Arts & Culture News

Triumph of the Nerds: How Sci-Fi and Fantasy Play Positive Roles in Our Lives

Bryan Kelly
Behind the foam fingers, roaring arenas and various shapes of sports balls that dominate the entertainment business is a thriving, enthusiastic community of fervent fans pulsing with unparalleled devotion to the quirkiness, whimsicality and inclusive nature of the world of science fiction and fantasy. Often the target of jokes, fans of nerdy subcultures have endured plenty of ridicule for their love of the make-believe.

But here’s the thing: Today’s nerds aren’t embarrassed by their interests anymore. And we can thank those who came before — those who, despite suffering schoolyard bullying for wearing superhero T-shirts, continued to find ways for this kind of fandom to live long and prosper.

I think I’ve always been a nerd (I even got a Doctor Who tattoo in my 20s). But it wasn’t until now, in my mid-30s and newly sober, that I really discovered the healing power in the fandom of sci-fi. And I can thank Star Trek, specifically, and all of its cheesy science fiction glory, for keeping sobriety fun and allowing me to form connections with these weird little communities of Trekkers (or Trekkies or Trekheads — I’m still trying to figure out this debate).

There’s auditory bliss in the soothing beeps, boops and hums of Star Trek’s original starship, the Enterprise, but I could even watch the first 1960s series on mute just for the vivid set designs and to see William Shatner’s Captain Kirk throw a few double-fisted uppercuts to giant lizard aliens. But what’s really captured me are the stories about where humanity might go one day, and the ability to connect with other fans over intricate plot details and lovable (and hateable) characters.

Shields Up
Most nerds (not a derogatory term anymore, by the way) will probably recall getting into sci-fi, fantasy and comic books at a much earlier age, many as a way to shield themselves from the outside world. And for Denton bartender, comic book writer and illustrator Bryan Kelly, it was a way to cope with simply existing as a powerless child in an adult’s world.

“When you're little, you don't have any power, you have no say over anything in your life," he says. "And so [I would] project into these worlds where there are characters who are seemingly powerless, or up against insurmountable odds, but overcome them.”

Kelly, who is also one of the founding organizers of the Denton Comic Art Expo and is due to release the second volume of his comic series True Tales From the Bar later this year, says he would escape into the fantastical worlds of comic books and mid-century sci-fi horror as a kid, not only because they captured his imagination but because it’s easy to do when you spend a significant amount of time alone. And eventually, his hobby led to an art career, which is heavily influenced by the earliest era of horror-movie monsters.

“I would go off into a corner, and I would just draw," he says. "And I'd go into a world that I would create myself, you know, but it came from being solitary.”
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Bryan Kelly is a comic book artist in Denton.
Mike Brooks

Star Trek enthusiast James “Shep” Shepard can relate to this type of escapism. As a kid, he had a lisp.

“It was the bane of my existence,” he says.

For much of his childhood, Shepard was too afraid to talk or interact with people; he couldn’t even pronounce his own name correctly.

“[Kids] immediately made fun of me, that's what always happened," he says. "So I kind of felt like I needed these worlds to kind of get lost in.”

He also remembers being bullied in school for wearing a Superman T-shirt, and again for a Batman T-shirt.

Another big moment in Shepard’s childhood was his parents’ divorce when he was in second grade. In the aftermath of the split, he recalls spending a lot of time with his father watching the original Star Trek series. They’d also rent the original Trek movies over and over, finding them on VHS tapes at a grocery store.

“It has sentimental value. It kind of pulls at my heartstrings,” he says of the franchise.

Escaping a Black Hole
Beginning in 2007, Shepard was the general manager for seven years at Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios, a music venue and event space in Denton known for its punk shows and party atmosphere. During that time, Shepard says he began drinking heavily. And part of his eventual recovery from alcoholism was revisiting his childhood favorites — the original Star Trek series and its subsequent series The Next Generation.

“I didn't realize this ’til much later, when I quit drinking, when I really had a chance to sit and think, like, I gave up a lot of who I was," he says. "And now I have that back and that feels really good.”

Star Trek was there again for Shepard when he was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia two years ago. The cancer is now almost undetectable, but he remembers those early days and how he sought to escape from his new reality.

“When I found out [about the diagnosis], I was feeling like shit and could not sleep," he says. "I would stay up all night watching Deep Space Nine and Voyager. I never saw every episode of either until then, but it was a big comfort.”

One of the obvious draws of sci-fi fantasy is its incredible potential for escapism. But escapism as a form of therapy is controversial in the world of psychology, as it is considered simply a way to delay our responses to unwanted realities, not to help us to work through them.

