How far will all of this go? Outsiders (or 'civilians', as they're known in fandom circles) don't understand the various factions in the rapidly-expanding world of fandom. Many journalists are still locked into a 50s paradigm, where all of this fantasy is consumed by your classic nerd (i.e., male, pale, sweaty, awkward, antisocial). But the flower children began changing the face of fandom in the late 60s and early 70s. This shift was inspired by quantum leaps in pop culture quality: Marvel Comics, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Star Trek, to name a few, as well as a revival of interest in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and the pulp fantasies of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.

This mix of hippie and nerd gave rise to a new breed of mutant, the geek. Geeks are just as obsessive as nerds but tend to be happier and much more socially oriented than their angrier, more marginalized cousins. In 1977 Star Wars took a whole host of geek culture memes (as well as any number of themes and ideas borrowed from ancient myth) and made them all shiny and new. In doing so, Star Wars revolutionized the Hollywood blockbuster, and a parade of imitators completely revolutionized children's entertainment.

But it wasn't until the post-9/11 period that fandom really began to go mainstream. New gods like Harry Potter and the explosion of Japanese comics and cartoons made the Geek Nation a lot younger and a lot more female, and the runaway success of the Twilight series has upped the estrogen ante to a point that some male fans feel they are being squeezed out of the shared spaces of fandom (particularly the San Diego Comic-Con) altogether.

But experience-oriented spaces like Dragon*Con offer us a churning, vibrant and volatile culture of new gods. The conventions offer up boatloads of merchandise such as T-shirts, dolls, DVDs and books, paralleling the ancient trade in amulets, figurines, and other sacred tchotchkes. The biggest change is that the new secular gods are aspirational rather than inspirational. You take their place for a while, whether in your imagination or in a role-playing or gaming environment.

I first attended Dragon*Con in 2007, and I have to say that all of my years deep in the heart of geekdom never prepared me for the sheer otherworldliness of the experience. The Altanta Downtown Marriott (where we stayed) already looks like something out of Star Wars anyway, and to see it invaded by an endless parade of cosplayers -- many in costumes that put Hollywood to shame -- instilled a pleasantly powerful feeling of dislocation. We felt like we actually were on another planet and were actually meeting all of these gods and aliens we'd only heard about before. I realized that first night that Dragon*Con was nothing less than a pilgrimage, a new Eleusis.

That's exactly why it and similarly immersive gatherings continue to grow at a time when it seems as if everything is shrinking. Now that technology has caught the imagination, those lonely kid fantasies are accessible to everyone.

James Cameron's Avatar feels like something definitive in this context; it offers up pure, unadulterated geek fantasy, taking bits and pieces from all the great sci-fi and superhero narratives. But Avatar also completely immerses the viewer in the fantasy, giving everyone an access point to insert themselves into that alien world. Jake Sully is a Superman in reverse, an earthling who travels to an alien world to achieve his godhood. Jake's disabilities make him much easier to identify with -- like the ancient gods of the Mysteries, he suffers as we do. I have a feeling that's the kind of god we will be needing more and more of in the days to come.

 

Christopher Knowles is the author of the Eagle Award-winning Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes and the critically-acclaimed Clash City Showdown: The Music, The Meaning and The Legacy of The Clash. He's also co-author of The Complete X-Files: Behind the Series, the Myths, and the Movies, the authorized companion to the long-running TV series. His upcoming book The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll explores the ancient roots of pop music and will be published in October.
 
Christopher was a longtime associate editor and contributing writer for the five-time Eisner Award-winning magazine Comic Book Artist and contributing writer for the UK-based monthly Classic Rock. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and family.