Tim Lapetino looks at design, Atari and living in a world of geek culture

In this episode, we hear from designer author and geek culture advocate, Tim Lapetino.

We learn how Tim found himself writing books about geek culture, almost completely by accident. Speaking to the people at the heart of Atari in its peak years, Tim has been able to gain a magical insight into a wonderful world of art and design within video games.
He shares some of his insights and why the project was so personal for him. We take a glimpse into his history as a geek culture fan and the perspectives he was able to bring with him into his writing. We also learn more about his journey into designing for some geek products and companies, bringing with it pure joy and satisfaction from working with names he has looked at fondly as a consumer.
We also of course take a look back at Tim’s own history with geek culture. If you cut him in half there will likely be a He-man figurine in the centre, so how did it all begin?

You can contact Tim on Twitter or Instagram:
https://twitter.com/lapetino
https://www.instagram.com/timlapetino

Or find out more at his website https://www.timlapetino.com

You can also buy the books he has either authored or edited online or at your favourite bookstore
Amazon (US) https://www.amazon.com/Tim-Lapetino/e/B005IT5PQ2/
Amazon (UK) https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tim-Lapetino/e/B005IT5PQ2/
Midtown Comics (US) https://www.midtowncomics.com/search?rel=&cfr=t&cat=&q=tim+lapetino
Bookshop (UK) https://uk.bookshop.org/contributors/tim-lapetino

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Transcript

Tim:
Hi, my name is Tim Lapatino, and I’m the author of Art of Atari, co-author of Birth of an Icon, editor of Undisputed Street Fighter, and various other projects in the pop culture world.

Paul:
People at home won’t see this, but you are very ingrained in geek culture. You have a lovely line of things behind you, which I’m going to be slowly looking through as you talk. It’s a massive part of your life. Everything you do sort of seems to be touched by geek culture.

