Have you ever wondered what geek culture is like in different parts of the world? Is there a geek culture in Algeria? Does Casablanca have a comic-book store? Does anyone care about Star Wars in the Chinese province of Guangdong? Or is our thirst for comic books and superhero films a uniquely American phenomenon?
I had the chance to spend most of the past month in Paris. And while I can’t recommend any good comic-book stores in Guangdong or Casablanca, I can tell you what sort of culture shock I experienced as an American geek in the City of Light.
First off, don’t expect anyone in Paris to be wearing their love of comics or American pop culture on their sleeve—or their shirts. It took me two weeks to find a guy wearing a Star Wars shirt. In fact, I had to look pretty hard to find any sort of geek culture whatsoever. I expected to see ubiquitous Iron Man 3 advertising around the city, but I didn’t see a single image, save for the poster at the theater itself. Across the Metro system, there were thousands of ads, but most of them were for art galleries; not one of them had to do with a major summer tentpole film. Both times I saw Iron Man 3, though, it was to sold-out crowds on opening weekend.
There is plenty of geek culture to be found; you just need to know where to look. After doing my research, I found an entire district of book boutiques, comic-book stores, manga cafes and toy shops. The best were in the Latin Quarter, Ernest Hemingway’s old stomping ground. Comics could be found in both French and English. Album, perhaps my favorite comic-book store there, had three locations within a two-block radius, and each store had a different specialty. I won’t tell you how many euros I spent in those three shops. I made it in on a Saturday afternoon, and Album was as busy as a comic-book store in Salt Lake City on Free Comic Book Day—geeks shoulder to shoulder, speaking smatterings of English and French. It was like a taste of being home.
The biggest difference, though, is that art feels much more important culturally in Paris. All of the best, most historic buildings in the city are reserved as spaces for art. Even the cathedrals are used for musical performances when not in use for tourists or worship services. I saw more than one class of French preschoolers learning art history in the Louvre (a converted royal palace) or the Musée d’Orsay (an old 19th-century rail station). Street musicians were making a living at just about every Metro stop, playing professional-quality music for euro coins and selling CDs. I dare UTA to allow that here.
But the only bits of pop culture I could find in the streets were works of street art that incorporated comic-book and sci-fi characters, from Yoda and Supergirl to Tintin and Batman. It makes me wonder if that’s not a better way to participate in the popular culture that we’ve created in America. Instead of wearing a T-shirt that says you like Star Wars, create a work of art and put it on display in the street.
Instead of simply consuming artwork, learn from it and create your own, even if you have to paste it on the side of a building. It really did feel like being part of an underground movement there, as opposed to the mainstream here. But with the French mainstream as focused on art as it is, maybe geek culture is more like a subculture.
The more I reflect on my experience comparing and contrasting geekdom in the United States with that of Paris, the more I realized that I should work harder to create than to consume. And that’s the message I’m bringing home: Enjoy the art you love, but don’t forget to make it, too.
Bryan Young is editor-in-chief of BigShinyRobot.com.