For me growing up in the ’80s as a (black) fan of comics, video games and anime, it was rare to come across anyone who looked like me and had the same interests. The only model for the black nerd was Jaleel White’s character on Family Matters, which, you know, is kind of terrible.
He wears a pair of bulky glasses, speaks in a high-pitched voice, refuses to use contractions, and probably made out with his evil clone. Probably? Definitely. Seriously, forget Steve Urkel.
Which is why I think the current generation has it made. And with Black History Month drawing to a close, we’re going to focus our eye lasers on some of the creators, innovators, and otherwise excellent types who get us hyped about the universe, science fiction, gaming and pop culture as a whole.
10. Jean Grae: Rap Game Something Something
If Sin City had a hip hop soundtrack, New York native Jean Grae would be the one scoring it.
The 37-year-old (AKA Tsidi Ibrahim) might be familiar to some of your 2013’s Gotham Down cycle of singles and videos, a comics and noir-inspired concept piece which allowed the rapper to hold forth on love, life and death across the three-part EP. An NYU dropout, she’s been hustling to get her name out there for over 15 years before starting to get noticed toward the tail end of 2012 and throughout 2013.
And I’m just realizing Grae is what would happen if Gail found a way to walk off of the comic page, adopted the moniker of her favorite dead X-Man, picked up a mic and started spitting grim, fatalistic rhymes (without the fetish gear and weird Miller-ian libertarian nonsense).
9. Michal Jai White: He Played Spawn Once (But Don’t Hold That Against Him)
Seriously, the man did the best he could with what he was given.
And it all could have gone another way for White, the charismatic martial artist who spent the better part of the aughts watching the likes of Steven Seagal get top billing while his lone scene in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 didn’t even make the final theatrical cut (eh, it’s not great).
Then came Black Dynamite.
See, White is also a really, really funny guy and with director Scott Sanders, White helped make the second-best blacksloitation comedy since the Wayans Brothers attempted to hip ’90s America to the ills of OG’ing. You know how Vin Diesel is a notorious D&D nut? White is like that about kung fu flicks and ’70s exploitation movies (and points to White for not inflicting the Necroverse upon us).
The man mixed martial arts, funk guitar, killer Richard Nixon and Arsenio Hall(!) for one of the funnier movies of the last decade that also served as a love letter to the cheapie genre that spawned it. Black Dynamite came along as comics and pop culture were reconsidering the pulp of the ’70s (if you’d asked me ten years ago, White would have been my pic for a hypothetical Luke Cage feature). The film has spawned a pretty damned good animated series (featuring White’s voice) and a planned sequel set in the Old West.
Hell, just for getting Arsenio back into the public consciousness, White deserves a place on this list.
8. Pam Grier: Keeping it Foxy and Badass
It’s one thing to be expired by the heroes of the blaxsploitation era and it’s another entirely to be one – and that’s the indomitable Ms. Grier. Ms. Grier isn’t a nerd per se, but the Coffy and Foxy Brown star has become a pop-cultural muse, informing everything from what we think about badass black ladies in the ’70s to hip-hop identity, and if you really want to get the lowdown on how nuts her career was, you should definitely check out Machete Maidens Unleashed.
Oh wait, did I forget to mention she once threatened Superman?
Yeah, that’s right. Besides starring in Tarantino’s second best film (ask me another time which is his best), Grier brought us TV’s first live-action incarnation of “The Wall,” Suicide Squad boss Amanda Waller, arguably one of the most dangerous women in comics who made the leap to the small screen in Smallville back in 2010.
And that was just her second brush with the DCU, having voiced the Martian Manhunter’s wife in a pair of Justice League episodes for the Cartoon Network and WB.
Grier isn’t a nerd inspired by pop culture – she’s the pop culture that inspires nerds.
7. Janelle Mon?e: When Androids (in Love) Attack!
Because creepy accused sex offender R. Kelly shouldn’t have a monopoly of R&B concept albums, in comes a pompadoured lady android from a dystopian future with the purring voice of a diva superheroine.