This type of escapism is considered part of the great fantasy migration hypothesis in the psychological world. It states that when reality does not align with our wants or needs, we seek refuge in fictional realities. This makes sense, because we all need an escape from time to time. But this hypothesis goes a step further by theorizing that those participating in nerd culture, specifically, are simply unwilling or unable to accept realities outside of their comfort zones.
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James Shepard turned to sci-fi to escapelife’s realities, including a cancer diagnosis.
Mike Brooks

But most research on people who participate in "obscure" interests, such as those associated with nerd culture, shows it has many benefits. A 2015 research paper titled "A Psychological Exploration of Engagement in Geek Culture," produced by the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia, suggests that the enthusiasm among fans of role play, sci-fi, comic books and cosplay, among a range of nerd-centric activities, generally comes from a place of solitude, and that by exchanging social currencies, like knowledge of Star Trek storylines or amassing a collection of model toys, fans find ways to belong in an otherwise unaccepting environment.

A New York Times article titled "Your Brain on Fiction" cites fictional storytelling as an element that enriches our lives and expands our minds, enabling us to empathize with and understand others.

Just as Data and Geordi would escape to the Enterprise’s holodeck in The Next Generation to battle Moriarty in a Sherlock Holmes simulation, the habit of escaping reality by entering into fictional worlds like those of comic books helps us figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. And, according to the Times article, our brains treat interactions between fictional characters like real-life social encounters.

If you asked a comic book nerd, or a recovering alcoholic, or a newly diagnosed cancer patient, they’d likely agree that ditching daily discomforts to enter a world of fiction can be an incredibly useful tool in real-life problem-solving (and much healthier than booze or other substance abuse).

“Comics have always been like therapy,” say Wanz Dover, a comic book cataloguer with Heritage Auctions and longtime comic book aficionado. “I often say, like, every great life lesson I ever learned, I learned from a Chris Claremont comic.”

Dover, who has followed Marvel continuously since 1982, says the X-Men characters (written by Claremont for almost 20 years) feel like family members at this point. The X-Men is the first comic book series with which he connected as a kid. He cites Nightcrawler as his favorite character.

“If you know about that character, then you know pretty much everything you need to know about me as a person," he says.

Along with teaching life lessons, comic books are a great tool for understanding and identifying various states of mental health. This is a recurring theme in comic books, Dover says.

“I mean, Tony Stark [Iron Man] … him being an alcoholic was a pretty big part of his character for a long time," Dover says. "And him being sober and clean was also a big part of his character for a long time, because he was such an alcoholic. And the whole Demon in the Bottle covers are somewhat iconic.”

Demon in a Bottle is a nine-issue story arc from the comic book series The Invincible Iron Man that shows Stark falling deep into alcoholism before finding sobriety.

Tim Stoltzfus, owner of the Denton-based More Fun Comics and Games, also found refuge in the world of comic books and even ran his own comic book shop in his hometown of Intercourse, Pennsylvania, when he was 17 years old. He, too, was bullied as a kid for wearing a comic book-related T-shirt to school.

“In the ’80s and early ’90s, nerd culture was decidedly uncool. I remember wearing an X-Men T-shirt to high school when I was in 10th grade and was very clearly made fun of for it,” he says. “But … the comic store was my refuge on the weekends, where I got to hang out with like-minded people. And so the lesson I learned from comics was acceptance.” Passively thumbing through the pages of Superman isn’t the only way to reap mental health benefits. Daniel Calhoun is a professional cosplayer who works with Love for Kids Inc., a Dallas-based nonprofit organization that helps low-income families with children in need. About 12 years ago, when Calhoun went through a divorce, he says he experienced severe depression and suicidal thoughts.

“There were a couple of times I had a knife out," he says.

Calhoun has been a regular at Scarborough Renaissance Festival for 22 years and goes to about a dozen comic conventions each year. He ultimately found that through his love of cosplay and make-believe, he could experience a better, happier life. About a year and a half ago, he decided to create a special division of Love For Kids called "Happy Hearts Heros" that includes a team of cosplayers who dress in a variety of superhero costumes and attend various events that help raise money for kids.

“I can use this cosplay and all that, not just as an escape for me in a way to help me feel better, but through charity,” Calhoun says. “A lot of the kids we deal with are at risk, terminally ill and special-needs children. And some of these kids at some of these events, this might be their last event that they're alive for. And … I can at least give them one moment of being that child, of having that wonder and having that amazement. That's the best thing in the world.”

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Taffeta Darling is a cosplay leader in Dallas with thousands of social media followers.
Mike Brooks

Set Phasers to Fun
Conventions are a big way like-minded folks actively participate in fandom together, most elaborately through cosplay. Taffeta Darling, the alias for the founder of the pop culture brand Fangirl in Dallas (who requested we not use her real name), is a leading figure in local cosplay, with thousands of social media followers. She works as a panelist, moderator, judge and cosplay guest in most of them and hosts monthly livestreams through her social media platforms with special guests who discuss movies, games, comic books and TV shows that fit into various nerd fandoms.

