Why did the ‘80s turn so many of us into nerds?

The ol’ mailbag isn’t short this week, but it only has a few letters. Why? Because someone accidentally asked me the question that has consumed me during my entire career as a professional nerd (...turned post-apocalyptic fake mailman). Why did an entire generation turn out so damn nerdy?


The Ultimate Question

Ken P.:

Why don't women in their mid-30s have vintage pretty ponies still in their original packaging? Why aren't there blog posts dedicated to how to/not to bring Rainbow Bright to the big screen? I realize, I'm not pointing a finger here without pointing three back towards myself, but are we a bunch of Man-Boys? Why are there no Woman-Girls? Is there a problem with being a Man-Boy?

This is the question that has been gnawing at me for years.

Putting aside the question of “Woman-Girls” for the moment, I have often wondered what was it about my generation that not only made us obsessed with cartoons and toys and comics and so forth, but kept us obsessed even after we became adults and were technically supposed to put away childish things. Most kids who grew up in the ‘70s enjoyed the same kind of stuff, but then dropped it — sure, there are a few Thundarr and Battle of the Planets and Sid & Marty Krofft fans out there, but not that many. And the kids that grew up in the ‘90s had pop culture juggernauts like Power Rangers and Pokémon — many of which they still have a nostalgia for — but they aren’t even close to as obsessed with their childhood favorites as ‘80s kids are. I think about Masters of the Universe every single day. As big and long-running as Power Rangers was and is, I sincerely doubt many of its fans are doing the same.

So what was it about the ‘80s? Was it the properties themselves? Were G.I. Joe and Transformers and He-Man and the rest special in someway that turned us into life-long fans? Was it the timing? Was it something about Reagan’s America? I don’t know, but there was something that made our generation nerdier than the ones before and after it, in a very significant way. There’sobviously something in that G.I. Joe and Transformers have been going on pretty much non-stop since the ‘80s, so they clearly did something right there. But looking back at the cartoons, it’s not like they were masterpieces that deserved such loyalty.

Whatever happened, this ongoing nerdiness has changed the world. It’s helped turned the San Diego Comic Con into not just the nerd event of the year but the pop culture event of the year, and it’s turned superhero movies into the biggest movie genre. Why did this happen? I don’t know, but I hope to figure it out one day.

As for the lack of “Women-Girls” as compared to “Man-Boys,” this is a theory that hopefully the nerdy women in the audience can answer, or at least add to, but I’ll cite two potential factors: 1) Girls’ entertainment of the ‘80s was crap. Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite, Care Bears — these shows were cartoons for pre-schoolers that simply used more pink, because that’s what adults in the entertainment idustry thought girls wanted. While we boys were getting epic battles and reasonably rich characters, Strawberry Shortcake was learning about friendship for the umpteenth time. How appealing could that be? 2) It wasn’t until well after the ‘80s that female nerdery was even close to being socially accepted. While society had given up on the boys of our generation as helpless nerds, girls weren’t supposed to be interested in any of that (again, not that they had much to be interested by).

But the ‘00s changed this. Fueled by the anime and manga craze, which appealed to women even more than men, suddenly, ladies had a socially acceptable thing to geek out on — and when I say socially acceptable, I mean both by non-nerd society and nerdy boys. With this start, women either discovered or were finally allowed to proclaim their love of comics, cartoons, TV shows, and the like. And of course it doesn’t hurt that by the beginning of the ‘00s, the entertainment industry had finally realized that women were actually a pretty big audience, and begin making entertainment that wasn’t actively unappealing to them.

It was kind of a snowball effect. Material came out that was actually female-friendly, and then people began to make more female-friendly material. Society became more accepting of male nerds — in that we didn’t all get beat up for our lunch money every day ­— and male nerds became more accepting of female nerds at the same time. And once comics and movies and TV shows stopped being boy-targeted and testosterone-filled and shitty, women were even more happy to join in. But there was nothing about the girls’ entertainment of the ‘80s that inspired or deserved devotion like the boys’ entertainment did.


Why did the ‘80s turn so many of us into nerds?

What’s in a Name?

Drillpress:

Dear Mr. Bricken,

What is the point of a character taking on an existing moniker in the superhero business? For example, there have been like fifty Robins in the Batman mythos, wouldn’t it have been just as effective if the new character had a new codename? The human taking on the title is different, complete with a new personality; why the lack of a name change? Or for that matter, why get rid of the original character? I understand that people can die in the story line, but if the original bearer of the name kicks it and a new person takes over, won’t that change the story anyway?

Also, do you feel that there is a comic universe that is more guilty of it than any other?

Let’s begin with in-universe reasons first, shall we? There are a few reasons why heroes take the names of older heroes, and probably the main one is to prevent others from realizing there’s ever been a change. Think of Batman and Robin; when Bruce Wayne “died,” Nightwing put on the cowl partially so that the general public (and Gotham criminals) would think Batman was still on the job, but also to keep people from noticing that Batman and Bruce Wayne stopped being seen at the same time. Same with Robin; A new Robin shows up every time Bruce Wayne gets a new ward, but most people don’t realize this — they just think it’s the same damn sidekick, and thus it helps preserve their secret identities.

Another major in-universe reason is to continue a legacy; I think many of DC’s Silver Age heroes were trying to honor their Golden Age counterparts by taking their old names, even though they were new characters with all-new powers.

