with familiar concepts, I appreciate understanding the composition of that universe and enjoy seeing how the characters can face new perils in a world that grows increasingly more vivid and dense with the kind of minutiae that pleases me greatly whenever I see it referenced, recalled or adhered to.

It would be enough, for example, for someone to tell me that Son Goku is from another world and that is the reason for his powers and abilities.  But to learn the history of the planet Vegeta, to see what the Saiyans were like, to watch their intrigues and battles play out and to see how events transpired to bring Goku to earth, setting up years and years of adventure to come, is just a fascinating process.  I appreciate Son Goku all the more because of the challenges his people have faced and of how he’s managed to avoid stepping in the pitfalls the Saiyans stumbled into as he’s gone about his business.  When characters like Piccolo show up, I enjoy seeing them recall their pasts because everything they’ve been through, whether directly revealed or simply referenced, informs their actions and decisions, and that degree of world building and character development is rewarding. 

Of course, none of this has any consequence in life.  Or does it?

I’d argue that it does.  Just like these stories inform the characters that occupy them, they’ve informed so much of who I am. 

And that matters.  It’s human culture.

And it’s wonderful.


  1. Well said! So true about social acceptances! With ya all the way until the last paragraph. That's all you :0)

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Koop. I really appreciate it!