Black Nerds Need a Producer Credit. Who Can Set That Up?
Illustration: Freddy Carrasco

Black Nerds Need a Producer Credit. Who Can Set That Up?

After a decade that saw comic-book movies and fantasy shows take over pop culture, we’re the ones calling the shots

I was lucky to grow up a comic book fan.

My parents saw my early love of comic books — the way I’d hide out at the Waldenbooks in the first floor of West Jackson’s Metrocenter Mall while they shopped, the way I talked endlessly about storylines I’d written myself — and indulged it. Maybe one day they thought I’d eventually write comics for a living, or write about them, or something. Every Wednesday when new issues dropped, they would drive me to the comic book store in a neighboring town, and sit patiently in the car while I went inside and thumbed through the newest issues of X-Men and Batman. I went to that comic book store hundreds of times as a kid.

And I rarely, if ever, saw any Black people there.

This isn’t a unique story. Most Black nerds could tell you about how they felt like the only kids who had comic book collections — but not a lot of friends their age to talk about the books with. But this also isn’t one of those things about how I’m a Talented Tenth Black unicorn because I read comic books and watched anime and was chastised by my simple-minded peers or whatever. To the contrary: This decade has produced quite the cottage industry of Black creatives who wear their nerd enthusiasm as badges of Black superiority. We’ve had enough of that.

Instead, this is about those comic-book spaces that were never really made for us, and how we as Black folks had to create our own. How we not only propelled nerd culture to the forefront of American culture, but broke through barriers, prejudices, and creative laziness to carve our own lanes whether anyone wanted us there or not.

Let’s bust one myth real quick: Black folks were never uninterested in science fiction or comic books. We always took to stories that encouraged escape, transported our imaginations, allowed us to transcend the environments that we’ve often been burdened with. Whenever we’ve been exposed to superheroes and futurism, we have embraced it.

My generation, in particular, grew up in a time when comic books and hip-hop were becoming more ambitious than ever — and cross-pollinating each other along the way. On TV, the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons gave us long-arc storytelling that spanned entire seasons; in our ears, Ghostface Killah and Method Man turned their comic-book fandom into aliases. (Ghost, who himself grew up on Iron Man cartoons, adopted Tony Stark; Meth, partial to Ghost Rider, went with Johnny Blaze.) Outkast’s second album, ATLiens, boasts artwork designed like a comic book cover. We devoured these works when they came our way, but the fact is, being proactive nerds took work — and sometimes a bit of privilege and resources — to venture into comic book stores and conventions that were never quite welcoming to us in the way they were for White enthusiasts.

So we tried to infiltrate the culture, and we kept trying until we were old enough to acquire the means to travel to the shops, cons, and cinemas on the other side of town. Until we were able to find message boards and social media accounts of like-minded Black folks who shared our specific passions to the point we didn’t feel so isolated or alone anymore. Until we learned that being a Black nerd isn’t as anomalous as we were made to believe growing up.

Until, ultimately, we became the engine behind an American pop cultural shift that put comic books, science fiction, and nerd life in the spotlight.

Forty-one years after Superman hit theaters and 30 years after Batman, it’s a weird feeling to look back and say sure, those films were massive, but the 2010s are the decade that nerd culture truly came to the forefront of American popular culture. Yet, the wave as we know it all started with Wesley Snipes and Blade. The 1998 movie, based on the Marvel comic, blew past $100 million at the box office and reminded Hollywood that such movies were viable. By the time the 21st century rolled around, franchises based on Spider-Man and the X-Men were either in theaters or in the works.

But the true world-domination plan went into effect after Disney bought Marvel in 2009. In Iron Man the year before, Samuel L. Jackson had appeared in the post-credits scene to acknowledge other Marvel superheroes; now, armed with the power of corporate synergy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was born. Over at HBO, the network was adapting George R.R. Martin’s weird incest-filled fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire into the series Game of Thrones. And in 2012, the same year the MCU culminated in The Avengers, Disney bought Lucasfilm — and the rights to bring back Star Wars in any form it chose. In the flash of a repulsor beam, nerd culture had gone from the margins to the forefront.

And it stayed there. Five of the nine highest-grossing movies of the decade are comic-book adaptations, and one is a Star Wars film. Superhero properties became our overlords, seemingly eradicating original ideas from box office relevance. Intellectual property was king, and no IP was deeper or riper than the meticulously constructed worlds of Marvel Comics and Star Wars.

Real-time feed-driven social media, allowed Black nerds to take our fandom from message boards to Twitter and Facebook, utilizing the platforms to direct the conversations.

As nerd culture became mainstream culture, though, the world needed people to translate to them what the hell all this stuff was. All of a sudden, the conversations that were usually relegated to comic book stores were happening on magazine covers and on prime-time television. Not surprisingly, the people doing the talking in these new spaces looked just like the people who had been in the comic book shops when we would go. The writer’s rooms were White. The red carpets were White. The director’s chairs were occupied by White men. The newsrooms that covered these movies were White. That left Black folks on the outside looking in — again.