But the biggest reason that superheroes take the same name is because of brand continuity. People have heard of Robin and The Flash and Green Lantern and so-forth, so it’s much easier to relaunch a comic of the same name rather than titling it something new. They’re not wrong. Hey, remember when Marvel relaunched Thor as Thunderstike? It was terrible for a lot of reasons, but suddenly renaming a comic that had been around 30+ years didn’t help.

As you might be able to tell from my examples, DC is infinitely more guilty of this than Marvel. Think of how many Green Lanterns and Flashes and there have been alone. Part of this is because DC actually had a Golden Age that Marvel didn’t, and part of this is because DC has titles while Marvel has characters. DC can call anyone Green Lantern, but the fact is there’s always going to be a Green Lantern comic no matter who’s wearing the ring; meanwhile, Marvel heroes may change their monikers occasionally, but the characters generally remain the same. Does that make sense?


Why did the ‘80s turn so many of us into nerds?

Marvel Entertainment

Brian L.:

I really like Mrs. Marvel/Captain Marvel. In fact I bought the new Captain Marvel the other day and its really good. Makes me want to punch terrorists with American flags in appreciation of women. But I got to wondering if a character who prides herself on the fact that she's an avenger more so than any other avenger will ever make it to the movies. So do you think Carol Danvers will ever make it to the silver screen? Also who do you think will get their own movie first, Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel?

Wait, you want to punch terrorists who are holding American flags, or you want to wrap American flags around your fists like they were boxing gloves and use those to punch terrorists? Because there’s quite a difference.

I do think Captain Marvel will make it into theaters, for all the reasons listed here. I had assumed she would be part of Marvel’s “cosmic”-oriented Phase 2 plans, but that doesn’t appear to be the case; however, by setting up the larger Marvel universe now, it should be easier to make a Captain Marvel movie at some point in Phase 3, sometime between 2015-2021.

But will WB/DC manage to make a Wonder Woman movie before that happens? They have up to eight full years to potentially beat Marvel, and regardless of her “difficulties,” Wonder Woman is one of DC’s top three characters. It should be a no-brainer, right? Except that DC/WB has managed to not make a Wonder Woman movie for the last decade, including the time they had a script by Joss Whedon. A Wonder Woman script. By Joss Whedon. That’s like winning the lottery and throwing away the ticket because you’re waiting to win a bigger lottery later.

So I’d be shocked if DC/WB managed to get its act together enough to make a WW movie before a Captain Marvel movie. I’d love to be wrong — frankly, we need both heroines on screen, stat — but that would require a level of competency DC/WB has given no evidence of.


Why did the ‘80s turn so many of us into nerds?

Bat-ter Up

Charlie McD.:

There has been a lot of hype about the Superman/Batman crossover movie (although feelings may vary depending on your opinion of Man of Steel), but Zach Snyder has stated he's going to talk to comic book writer Frank Miller about the film and there is even a possibility about him writing it.

Now the first time I heard this, the first thing I thought of that this is, by all means, a terrible idea. Just the mere thought alone that the present day Frank Miller has any involvement with the film. Granted, Miller does contribute to the film as an inspiration, (The Dark Knight Returns quote at Comic Con is proof enough), but his contribute with anything involving Batman in the past fifteen years has been pretty shitty (see The Dark Knight Strikes Back and All-Star Batman and Robin for further details) Not to mention his film work is equally unbearable (The Spirit).

So is Warner Bros. and DC Comics really that crazy to let Miller teaming up with Snyder, whether it'd be a writing credit or just given advice on how to make the film? I have to imagine there has to be at least a dozen other comic book writers who could handle this better.

And while we're on the subject, who do you think would make a good "older" Batman? A lot of people would probably want Clint Eastwood (and I would pay hardcore money just to see that alone), but I highly doubt that will happen.

First of all, everything about Batman/Superman sounds bad to me so far. The first time we get Batman and Superman in a movie together and we jump immediately to the end of The Dark Knight Returns where Batman and Supes fight to the death, a culmination of their entire decades-long relationship? That’s so dumb I can’t stand it. A Batman who’s much older than Superman for some god-forsaken reason? That makes zero sense to me. Batman and Superman are supposed to be equals, of a sort — changing that fundamental relationship is like suddenly deciding Sherlock Holmes is an alien. Why would you do that? What possible benefit does it serve?

As for Miller, yes, he’s crazy as hell. I’ve gone on-record as loving All-Star Batmnan and Robin — and I do, it’s so ridiculously entertaining — but it is still one of the worst Batman stories ever told. And The Spirit movie was horrible. There is nothing that qualifies Frank Miller to work on this movie in any capacity besides the fact he wrote some good Batman comics in the ‘80s, and that’s more than negated by his recent work. But DC/WB is run by idiots who think that if Frank Miller was once good, he must still be good, even though that makes no sense.

As for old Batman (ugh), Clint Eastwood is way too old. He looks a strong wind would break him in two. The Dark Knight Returns Batman is supposed to be 50 or 60, but still in damn good shape. I don’t think Bruce Willis is right for the role, but he’s 59, and he still looks like he could win a fight handily. That’s what Old Man Batman needs to project.

So that said, what about Sean Bean? He’s a strong 54; there’s no doubt that he could conceivably give Superman a tough time. The only problem, of course, is that he’d be legally required to die at the end of the movie.


Do you have questions about anything scifi, fantasy, superhero, or nerd-related? Email the postman@io9.com! No question too difficult, no question too dumb! Obviously!