An avid J.R.R. Tolkien and Batman fan, Darling also attends about a dozen fan conventions each year throughout the country. After two decades of active participation, she has long since found her niche in the community, and fans love her obscure approach to her cosplay garb.

“It’s all kind of all random, like ’80s cult characters that aren't seen enough," she says. "And I hear the response, ‘I never see this character. [It’s] so cool, it’s so random.’ And I'm like, ‘You're on my level. Let's talk.’”

Conventions allow many people who are otherwise solitary in their fictional worlds or, in Darling’s case, a self-proclaimed homebody, to come out and play. And you don't have to travel far to find communities of like-minded folks with whom to engage.

North Texas is a nerd destination with several conventions, clubs and shows to boot. The yearly Fan Expo sees sci-fi, comic book, horror, anime and gaming nerds come together for three entertainment-packed days with celebrity guests, vendors and family-friendly attractions. The Dallas Comic Show aims to provide a similar, more budget-friendly experience on a smaller scale with comic book and media guests, costumed characters, gaming and anime content. The Dallas Comic Show will host its fourth show this year, Nov. 11–12, at Music City Mall in Lewisville.

Another big pop culture convention is the Arlington-based Retropalooza, celebrating all things retro in the worlds of toys, music and video games. The two-day event also encourages cosplay and includes guest panelists. For bookworms who seek something smaller, the Dallas Sci-Fi Book Club meets monthly on Zoom or at Half Price Books on E. Northwest Highway.

Dallas Zine Fest, Denton Zine and Art Party, and Fort Worth Zine Fest are opportunities for local artists to showcase their work. Kelly, who sells his comic art at the Denton Zine and Art Party and at the town's weekly community market, says connecting with strangers at these events is one of the most rewarding experiences.

“[Sci-fi and fantasy] are very lonely obsessions and interests, and to add a community element, that’s very good for your mental health,” Kelly says. “To have that aspect where that loneliness can connect with other people's loneliness, or lonely interests, that's a meaningful thing for a lot of people … What's really satisfying for me as a creator is getting to go to conventions and booths and talk to people. It gives me a warped sense of reality, that's much better than reality.”

By helping organize the Denton Comic Art Expo last year, Kelly and a team of volunteers created the town's first-ever comic con. And for some fans, conventions are just as big a part of life as the comic books themselves.

Calhoun’s first convention was about 12 years ago at the Dallas Comic Con (before it became Fan Expo) at the Richardson Civic Center. He had to overcome a fear of being costumed in public.

“I was terrified,” he says. “I'm sitting in the car in a Wolverine costume for 20 or 30 minutes … and I'm agonizing because I'm sitting there and I'm not seeing very many people in costume.”

He was there with his son, David, who was in a simpler costume.

“I have my boxers and a T-shirt on under [my costume] so I'm either going in costume or I'm going home," he says. "And I'm sitting there going, ‘I'm a 30-something-year-old man. I'm overweight, in a spandex costume, here in public. Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.’”

It sure doesn’t seem like football fans ever feel this reluctant to don their uniforms and face paint in public.

Now, Calhoun says, it's strange if he goes to a convention without a costume. He believes that if fans feel out of place or pressured to outgrow their interests, they should go to a convention.

“Go to a convention," he says. "You find that family. And you realize, ‘I'm not alone.’”

To Boldly Go Where Kids Have Gone Before
Luckily, a lot of social pressure to outgrow these nerdy childhood interests is fading, and TJ Gilmore, mayor of Lewisville and self-proclaimed Trekker, says it’s about time society accepted that sci-fi, fantasy and comic books can be a wonderful part of adulthood.

“Here’s the mayor of a municipality who lets people know he likes Star Trek,” Gilmore says, making no secret of his fandom. “It's not just kids anymore, you know? It's adults. It's grown-ups. It’s leaders in the community.”

Gilmore is a massive Star Trek fan. His Mazda Miata is covered in Trek logos, and a bronze, six-inch bust of Captain Jean-Luc Picard face-palming himself (inspired by a viral meme) sits in his mayor's office.

“I've seen every hour of content that's ever been created, multiple times,” he says, as if it’s his prime directive as a Trekker.

Stoltzfus says the acceptance of nerd fandom among adults today is thanks in part to the comic book fans of his generation who now run Hollywood.

“You've got people who grew up reading the classic Marvel books of the ’60s and ’70s," he says. "And now they are in charge of creating new content, and they took that passion and pushed it, and they just did not relent.”

