The Eltingville Club and the Horror of Fandom

The Eltingville Club - 2016 Collection Cover

What charming boys. (From left to right: Bill Dickey, Pete DiNunzio, Jerry Stokes, and Josh Levy.)

At the end of The Eltingville Club, Dark Horse’s 2016 compilation of the titular club’s twenty-odd years of misadventure and mayhem, creator Evan Dorkin pulls back the curtain to discuss the impetus for the club’s creation. Back in 1994, Dorkin’s publisher and mentor Dan Vado, founder of the independent comics imprint Slave Labor Graphics, was writing for one of DC Comics’ Justice League lines when the decision was made to kill off the character of Ice. As it happened Ice was something of a fan favorite, and her death prompted a number of incensed fans to send Vado angry letters and death threats. (As it turned out, Mark Waid was the one who actually proposed killing Ice off, a decision he regretted and later apologized for on Gail Simone’s “Women in Refrigerators” blog.) Disgusted by the attack on his friend and the needless hyperbole of the fan response, Dorkin began formulating a response of his own, a comic to satirize and mock the worst elements of comic fandom. He soon found himself working on an anthology that needed a story, and so The Eltingville Club was born.

Befitting its nature as a cult favorite, The Eltingville Club has spread far beyond its original niche. Most serious modern satires of geek culture and nerd misanthropy, from KC Green’s Anime Club comics to Tim Chamberlain’s Andrew Brendan: King of the Internet, can trace their roots back to Eltingville. However, in spite of its brevity The Eltingville Club is a much stronger work than those it inspired. While it makes plenty of hay from the dysfunctional personalities of its characters, it also digs deeper to satirize the social dynamics within geek culture itself that give rise to their behaviors and sustain them. While the comic doesn’t speculate too far in this direction, it nonetheless opens up a space to consider how these toxic dynamics play out in other spheres of fandom.

Our guides to the dark underbelly of fandom are the four founding (and sole) members of “The Eltingville Comic Book, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, and Role-Playing Club”. While each of them have their own particular wheelhouse – club founder and president Bill Dickey prefers comics, Josh Levy groks sci-fi, Pete DiNunzio devours horror, while Jerry Stokes splits his interests between fantasy and tabletop gaming – each of them have enough shared interests to hang out together. Thanks to the magic of comic book time they live forever at the age of seventeen, with high school just behind them and at the threshold of adult life. Faced with this eternal summer afternoon, they do what geeks of their age and disposable income have always done. They hang out. They go see movies and complain about them. They build collections and get in fights over who has the best one. They’re awkward and horny and gross and their dialogue is filled with contemptuous sarcasm and unfunny in-jokes. In all respects they are the acme of the late teenage male geek.

For most of its history, The Eltingville Club comics were short stories, no more than a half-dozen pages each that ran as part of a larger comic anthology or as back-up features, put out by Dorkin at a rate of about one a year. Because of this, I will forgo my normal habit of giving an extensive plot summary and simply look at the initial back of comics Dorkin produced in the 1990s as a whole. (I will dig into the final three comics Dorkin wrote in the 2010s individually, since those are longer and have their own unique thematic concerns.)

When reading the Eltingville stories written in the Nineties, the most striking aspect is the verisimilitude with which they depict the world the characters inhabit. Even these days there’s often a wariness among geeks towards satires of their fandoms, a long-ingrained fear of outsiders taking cheap shots at things they don’t understand and hold in contempt. Thankfully, Dorkin is no such carpetbagger, and in The Eltingville Club he recreates the milieu of nerdy fandom in the 1990s, back when the subculture was still a genuine “subculture” apart from the broader mainstream of popular culture. It’s an age when access to the Internet was the privilege of a lucky few, when fandoms were sustained by letter-writing, mail-order catalogues, and tape trading. You went to the awful comic book store because it was the only place in town to buy comics and merch, and you likewise hung out with your friend group because they were the only kids in the area who liked the same stuff you did. It was also a culture that was still in touch with the older generations of geekdom. In the story “Bring Me The Head of Boba Fett”, Bill and Josh engage in a trivia contest over the right to buy a US$250 Boba Fett statue. They challenge each other with increasingly esoteric trivia over movies, shows, comics, cartoons, and anime from the 1960s onward that are completely forgotten today but are all completely accurate. While my own induction into geek culture took place in the early 2000s, there is still so much of Eltingville that I recognized from my own middle- and high-school days, for good and ill.

