This is one in our 'Geek Like Me' series of columns exploring the nuances of geek culture.
Haven't you heard? The geeks have inherited the earth! For Generations X and Y, Comic Con is the Super Bowl, Star Wars has replaced religion, and Jack Kerouac made way for Joss Whedon. If these references are Greek to you -- we'd call them Klingon -- it's time to get help. Take my hand... and together, we'll rule the galaxy as -- well, soon you'll get the reference.
1. Start with Star Wars.
Spaceships, laser swords, and barrel shaped robots are everywhere -- especially your Facebook news feed. You've probably seen at least parts of the films, but still... why do these people care so much?
Viewing the Star Wars movies in context with the impact they've had in pop culture simply won't work. They don't -- they can't -- live up to the hype, because you're not a five year-old. But that doesn't mean you can't become one for a few hours.
Grab some grub, turn off the lights, put down the iDevice, and watch Star Wars -- the first movie, from 1977, a.k.a. Episode IV. Don't worry about special editions, any version will do. Try not to wait for answers to your lingering questions, just let the story unfold. You'll probably say, "That's it?"
But forge ahead and watch the next movie, 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. It's a richer film, with more complex characters and challenging storylines. Note John Williams' score, arguably the most beloved in the history of cinema.
Now you're done. Really.
If you're not compelled to go further, you've seen everything you need to understand Star Wars. The lore, the characters, the famous quotes and timeless images -- nearly all of them come from those first two films. And they've influenced virtually every sci-fi or fantasy film since.
Everything since Empire -- including Return of the Jedi in 1983, a three-part prequel series from 1999-2005 and many books, comics, cartoons and videogames -- has elicited some degree of fan outrage*. Our ire hasn't stopped us from emptying our wallets, because -- and here's the answer to "why do these people care so much?" -- we're trying to buy back our childhoods. But poor*, embattled George Lucas doesn't have that for sale.
Okay, there's one more thing you should know: everyone hates a guy named Jar Jar Binks.
2. Time for TV. Go for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
My fellow geeks may be enraged that I've eschewed Dr. Who, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, X-Files, or particularly Star Trek. But trust me, Buffy is where you'll find the most truth among the fantasy. In fact, you'll likely see yourself.
Buffy Summers is the epitome of today's hero surrogate. Not an all-powerful Superman or a fearless Captain Kirk, Buffy is our secret selves: scared but determined, emotionally clumsy and privately lonely. The show's more wrenching moments may leave you brutalized by its emotional honesty, but the overall tone is persistently fun*. Herein lies the devotion of its passionate fans.
If you only watch one episode, let it be Emmy-nominated "Hush," from the fourth season, or my personal favorite, "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered" from the second season. In fact, the whole second season is phenomenal.
Be prepared for some affected dialogue -- a brand of wizardry we call Buffyspeak. Let it grow on you. And, only when you're braced for a serious impact, check out "The Body."
Buffy was created by Joss Whedon, a deity among the Comic Con set. He also masterminded a beloved, short-lived series called Firefly (starring Nathan Fillion, whom Entertainment Weekly declared a "geek god"). Fillion went on to star in Whedon's web-based miniseries, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog -- alongside Neil Patrick Harris from How I Met Your Mother (where he co-stars with Buffy's Allyson Hannigan).
See? Everything connects. Don't worry, there won't be a quiz.
PS: Also check out HBO's Game of Thrones. No intro necessary.
It's called Comic Con, right? There must be comics!
It's hard to recommend traditional superhero comics to the uninitiated. Tremendous talents work on these books, but they're wrangling years of sordid backstories to serve a dwindling and venomously opinionated audience. Individual heroes or entire universes frequently reset to create jump-on points*, but it's still dense material. I mean, just listen to the basics:
The famous superheroes come from one of two companies, Marvel or DC. Each of their universes is interwoven and the characters share deep relationships, but they don't cross over*. Batman and Superman are on a first-name basis -- but they've never* met Spider-Man, who lives at Marvel with the X-Men and Iron Man.
And the Marvel movie rights are broken up, so movie Spider-Man has never encountered movie X-Men or Iron Man -- but Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk will meet up in this summer's The Avengers... directed by Joss Whedon (ding!).
So where to start? Like any lazy reader, go to the movies. The best comic-to-film translation* is 1978's Superman the Movie, while more recent winners include The Dark Knight, Iron Man and Spider-Man 2. X-Men: First Class and X2: X-Men United are also fantastic, but a step deeper into mythology. And you might want to prepare for The Avengers by checking out the new DVDs of Thor and Captain America, and the underrated Incredible Hulk (the one with Edward Norton).
The source material can be found collected as graphic novels. Look for the works of Stan Lee, who co-created and wrote most of the Marvel heroes* (Stan has one-line cameos in the movies). Frank Miller was behind the most famous Batman story, 1986's seminal The Dark Knight Returns, but I'm partial to the '70s works of writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams.
But hold on -- there's so much more to comics than capes. Start with Sandman, Neil Gaiman's edgy and cerebral horror fantasy. Two fantastic superhero demythologizations are Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Mark Waid's Irredeemable. Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead spawned the TV show. And some goof named Hugh Sterbakov wrote a decent comedy miniseries called Freshmen.
Skip the movie and read the book: Watchmen. Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, masterpiece.
Animation, toys, videogames -- ohmygosh, books (read Ender's Game!) -- there's so much more. Start here, and we'll talk more soon.
*Yes, yes, I know.