It started with the movies. I used to go with my parents to every damn show possible. Alien? “Isn’t 4 too young, Donald?” my mom would say. “He’s 4! What can he possibly remember from it? He’ll be fine” I imagine he retorted. I was not fine. I ended up being afraid of the dark the rest of my childhood. You just never knew if that pesky xenomorph was hiding in the ceiling ready to punch your face out with its tongue. However, with the fear came wondrous amazement, joy, and imagination. Even at that age I imagined myself the hero. That was 1979. I’d already been indoctrinated by Star Wars and I thought I was like every kid in those days; full of spirit, giggles, imagination, and joy.
Then we moved to Texas from the East Coast and I met my best friend for life, who introduced me to video games! 1983. I had an Atari 2600, then he had a Nintendo, and it escalated from there. Dungeons and Dragons, Doctor Who (we’re talking Tom Baker Doctor Who now), radio serials, Star Trek, GI Joe, Transformers. I was hooked, like every kid. It didn’t hit me that I was any different than any other kid, besides being the only black kid I knew besides my cousins. I began to notice I was the odd kid when I started doing the voices of the characters from the cartoons whose toys I cherished. After all, Optimus Prime can’t sound like Cobra Commander and Darth Vader isn’t as intimidating when he sounds like a spastic nine year old. The kids at school would tease which would cause me to become introverted and only share with those I trusted. “You’re a nerd! You can’t be a nerd! You’re black!”
Well, shit. I’m a black nerd. Those were the worst world ever spoken! Ok, not really, but I was a kid. Words stung, yo. When I was 12, I struggled with my nerd/geek desire to still keep and display my toys, but also struggled with the peer pressure to “grow up” and “be a young man”. It was awkward and it felt wrong, but I put my toys away. “Young black men your age do not play with toys! They play football or basketball or do something cool and athletic.” I heard it, even from my mother. It hurt. Everyone seemed to want me to do it the way you’re supposed to. I wonder if I would have faced such pressure were I the innocent looking white kid like my best friend. Would I have gotten more of a pass? People tease and ridiculed the white geek kids too, but they always had a click or group they could fall into that looked like them, sounded like them, and didn’t get suspicious looks when they went somewhere together as a group.
So I stopped. I played football in middle and high school…until I discovered comic books. Then it was another obsession. I got a job just to pay for them because my exasperated mother was not gonna pay for “One more damned comic book!” (I find out years later that she was a geek growing up too in an even harder time for black nerds. She had her own comic collection. We would watch movies together and nerd out in later years) I spent half my life in the comic shop. I felt at home, but I was usually always the only black guy in there, reading stories about white, homogenous heroes saving the world. I always wondered why there weren’t more. Where were the people who looked like me?
As I got into my twenties and turned my attention to trying to reach for a career in media, I started to really understand that I was an anomaly. The creators and artists who made the fantastic universes I would get lost in wrote and drew what they knew. They were majority white, and even more majority male. I was an exception to the standard geek rule. So that meant I was in an even more exclusive club. I had panache. I was cool by virtue of my rarity, like an Action Comics #1! The rest of these guys were just silver foiled, variant covered 1991 X-Men #1’s! I started to find heroes like Luke Cage, The Falcon, Spawn, Cyborg, Bishop,John Stewart Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter (dammit, he’s no Martian, he’s a Space Brutha) and Deathlok. Men who looked like me (except Deathlok, that bruh got jacked up!) rising up and being the hero of the story; fighting injustice. Being a black hero became so damned cool, they went and made honky Nick Fury into Shaft!!!! I still love that one, especially now that he’s a fan favorite.
Now I’m in my early 40’s I see a subtle shift. I take pride in the fact that Dwayne McDuffie (RIP) is one of the most revered writers and creators ever in comics. These days my extended family and many of my friends still don’t quite get the level to which I nerd out and I don’t bore them to sleep with my obsessions, but they see my happiness and they get that. Though they usually stop listening after I start discussing the scientific reasoning behind Superman’s powers or why Batman is still better (He’s the God Damned Batman!). Now that being geeky is a mainstream, popular thing, I’m pleased. It’s a Golden Age! Now that it is mainstream means that more and more young black men and women will discover the wonders of geekdom and not be faced with being so alone in a crowd, if you get what I mean.
