WonderCon 2017: Make a Nerdy Living! - Panel Coverage

Pop culture conventions are first and foremost seen as a meeting ground for geekdom to congregate to purchase art and collectables, see their favorite cosplayers and celebrities, and gain first-hand news for major events in the industry. While these activities are certainly consumer-centric, there’s a large portion of attendees who are creators, or creators-in-the-making, who attend pop culture conventions to seek the advice of experts in one-on-one sessions or attend the various panels that impart advice on how to better their craft and careers.

Sunday morning’s panel, “Make a Nerdy Living!,” was held at the neighboring Hilton on April 2, 2017, and was one such panel of experts in the industry giving their wisdom to those aspiring to turn their geeky passions into actual jobs or careers. Moderated by Dr. Travis Langley (professor of psychology and author), the panel included professionals Kieran Dickson (editor, outerplaces.com), Alex Langley (writer, The Geek Handbook), Jeffrey Henderson (voice actor and filmmaker), Jenna Busch (journalist and media personality), Matt Munson (robotics), Alan Kistler (pop culture historian), and Victoria Schmidt (cosplay), all of whom provided perspectives from different lines of industry.

Dr. Langley started the panel by asking the experts if they have always known they were nerds (a unanimous “Yes!”) and how they made the transition into where they were today. Busch said she had begun by being very much into video games and fantasy stuff which caused her to stand out. A friend had approached her to do interviews at UGO (defunct entertainment website launched in the old internet days) and she ended up continuing along those lines. Henderson lamented that his dad was an old guard commercial director, and when he was off doing his thing, Henderson would be dumped in the bullpen of other advertising artists and put to work. He figured that when he was done with high school, he had done at least a quarter million dollars' worth of free work in storyboarding. Langley began with his own blog as an outlet to talk about his nerdy interests, providing him with an avenue to network which snowballed into opportunities. Schmidt had been cosplaying since 1999, and her first opportunities came from being a booth babe at shows which she parlayed into other jobs. Munson had always wanted to make his own R2-D2 unit and in the process connected with other people via the natural networking that occurs within the fan-robotics. Dickson made the conscience decision to quit being an insurance marketer, move from another country to New York, and got an internship at a UFO website. 

From this point the panel concentrated on the two most important tenants one needs to earnestly embrace if they want to turn their geek-passions into actual jobs. First was the fact that one actually has to “do” something, and the second was network, network, and network. Each panelist brought their own real-world past experiences to underscore these two concepts (and underscore they did).

Kistler began by saying many people take the first step in “knowing someone, but that’s it,” meaning they don’t take the extra step to cultivate these relationships. For Kistler, “You have to put your foot out there and say your voice has merit. You need to go beyond the introductions and actually pursue it. Luck brings the opportunity, but it is up to you to seize it.” Busch chimed in and said that “It is okay to reach out to ask people for help, but you need to do the follow up and follow through” on such requests.

Henderson did not sugar coat his advice in that, “The responsibility is yours. The world doesn’t care and there are too many other people that will do what you want to do. What differentiates you from these others is how much you put yourself out there. It comes down to work ethic, especially since [pop culture endeavors] is a small community.” The small community aspect is particularly important to be aware of since word can travel. Per Busch, “Be nice and you’ll be hired again.”

Since geeky endeavors involve a lot of fun activities, such as reading comics and playing video games, Langley cautioned that “procrastination is a killer” as it is easy to be distracted by these mediums, but that you have to “push past this.”  

The general consensus of the panel was the nature of freelance work being feast and famine. Dr. Langley asked if the panelists had any mundane jobs to supplement their pop culture work. Busch gave up her day job to pursue her endeavors and freelance full time. Henderson had worked as a guitar repairman but was now also full time doing his own work with films and voice acting. Kistler had once been a bellhop in New York, but his normal job is now with video games.

When pressed for specific advice that the panelists wanted to impart for the attendees, Alex Langley suggested it was important to be self-critical with the desire to improve and always be nice to people and help friends. Dr. Langley stressed the importance of attending panels such as this one, of the opportunities that are present at conventions to ask the experts. Busch said if there was someone you admire online, follow them and talk to them, but cautioned that if you’re a writer, you better know your grammar. Henderson states that, “You’re never as good as you think you are” and gave the example that The Rock still trained and takes acting classes. He then talked about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s success story by surrounding yourself with people who knew other things better: “Seek out people you can learn from and don’t operate in a vacuum. Whatever it is you want to do, you have to do it. Commit, and don’t let it simply be theoretical.”

Dr. Langley suggested that one should enjoy the process with Henderson elaborating that it is okay to “do what you love, but not in isolation. Practice networking everyday.” The conversation shifted to the aspect of doing what you love and paying the bills and the concept of the starving artist. Henderson said that one “needs time and money to pursue their endeavors. You need to juggle this.” Schmidt offered up the observation that it is easy to go on social media and see the success stories, but what “you don’t see is the behind the scenes, what they did to get their job” meaning the hard work and effort is not always visible. She added, in reference to writers that, “If you want to write, there is no reason to not have a blog or a YouTube channel.” Henderson complemented this by saying, “You need physical proof of what you can do. Everyone has ideas, but you need to actually show something.”

The panel concluded with a quick Q&A session, with the panelists offering to continue their dialogue online or on the floor with aspiring creative folks in the audience, demonstrating that they were certainly sincere about the advice their were imparting.


Panel photos provided courtesy of Nicholas Diak.

Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, Ad Victoriam! Essays on Neo-Peplum Cinema and Television. He can be found at nickdiak.com.

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