Katie Urby, a special effects makeup artist who works with local indie filmmakers, says the world of sci-fi greatly inspired her artistic career. As a 30-something-year-old woman whose bedroom is reminiscent of that of a rich 13-year-old (thanks to her impressive collection of art and toys), she is aware that her interests don’t exactly align with cultural norms. But she’s OK with that.
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Daniel Calhoun is a professional cosplayer.
Mike Brooks
“It's helped me be myself my whole life," she says. "The older I get, the more I'm like, ‘Well, I'm already here. It's not going anywhere.’”

Dover agrees with that sentiment, and has no doubts that his adult interests are exactly where they should be.

“Ten-year-old me would think I’m the coolest motherfucker that ever existed,” he says.

A Highly Illogical History
As an adult who is only now embracing this wide-ranging nerd culture, I’ve had to take a few lessons in comic book history, specifically, and explore many original movies and shows to fully appreciate what is popular today. And in my opinion, no character has had a better glow up than DC’s Batman. While his stories have always asked “whodunnit?,” the cinematic leap from Adam West to Robert Pattinson is a big one.

First seeing popularity in the 1940s, Batman donned black and blue tights and enthusiastically solved crimes with his sidekick, the boy wonder Robin, in comic books. And the colorful and wonderfully cheesy 1960s television debut of Batman, starring West, couldn’t be further from the dark, brooding Batman of today. But Darling, who is also a comic book cataloguer at Heritage Auctions, doesn’t mind the caped crusader’s kitschy past, although she says she mainly relates to the wistful ways of Batman as we know him now.

“I think that just ties into my whole, like, melancholy side," she says. "I'm just like a, you know, a sad bastard teenager.”

While superheroes like Batman dominate popular comic book fandom today, characters of that nature were under attack after the 1954 publication of Seduction of the Innocent, psychiatrist Fredrick Wertham's book that alleged negative effects of comic books. This ultimately led to the comic book industry enforcing its own system of self-regulation, called the Comics Code Authority, in order to continue producing content.

The code meant no graphic violence, no horror, no sympathy for the bad guys and no nudity, among other guidelines. One wonders what the comic book defenders back then would have thought of the sight of Chris Hemsworth’s bare bottom on the big screen in Thor: Love and Thunder.

And while it was updated several times before becoming defunct in 2011, Dover says it was after the code originally came into being that the Silver Age of comics began.

“And that's when the actual superheroes came back," he says, "when we get Marvel Comics, and, you know, Fantastic Four in the early ’60s with Stan Lee [and] Jack Kirby. And the rest is history. And that's what everybody's obsessed with.”

Calhoun’s thoughts on superheroes couldn’t differ more from Wertham’s bitter assumptions on the matter.

“The real world is filled with war, with bills, with hate, with anger, with racism," he says. "In the superhero world, you have that armor around you where you can battle that. And good wins.”

Warp Speed Ahead
My entrance into the world of Star Trek fandom couldn’t have come at a better time. The franchise had five new series debuts this year alone, which I’ve watched, along with some old Treks, even out of order, because there’s so much damn Star Trek for me to catch up on.

Gilmore certainly loves Trek’s long-running popularity.

“The great thing about Star Trek is that there's always an anniversary at this point,” he says.

Even the documentary Trekkies, which followed the lives of some of the most eccentric Star Trek fans (where are you, Barbara Adams?), celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. But it’s more than just Star Trek. Gilmore thinks sci-fi has saturated the entertainment industry now.

“You can't turn on a television screen without some sort of sci-fi-something going on,” he says.

Recent shows embracing sci-fi wonder include The Orville, Avenue 5, The Man Who Fell to Earth and Night Sky.

Non-superhero comic books have achieved tremendous popularity recently with shows like Sandman, Moon Knight and the TV special Werewolf by Night. Star Wars fans have also had plenty of new TV content to explore, including The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Andor.

But superheroes still dominate the box office with big-budget movies. Marvel is even reportedly reviving Wolverine in Deadpool 3, scheduled for release in 2024.

“I think it's hilarious," Dover says. "Ryan Reynolds just kind of just walked right into the MCU like, ‘You know what? I'm gonna make my movie the most anticipated Marvel movie.’”

And it’s this kind of anticipation mixed with endless storyline possibilities that makes all of this so exciting. Characters can come out of retirement or back from the dead or live in an alternate timeline, and we don’t question it — Well, continuity buffs do, but most of us just enjoy it for what it is.

So, as I sit here, sober and immersing myself in this unique little world for the first time, I’m happy. And it sure seems to me that all of that schoolyard bullying has paid off, and all the years of dedicated fandom have snowballed into one great time in history to be a fan of all things nerdy.

Stoltzfus sums it up best, in agreement with Marvel co-creator Stan Lee’s famous statement regarding great power and great responsibility.

“We won the culture," he says. "Nerds won. And now it's up to us, since we have this power, we have to use it for good.”
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