I used to feel like the odd man out, but now I don’t feel so awkward as I attend comic cons. I feel like an attraction, but in the best, most positive way possible. Maybe that’s maturity and learning to accept who I am and not worry all that much with other’s impressions. I feel like I’m the voice there to keep it honest and not let things stay the way they have been. I’ve picked up the mantle and I’m one of the trailblazers now!
I was totally a nerd before it was cool.
Damn, does that make me a hipster? I do have a Chewbacca beanie…..
I found this handwritten letter while cleaning my apartment. I had forgotten I wrote this. This was on the day one of my friends, Jonathan Vela, passed away. These were my thoughts at the time. Please be respectful in your comments.
I wish I knew you better. I should have known you better. We were classmates. We attended so many of the same geek events. I had every opportunity to get to be a true friend to you. You were a greater man and human being than any I’ve ever known, save for my mother. Your selfless attitude and passion for helping others knew no limits. You had a level of bravery unmatched by even the most legendary warriors. You would dress up as Aquaman and people would ridicule you and make fun, but you always shook it off with a smile and a disarming charm. I grew to admire your unwavering dedication to and love for your community. Humanity, really. The example you set for us all can never be eclipsed. The world was far too undeserving a place for the likes of you.
To know that you are gone makes me very sad and incredibly angry; angry at a universe that would allow such a terrible end befall such a beautiful, soulful human. Why you? Why in the prime of your life? What could you have possibly done in your short life to be saddled with such a tragic and unfair ending to your story? Why are others, evil others, rewarded for their cold actions against mankind? Why do they live and you do not? The only thing I can think is that there is no intelligent design and we are on this blue orb, hurtling through the black void, alone and rudderless. Maybe the universe is completely fair in its complete unfairness.
All I do know is that the world, San Antonio, cosplay, geekdom, and most of all the Velas, have lost a man of immesurable beauty and good. We all look for heroes in the world. I can say with certainty that we lost one today. We lost a legend. Rest in peace and take solace in a job well done, Aquaman.
You will always be my friend, Jonathan.
Today I want to talk a little bit about a subject that many of my close friends and I have strong feelings about: body shaming.
Many of my close friends are cosplayers. Cosplaying is the act of dressing up as one of your favorite characters from a comic, game, movie, tv show, or anime/cartoon. I’ve done it a couple of times myself (stories for another time). I admire the craftsmanship, ingenuity, time, and effort that goes into making an outfit not to mention the bravery it takes to wear one. That bravery part brings me to the body shaming point. We all have insecurities about our bodies and have things we would like to change or wish were different about ourselves physically. Knowing that about myself and other people I always try my hardest to respect anyone and everyone who cosplays, regardless of their size, shape, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. None of that should even matter, ever. We are all just trying to have fun. The world at large is shitty and terrible enough that we don’t need to bring negative shit and heap it onto something that should be fun, whimsical, and light-hearted.
Unfortunately, not everyone is tolerant and understanding. Too many in the geek community and the populace in general will look at someone having fun in costume and take that opportunity to ridicule or make fun of them. What’s the point of that? You can’t make yourself feel good some other way? Do you feel threatened? You see something you don’t understand so you have to be afraid of it and throw shade upon the person? Or maybe you are ashamed knowing that you don’t have the fucking balls to cosplay yourself due to your own insecurities? How dare they dress up and have fun! That makes me mad because I’m too chicken myself and too afraid of what people will think of me! Oooooh, let me take it out on them.
I hate intolerance of any kind. We are a geek community and we have to support and accept one another. We are all different, we all have different likes and dislikes, but we are all still in this together. I had a friend of mine, Jonathan Vela, Aquaman of San Antonio, who would dress up as Aquaman all the time. That was his favorite character. He was the sweetest, nicest, most heartwarming fellow ever. He would help anyone he could personally and through many charities by making appearances in costume at children’s hospitals and birthday parties. The kids always thought it was amazing and a blast. His message was always that anyone can cosplay any character they wish, no matter what. It’s the love of the character that mattered. He wasn’t a small man, but it didn’t matter. He was having fun and nothing you could say could ever change that.
