I have no idea about “geek culture,” unless it’s something to do with decapitating poultry. In old-time traveling carnivals, the geek would chase live chickens around a patch of dirt, bite them off at the neck and swallow, leaving a bloody grin full of feathers and bird guts streaming down his chin.
Think about that for a second. Some tall, half-feral weirdo standing there with a gleam in his eye and proudly waving an esophagus. He’s mad, but he’s happy. It’s some trick doing that. Sometimes your obsessions can seem like the end of the world.
My Favorite Things
I was a pain in the ass as a kid: I’d fidget on the carpet, leap up at odd times, get “leave the room/take pants off/use the toilet” in the wrong order. The teachers decided I was trouble; my mother, God bless her, demanded some proof.
“He’s either smart or deficient,” the Testing Man said. “Either way, I’ve got no idea what you should do, except keep him away from sugar. Seems happy enough, though.”
I was happy that day because I’d had my Batman figurine roped to my left leg for 72 straight hours. Even at the age of 5 I wouldn’t, just wouldn’t, let go of things.
I remember Asterix and the Normans. Then Mighty Mouse. Then Jabba the Hutt, though I hadn’t actually seen Return of the Jedi, only the posters. From the ages of 4 through 10 I went through obsessions like a chainsaw, including Stegosauruses (of course), The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, Return of the Jedi again (after I’d actually seen it), Kevin Bales’ PC Castle Adventure, carrier battles of World War Two and the Moon. Each new phase would last between a week and three months, and they were all-consuming. Here, every time, was the Most Fascinating Thing in the World.
I’d been wondering recently where that feeling went.
And then I saw the little boy in the Princess Leia outfit. He was smiling a tooth-fairy grin. He was looking at a $1,000 handmade raygun. The crowd of 5,000 people was nothing but background because here, right here, he’d found nirvana.
Wellington’s a town of weird obsessions; this is the place, after all, that brought you Richard Taylor and Peter Jackson. Also the politics, which suits some people just fine. Once a year, in a huge shed down by the docks, the Armageddon Pop Culture Expo rips the face off it all.
You may not have been to Armageddon, but you’ve visited the same battlefield: This is where the cosplay people roam. Anime, pro wrestling, laser tag, trading cards, figurines, collectibles, every half hour a new celebrity guest with tales straight from the set of Stargate. Vast Microsoft and Sony booths, Xbox 360 vs. the PS3, mini-skirted sales reps throwing rocks at each other’s banners when they can get away with it. Endless lines of comic book boxes that you can hunt through for early Avengers issues or an original Big Numbers. The Weta Workshop boys have the rayguns, plus a life-sized Halo Warthog on hand. Pizza, ice cream and mania are everywhere.
It’s small by overseas standards – this isn’t ComicCon – and there’s an extra emphasis on kids. Downstairs they go batshit for the laser tag and wrestling; upstairs there are long avenues of Magic: The Gathering tables. One of Armageddon’s biggest moments sees two dozen sugar-fed little buggers onstage for the Dragon Ball Z Kamehameha contest. What better way to spend a Sunday than shooting a giant imaginary fireball out of your arms and screaming like a Japanese cartoon?
Unless it’s being the mad Santa Claus that delivers the whole geeky apocalypse.
Bill Gerhardts used to work a retail job. He’s a comics nut who wanted to meet some of his favorite artists and writers, so in the best Kiwi tradition he invented a show and invited them. Armageddon began twelve years ago as a sideshow on the third floor of the Avondale Racecourse stand. It worked, and it grew. Bill, whom the Testing Man would have said is mad as a hat full of mercury, now runs the yearly Armageddon expos full time (in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Melbourne), wandering the floors with a microphone and several thousand watts of volume.
Obsessions can take you far if you let them.
In 1997, as Bill Gerhardts was into Armageddon III at the Freeman’s Bay Community Centre, I turned 18. The Chicago Bulls made their fifth NBA title run. I came out of high school and ran into a brick wall at college, got no sleep for six months and watched someone close to me get very, very sick.
1997 was not a sack full of fun. 1997 was when the gloves came off.
The joys of dinosaurs and wizards had been long gone, anyway – my late high school years were focused on bra mechanics and whiskey. But now, for the first time, I saw another side of obsession: a land of strange corners and blind alleys and that odd vertigo that comes from not quite knowing where or who you are.
