Geek Worship

Two local writer/directors take “fangirl” culture worldwide via the Web.

The real-life cast of Oblivious to his college-bar surroundings, Michael Yates sits at the Grog in Bryn Mawr, pen in hand and a scotch on the rocks within reach, poring over what looks like a movie screenplay. As it turns out, he works just across the street at Showcase Comics, known for its collector-friendly inventory and passionate devotees of the fantasy game Warhammer. And while he’s neither a writer nor an illustrator, Yates’ knowledge of his chosen field is vast.

Most of Yates’ workweek is devoted to peddling comics at Showcase. But he still manages to set aside some time for personal pursuits—specifically, moonlighting as a writer and director. Tonight, the Norristown resident is polishing up a script for Forever Wednesday, a 12-episode, Web-based series set to hit cyberspace on May 1 as a tie-in to National Free Comic Book Day on May 2.

Aimed at female fans hip to comics, the online sitcom views pop culture and nerdy obsession through the eyes of four young women. These so-called “fangirls” inhabit the sort of realistic, contemporary world that preteens, teens and young adults can relate to.

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In the eyes of Yates and his Forever Wednesday co-creator, Bryn Mawr College junior Victoria Kopesky, fangirls are a notably underrepresented segment of geek culture. “There’s another world of fandom out there,” says Yates. “They’re the girls at the big conventions and all over the Internet. And yet the industry and most of the media seems not to notice.”

That revelation came to him at last year’s Comic-Con International event in San Diego, where the latest installment of the female-centric vampire movie franchise Twilight stole the show. “If you’re trending as an entertainment cult, it’s the place to be,” says Yates of the world’s largest comic book and popular arts convention.

Twilight fangirls descended upon the convention en masse, causing an uproar among diehard comic-book types. “I thought it was kind of short-sighted to complain about an entire new set of fandom, as opposed to welcoming them into the fold,” says Yates.

So while the other exhibitors and guests carried on about the “tainting of the convention,” Yates and his Showcase co-worker began scheming.

“It can be hard being the lone girl in a comic shop or in the minority at conventions—I know this from experience,” says Kopesky. “And fangirls are interested in more than just Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Twilight. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

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Yates has worked in the comics industry for 20 years. He started a shop on Philadelphia’s South Street known as Atomic City, which has since become another Showcase location.

He and Kopesky envision Forever Wednesday as an online sitcom similar in spirit to The Guild, a Web series about a group of online gamers, and The Variants, set in an actual Dallas comic-book shop. At the time they came up with the idea, Yates was working on another project called Teena Tesla, so he made Forever Wednesday the fictional artistic endeavor of its main character, Kate—played by Kopesky.

“Fangirls are everywhere,” says Yates. “You just have to open your eyes.”

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Growing up, Michael Yates was an only child looking for ways to combat boredom. “Sometimes, there wasn’t anything to do but read—or anything to watch but a black-and-white movie,” he recalls. “I spent a lot of time with my parents and other adults. My dad was into horror films, and my mom and I would spend hours watching noir and screwball comedies on TV.”

Often, Yates would take the bus from Norristown to 69th Street to peruse the newsstands and drugstores for his favorite comic books—Batman, Superman, Little Lulu and Sugar and Spike. As he got older, and comics evolved, he was pulled into more complex, serialized narratives. “I was a sponge,” he says.

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Yates’ technical skills and history as a comic-book fan, collector and retailer have served him well, as does his insight into the female psyche, which he gained as a freshman at York College living in a co-ed dorm. “We had two floors of women, and another with both. The ratio was about 120 girls to 30 guys. You couldn’t help listening and learning a lot,” he says.

One of the things Yates learned was that women are more prone to forming alliances than the backstabbing behavior perpetuated in the media. That was something he saw as essential to convey through Forever Wednesday’s Kate, Brittany, Olivia and Ashley.

“The girls really aren’t one-sentence-type characters—I designed them that way on purpose,” says Yates. “All too often, female characters are written as lazy stereotypes: the smart one, the sexy one, the silly one, the sweet one, the mean one. I really didn’t want to do that.”

Yates’ perceptions are validated by Kopesky, who is the embodiment of both the character she plays in Forever Wednesday and the audience the series is trying to reach.

“I’ve always had a lot of female friends,” says Yates. “I guess I’ve developed an ear not just for how women think, but how they interact with each other.”

Forever Wednesday is directed by Yates, who also plays the role of Clark, the show’s fictitious comic-book store owner. The rest of the cast includes Bunny Greene, a former Showcase employee; Mar Doyle who studied at Bryn Mawr and is a Showcase regular; and Stephanie Krause, the newest member of the group.

Dubbed Lost Boys Studios, Yates’ production company is an all-volunteer affair. No one gets paid, and most of the equipment has been donated or borrowed.

Yates and Kopesky have high hopes for Forever Wednesday. It’s been entered in the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival, but they won’t know how it’s fared until the convention in July. Still, they’re confident the series will stand out. With any luck, it might even garner the type of cult following enjoyed by The Guild—one that’s translated into deals with Xbox and MSN.

After Forever Wednesday’s May 1 debut, new episodes will appear once a month. “Most people who follow Web shows understand that they’re small, independent operations,” says Yates. “For right now, getting these first 12 episodes up month after month is our main goal.”

And then, of course, there’s Comic-Con this summer. “Get the buzz started there, and the buzz will get started everywhere,” says Yates.

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