No Misfits Here
Once the realm of a select group, Philly’s geek culture has grown to offer “something for everybody”
by Bill Donahue

One might describe Jason L. Richardson as a man of many titles: graphic designer, graphic novel artist and web designer; host of “The Black Tribbles,” a popular podcast about “anything a geek would love,” including sci-fi and comic books, video games and cartoons; creator of the budding J1-Con anime convention and the Cosplay Prom; and founder of the umbrella company over all his projects, J1 Studios. His most recently earned title just might be the most curious of all: Geek of the Year, as determined by the brain trust of the fourth annual Philadelphia Geek Awards, held on August 16 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

Richardson is thrilled to receive recognition as someone who is helping advance the interests of Philadelphians devoted to so-called “geek culture”—graphic novels, gaming, film, cosplay (dressing up as a character from a movie, book or video game), science and technology, etc. As the first black nominee to be named Geek of the Year, Richardson believes that winning the award could help redefine the term “geek” by erasing the constraints of race and other characteristics, such as gender.

“There are so many situations or misconceptions of what geeks are, especially when it comes to color,” he says. “With geeks of color and women [geeks], it seems like you have to try harder to prove that you’re a geek. To win the award, it’s a way to show women and young minorities that they too can proudly be a geek. … I’m glad we’re getting to a point where there’s ‘just geeks,’ so we can get rid of the color before the genre.”

Although geeks were once largely considered outcasts and social misfits—and, to Richardson’s point, a designation usually assigned to white males—times have changed. In other words, geeks have become chic. Thanks to prime-time entertainment such as CBS’s “The Big Bang Theory” and TBS’s “King of the Nerds,” as well as the successes of entrepreneurs in the tech sector and other cutting-edge ventures, geeks have earned a reputation for being good leaders and visionaries. In the Philadelphia area, organizations such as Geekadelphia, which created the Philadelphia Geek Awards in 2011, have nurtured an already robust and engaged collective.   

“The community was already there when we came along,” says Eric Smith, who co-founded Geekadelphia—“Philly’s premier geek blog,” at—with Tim Quirino in 2007. “Between us, Philly, the different co-working spaces and others, we all wanted to support one another in a happy, warm, awesome atmosphere.”

The “atmosphere” in Philadelphia has grown to offer geeky get-togethers to satisfy every taste. For some, it might be a screening of an anime classic at the Ambler Theater or a “Mega-Bad Movie Night” at the Academy of Natural Sciences on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, during which on-stage experts use their wit and wisdom to dissect the scientific absurdities of B-movies and sci-fi films. For others, it’s an online gaming tournament on “N3rd Street” in Northern Liberties or a comic-book release party at Locust Moon Comics in West Philadelphia. For others still, there’s the Philadelphia Science Festival, a nine-day celebration of science, engineering and technology, from April 24 to May 2, 2015, geared for Philadelphians of all ages.

Geekdom, however, now extends beyond “fringe” interests to include the likes of fashion, social media and independent film. In August, for example, the Philadelphia Geek Awards honored the likes of Drexel University fashion-design professor Genevieve Dion (Scientist of the Year), who is exploring the frontier of wearable technology; Benjamin Volta (Visual Artist of the Year), an artist and educator from Abington who works with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program; and “Let the Fire Burn” (Feature-Length Film of the Year), which is Philadelphia-born director Jason Osder’s documentary about the ill-fated 1985 confrontation between the City of Philadelphia and members of MOVE.

In four short years, the Philadelphia Geek Awards have matured into a reputable, expertly organized event. Despite having earned the attention of mainstream media and geek-culture icons alike—Joel Hodgson, creator of the cult sci-fi classic “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” took the stage at this year’s gathering to present the 2014 Geek of the Year award—the event’s organizers have not forgotten their modest roots.

“When we first started, it was just me and my pal, Tim, and we thought it would be nice to do this tongue-in-cheek, playful awards show,” says Smith, a Rittenhouse resident who works full time managing social media for Philadelphia-based publisher Quirk Books; Quirino now works at Facebook. “We made tons and tons of mistakes and learned lots of lessons about how awards shows are actually put on.

“Four years later, we’re a team of almost 10 people, and everyone has their own little job here,” he continues. “I’ve stepped away from the blog, but I still float around in the shadows. We want it to be a sustainable entity, and I imagine us all working on this together for a long time. … We’re really passionate about the local [geek] community and try to bolster it as much as we can. We always welcome people who want to participate and play along in our little community. If someone is working on a cool project, we’re always eager to learn about it.”

Enterprising folks such as “Geek of the Year” Jason Richardson will happily oblige.

“I want to expand everything [J1 Studios] is doing,” says Richardson, who recently hosted the third J1-Con anime convention at First District Plaza in University City. “I want everything to have more outreach and just grow as a group, a company and a family. … I want to make a utopia for geeks. Here in Philly, we’re like the U.N. of geek culture, with something for everybody.”

Photograph by Clever Girl Photography