Citing nothing less than Dorothy Gale as her inspiration, Mon?e crafts literate, emotional songs that also happen to be set in dystopian metropolises where feeling can get you messed up.
But instead of being twee, impenetrable, or worse – boring – Mon?e’s music makes you get up on your feet and dancing (while the cerebral types pore over her lyrics for reference points and some insight into the young singer’s brain space).
Plus, if you’ve never seen her perform live, imagine a mixture of death by laser, twin go-go dancers, escaped mental patients, and so much choreography in white. It’s what would happen if the offspring of Parliament Funkadelic tried going legit, gave up, went to drama school and found a bunch of swing records.
But if we’re talking crazy, pop culture-infused reinvention, then our next industry is your man.
6. The RZA: AKA Bobby Digital AKA the Rapper With the Geek Flow
A rap persona made of equal parts New York streets, a seemingly endless record collection and a stint in the temples of Shaolin (by way of Times Square), the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan has been going strong in the worlds of hip hop, film, comics, and animation for over two decades.
The secret to the RZA can be found in the producer, The Scientist, the man who samples, twists, manipulates, and shapes his influences into something sharp, something new, and often, something just this side of strange. I’m gonna go ahead and credit him with the existence of other martial arts/rap mashups like Samurai Champloo and Afro Samurai and just dare you to try and convince me otherwise.
But instead of a confused blender approach, RZA, like any mad scientist, knows how to tap into the virtues of his monstrous creations’ various pieces, how to give us something new with something old, and how to make us nod our heads (or at least lean forward) the first time he hits us with it. He makes house calls.
Sure, his first feature film effort was a bust, but The Man With the Iron Fists shows someone so deeply enmeshed in the alternate universe where kung fu and hip hop were born, that he had to put one of their movies on our screens.
If the RZA didn’t exist, then we would have had to invent him.
5. Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key: Deep Pop Culture Cuts in Brilliant Sketch Comedy
Fact: while prepping this post, I started laughing just thinking about the Key and Peele sketch “Continental Breakfast.” And that’s before I remembered the call-out to The Shining in the last scene.
The comedy duo, who just wrapped the third season of their Comedy Central sketch show, structure their comedy around carefully-observed bits of (pop) cultural behavior, and even their dumbest joke is smart (if that makes any sense).
Some of you might know them from their Obama and Luther sketches which give our notably reserved Commander-in-Chief a chance to vent, while others might know them from the pair of action movie-obsessed bellhops with a thing for “Liam Neesons.” Key and Peele hit on the not-so-subtleties in the ways we communicate, in the way we mess with each other and – specifically – navigating the black experience in modern America.
Given that the pair are both biracial, they offer uniquely-informed commentary about being a part of something while not belonging, “positive” prejudices and the intricacies of using the “b” word. You know the one. Don’t use it in front of your lady friends.
And yes, they’re great big nerds in a smart way (as opposed to a pandering way): consider the pair of zombie sketches – the first, a look at white flight from black survivors in the middle of an apocalypse and the other about the awkwardness of trying to get your director to see how you can get your zombie growl on. Or how vampires have become a little too sexy, or asking why people in musicals are down with singing over one another, all without a single awkwardly inserted “let’s make a joke that will be stale 10 minutes from now” sketch.
They’re like the anti-Friedberg and Seltzer, and for that alone, they’re my heroes of black nerddom.
4. Michael Pondsmith Rolls a Natural D20 for Awesome
Until last year, my knowledge of RPG luminaries began and ended with Gary Gygax. But that was before The Witcher developer CDProjekt Red announced they would be partnering with Michael Pondsmith to adapt his pen and paper RPG for current-gen consoles.
Over the last 30 years, the Seattle-based Pondsmith has been lending his graphic design skills to game companies but he’ll always be attached to Cyberpunk 2020, first published back in 1988.
Inspired by the likes of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, Pondsmith’s rain-drenched future is packed with trenchcoat wearing killers and badasses, augmenting and upgrading their way to fun and profit.