Tim:
for sure. I think that’s somewhat by design, somewhat by accident. My background actually is in journalism. I’m a writer, but I’m also a designer. And I didn’t start out just sort of knee-deep in the things that I’m passionate about and love. I really began as a corporate designer, designing logos, working with companies, doing brand executions and publication design. A lot of the stuff that you would see in a traditional graphic design firm. And that’s sort of where I did a good chunk of my work. And it really wasn’t until the last handful of years, really. I mean, now we’re talking about six, seven, eight years that I’ve really sort of taken that ball and run with it. But into the realm of sort of geek culture. it sort of happened by accident a little bit. The first step was really working on the book Art of Atari. And at the time I was running a design firm, a real small one with a friend of mine who was in Los Angeles, and I was in Chicago. So we kind of had two small offices, and we had a couple of other folks who worked with us. And while we were in the midst of hustling and designing projects and things like that for clients, car companies, IT, food packaging. I mean, all the, just the random things that you do when you’re a full-service design firm. And then I got connected with some folks who were former artists at Atari, and I was really interested in Atari. I grew up with it.
Some kids, their first system is a Nintendo Entertainment System or a PlayStation or something like that. For me, it was the Atari 2600 and I was always very passionate and very interested in the box arts. I mean, even as a very small kid, five, six, seven. I just love that packaging art, and it was something that really stuck with me. And after a few years of doing logo design and really getting sort of steeped in this culture of corporate logo design, there’s all these famous logos. There’s the Nike logo, the swoosh, there’s the Polaroid logo, or the Apple logo with the colored stripes. Those are very interesting as part of my childhood, but also the Atari logo. Even though the company had gone through lots of changes, especially in the 90s and beyond, that logo has stuck around, and I would consider it really on the same page as some of the great logos of the 20th century.
So as a designer, I was really interested in, well, who did that logo and what was that about? And I was also very curious about the artwork. I wanted to know more about those artists who were generally pretty uncredited in their era, but those two things kind of existing together. I started doing a little research.
Now we kind of joke like, I’ve done my own research, but this was actually a time when you could actually do some of your own research. And I started digging into it, and one thing sort of led to another where I got connected to another designer who had grown up down the street from one of Atari’s more prolific cover artists named Cliff Spohn. And she was nice enough to connect me to him and just had an initial call, and I was just like, I’m so curious about this. So we had a really interesting call, ended up lasting like an hour and a half, almost 2 hours, way longer than I was in the middle of my workday. And I was just like, but I couldn’t get off the phone, and I didn’t want to either, because Cliff was just telling me all this stuff about what he remembered about the different pieces of art that he had done, and a little bit what it was like to work as a freelancer for Atari and some of his thinking.
And we went through all these different things from super breakout to surround all these games that I grew up with, and just I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, wow, if any other Atari artist has even remotely the kind of answers that Cliff gave me and the insights that he talked about his artistic process, I feel like I could do a book about this at the same time that that was happening. Cliff then introduced me to a couple. He’s like, oh, do you know this guy? You should talk to this person. And suddenly the interviewing started gathering some momentum. But I didn’t have any art yet, and this has been an interest of mine for a while. And I sort of stumbled upon somebody else on one of the bigger Atari message boards. I think it was Atariage at the time. Atariage.com. And I got connected to another fan who had bought a whole bunch of original art. Now, it wasn’t like the paintings and stuff. It was the slides and the transparency. But the huge thing is these are like these four by five inch transparencies or little slides. The thing is, with these is that’s what they use to produce the art and put it on a package. So if you have those, you could reproduce the art at large sizes, larger than some of the originals.
And I was able to acquire a bunch of this art and all these slides and transparencies, and there was 50, 60, 70, a whole bunch of stuff. And finally, with these two things, I looked at it, I was like, oh, I could actually make a book. So that’s a whole other process. But that sort of led me down the road of creating this book. I got connected to the publisher, who had a license from Atari. We did this book in kind of a ridiculous amount of short time after I’ve been working on it for a couple of years, and that sort of touched it off. It connected to me to all these different things. It connected me to the toy company that I do design work for. It connected me to the people that I work with today at a company called Mobifox, where we do all these pop-culture licensed watch bands for smartwatches. It tied me to the video game world, and I got to meet all these people, and all of a sudden, I’m working on something for GI Joe or Transformers or Pacman. And this whole thing is just kind of snowballed, where I get a chance to touch and work on the properties and speak on the things that I’m really interested in. So that’s how it happened sort of professionally. And just one thing sort of led to the other and connected these dots, and then you realize, wow, the culture, the geek culture is at least for people my age. It’s somewhat small for people actually working in these different industries, whether you’re talking about toys or electronics or video games. And once you start to get to know some people and you have a good reputation for doing good work, then there’s all kinds of interesting things that start to pop up.

Paul:
I mean, it’s incredible that all of that came out of essentially a conversation. And you accidentally found yourself writing a book.

Tim:
Yes, I wanted to write a book for me. It was like I wanted to scratch this itch. I was like, I want to know who created that logo and who designed that art, and what was that like? I’m the kind of guy who, if I buy a DVD or something or a Bluray, I always listen to the director’s commentaries. I’m a sucker for the behind the scenes because I’m really interested in the creative process and how people do the work they do and why they do it and how they think about it. That’s always been fascinating to me, and that’s what I wanted to explore here. So some of it was like, oh, that would make for a cool coffee table book with big art. But it really was just sort of almost selfish thing where I wanted to answer those questions. And that was a book that I would have wanted on my shelf. And then suddenly, after doing book work in other fashions in other ways, I had done writing before. I had written a blog for a few years. I have a journalism background, and I had also designed some actual books with my business partner. But those things all sort of came together in The Art of Atari. And it was very much about here, I’m going to call this person. I’m going to have this conversation.
And I think one of the lessons that it sort of taught me was I just try to say yes to as much as I can. You open that door, you never know what’s going to happen. I mean, here’s a great example. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. We were talking about just before this, I got involved a little bit with Kevin Conran’s book called Sky Captain and the Art of Tomorrow, talking about his creative process. But we didn’t start talking about that. We started talking about something else that I’ve been working on a book about the futurist and illustrator named Arthur Radebaugh, who was kind of a futurist in the 40s and 50s and into the 60s. And I knew of Kevin’s art from the movie. And so I reached out to him and said, hey, do you have any connection to this art? And he said, well, absolutely. This artist was one of the people who really influenced me in making that movie. And so boom, so all of a sudden that blows another door open because I interviewed him for this book that I’m still working on to this day, but it’s open to all sorts of interesting opportunities because I just said, hey, you know what? I’m going to reach out to this person and see what happens.

