Once upon a time, in a galaxy not so far away, the hallowed institution of nerdom became mainstream. No longer are the niche predilections of geeks sequestered to the outskirts of pop culture; these die-hard fans have cultivated a recognized movement that can shift the cultural discourse. But for fans like New York Times critic-at-large and poet Maya Phillips (Erou), fandom is more than cosplay, heated debates on social media or narrow-minded stereotypes centered on social awkwardness. In her debut essay collection, Nerd: Adventures in Fandom From This Universe to the Multiverse, fandom is an expansive, transformative source of self-enlightenment.
Like many pop culture aficionados, Phillips’ first brush with fandom involved the original Star Wars trilogy. This early appreciation of George Lucas’ classic space opera opened the door to a lifelong love of other nerdy interests, such as comic books, anime, sci-fi and fantasy. However, the stories she cherished in childhood took on different forms as she grew older. In the chapter “Espers and Anxiety, Mutants, Magic, and Mind Games,” Phillips shows how the anime series Paranoia Agent reveals the nature of power and society’s treatment of mental illness, and how it has led Phillips to better understand herself and her mental health. Similarly, “Do You Know Shinigami Love Apples?” explores Phillips’ relationship to Catholicism and fandom’s hierarchy of belief systems.
As a Black woman, Phillips recognizes that some of her most beloved shows, films and books lack well-rounded representation in terms of race, gender, ability and sexual orientation. In recent years, creators like J.K. Rowling have faced backlash for betraying the seemingly progressive values of their art. Is it possible to divorce an artist from their work? For many people, the answer is emphatically no, but Phillips rejects binary thinking. This isn’t to say that she endorses the more problematic aspects of these creators and their fictional narratives. But as a fan and a professional critic, Phillips sees the value in pop culture’s ability to speak deeper truths, however uncomfortable, about society. Navigating pop culture as a Black fan can be a frustrating exercise in otherness, she writes, but fandom can also be a conscious act of reclamation.
Nerd spans decades of pop culture, smoothly weaving multiple interconnected webs. Phillips indulges in her obsessions, but she’s never afraid to critique and deconstruct. In this engaging compendium of cultural criticism, Phillips successfully proves that the complex discipline of fandom is a valuable piece of humanity’s flawed but hopeful history.