Real obsessions are those things that enter your head and won’t dislodge. Dark relationships and behavior patterns. An obsession with trivia, grimly grabbing hold of the tiniest things like grappling hooks. Anxieties that were never there for Castle Adventure or carrier battles. Brain chemicals flooding the sluice gates.
It was a rough few years. But I weathered the storm and backed off from fixation. The intensity faded, I got through college and even found gainful employment. Obsessions, when they surfaced, became smaller things, more controllable and less blinding. I got hooked on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I ordered a canceled U.S. Sci-Fi series off Amazon.
Things moved on while I changed cities and jobs, until, through an old connection and odd coincidence, I found myself helping to run Armageddon.
Armageddon: The Return
When I was 10 (I think that year was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Aaron from Up The Road would come over to my place and we’d play basketball. He’d kick my ass at Nintendo. We’d both throw feijoa fruits at passing cars.
Aaron and school didn’t mix; he sidestepped college and went to work. By the time I found Buffy the Vampire Slayer he was making good money in a job that would have been steady, comfortable and dull as all hell for the next 30 years.
“Fuck that,” he thought to himself. So he sidestepped again, breathed deep, and made a three-quarter half-turn dive into the obsession trade.
For Aaron it was videogames: marketing studies in Wellington by day, building a gaming website nights and weekends. I came down and lived with him. He worked like a demon, on the edge, a frantic mix of drive and blind terror. He’d hog my laptop for days on end. Leave the house at all hours for phone calls, meetings, promises, hustle.
I watched from the sidelines. It was impressive and terrifying, but I didn’t want to make the dive back in. I put on a shirt and tie and went to do the Other Thing 37.5 hours per week.
Armageddon came up. Bill Gerhardts didn’t know videogames and didn’t want to, but knew they were the thing for his show. Aaron grabbed it with both hands and flew us up to Auckland, where we invaded Bill’s house. Bill has every comic, collectible, figurine and trading card known to man. Aaron charged into the cave and sold Bill on the spot.
“Of course we can run the gaming section. Leave it to us.”
It was as messy as these things always are. Make sure the big-screen TVs arrive on time. Cajole, massage and berate the sales reps. Floor plan after floor plan, power worries, backup bulbs for TV projectors, extension cords.
It all came together, and it worked. Aaron didn’t pause; he was flying like a space rocket.
Along the way we saw behind the scenes of the other obsessives – the comic book sellers, smalltime sci-fi operations, the independent comics crowd. A man who makes swords for a living and another who makes chainmail. Christian Gossett, owner/creator of The Red Star, there at every Armageddon with his team. The Weta guys surfing their own enormous wave – every single one of them can talk monster movies till dawn.
Meanwhile, the “poor bastard” actors whose only crime was a bit part in Star Wars or half a season of Enterprise get hauled around in chains. Galaxy Quest is not a work of fiction. These people are faced, very clearly, with a choice: Either jump into the ocean of fan adulation and swim, or be miserable and hunted for the rest of their natural lives.
It’s an interesting predicament for the actors – after all, this isn’t what they signed up for. All the others believe. They went through the gateways of obsession, came out the other side and made something of it.
What does the alternative look like? Is it putting on a suit and tie and going to work every day? Surfing the medium wave of possibility and sanity? Or just settling for being slightly happy and slightly miserable, earning a living and finding a daily rhythm?
Ask Kenny Baker sometime how he feels about Artoo.
At the end of the 2005 show I went back to work and Aaron kept going. He’s got his own small South Seas media empire now, and it’s growing.
Armageddon for me this year was a spectator event, about two hours of mild wandering. I watched some independent wrestling, supported a local publisher, planned how to hijack the Halo Warthog and get it back to my house. Unless the mounted chain gun really works, it’s not going to happen.
But I’m going to happen.
It’s taken a long while for me to be ready to dive again. It’s a confidence thing, mainly; that and the slow coming of a new period where I can see something emerging, a new way between childhood wonder and blind dark alleys.
Either we find our real joys and live them, or we shelter safe and dry and never live.
It’s not Armageddon or gaming – those are Bill and Aaron’s joys. But the suit and tie are gone. There are new things to do. It’s scary as anything. But I can finally remember what it was like to look up at a Stegosaurus and know that wonderful mad terror of the most fascinating thing in the world.
Tall, half-feral weirdo reporting for duty. Who’s got the esophagus?
Colin Rowsell will now take your call. Tell him your obsessions on email@example.com.