Paul:
It’s incredible. It’s very fitting… to look behind the scenes for the listeners is, we were introduced by Aussie Steve, who our listeners will know from season one. And he’s interviewed you a couple of times. When I was talking to him because he has a podcast, The Retro Project, where he’s spoken to lots of amazing people, including yourself. And he described that whole podcast to me as basically a Con job. He just wanted an excuse to speak to all these great, amazing people. It seems very fitting that he introduced me to yourself because you seem to have that ability to just somehow get it done.

Tim:
Yeah. People talk about when they see a project that I’m working on and they say, oh, that’s a passion project. I take that as a compliment. But I also sometimes think that there’s more than just passion. There’s a lot of people like me who know way more about certain kind of geek topics and are very passionate, and that’s great. But that’s the only part of it, right? I feel like there’s two other parts. There’s passion, relationships. And obviously, you need to have some talent, right? If you do work and it’s not that good, it’s not going to go anywhere. But I mean, the other thing is just relationships and being able to connect with people just on this human basis. Like Steve, we were introduced through a different mutual friend, and it was sort of like, hey, do you want to be on this podcast? Sure. And now we have this relationship and it just spirals out and suddenly you’ve gotten all these cool friends who have some sort of shared love or at least a shared understanding. And I think that’s a fun part of this for me, whether it’s a book or a podcast or something. I love hearing how people are connected to this stuff, why they do what they do, and that part of it is honestly fun for me. I mean, I talked to some other authors who really love to do books, and then they’re like, yeah, now I have to go promote it. That’s really fun for me. I feel like that’s the bonus that’s the dessert at the end of the meal, like making a book is a hard job, but then going out and promoting it like that’s sort of the icing on the cake because you get to connect with people and you get to talk to them about the things they’re passionate about. And some people think, oh, you stand alone, you sign autograph books or something. That’s some sort of ego stroke. And for me, it’s really nice and I’m really thankful for it. But what really happens is people come and they say, I like your book. You know what? It reminds me of this. It reminds me of the first time I bought an Atari home or my favourite movie or whatever it is, and we connect about that.
So my work is I sort of see it as like a vehicle to connect to the things that people are really passionate about. And so I’m sort of this gateway or something. I don’t take it all. I have this big head and being like, well, I’m so great. It’s not really about me. It’s about sort of connecting people with these things.
I’ll tell one more story that’s related to that. I do some work for Super Seven, designing package designs for their retro-style action figures. And I did some work on a couple of Jem and the Holograms action figures, which was a total blast. I was aware of Jem growing up as a kid and for people who don’t know Jem is a superhero rock star, and she turns into a rock star persona and fights the bad guys who are like a punk band and solves crimes and things like that. I’m sure I’m not doing it justice, but, I mean, it has this really cool 80s sort of pop sort of punk aesthetic. It’s really interesting, but I wanted to tackle it because I thought it would be really fun to work on it from a design perspective. And it was. And then when those figures came out, there’s the small but very passionate Jem and the Holograms fan base, and there’s all these people saying, I bought this because of the packaging. For me, it was really exciting, not because my work was so amazing. It was about connecting people to this thing that they really loved. And in this case, it just happened to be Jem and the Holograms.

Paul:
This isn’t about your book, but I’ve spent the last couple of days reading it, so it’s in my head. It comes through, your passion, your interest in the people. It really comes through in the book because; it’s called ‘The Art of Atari’, and you’ve done the play on words of the word art because it has literally the art in it, but it also has the art of what they were doing. And it’s almost a book of two halves. There’s a history of not only the company, but also a lot of detail about the people. And as you say back then, they weren’t even really allowed to put their name in the credits. So that’s a really big thing, and that passion really comes through and that connection to the people.