What I also recognized, even more than the period details, is that The Eltingville Club understands the social dynamics of nerdy young men and how those dynamics can lead to bullying, abuse, and pathological behavior. Now, Eltingville is a comedy – a genuinely funny one at that – so things are exaggerated for the sake of a joke, with the boys’ escapades leading to massive brawls, property damage, and criminal charges. However, proper satire always has a core of truth, and there is something very real at the heart of The Eltingville Club. Dorkin says as much in his afterword, describing the four boys as composites of himself, his friends, and people he met, and with much of their bad behavior being inspired by things he did as a dumb teen. (It’s also worth noting that Bill Dickey, who over time becomes the worst of the four, is physically modeled on Dorkin himself.) While it’s child’s play to imagine four nerds with dysfunctional personalities and have them bounce off each other, giving those nerds something motivating their actions makes the mayhem they wreak all the more compelling to watch.

The dirty secret of The Eltingville Club is that, in spite of knowing each other and hanging out together for years, the four aren’t really friends. Rather, they are four boys with shared interests who are locked in perpetual competition. To the outside world they present a united front against the normies and casuals uninitiated into the ways of geekdom, all while simultaneously fighting each other tooth and nail over who can be “the best” in their group. The definition of “the best” is naturally very fluid; it can mean owning an expensive model of Boba Fett, knowing the most trivia, or being the one who stays awake through an entire thirty-two hour marathon of The Twilight Zone. If anyone starts rising above the crowd, the other three will form an alliance to mock or pick on the tall poppy and cut him back down to size, then dissolve and reform in a new configuration a day later. There is no material reward for ascending to the theoretical top of the pecking order in the club beyond bragging rights; as the old saying goes, the fighting is always the most vicious when the stakes are so low.

This perpetual competition also drives the petty consumerism of the boys, an obsession Dorkin depicts as the unspoken engine of geek culture. Everyone is always talking about buying stuff; not about books and movies to experience stories and broaden perceptions, but toys, models, and collectibles to show off. The boys go to extremes in their quest for stuff. They compete over getting toys from fast-food children’s meals, they hide action figures on out-of-the-way shelves in toy stores to keep little kids from picking them up first, and they’ve shoplifted hundreds of dollars worth of junk from the local comic book store. They don’t seem to really appreciate much of this stuff for its own sake; it’s just fuel for the endless in-group competition, and there’s always more stuff to get.

While Dorkin has a good handle on the dynamics of dysfunctional geek friendships from the outset, it takes a while for his four nerds to differentiate themselves. Josh is the first to emerge, an overweight dork so deep in geekdom that he thinks the best way to convince the manager of the local Taco Bell to give him a job is to dazzle him with his knowledge of the company’s tie-in marketing campaign for the 1998 Godzilla film. Josh is the perpetual second banana, forever butting heads with Bill over clout and enduring the teasing of all the others. Josh’s attempts to boost his status within the club usually lead to failure and physical humiliation, but any potential empathetic pity is quashed by a retreat further into anger and resentment. Bill gets his moment in the sun with “The Intervention”, the 2001 story that opens with his abduction at the hands of two “fandom deprogrammers” hired by his mother to get Bill to throw out his nerd crap and try to become a part of normal society. It’s the most ridiculous of any of the stories in the collection, but it just barely works due to the fact that both Bill and the deprogrammers are right about different things. The deprogrammers explain that Bill’s conception of fandom is shallow and acquisitive and that there’s a whole world of new experiences out there to discover, while Bill correctly complains that the whole idea of teaching him this by tying him to a chair in his basement is stupid and that they’re doing this more for themselves than they are for his well-being. While the deprogrammers have some initial success, even getting Bill to indirectly reveal that his obsession in fandom has roots in his own feelings of isolation and self-loathing, they fail to realize that Bill is someone who reacts to threats by doubling down and escalating, that he would happily destroy himself just to keep the other guy from winning. Over the course of a manic hours-long filibuster of pop-culture references he succeeds in reawakening the repressed geekish desires in the deprogrammers, a moment whose triumph is overshadowed by the implication that there is something deeply unhinged inside of Bill. Sadly the other two don’t receive as much attention in the initial run of comics. Pete comes across as a generally scuzzy guy who has no problems with starting a fire in a toy store to get rid of a bunch of crappy action figures, while Jerry is the ineffectual voice-of-reason whose only real crime is being an awkward horny teenage boy.

Strange as it may seem for such a niche comic, The Eltingville Club actually had a shot at a wider audience. In 1999 the Cartoon Network was putting together what would become their “Adult Swim” programming block, and they invited Dorkin, who had previously written for cult favorite Space Ghost Coast to Coast, to pitch an Eltingville show. The project was able to get to the pilot stage, which was broadcast as Welcome to Eltingville in 2002. While the pilot had its share of fans, the Cartoon Network was ultimately not interested, and the show was never picked up. The failure of the pilot seemingly also marked the end of The Eltingville Club, with Dorkin turning away from the boys to focus on new projects.