With novels, collectible card games, and the inevitable expansions, it’s a surprise that the current decade hasn’t seen an expansion of the game’s universe (the upcoming console and PC game will be set in the year 2077, though, taking the series further and further into the future).
3. Aisha Tyler: Don’t Tell Lana Kane She’s Not a Hardcore Gamer
Back in 2012, publisher Ubisoft hired comedienne, Archer actress and all-around funny woman Aisha Tyler to host an incredibly awkward E3 presentation which made the publisher (and pretty much everyone standing on stage) look out-of-touch.
Cue the angry video game nerds, always on the lookout for inauthenticity, who went after Tyler as one of the many perceived interlopers into their precious video game spaces. What does this actress know of games and gaming? Begone with her!
You know, except it’s the Internet, so it was grosser, more misogynistic and a little racist.
Tyler took to her Facebook page to address the haters, and Kotaku handily collected some of her best quotes.
It gets saucy:
I go to E3 each year because I love video games.
Because new titles still get me high.
Because I still love getting swag.
Love wearing my gamer pride on my sleeve.
People ask me what console I play.
Motherfucker, ALL of them.
I don’t give out my gamertag because I don’t want a mess of noob jackholes lining up
to assassinate me on XBL.
I don’t give a shit what you think about my gamerscore.
I don’t play to prove a point.
I don’t play to be the best.
I play because I love it.
And I love you, Aisha Tyler, for not letting the same, boring cultural gatekeeping stop you from being a great, beautiful, black gaming nerd.
2. Neil deGrasse Tyson Makes Space Cool Again
I’m going to throw this out here right now and I want you to check in with me in a couple of weeks: the new Cosmos is important. While I’m embargoed from giving any impressions about the first episode, I can say that a network throwing big dollars behind an hour-long series about science in kind of a bid deal, especially in an intellectual climate where a solid quarter of Americans believes the sun revolves around the Earth.
And it’s important that deGrasse Tyson is the public face of the series – an astrophysicist who doesn’t equivocate when it comes to the science of the universe, who doesn’t allow the “maybes” and “reasonable doubts” of our peculiar, homegrown anti-intellectualism to infect the conversation about the observable universe.
It’s perhaps inappropriate to use this word in the context of his career, but deGrasse Tyson has become a sort of evangelist for rigorous, informed-by-facts conversations about science, while calmly talking down the dogmatic types who would rather believe than think.
Hey, in an era where sci-fi has largely given way to science fantasy and science denial is in vogue for a certain type of gut-based thinker, deGrasse Tyson is the science hero we need, and better than we actually deserve.
1. Dwayne McDuffie Creates a DC Milestone, Controls the DC Animated U
He was a black comic creator who knew that he was always treading a line of alienating the predominantly white audience with “black” comics, and maybe that’s why Dwayne McDuffie is at the top of this list: he articulated so perfectly the struggle of trying to represent our people in pop culture while the established fandom said that fandom would always be kind of uncomfortable seeing anything beyond the same old same old.
But it was under his stewardship (in part) that for young fans of the animated DCU, John Stewart became the Green Lantern of record, he wrote a killer Fantastic Four, and he did his best with a comic incarnation of the Justice League that was getting increasingly diverse (even as DC’s weird editorial interference made the team’s membership a revolving door).
The Milestone Imprint, Damage Control, Ben 10, the list goes on. McDuffie didn’t just write and produce, the man created worlds.
And the amazing thing is that even as his fortunes in the comics industry seemed to be waning (he was fired from DC for airing the dirty laundry about how Justice League of America was made, and the inclusion of his Milestone characters in the DCU was handled… poorly), McDuffie’s profile in animation was only rising, as he became the increasingly prolific writer of DC’s direct-to-video animated features.
How many people do you know who discovered DC’s comics stuff thanks to their animated stuff? McDuffie is, in part, responsible for that – instrumental, even.
McDuffie gets the top spot among our heroes of black nerddom because the man honored the comics history that came before (across media) while still creating something new and exciting.
You have to love that.
Previously by Charles Webb