Sadly, he passed away a few years ago. I bring this up because just the other day, I saw a post on Facebook by a friend detailing a post he saw on Instagram. It was a body shaming meme that featured Jonathan. Did this guy know Jonathan? I don’t know, but that doesn’t matter. It was in poor taste. The man is dead and unable to defend himself. He was a huge personality in South Texas and even beyond. I am proud to know that many came to his defense and voiced their anger at that post and reported it to be taken down. I hope those efforts were successful.
People ask me why I am doing this. Why am I chasing down this dream of becoming a professional, paid geek entertainer, podcaster, and voice actor? Where did you get this drive to do what needs to be done to make it happen?
To answer that question, I have to go back to July 6th, 1975, when I was born to Carolyn and Donald Coe. That was a year of the rabbit in the Chinese Zodiac. Why does that matter? Well, the traits of men born in the year of the rabbit are:
“…those who always treat people politely, with a gentle smile that makes people feel that they are credible and sincere. When meeting trouble, Rabbits can handle it in an orderly way; when encountering tough difficulties they are never discouraged, but are persistent to seek solutions. So they eventually achieve enviable success.”
Enviable success? I like that.
So I’m totally destined for greatness?
Perhaps, but having those traits doesn’t guarantee anything. I still needed the nurturing and the constant push to speak up, to do the right things by people, to make them laugh, to make them happy. I credit my mother with this, the toughest woman I have ever known. She came from South Central Los Angeles and could survive almost anything. She showed my sister and I how to take life’s punches and punch back. I never saw her complain or quit, and she had every right and reason to. I used to ask her why she never gave up. My mother always said, “Baby, I never was given the choice. I have you and your sister. You need me.” She loved my voices I made and how I made her laugh, and fed my burgeoning geekiness. She encouraged me to be me. She said if I could overcome my shyness, I could do wonders with what she says God has gifted me.
I always thought I was ugly and odd shaped. I would hide and make my voice small, freezing up when I had to speak in class or give a presentation. I sneaked silently through school, only really being myself around my trusted friends. They had always told me, “Your voice is great! You should do radio! Cartoons! Something! You could be the new Movie Trailer Guy! You are funny, seriously. You can do it!” I would say, “No, I’m nowhere near as talented as Don LaFontaine!” They’d say, “Who?” I would roll my eyes, “How do you not know who that is?!” I just didn’t think I was worthy of the success I craved, the goal I desired. I thought that my heart disease, low self esteem, and size wouldn’t allow me to be anything other than invisible.
After the deaths of too many friends and family before their time, including my mother and father, I realized there was no right moment. I had to push myself to believe I had talent and, most importantly, that I was worthy of success. I had to make it happen. I had to make it the right moment. So with that in my heart and the integral help of my brothers Timmy Stewart, Alex Trevino, we formed The GeekVengers. We started small with local conventions here and there locally, did some videos, and had a blast. They gave me the mic and put me out front. “Use your natural humor and charisma! Fuck the fear!” I did just that and at our very first convention we met and interviewed Jennifer “Lil Bit” Adams. I had no idea at the time how that singular event would chart the course of my life going forward. 4 years later, with some heartbreaking subtractions and some wonderful additions like Adam Garcia, Courtney Goodrum, The Blurred Nerds Podcast, and GVTV, we are going strong and growing stronger.
This is my calling. This is my focus. This is my destiny.
On this episode, Lil Bit and I discuss unending Force Awakens trailers, best Christmas gifts evah, holiday memories, wishlists, and I beg just about the entire known universe for an Xbox One. So click the picture and sit down for an hour of fun and geek frivolity! We’ll be back soon with all new musings and rants to sate your geek appetite.
HAPPY HOLIDAYS, VENGERS!!!