PORTLAND, Ore. — The bar top is a montage of laminated comic book covers whose inside pages paper the walls, except where they’re crowded with murals of bigger-than-life-size superheroes. There are action figures everywhere, lined up like the legions of the living at the Battle of Winterfell.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” is playing just above the bar, but a customer and the bartender are deep in enthusiastic conversation about another Chris Pratt science fiction movie, “Passengers,” co-starring Jennifer Lawrence, and the genius of the scene in which “the gravity malfunctions and she’s in the pool and can’t get out.”
It’s a typical evening at The Nerd Out, whose logo is two eyes staring out from behind a pair of thick-framed glasses and whose only rule is that patrons aren’t allowed to talk about politics or sports — except pod-racing or Quidditch, of course, or the state of the Galactic Senate.
Owner Mitch Gillam said he hid his nerdiness in high school “because I wanted to meet girls.” Today, however, generations of youthful nerds have grown up, gotten jobs and disposable income, and taken their love for science fiction and fantasy so mainstream that Comic Con conventions attract tens of thousands of enthusiasts, movies based on comics gross more than a billion dollars in a weekend, and a “Star Trek” cruise that sails next March was sold out a year in advance.
There’s also a Comic Con cruise, called Fan2Sea, whose guests have included the actor who plays Dustin on “Stranger Things,” along with top comic book writers and artists. A Comic Con museum is planned for San Diego, though nerds can already immerse themselves in sci-fi, fantasy, and gaming at the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle; an eastern offshoot is scheduled to open in 2022 in New York. And Disney’s new “Star Wars”-inspired Galaxy’s Edge land will soon be dueling with Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
“There’s always going to be us diehard nerds who are going to be nerds forever,” said Gillam, who opened this bar last year and whose tattoos include the imperial crest and a depiction of a rathtar, the cephalopod that almost ate Harrison Ford at the beginning of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
That is making nerd tourism into a very, very big market.
If there’s a poster city for this shift, it’s Portland. It has its own “Geek Atlas” listing comic book and game stores and bars and restaurants that feature e-sports, ping-pong, video arcades, and board games, not to mention “Dungeons & Dragons”-themed pop-ups hosted by a star chef. It’s also home to the board game designer Weird City Games and Dark Horse Comics and other companies that have drawn a large community of comic writers, artists, and inkers
“Portland has for a long time been allowed to let its nerd flag fly,” said Gillam. “It’s like Comic-Con here every day.”
Now nerd tourism is spreading.
“People are happy to show off their geekdom who in the past have been a little shy about that,” said Teras Cassidy, founder of Geek Nation Tours. “Think of how many ‘Game of Thrones’ T-shirts you see walking down the street. They have the money and they’re saying, ‘You know what? I want to play ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ again.”
Not only play it — play it in the house of the man credited with creating it, Gary Gygax, in Lake Geneva, Wis., one of Geek Nation’s most popular destinations. It has also run or plans anime and video-gaming trips to Japan, tours of “Star Trek” locations in California and Nevada, and trips to TV and film sites associated with “The Walking Dead” in Georgia, “Lord of the Rings” in New Zealand,” and “Dr. Who” in Scotland and elsewhere.
“Travel in general has become more experiential and people want to have an experience,” said Cassidy, who goes by the title of head geek. “We want to create experiences for them.”
The growing popularity of these particular kinds of experiences is largely about demographics, said Tim Riley, a member of the faculty at Emerson College who follows popular culture.
“It used to be that grownup culture looked down at kid culture,” Riley said. “Now the kids have grown up and have completely different ideas about what it means to be a grownup.”
Another reason for this: The worlds of fantasy and science fiction can provide a welcome break these days from the real world, said Merrick Monroe, manager of Bridge City Comics in Portland, which stocks everything from Betty & Veronica to Tank Girl.
“That’s a lot of what’s been happening in the last few years: definitely a lot of escapism,” Monroe said as she rang up half a dozen comics for a customer.
Another place that sells this is the “Tron”-like arcade Ground Kontrol, with 100 classic video games and more than 40 pinball machines, a full-service bar, and DJs and comedy shows; just look for the neon Pac-Man logo in the window, just across the river in Old Town. Then there’s Orcs! Orcs! Orcs!, a monthly pop-up dinner-and-“Dungeons & Dragons” night put together by chef Anthony Cafiero (Tabla Mediterranean Bistro) and Game Knight Lounge, a restaurant and bar that features board games.
“I really see this taking off, and not only in Portland,” said Christian Wight, co-owner of Game Knight. “We might have been a little ahead of the curve, but it’s starting to catch on everywhere.”
Josh Blaylock has watched that evolution up close as a comic writer and artist and the founder of Devil’s Due Comics. First came movies based on comics, he said. Then social media allowed once-solitary fantasy lovers to connect. Those conventions followed, growing from tiny fan gatherings to massive happenings, with more than 150,000 people each attending the San Diego and New York Comic Cons alone.
“There’s so many conventions now you could be at one every weekend and you still couldn’t do them all,” said Blaylock, who got a camper van to keep up. Many of the people who attend are “sort of a group of weird nomads who see each other every year at these conventions. It becomes a lifestyle.”
The travel industry has taken notice. Pittsburgh, for example, wants to capitalize on the zombie craze, since the classic original “Night of the Living Dead” was filmed there; there’s a zombie 5K and pop-up zombie bars, and the Monroeville Mall — where parts of “Dawn of the Dead” were filmed — has put up a bust of the director, George Romero, and embraces the many pilgrims who flock there, lurching or otherwise, by selling zombie souvenirs.
“We want to make Pittsburgh the Salem of Pennsylvania,” said Carrie Lepore, deputy secretary for marketing, tourism, and film in the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development.
Cassidy gets everyone from doctors to construction workers on his tours, he said — though when he started, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“The traditional geek is the person who stays in their mom’s basement, right? So I’m thinking, am I going to have a tour full of people who are antisocial?”
In fact, “it’s the opposite,” he found. “These things are expensive, so you have people who are professionally successful and that means they also tend to be socially successful.” Conversations will erupt about which incarnation of “Star Trek” was the best, he said. “Instant friendships are formed.”
That happens at The Nerd Out, too, in Portland’s Sunnyside neighborhood. Customers can browse through comics under light fixtures fashioned from imperial trooper helmets while they wait for drinks with which to drown their sorrow together about the end of “The Big Bang Theory,” including the Adam West (an old-fashioned bourbon drink with a groovy twist) or the Toxic Avenger (Midori, rye whiskey, and citrus, shaken violently).
“Strangers will sit at the bar and end up talking about the Hellboy action figure or, ‘That’s Skeletor,’ and it will start a conversation,” Gillam said.
He’s setting up on this Wednesday for a talk by Darren Davis, head of Portland-based TidalWave Productions, which publishes comic books and graphic novels; Saturdays are cosplay nights, when customers are encouraged to wear costumes. (“Captain America and Hulk are going to be here,” Gillam said.)
The business is very specific about who is allowed in, according to a notice that gently parodies the “everyone-is-welcome-here” door signs ubiquitous in politically correct Portlandia. Jedi, Sith, Zylons, Mutants, Hobbits, wizards, Wookies, and Morlocks are served — but no ‘droids.
“We need an escape,” said Gillam. And occasional reassurance. In the world of comics, science fiction films, and fantasy, he said, “the good guys always win. Lex Luthor might get a leg up for a minute, but Superman is always going to take him down.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.