SAN DIEGO -- Samuel L. Jackson visits Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles twice a month. Employees there keep a box stuffed with the latest comic books and graphic novels.
Does that make him a nerd? Go ahead and call him that. We dare you.
"I don't know who actually defined it as such," Jackson said during an interview Saturday at Comic-Con where he was promoting his fantasy-driven film, "Captain America: The Winter Solider." "I've always read comic books. I've always spent time in comic book stores. I still do. I don't particularly consider myself a nerd. It's just that part of pop culture that I'm also a part of."
If Jackson, arguably the baddest you know what in the history of cinema, is comfortable with the world of super heroes, sci-fi and fantasy, it's probably time to stop throwing around that word nerd. Those who would turn their nose up at a sweaty guy dressed like Wolverine are increasingly in the minority. Geeks may still get stuffed in lockers and given the occasional swirly, but they rule the American entertainment world -- and thus global popular culture in the 21st century.
The biggest rock stars at Comic-Con this year weren't the guys in Metallica and Weezer, but the fellows named Joss Whedon, Robert Kirkman and Neil Gaiman.
These purveyors of super heroes, zombies and Lovecraftian mystery are smashing records in the film and television world, driving the publishing industry and setting social media afire.
Whedon, the writer-director-producer of "Marvel's The Avengers," "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly," says our current obsession is comparable to the Greek or Norse mythologies, cave paintings and the religious high art of the Renaissance because it reflects our society.
"I feel like every culture has a different version of itself sort of writ large," Whedon said. "In Japan and different Asian cultures, people are floating in trees and doing kung fu and here we dress up in tights and fight crime. These stories have been here in some cases closing in on 100 years, and in some cases around 60. They not only inspired a bunch of children, those children grew up, and it's just become part of our mythos, a genuine mythos, a real sort of evolving mythology. It's something people can see and key into instantly. They know where they stand. They know what's good, what's bad, where the pain is, how they identify with it. That kind of shorthand is where iconography comes from."
For those of a certain age, this may take some time to get used to. That's what guitarist Kirk Hammett of Metallica pointed out after taking in the scene at the San Diego Convention Center, where tens of thousands gathered to hear the latest news on their favorite franchises, check out what's moving in from the fringe and to participate in the almost always wacky fun.
Hammett expected to find the usual array of outsider personalities he hung out with in his pre-rock god days as he promoted the film "Metallica Through the Never." He found something very different.
"Nowadays, there's cool people here, there's hip people here, there's all these big displays and all this production," Hammett said. "And there's women here. And it's confusing for me because I'm looking around going, 'Where are all the dorks? Where are all the nerds?' And I feel disenfranchised again. We've been infiltrated!"
The way these characters and stories are told is getting far more complex as well. Comics are no longer full of silly one-dimensional characters. The stories can be epic and moving, and offer a more satisfying creative outlet than the world of "serious" art.
Comic books are not just words on paper, Gaiman points out. It's a multidiscipline art form, and one that makes him aspire to more than the printed word has to offer as he works with an artist to create something never seen before. The British author is perhaps best known for his creation "Sandman," a series that helped elevate the art form like Alan Moore's "The Watchmen" or Frank Miller's "Sin City." He'll make his long-awaited return to that world this fall when DC Comics imprint Vertigo publishes "The Sandman Overture."
"You do your best to write the most fantastic script you can for the most amazing artist," Gaiman said. "You want to write a script that not only tells the artist what to draw but also in some ways if you can inspire the artist. You want to get their best work out of them and you want them to be excited and inspired and thrilled and go, 'Oh, my God, I get to draw that! Nobody else in the world has ever drawn that but I get to draw this and people are going to be amazed!'"
And more and more everyone wants to be involved.
"People in Hollywood with the power to green light now look at comics as respectable a medium as anything -- as novels, as plays, as anything," said Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. "They see there are great great stories and great characters to be mined from those issues."
Feige says we've moved on from the double standards that once divided and defined pop culture.
"I think there's less of that now," Feige said. "If anything I think it's the opposite. I was never a sports guy. I haven't been in high school for a long time, but you go back to the jocks and the nerds, the 'Revenge of the Nerds' templates, and you have to judge me like, 'Oh, look at you nerds walking around with your Spock ears.' And that Sunday they're painting their face football colors at the stadium, and I'm like, 'That's the same thing!' I think the notion of fandom has broadened in an acceptable way, which I certainly embrace."
And so do formerly more "mainstream" stars in Hollywood. Tom Cruise -- the guy who once played the macho icon Maverick in "Top Gun" -- has turned more and more to sci-fi these days, and he's bringing others with him. He attended his first Comic-Con this year to promote "Gravity" with co-star Bullock, best known for romantic comedies and realistic dramas.
She's new to the fantasy world, but the outpouring blew her mind.
"I've never been in a venue like this before in my life where just the joy and the happiness is so palpable ... and the camaraderie is amazing," Bullock said. "I love it."
And increasingly, so does everyone else.