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.

Chuck Versus the Despair: A Nerdy Spy Helps Me Cope

“Don’t freak out!”

A painful cry came from the next room. I paused the episode, removed my headphones, and waited to identify the discomfort. Was it the agonizing-wake-up-and-need-help-repositioning-herself-comfortably kind of pain? She didn’t fidget. Her breathing sounded normal. No, it was the awful-but-bearable-enough-to-keep-sleeping kind of torment. Chuck Bartowski, Agent Sarah Walker, and Major John Casey’s stilled expressions of fear, concern, and blankness watched from the computer monitor as I fought back another round of tears. Mom wasn’t getting better. I put on the headphones and clicked play.

Februaries suck. In 2008, that’s when my mom passed away after battling melanoma for over a year. The allegedly short month is now an exhausting emotional gauntlet. It’s when certain memories seem a little clearer and painful than the other 337 days of the year. I miss being nine years old, oversleeping yet again, and waking up to find cinnamon oatmeal ready at the table. I miss Mom encouraging my writing and drumming. I miss her sending me IMs and not understanding Away Messages. I miss hearing my mother’s excitement when she found the right book to connect with a student at the school library. I miss her asking what comics were appropriate for what age group, what art style was popular, and what publishers focused on kids besides Scholastic. I miss her.

Photo by Olan Mills Portrait Studios.
Photo by Olan Mills Portrait Studios.

I dealt with my mom’s sickness in a few different ways. At my first post-college job, I buried myself in the data entry and quality control routine. I didn’t know how to act on weekends. I bounced between self-imposed lockdowns, worrying my family might need me, and drunken exiles to bars or friends’ apartments, grasping for some normality. There were days I just wanted to be entirely alone. That’s when I reread old comic books, listened to albums discovered in high school, and rewatched every movie possible. I wanted nostalgic comfort, which Chuck happily provided.

The TV series tells the story of – well – Chuck (Zachary Levi). It begins with the twenty-something character unhappily working at the Best Buy-ish Buy More. Ellie (Sarah Lancaster), the sister with whom he lives, often asks about his ideal future. He explains, “I’m working on my five-year plan. I just need to choose a font.” One day, the leader of the Nerd Herd tech support group unintentionally downloads government secrets into his brain via encrypted images. The CIA sends Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski) and the NSA dispatches Casey (Adam Baldwin) to investigate, kill, and – eventually – protect Chuck. The surreal circumstances surrounding the newfound knowledge clearly stresses Levi’s character. Sarah realizes he isn’t a threat, sees him panic, and cautions, “Don’t freak out, Chuck!”

Chuck’s storytelling and production exudes 1980s pop culture nostalgia. Its comfort with the past quickly connects a very specific audience with its characters and usually propels the narrative forward. For example, the main character’s affection for the original Tron reflects the series’ inversion of the man-in-the-computer plot. The show also features the era’s film and TV actors as guest stars who reflect and connect with the plots.

“Don’t freak out!” becomes a sort of mantra for the series. Sarah repeats it with varying degrees of forcefulness and calmness depending on what Chuck needs to hear in a crisis, be it defusing a bomb, preparing for Ellie’s wedding, outrunning henchmen, maneuvering corporate politics, or going on a date. Chuck utters the phrase to himself whenever he’s isolated from his government handlers and doesn’t know who to trust or what to do. Casey grunts harsher-but-similar words whenever he needs his asset to get his head in the game and just do a job.

As Chuck continues, the title hero demonstrates the ability to interpret and apply the information stored in his brain. He becomes an asset worth protecting, which means Casey and Sarah invade his daily routine. One serves as a stone-face Buy More co-worker and the other poses as the dream girlfriend Chuck always wanted. Eventually action movie escapades eventually collide with the mundane. Chuck can try to protect everyone he loves, but the lead character has no control over poisonous attacks delivered upon his doctor and Good Samaritan sister, espionage missions at her “Captain Awesome” fiancée’s (Ryan McPartlin) bachelor party, terrorist organizations co-opting tech announcements the Nerd Herders (Scott Krinsky and Vik Sahay) attend, or the government removing every item in the Buy More without boss man “Big Mike’s” (Mark Christopher Lawrence) awareness. All Chuck can do is tell them not to “freak out.” He takes on the problem, not always willingly, and works toward a solution to save their – and the world’s – day.

The series’  pop culture comfort first hooked me as viewer, but the mantra was why I loved Chuck. It told me exactly what I needed to hear. After working my second shift job, I’d arrive home on Mondays wondering how I’d endure the rest of the week. Too many thoughts ran through my head. (Why is my mom sick? Why can’t I do anything? Why isn’t she getting better? What’s going on? Why is this happening?) Hearing other people – fictional characters! – rushing to calm others reassured me. The sentiment slipped through my tightly knitted and panicked questions. It reminded me to calmly look at its situation and decide if it was a five-year plan (choosing a career while helping my family) or a font issue (going out for a night). I weighed options differently and addressed them accordingly. Not every decision shared the same gravitas and I learned to identify what felt right in the given circumstances. I still made mistakes, but didn’t let them derail my life.