But there’s only so long that Black voices can be silenced. The other thing that exploded in the 2010s, real-time feed-driven social media, allowed Black nerds to take our fandom from message boards to Twitter and Facebook, utilizing the platforms to direct the conversations. All of a sudden, the media outlets weren’t in charge; we were.

Take, for instance, #DemThrones, a hashtag started by TKO and Basa, the hosts of the podcast FiyaStarter. The hashtag was where Black social media users converged to add in their takes on Game of Thrones while using Black vernacular, Black memes, and references to Black culture. By the time the Eighth And Final Season We Shall Not Speak Of rolled around, #DemThrones was trending right along with every other Thrones-related hashtag.

#DemThrones became just as entertaining as the show itself. It was probably the only place to see Daenerys compared to Beyoncé; it was definitely the only place you’d see a Lil Boosie lyric over a picture of Tyrion Lannister. The hashtag didn’t just amplify Black social media’s creativity — Black social media creativity amplified the show itself, helping it become part of American household conversation. Other shows, too: The Walking Dead, The Flash and Arrow all had specific hashtags for Black viewers who helped boost each show’s popularity while giving communities for Black voices to congregate.

Then came 2018’s Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing movie of all time. Sure, after 20 or so Marvel movies and untold millions of dollars made, it’s easy to assume that such a movie would top the box office without any 280-character endorsements from Black Twitter. But it takes Black folks’ ingenuity and influence to turn something from a financial success to an American institution — which is exactly what the fourth Avengers flick became, thanks to the viral Thanos memes, social media fervor, and unrelenting comedy that Black folks provided (along with a cavalcade of theories and in-depth analysis of every movie frame and clue). Like we did with #DemThrones, we weren’t just there for comic relief. We were showing that we can be as discerning and philosophical as any of our White counterparts tossing out fan theories.

One resounding theme of the 2010s was the dissipation of the monoculture, the idea that a single unifying cultural moment is possible. Now that we have so many streaming options, recording options, and social media options, our attention spans are divided like never before. We’re no longer consuming the same thing at the same time, the way we were when a comedian was making a career-changing debut on The Ed Sullivan Show or Funkmaster Flex was about to debut “Ether” on Hot 97.

While much of the decade has been about lamenting the monoculture’s demise, the fact is, the phenomenon has persisted pretty much exclusively in Black cultural spaces. From chicken sandwich wars to Beyoncé HBO specials, from Empire to SpongeBob saying “Ight Imma head out” and everything in between: When the country becomes fixated on one pop culture moment, it usually comes thanks to Black folks seizing on it and everyone else playing catch up.

But that’s the way America has always worked. Nothing in the history of this country became a touchstone without Black people as the prime influence. Not the food America eats, which was cooked by Black folks in White houses so often they got called “American cuisine.” Not the musical genres that were started by Black artists and perfected by Black musicians until the rest of the country co-opted the sounds for financial gain. Not the slang. Not the clothing. Not the soul. It’s all Black culture.

The problem we often run into, though, is that historically our influence hasn’t translated into financial gains for ourselves or seats at the table. The 2010s and social media changed that, especially when it came to nerd culture. Blerds didn’t sit idly by creating hashtags, cosplaying at conventions, and pumping money into billion-dollar corporations without a list of demands of our own. We pushed for diversity and inclusion at every step, forcing companies to abide. We demanded a Black superhero and Marvel obliged with Black Panther — a film that was rewarded by becoming a billion-dollar film that shattered the idea that Black leads can’t gross internationally. When we embraced the Star Wars reboots under the condition they come back more diverse than the originals, we got a trilogy starring John Boyega and a cast that endlessly pisses off racist Redditors. When Black LGBTQ folks demanded representation, we got Tessa Thompson standing on the San Diego Comic-Con stage declaring her need for a queen and promises of heroes who represent that community. We pushed for more Black creatives in comic books — and had writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Eve Ewing, and Roxane Gay penning stories about Black characters for Marvel. And TV writers rooms are becoming Blacker by the day.

It’s only fitting, really, that the blerd culture’s influence on the decade culminated in a TV show like Watchmen: the Blackest possible take on a comic-book franchise we’ve ever seen. The show features real reckoning with America’s racism while turning the comic’s most iconic characters into Black superheroes. We’ve seen the police treated as a White supremacist institution, White nationalists as the primary villains, Black lineage as a central theme, and full episodes dedicated to Black love — all led by Black actors and actresses, Black directors, and a writers room full of Black geniuses who challenge the status quo and even the showrunner himself. As a result, Watchmen has been a word-of-mouth hit, making it premium cable’s highest rated new series of the year.

Watchmen feels like a fever dream compared to the reality of nerd culture during my own childhood. Yet, now, it feels like the inevitable culmination of the way Black nerds pushed the boundaries of what could be possible. The show feels like the beginning of a world where Blerds are recognized for our contributions and respond with creating more shows, movies, and iconic moments. The 2010s saw us demand to be heard — now, we get to show and prove.