As it turned out, the reports of the club’s demise were premature, for in 2012 Dorkin came out with the first of three stories meant to conclude the story of the club. The first, “They’re Dead They’re All Messed Up” has the boys take part in a local zombie march, a simple premise that underlines how far removed the boys are from their origins in the mid-1990s. In the decade since their last appearance in 2002 geek culture had gone from subculture to mainstream and countless things have changed, yet the boys are still the same 17-year olds they were back in 1994. On a certain level this doesn’t matter; the pathologies the boys exhibit are perennial, and their own elitist and exclusionary tendencies would mean they would likely derive no benefit from the opening up of geek culture. The comic even drives the point home when Pete gets into an row with a nerd outside the club over the merits of traditional slow zombies, and grows so vehement in his defense that the other kid decides to leave rather than keep arguing with this sorehead. However, the Eltingville boys were so embedded in the culture and milieu of 1990s fandom that transplanting them into the 2010s raises questions about whether they would be the same characters. Would Jerry, who often quotes Twiki from the short-lived Buck Rogers in the 25th Century television series from 1979 to 1981, have ever watched the show if he was born in 1995 instead of 1977? Would Bill and Josh have known any of the references they made in “…Boba Fett” if they were children of the 1990s? Even more importantly, would the four have even formed the club in the first place if they were part of a larger peer group that shared their interests?

“They’re Dead…” continues on much as a traditional Eltingville story, with the boys conspiring to ruin the zombie march for everyone and finding themselves the target of not-undeserved mob justice. However, the story closes with a noticeable chill. While the earlier comics made a running gag of the club being on the precipice of disbanding at the end of every story, only for everyone to stick around for the next adventure, the final panels of “They’re Dead…” focus on how none of the boys, save Bill, seem particularly happy being in the club anymore. As they each go their separate ways, Jerry laments that “nothing we do is fun anymore”, while Josh, marinating in years of resentment, fantasizes about executing each of his supposed “friends” with a bullet to the head.

The final break would come with 2014’s “This Fan…This Monster!” The comic opens with Bill achieving his lifelong dream of getting a job at the local comic book shop. Joe, the owner and a recurring minor character in the older comics, shows Bill the ropes and establishes himself as the epitome of the malignant “Comic Book Guy”. He opened a comic shop as a way to justify his collecting habits and genuinely resents having to serve customers in any capacity. His store is a dilapidated mess, he cheats his customers regularly, pervs on the few women who do enter, and places all his financial hopes in comic book speculation. As much as the Eltingville boys hate him, it’s not hard to see how Joe’s behavior has rubbed off on them and influenced how they approach fandom. While Bill is luxuriating in his new role as gatekeeper, who should enter the store but Josh, Pete, and Jerry, all of whom have grown tired of Bill’s noxious behavior over the years and decided the time has come to boot him out of the club. Upon hearing the news and drunk off his own tiny ounce of power, Bill informs the three that he doesn’t need the club anymore and that they are now banned for life from the only comic book store in town. A massive fight breaks out, destroying Joe’s store and giving everyone their share of injuries. In the aftermath, the parents of the four boys step in, giving us a glimpse at their at their home lives and a few hints at what brought them to this state. Josh’s father layers on the guilt with a trowel, asking his son why he would be so ungrateful as to cause him and his mother such endless grief. Bill’s mother seems to have completely given up on him, lost in thoughts of her recent divorce and general unhappiness, while Pete’s father simply demands that he throw out all his nerd crap and get a real job like his brothers. The only parent who comes across as sympathetic is Jerry’s mother, who expresses her disappointment in him and makes it clear he will not be allowed to see the other three again, but is still willing to talk with both Jerry and his father about why this happened and what should be done. The final page has Jerry reflecting to first meeting of the club all the way back in grade school, when they were younger and more innocent, when they were willing to put aside their disagreements for the sake of having fun.