This February is still torturous, but I have a different sense of despair. As I revisit Chuck yet again this month, I remember my grandfather. He passed away in December. Not only do I miss him, but it feels like I’ve lost another part of my mom.

“Think of it as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, but with spies and action,” I said, hoping the reference made sense to Grandpa. He seemed skeptical. I knew my grandfather my entire life and still didn’t know how to communicate with him as an adult. He was a talkative person, but the conversations were often very one-sided. While Dad cared for Mom, I often ran errands or chauffeured my grandfather to appointments. In Fall 2007, he finally received the cataract and LASIK surgery my mom begged him to get for years. As I drove us home from his last follow-up appointment, he was excited the doctor said his eyesight was strong enough to enjoy TV and books again. “What’s good to watch these days?” he asked. Given the timeframe, my response seemed natural. Knowing our disconnect, I wondered if he’d like it.

“That Morgan fella’s a hoot!” Grandpa proclaimed at the next family dinner. He enjoyed the spy stories’ vibrancy and fun action, but loved the show’s supporting cast. The ease with which Chuck’s best friend, Morgan (Joshua Gomez), avoided Buy More responsibilities through blindfold eating contests, secret TV remote controls, and two-hour lunch breaks fascinated my grandfather. I discovered it was a skill he  tried to perfect himself. Grandpa also loved President Regan-devotee Casey and his angry grunts as he endured his fellow Buy Morons. The character’s guttural reaction to Chuck and Morgan’s preferred desert island sandwich  discussion was a particular highlight for my grandfather.

A TV series became our stepping-stone. Grandpa arrived for our Sunday meals and immediately wanted to talk about the latest episode. Through every conversation, he’d slip in an extra detail about his life I never knew. I learned about almost every odd job her ever had (pea picker, coal miner, accounting assistant, bookkeeper, salesman, and maintenance worker are only a few) and every beer he enjoyed (although he’d always come back to Yuengling). It all started with a pop cultural commonality. Chuck referenced films, shows, and comic books my grandfather never watched or understood. He did know, however, that Star Wars, James Bond, and Ex Machina were all stories I enjoyed and that’s all he needed to know. Eventually he insisted on buying me an iPhone one Christmas because his favorite tech support leader used one and “it was cool and fancy!”

Photo by Patrick Ridings.
Photo by Patrick Ridings.

Just as Chuck’s worlds collided, my common interest in his antics grew to include others besides Grandpa. In September 2008, my dad and I tried to find something to watch on TV. After an exhaustive On Demand search, I suggested the only new DVDs in the house. Dad had listened to me gush about Chuck for almost a year and agreed to try it. Sometimes you just need to be reminded how fun life can be. He burst out laughing at Chuck and Morgan battling a home invader who wrongly thinks secrets are stored on the Nerd Herd leader’s computer rather than in his brain. My recommendation was a success!

Mom would’ve loved Chuck. That’s what I realized the longer my dad and I watched. Had she been alive, she would’ve been sitting right there on the couch between us. My mom would’ve enjoyed the Die Hard homages, the recreation of the Hart to Hart opening sequence, and the guest stars like Bruce Boxleitner, Morgan Fairchild, Reginald VelJohnson, and Scott Bakula. She would’ve clapped at the sight of all of them. Having survived a few insane crowds herself, my mom would’ve loved seeing Buy More’s Black Friday anti-riot strategy hilariously repurposed to prevent a kidnapping and assassination. Mom either would’ve asked me a million questions about Chuck and Morgan’s pop culture jokes or already understood them from years watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Alias, and Firefly. Chuck offered us another chance to experience a program she would’ve enjoyed just as much as we did.

My dad and I continued to laugh and absorb the action, silliness, and – most importantly – heart the writers, directors, cast, and others  brought to the screen. The series impossibly survived for five years, outlasting flashier and expensive shows like Heroes. Matching its namesake, Chuck was the underdog whenever it came to renewals and was always on the cusp of cancellation. Fans and critics championed Team Bartowski online and petitioned corporate sponsor Subway to keep it alive. This led to a weekly campaign where fans ordered sandwiches every night an episode aired. Dad willingly indulged this form of support. After I moved out, we still  discussed the show and rewatched episodes together whenever we could.

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I'm still saying goodbye to #Chuck.

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Besides actively ordering foot-long sandwiches, I did my part to promote the spies’ adventures. I introduced the tales to as many friends as possible. It wasn’t a series for everyone. The susceptible friend needed to fit the niche audience who appreciated the plot, goofiness, fun, and heart the creative and on-screen Team Bartowski offered. Later, I would understand I was recommending the stories to friends who might need to hear the show’s mantra every once in a while. I wanted my friends to have as much fun as I did and not be weighed down by despair.

January 28, 2012 was yet another day that didn’t go at all like I expected. After working hard for years, I was laid off from the first position I considered to be my career. I felt anger, shock, helplessness, and aimlessness. Panicked questions began to swirl in my head yet again. My dad drove to my apartment that night with two Subway sandwiches. We sat down on my couch like we did countless times before and watched TV. That night, Team Bartowski saved the world one last time over the course of two bittersweet hours. I didn’t freak out.