While moving books and discs from the other shelves, floor, nightstand, desk, and coffee table, I remember what I said. It’s a new year. It’s time to start again. That’s why I, with more than a little help, finally installed a third bookshelf. All that remains is the filing.
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 Downehardcover, 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.
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 everythingI’vewritten, 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’sNerd 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.
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.
Choices, including word-related ones, define a person. A decision’s “how” and “why” offer insight into who we are. I tend to use terms based on accuracy and comfort in a conversation. Some part of me asks, “Will this person understand me?” when a sentence leaves my mouth. Depending on how fast or relaxed a dialogue is, I might repetitively use ideas to get to a point. Other times, when clarity or comfort isn’t enough, I hammer a word into a particular sentence or part of speech until it conveys what I mean. This background helps explain why Tangents“has been pinballing around in my skull for years.”
I first encountered the term in late 1997. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “the definitive record of the English language” (just ask their webpage), “tangent” can be used as an adjective, noun, or intransitive verb. My focus for blog-related purposes rests on the noun, which originated in the late 16th century. It stems from the “Latin līnea tangens tangent or touching line…[the] French…tangent…[and] German tangente.” No, I didn’t develop deep love for linguistics while in the eighth grade, but I did have math class. That’s how the term first entered my vocabulary. In the mathematical sense, the OED defines tangent as
the ratio of this line to the radius, or (equivalently, as a function of the angle) the ratio of the side of a right-angled triangle opposite the given angle (if acute) to that of the side opposite the other acute angle (the tangent of an obtuse angle being numerically equal to that of its supplement, but of opposite sign)…[or] a straight line which touches a curve (or curved surface), i.e. meets it at a point and being produced does not (ordinarily) intersect it at that point.
Still here? Even if you adore math (you might’ve guessed I prefer words to numbers), those two definitions may’ve hurt your head and ears if you tried to read them aloud. These interpretations still don’t accurately explain “tangents” as they apply to me.
The adjective/noun definition the OED designates “B.1.c” seems more appropriate for my needs:
chiefly fig[urative]…esp[ecially] in phrases (off) at, in, upon a tangent, i.e. off or away with sudden divergence, from the course or direction previously followed; abruptly from one course of action, subject, thought, etc., to another.
It’s the closest we get to the reason I love the term. This is all a verbose preamble to say: like many things I enjoy, it started with a comic book.
DC Comics first published nine issues titled Tangent Comics in 1997. The company released all of the books in a single week in place of their standard monthly publications. Dan Jurgens, a cartoonist most famous to younger-me for his Superman work, established the series’ concept. He dedicated the idea to science fiction and DC editor Julius Schwartz, who reinvigorated the company in 1956 by spearheading the publication of Showcase #4. That issue resurrected the superhero genre for DC by creating Barry Allen, the company’s second character to use the name Flash. Beyond similar speed-related powers, Allen had little connection to the original WWII-era Flash who used the same heroic identity.
In Tangent Comics: The Atom #1, the line’s cornerstone book, editor Eddie Berganza explains Jurgens
proposed to give creators the freedom to imagine new version[s] of [DC’s] characters free from the shackles of all previous continuity, with one condition: they had to use an existing name…The goal…was to create characters and an entire world from scratch.
For example, DC’s first superhero to bear the name Atom was a diminutive powerhouse fighter in the 1940s. During Schwartz’s tenure at the publisher, a new Atom was created: one who could shrink to microscopic sizes. Eventually, both Atoms met and existed in the same universe. In Jurgens’ Tangent reality, however, this new Atom had no connection to the previous heroes or their world. Here he possessed radiation-based powers that transformed him into a Superman-level icon.
Similar to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, Jurgens carried the “entire world from scratch” approach to its logical completion. This new universe, he later explained, included “economic, geographic[,] and political landscapes…defined by the superhero community.” The presence of the Atom and other superpowered beings naturally affected everything from board games, recording groups, films, space exploration, war, and technology. I never encountered world building on such a large scale before Tangent Comics. Consider my eighth-grade mind blown. From that week on, “tangent” became a recurring word in my vocabulary.
My actual use of the term evolved over the years. I hadn’t thought about it until college. I’d review classmates’ papers and mark paragraphs as “tangential” when it didn’t fit an academic paper’s argument. (Hopefully my writing style here can be forgiven for my lack of precise focus…after all, you were warned from the beginning.) Said classmates would often ask, “What does writing have to do with math?” in response. I’d laugh and recall the cover featuring Jurgens’ Atom.
After college graduation, “tangents” assumed an entirely different meaning for me. I dubbed my long rambling emails with that title. They were sent to close friends in a panic between midnight and 3 AM while dealing with fear, loss, and anxiety. My friends graciously indulged my semi-connected thoughts as I attempted to understand just what the hell was going on in my life around 2007. These correspondences grew and carried over into late night bar conversations whenever they were in town. Tangents helped me survive and make sense of the world.
What does “tangents” say about me? I’m a nerd who likes different writing styles capable of branching into several directions. Over the years, I always returned to the idea of using it as a title for a blog. It feels right. It feels like me. It gives me permission to create a space to write whatever I want.