These days, everyone wants to be a geek—or at least watch one on television. The ratings supremacy of The Big Bang Theory and the centrality of San Diego Comic-Con to the pop-culture calendar have put the kids who couldn’t get picked for baseball at the center of the field (did I say that right?), but in this form of celebrity to be special is still to be strange. It may “get better” after you’re clear of high-school bullies, but it doesn’t get any easier to be a geek as you make your way up-mainstream through life—and acclaimed indie playwright Crystal Skillman explores this in GEEK!, the new play from art-pulp troupe Vampire Cowboys.
We’re at a Cleveland, Ohio anime con where two cosplay addicts are fighting their way through rival fanbases to get to the autograph line for their fav franchise creator, while processing a darker event from the real world they have to return to. The show runs in New York City through April 13th, and I posed five questions to Skillman to cross the ominously swaying bridge over a mist-shrouded ravine, I mean, to get to the bottom of the interests and issues in GEEK!
How much did you know about the world of cosplay before you took on this theme, and how much did you immerse yourself in while you were developing it?
This was the most fun play to “research” because rather than having to pursue, those who cosplay found me. Cosplayers love to pose and very often wear their hearts on their sleeves; when at a comic con everyone is connecting. So just being at so many conventions over the years with Fred [Skillman’s husband, cult-star comic writer Fred Van Lente] I was meeting tons of people, and seeing how his own fans respect and come to meet him.
As I roamed each convention I would often stumble upon cosplayers playing different games; a lot of them story games. The joy from sharing and being a part of this with one another was so inspiring, especially as most are so young; it’s a time in their lives where this is something that can be there for them, and that is a great hope to me. The real world is a harsh and scary place, and they had a place to feel like home with others who have the same love of a certain story that can change your life.
Does it actually help to be an outsider to this world to connect with its sensibility? Or are we all outsiders to each other, and subcultures like this just put that on the outside and help us accept our inner misfit?
In most of the plays I write I’m an insider with an outsider eye if that makes any sense. I find my personal take in obsessions that I feel ask big questions relevant to the world right now. Taking on reality-TV writers in CUT allowed me to dissect reality and friendship and explore my concerns with those themes. Diving into the adultery in Wild allowed me to expose the more complex ideas of love I came to learn growing up. GEEK!, while funny as hell, asked the most of me in many ways.
I got through life by having a wild imagination and, well, some anger. While I don’t cosplay, I felt a connection to those playing, wanting to act out stories or just feel like a strong character—put that out there in the world. Writing GEEK! allowed me to explore the power of story and how we can wear it like armor to face our lives. We are ALL inner misfits; it depends on how honest we are with ourselves and others about that. Stories can, and have, changed the world and shaped it, and help us realize we are all connected no matter how different we are.
Which comes first, the acolyte or the deity? Have people attached to the eternal innocents of anime because that’s what the market offered, or did these characters take shape, like the gods we need, out of young people’s desires (in this case, the need for uncomplicated ideals of gentle power in an era that rushes people through childhood with all-too-real violence, aggressive commercialism, sexualized image-standards, etc.)?
The need always comes first. I think there is a deep sense of history and the past that creates immediate needs. Anime and manga came out of a culture that was changing radically—a country no longer able to believe what it was told, or trust in the same way again. Anime took the myths always there and brought them forward in new ways. Every new generation is doing that—and looking to let go of who they were and move forward. To do that, one needs belief and hope.
As far as entertainment drawing from the exposed concerns of modern living, oh yes, it has to. But the violence and sexuality was always there in each culture. It just comes out now in new ways. I don’t think, though, that manga or anime has gentle power. I think it’s intense. While some might retreat from violence by seeking out gentle lands (perhaps using religion to find a calmer, simpler way to live) many want to fantasize “What would I do if I could?” I could list off a thousand moments in my life that I’d love to have the power to change.
The characters of GEEK! have a personal trauma that they are either fleeing by going off to this fantasy setting, or confronting by getting on with their lives and dreams—are cartoons and games and comics and serial novels an escape from what we have to face, or the healthy processing of it? (A question that seems trite to ask, but an accusation that comes up with every generation’s form of entertainment…)
There are so many times I wished I stepped up and stood up for myself or others. In the story of GEEK!, the bad way these girls were treated was a result of standing up for themselves in real life. Both Danya and Honey, the main characters in the play, at first dive back into playing, wanting to overcome these dangers in that way. Through the new people they meet at the con they have an opportunity to make other choices...if they can listen. Then they can change. We get excited when we learn that the creators of the shows, comics or games we admire had obstacles they’ve had to face to become who they are.
