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Big Business: Comic books and fantasy emerge as the pop culture epicenter of the internet age

Published: Friday, May 27, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, May 31, 2011 18:05


College Times • Ryan A. Ruiz

A 2010 Phoenix Comicon attendee dresses up like one of those blue dudes from Titanic 2.

Twenty years ago, being dubbed a "nerd" would leave you beaten up to a pulp by a tall jock named Chad. His perfect blonde hair would bounce as he shoved his fist into your frail midsection, and for what? Loving Dungeons and Dragons? Playing with your Rubik's Cube?

At least that's what '80s teen films would have you think. A few punches and some masking tape later, you've had your very first nerd bashing. Today, we'd call that bullying. Back then, it was just boys being boys. We'll let you contemplate that as you're passing the time inside your locker. 

But nerds finally took their revenge. And, surprisingly, it had less to do with getting laid than getting even. Monetarily, anyway. The nerds, dweebs and geeks among us capitalized on computer technology, the internet and a new form of niche marketing, forming an entirely new niche market.

It's for geeks, by geeks. It's Nerd Inc., and odds are you've bought in.


Geek to chic fallout


Everyone has at least one friend on their Facebook account they love to hate.

"Annoying Facebook Girl" uploads 500 photos to the social network every day. She posts lyrics of Top 40 songs as status updates, as if they have some deeper meaning that only resonates with her. She's also an internet meme. Similar to LOLCats, people post captions on her "funny faced" picture.

"I'm on Facebook all day," a caption will read. "I'm such a nerd."

Such is the frustration of the actual nerds out there. As Facebook becomes a vital part of communication in the 21st century, the stigma of being on the internet "all day" is slowly evaporating.

Perhaps you can thank irony and hipsterism, but being a "nerd" is actually quite trendy, something mega corporations have capitalized on in the past few years. That is, as long as you're a brooding, indie music-listening stunner that just happens to be wearing a Three Wolf Moon shirt. Companies such as Urban Outfitters and Hot Topic have taken internet memes and slapped them on t-shirts, selling them at $25 a pop.

But the internet is an unforgiving place, where masses, hunched over their keyboards, exact their revenge. Members of 4Chan, an internet photo and message board and the driving force behind the "Anonymous" hacks and pranks pulled on the Church of Scientology and other organizations, unleashed their wrath when one of its beloved memes went corporate.

Rage Comics portray MS Paint-drawn characters in everyday situations that lead to rage. Hot Topic saw this meme take off and, as any enterprising company would do, put it on a plain white shirt and sold them. 4Chan took notice and overnight, "Rage Guy" became "Race Guy," a racist whose everyday encounters with other races leads to his "rage." Hot Topic pulled the shirts from the shelves, and all was good in internet land.

But not all of this capitalization is worth causing an international hubbub. In fact, nerdery is quite profitable for companies that market to, rather than profit from their target audience.


Nod of approval


George Lucas has built an empire on being just a nerd himself. Countless others have followed in his footsteps, from computer geeks to anime lovers to steampunk enthusiasts. Phoenix Comicon, just like other comic conventions around the globe, brings these phenomena to the masses in one venue every year.

"I don't know if we even necessarily view [nerds] as a target market, being that most of us probably consider ourselves a part of that audience," says Phoenix Comicon founder and director Matt Solberg.

The convention, which has expanded exponentially since its inception in 2002, started out as more of a "collection of vendors," Solberg says. Only 432 people attended in 2002. This weekend, 20,000 attendees are expected to transcend upon Phoenix Convention Center.

Part of their expansion is thanks to the input of guests and attendees, Solberg says. Sure, adding big names Leonard Nimoy into the mix helps, but events like the Zombie Prom and Zombie Beauty Pageant draw crowds, too.

It all translates to big bucks for the convention. At $35 a pop, tickets for the event are going fast. Big name celebrities get their cut, too. Get your photo with comic legend Stan Lee for $40, or Leonard Nimoy, also known as "Spock" from "Star Trek," for $80. Similar to sports stars, part of drawing celebrities to these events is the agreement that they'll be able to sell photos, Solberg says.

"Most actors charge for their autograph and charge for a professional photo to be taken of them. It's just industry standard," Solberg says. "If their photos were free, there wouldn't be a way for everyone to get through and meet them."

Really, everyone's selling a bit of something, whether it's access to a nerd god or an actual product. Three hundred vendors at the event sell items of interest, from artistic takes on nerd themes to their own comic books and literature.


Are they selling to you, or selling you?, known for their blog packed with photos of cats with comedic captions, isn't really selling a product, per se. But yet, the blog and its parent company, Pet Holdings Inc., manage to make money.

With 50 plus websites under its belt, including Failblog, Memebase, I Can Has Cheezburger and I Has a Hot Dog, Pet Holdings is the expert on spotting an internet meme and profiting from it. That's because they're not selling to nerds. They're selling nerds. Rather, ads on their websites marketed toward them. At 1,500,000 hits per day for I Can Has Cheezburger alone, the money starts to rack up.

Though Cheezburger's director of marketing Jen Nausin would not disclose the company's annual profits, she did say that 75 per cent of their profits come from advertising. The other 25 per cent comes from merchandising.

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