Having closed the lid on the club in 2014, Dorkin then proceeded to nail the coffin shut with 2015’s “Lo….There Shall Be An Epilogue!” Skipping forward a decade from the previous story, the comic tells the story of the reunion of the Eltingville boys at the San Diego Comic-Con sometime in the late 2020s. As might be expected, most of the boys have not improved with age, simply becoming fatter, hairier, more unpleasant versions of their teenage selves. Josh, aiming to get a job at DC Comics so that he can force the rest of the fandom to accept his “shitty fan fictions” as canon, is getting by with a job rephrasing ad copy as a “journalist” for a comics website. Pete, meanwhile, has ended up working for a low-rent production company specializing in horror-themed pornos, spending his time ogling the talent and…availing himself of newcomers desperate to break into the industry. As for Bill, he’s exactly where he was a decade ago; unemployed and living with his mother, his sole attempt at starting a comics “collection maintenance” service having crashed and burned in a spectacular fashion. The only exception to the sorry state of the club is Jerry, who has blossomed outside of its influence. After the dissolution of the club and a few rounds of therapy he took a renewed interest in Magic: The Gathering, eventually being able to break into the pro circuit. While he freely admits that the money isn’t great, he’s enjoyed participating in the community and making new friends, and is generally much happier now than he was as a teenager, prompting the other three to dismiss his accomplishments. However, they cannot dismiss the fact that Jerry is the only one of the four to actually get a girlfriend, who Jerry innocently invites to their table and whose mere presence is enough to send Bill into a frothing-at-the-mouth rant on the evils of women in fandom. When that outburst is enough to push even Josh and Pete away, Bill tries to assert some shred of dominance by revealing some old secrets from the club’s past. More revelations come, leaving the four to turn on each other in a fight that, thanks to Bill’s undiminished talent for escalation, leads to a stampede and riot that destroys Comic-Con itself. The comic ends with the four taking refuge, rather appropriately, in the Ghostbusters’ Ecto-1, which Bill snidely notes is an inaccurate replica. They fall into the old habit of blaming each other for the cataclysm and scheming how to get out of trouble by looting the fallen cosplayers, but this time around Jerry has had enough. He leaves the car, telling the other three that he’s going to risk the mob and find his girlfriend, and they can do whatever the hell they want. With that Jerry leaves their lives forever, and The Eltingville Club ends with Bill, Josh, and Pete sitting in a car going nowhere, the light blotted out by the crush of bodies, talking about an upcoming remake of the 1982 horror film Basket Case. They all know it’ll be terrible, but they’re all going to go see it anyway. For them, fandom is the black hole they will never escape.

In his afterword, Dorkin describes The Eltingville Club as a project that was borne of anger. While this may have been true even back in 1994, one cannot help but feel that the final comics evince a greater frustration for the boys and their behavior that seems to cross into genuine hatred. While the boys inflicted most of the damage on themselves in the earlier stories, in the final comics they go out of their way to make the experience of fandom worse for everyone. They are increasingly open with how life in the club is making them miserable, but they respond by wallowing in their misery and rage and draging everyone else down to their level. The only exception is Jerry, who by virtue of being a well-intentioned doormat pushed along by the other three is allowed to escape the club and grow into a better person. Further along in his afterword Dorkin discusses over the years the behaviors and attitudes he lampooned in The Eltingville Club seemed less like exaggerations and more like sad statements of fact for large swathes of geek culture. Dorkin doesn’t name any particular element, but you can thumb through Gamergate, the Sad Puppies, the fracas surrounding the 2016 Ghostbusters remake, or any of a hundred other internet culture battles and pick your poison. It’s not hard to imagine that Dorkin decided to revisit the club in 2012 for the same reason he created them all the way back in 1994, as a way to use humor and satire to hit back at the people ruining fandom for everyone else.

Still, if there is one thing I would suggest at the end of this ramble, it would that The Eltingville Club should not be read as a partisan text, as a righteous dunk on “the chuds” or whatever you want to call them. Like all writers Dorkin has his own sympathies, he is canny enough to know that these behaviors and dysfunctions are not the sole domain of pop-culture consuming teenage boys. Indeed, Dorkin elaborates on this point in 1998’s “The Northwest Comix Collective”, a retelling of the first Eltingville Club comic that reimagines the boys as a quartet of twenty-something art-school hipsters putting together a zine. The boys have a greater knowledge of comics as a medium, but they’re still a bunch of elitist snobs who are believe that are God’s gift to art, who rhapsodize about the “masterpieces” they never get around to creating, and sneer at the superhero comics that inspired them as children. As Dorkin says, “the Northwest guys might not be as horrible as their Eltingville counterparts, but they’re still another bunch of useless idiots, clogging up the aisles at SPX rather than SDCC. Just because someone has a more refined taste, it doesn’t mean they’re a more refined person. Assholes are everywhere. Duck and cover.”

It’s easy to imagine stories about other little Eltingville Clubs in other areas of fandom. Imagine, say, an all-girl version of the club that explores the unique expressions of toxicity in female spaces, the obsessions and mania surrounding shipping, and how calls for social justice are easily repurposed to morally justify harassment and ostracism. It’s not the sort of story I could tell – I’m not part of the culture – but I dearly hope that Dorkin’s comic inspires someone to craft her own regrettable experiences into a hilarious and terrible story of her own. For now, I appreciate The Eltingvile Club as both a comedy and as a cautionary tale. Every now and then, when I find myself getting too exercised over the state of modern Star Trek or whatever, I stop and ask myself “Jesus, am I turning into one of those Eltingville guys?” As we laugh at the The Eltingville Club we see ourselves in them, those parts of us that are weak to anger and obsession, and it encourages us to think about our passions and keep them from making beasts of us.

After all, as Dorkin writes, this is supposed to be about having fun, right?

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