That’s the point of this play to me. It explores how we can escape through the stories we love and come out the other side with a real examination of how we live our lives. Maybe not every time, but it can get you closer to where you want to go—if you don’t lose yourself in story to the point where you stop questioning yourself and your own choices.
The kids in GEEK! are obsessed with a franchise that’s loosely based on Dante’s Inferno, and they’ve based their lives not so loosely on the characters from the franchise. What are the elements of a classic work like that that stay relevant, and how long is the relevance of modern entertainment—and what’s the distance between what any such works can tell us and what we have to figure out for ourselves?
What I so dig about Dante’s Inferno is that it’s an epic story where Dante’s crisis couldn’t be clearer. He is at odds with himself, his own life, its meaning and has he lived it well or in sin? Is God an answer for this? The whole journey feels like each sinner offers answers but not really—each character questions where they are and how they got there. Through these other characters Dante is purging his own grief and disappointment in his life and the world. Growing up was so this for me. I got through it with a great dose of imagination and well...through other people. Observing them, being inspired by them, and also noting where they found happiness and why or where they lost that sense of happiness.
I poured in these feelings from both my own life and the great structure-idea of the pursuit of getting from level to level in the struggle Dante has. For Danya, as driven as she is, her sense of hope is deeply in question at the start of this play. She is living moment to moment and throws herself into this goal of meeting the creator of a world that formed her childhood. But she and Honey are growing up along the way—the only true answers lie in the self. The true moment of adulthood comes from making choices not because we don’t want to be like someone (i.e., “not becoming your parents”) but because we know who we are and who we want to be.
One of the most interesting characters, for the mystique that the play revolves around, is the one we only know by reference—Joto Samagashi, the sage-like manga author the superfans are trying to meet. Not to give away too much of what we do see in the play, but to explore a bit of what we definitely don’t—Did she start as an outcast like them? Do you have to be different to create what no one has ever seen? Did she need acceptance by millions of kids like this, or is the true nature of leveling up that you realize everyone’s part of the same community?
Joto I think is so strong that while she is aware of her fame, she doesn’t need it to create or to be who she is. I’m always looking for ways to write proactive super-awesome female characters. When diving more into mangas, I became really excited about shojo manga. The idea of Joto first came after reading about the Magnificent 24s. They rocked shojos and really made a splash as woman creators doing comics which cared about their readership of girls and young women. The characters are very empowered.
In my plays I love addressing the modern world and its ongoing struggle with the issues of diversity. While subtle, it’s there in GEEK!, as Danya, who is questioning her own identify, is Asian-American. She refers to her mother wanting to visit this little village in Japan and Danya fantasizes about going there herself. It can be read in any which way but it asks the question of her own obsession with this anime. It for sure explores the idea that she has a need for community, and knowing where she’s come from. Joto represents that to her.
I based a lot of Joto’s backstory on the idea of Osamu Tezuka drawing from an early age. Tezuka was made fun of a lot at his elementary school. His mother encouraged him to ignore the bullying and keep going with his stories. When he shared those drawings and stories, he began to find meaningful friendships. This is very inspiring to me as it’s my own philosophy. Work hard and put it out there to create a new conversation. By being clear who you are the world must embrace you.
The girls in GEEK! know that Joto came up with Dante’s Fire, her manga, at the age of ten. These girls feel nothing but misunderstood, and so do all the “Geek!”s at the con, so there is a fever for this story and pretending to be in it. I hope GEEK! inspires. And most of all I hope it makes you laugh like hell. It’s a ride of crazy nutty fun with the deeper and darker always looming underneath.
Poster by Kurt Tiede; photos by Robert Ross Parker. Danya (purple hair): Allison Buck; Honey (pink hair): Becky Byers; Ellen (red hair): Emily Williams; steampunk diva: Rebecca Comtois; steampunk cowboy and Scottish barbarian: Sheldon Best; goggle and hair-bow dude: Eugene Oh; and “Squeaker” as itself.
Adam McGovern’s dad taught comics to college classes and served as a project manager in the U.S. government’s UFO-investigating operation in the 1950s; the rest is made up. There is material proof, however, that Adam has written comicbooks for Image (The Next issue Project), Trip City.com, the acclaimed indie broadsheet POOD, and GG Studios, blogs regularly for HiLoBrow.com and ComicCritique and posts at his own risk on the recently launched Fanchild. He lectures on pop culture in forums like The NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium and interviewed time-traveling author Glen Gold at the back of his novel Sunnyside (and at this link). Adam proofreads graphic novels for First Second, has official dabblings in produced plays, recorded songs and published poetry, and is available for commitment ceremonies and intergalactic resistance movements. His future self will be back to correct egregious typos and word substitutions in this bio any minute now. And then he’ll kill Hitler, he promises.