Nerd HQ: Hollywood’s Artist Alley

I stood in front of Table X1, stunned I already accomplished my priority for the New York Comic Con. A day earlier, I had bolted through the Javits Center’s doors hoping to get to Chris Burnham’s table in the show’s Artist Alley. I arrived just in time. After a brief wait in line, the incredibly pleasant artist signed my Officer Downe hardcover, talked about Image and DC Comics, and added my name to a list as the last of the sketch request for the day. It was now Saturday and I checked on his progress. Burnham had begun to draw what would be a full-color image of Damian Wayne, DC Comics’ fifth Robin. Having worked on Batman Incorporated with Damian’s co-creator, Grant Morrison, meant Burnham perfectly captured the young Wayne’s attitude in a pencil sketch as the character descended from a leap. I couldn’t wait to see the final image.

Art by Chris Burnham. Photo by Patrick Ridings. Copyright DC Comics.
Art by Chris Burnham. Photo by Patrick Ridings. Copyright DC Comics.

At comic conventions, I practically live in Artist Alley. It offers a venue where I can ask writers Kelly Sue DeConnick, Matt Fraction, and Mark Waid about craft; watch Becky Cloonan draw Vikings; discuss Kickstarter and web comics with Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett; commission water-colored Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from David Petersen; talk to Dean Haspiel about Harvey Pekar; and discover new books to enjoy. A comic con’s Artist Alley exudes the mutual admiration that exists between comics professionals and their fans. The two groups know they wouldn’t exist without the other.

As I left Table X1, I checked Twitter to see if any writers and artists updated their NYCC schedules. For the last two years, this particular convention separated Artist Alley from the show’s main floor and its celebrity autographing area. As crowded as I found this wing of Javits, I was glad I didn’t have to deal with the slaughter-pen-like lines for film and TV stars’ autographs. My wallet appreciated it, too. Sketches, books, and art prints could cost a lot of money, but comics creator’s rarely charged to sign fans’ cherished stories. Celebrities, in contrast, often charged a fee too rich for my tastes. The few I had met in previous years appreciated their audience just as much as comics pros, but meeting actors was never my priority at comic cons.

As I scrolled through my phone, I saw the one tweet that would partially change my mind:

If obtaining a phenomenal, moody Burnham sketch was my NYCC objective, then meeting Zachary Levi was my personal stretch goal. I knew he had appeared at the show a few times during the weekend, but my schedule never synced with the announcements. Mentally, I rearranged my Sunday morning calendar.

In case you haven’t noticed from everything I’ve written, I’m a nerd. As defined by Levi, I’m “[o]ne who’s unbridled passion for something, or things, defines who [I am] as a person, without fear of other people’s judg[ment].” My portion of nerd-dom focuses on literature, comics, art, photography, and film (never consistently in that order). I love a well-written quip on the TV; long, breathtaking tracking shots on the big screen; beautiful, playful words on a page; and gravity-challenging panel layouts in a comic. Others’ passions may vary (sports stats, music history, video games, theater…), but everyone’s a nerd in the 21st century according to the Chuck actor. We all have our interests, no matter broad or detailed we define them.

The next day, I arrived at Javits and I headed straight to the convention’s main floor. I found Booth 638 and stood in line at the Nerd Machine’s Nerd HQ. The crowd grew quickly, but the booth’s attendants kept the group organized and informed about the schedule (on time) and costs (still $20 for autographs and photos!).

I knew of the organization through its web presence and the Nerd HQ events held in parallel to the San Diego Comic-Con, but this was the first time I saw the smooth machinery in action. Levi founded the Nerd Machine in 2010 to promote his refined “nerd” definition. The group’s website includes content and message boards generated by fans to dissect and share their (sometimes niche) interests with the equally passionate. It also offers apparel proudly announcing the wearer’s nerd credentials, often with a nod towards 1980s nostalgia.

In 2011, the Nerd Machine’s mission grew to include Nerd HQ. Hosted alongside SDCC, the free event offered fans a much more personal experience to mingle with celebrities. Once inside a venue intimately smaller than the San Diego Convention Center, fans paid $20 each for Conversations for a Cause, Smiles for Smiles, and Signings for Smiles. All of the money raised by these panel discussions, photo ops, and autograph signings benefited Operation Smile, a cause close to Levi’s heart. The charity offers free surgeries to children with facial deformities in developing countries. While promoting Thor: the Dark World, the actor would later explain, “[J]ust a simple thing of a smile is so powerful…as a child, if you’re embarrassed to smile, you might go out of your way not to enjoy life because that’s the natural reaction to enjoy[ment].”

My love for Chuck and the Nerd Machine’s charitable connection made my choice to venture onto NYCC’s main floor an easy one. I could meet an actor whose work actually affected my life, while also maintaining my budget and benefiting others.

Once Levi arrived, the line moved at a decent pace. No fan appeared rushed from the celebrity’s presence, nor did they linger beyond any acceptable social norm length. As I moved closer to the autographing/photography station, I heard Levi joking and talking with every individual who approached. The woman in front of me left the booth and it was finally my turn. As the Nerd Machine attendant laid out my DVD cover for a signature, Levi glanced at the ground and his eyes bulged. He grabbed an abandoned water bottle and NYCC bag and chased after the exiting star-struck fan. “Miss! Excuse me, miss!” The actor caught the woman before she blended with the large, singular organism consisting of colorful t-shirts and costumes absorbed her.

When Levi returned, he shook my hand and began talking about Chuck once he saw the DVD cover. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome and irritate fellow fans, so I quickly explained a truncated version of what exactly his show meant to my family and I. I didn’t freak out. Levi briefly asked about my family, smiled for a photo, and said, with sincerity, that he was glad a TV show could help.

Photo by Nerd HQ.
Photo by Nerd HQ.

Later, I returned to Artist Alley to retrieve Robin from Burnham. Now with vibrant color, the artist’s sketch exceeded my wildest expectations. Once again we talked about his career and Batman. As I walked away, I realized how personal and similar the Artist Alley and Nerd HQ experiences seemed. One I knew and anticipated, while the other broadened my expectation of fan culture and its events.

Levi and the Nerd Machine have turned to Indiegogo to seek funding for 2014’s Nerd HQ in San Diego. The money goes towards the event itself, thus enabling fans to enter for free. While I’m an illogically optimistic person, I doubt the entire event will be funded by Friday, April 25, 2014. Still, consider throwing $1 or $5 their way or making a direct donation to Operation Smile. I won’t be able to attend the event, but I like the idea of other fans having a chance to meet the screenwriter, director, showrunner, actor, or comedian who inspire them. They in turn sponsor a charity because of their good fortune. That’s not bad for a world of nerds.

Art by Courtney Thompson.
Art by Courtney Thompson.

Published by

Patrick Ridings

Patrick Ridings attempts to remain creative by writing whenever possible. His first published work appeared in Philly Beer Scene's June/July 2012 issue. Mr. Ridings believes all writer bios read like Stan Lee's Dr. Doom dialogue from 1962.

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