Biff! Pow! Analyze! Maya Phillips takes ‘Nerd’ culture seriously | Entertainment

The cover of Maya Phillips’ new book “Nerd” is like a game of “Guess the Font” for pop culture lovers, cribbing the typeface of everything from “Star Wars” to “Superman” to “Harry Potter.”

That’s by design. Like its cover, the seven essays in “Nerd” (subtitled: “Adventures in Fandom From This Universe to the Multiverse”) go broad and deep on nerd culture and its effect on society.

In the opening essay, for example, Phillips moves from “Batman” to “Spider-Man” to “Watchmen” to explore larger themes about the building up and tearing down of superhero mythologies, all examined against the backdrop of her own experience growing up as a New York nerd.

While Phillips is primarily a theater critic for the New York Times, she said she revels in uncovering the threads that connect different works of art and genres.

“When you start processing many types of art in different media, you start to see those connections naturally,” Phillips said. “I think a lot of people are branching out more in terms of criticism in terms of their beats. When you have these conversations online, or even interpersonally, everything intersects. When you find themes in one genre, they’re going to show up in another genre. So you might as well hop around a little bit.”

“Nerd” will be published on Tuesday and Phillips will be at the Wisconsin Book Festival on Friday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m., to read from and talk about her book.

Phillips said that when she pitched the book, a couple of publishers asked why she just didn’t write essays that focused on one pop culture property, such as Marvel or “Star Wars.” Instead, the seven pieces of cultural criticism in “Nerd” pull together disparate sources to discuss larger themes, such as sexuality and identity in anime and manga comics, or how Black tropes are employed in superhero stories like “Luke Cage” and “Black Panther.”

If you’re a pop culture nerd, every essay likely will tie something you’re intimately familiar with with something you’re less familiar with. The throughline underneath it all is Phillips’ own story, beginning when she was a girl devouring pop culture.

“I wanted to make it a hybrid work that also incorporated me as a fan and my personal experiences with this,” she said. “(And I wanted to) make sure that it touched various areas of pop culture, so that people aren’t into Marvel, or into “Star Wars,” or into anime, they have some kind of doorway somewhere in every chapter.”


Can you name all the pop culture characters referenced by the different fonts on the cover of Maya Phillips’ “Nerd”?

Phillips said she wrote the book in part to erase the arbitrary divide between “high” and “low” art, and show that pop culture is also worthy of attention and scrutiny. She also wanted to push back at the false divide, held by some of the more toxic circles of fandom, that critics and fans are on opposite sides.

“It’s as though if you critique something, you can’t love it, that you’re not respecting it on some level,” Phillips said. “But on some level, it’s actually the opposite. If I am analyzing this critically, that means I’m taking the time and care to think about the work and everything that went into it. If I take it apart, that doesn’t mean I dislike it. I can still engage with it as a fan.”

Phillips also wanted to push back against the knock against nerds that they are isolated and socially awkward. In fact, she said fan communities like those at New York Comic Con (where she was headed last week) are often supportive and inclusive.

“Fandom is a way that people connect with other people,” she said. “That’s an experience I love because you’re in this atmosphere where everyone has the same enthusiasm and has different questions to ask of this art that you may have grown up watching or reading, no matter your background.”


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