Tim:
Yeah, some of that was I wanted to focus on things that I knew about. And I’m not trying to write a history of Atari because other people had done it and done it better. They know more than me. I want to write a little bit about the history, but I was really interested in the people, and especially the people who maybe were overlooked. Right. We don’t generally think of graphic designers, art directors, illustrators. They’re not unless they’re Frank Frazetta or Alex Ross. There’s a tip of the top of famous people in our circles. Right. But I think in general, those people aren’t well known. And I was just really excited to sort of pull back the curtain and talk about those people and have them talk about their process and give people a sense of, if you stepped into the offices of Atari, what could it be like? And I think one of the nicest compliments I got, I remember I was in Portland for a retro gaming show, the Retro Gaming Expo in Portland. And one of the former Atari programmers just came to me and he said, I read your book, and you really captured what it was like to be there. And that was a huge compliment because obviously, I wasn’t even alive for some of that stuff, for the very beginning. But I was very small when it was all going on. So the idea that I could sort of be a conduit for these people and their stories and their journeys and the way they think about the work decades later, I think, was really satisfying.

Paul:
Yeah, it really comes through. There’s little moments in the book where I’m reading it, and I can tell that your writers mind has drifted a little bit, and your passionate geek side has come through, and there’s these little bits every now and then where you suddenly get really excited. And it’s just so lovely to read because it shows that you’re not doing it… You’re not just doing it for a paycheck, Basically. when sometimes you can read these things and they’re just going through the motions. But you definitely weren’t doing that

Tim:
for sure. With that book, I really felt like, okay, if this is the only book of its kind, I want to have as much in there for the fans as possible. If I were a fan, what would I want in there? And really trying to do that. Hey, don’t get me wrong. Paychecks are nice. Money is good. You can’t eat your dreams in some senses. But on the other hand, I think about it. Some people just want to kind of call it a day. I really do feel like the more great stuff you have in there, the more you’re connected to those fans, the better the project and the more people will like it. And I think there were definitely times, whether it’s we’re talking about Pacman or whether we’re talking about the Art of Atari, where we were, like, ready to be done and something new would kind of walk in the door, and you can either be like, okay, are we going to move heaven and Earth to make that happen and get that in there? Or we can be like, you know what? Let’s just stick with what we’ve got.
And even with Art of Atari, I remember we were weeks away from our printing deadline to, like, send everything off finally to the printer, and it had to be done, no questions asked. A guy who’s a no friend of mine connected me with somebody who had some of the original logo concepts for the Atari logo, like the other logos that didn’t get chosen. And he’s like, can you do this? And so I scrambled to make it happen, and we squeezed it into the book, and if you’re looking, it’s kind of inelegant because everything was kind of done, but we did it. I’m like, this is awesome. We have to have this in there. I’m putting my fan hat on. Would I want that for sure? You know what? Readers are fine with a little digression, a little diversion here or there. What are the stories that you’re really excited about? I think for me talking about Pacman, the Pacman, birth of an icon book, we did. I was really interested in coming at it from a different angle. Right. So we told the story, the history of Pacman, and it’s sort of Genesis in Japan. But that’s the story that people kind of know. Toru Iwatani has a pizza. He takes a slice out of the pizza, and he has a Eureka moment. Like, this is the character. This is going to be the game’s true story. And that’s great. And that’s fun. And I wanted to tell that story and get it down sort of in print. But also I wanted to tell the story of okay, that game isn’t that successful in Japan? What happened between there and the time it got to Chicago, which is where I live and where I’m from. What happened there? Why is it such a big deal if you’re a kid growing up in the 80s? And I wanted to talk about that Chicago connection, who were the unheralded people who helped make this thing a Saturday morning cartoon. And at one point, I think more people recognized Pacman than Santa Claus. So I want to tell that story, and that’s a dig deep kind of story. But for me, it’s like if I’m going to do it, I have to be interested in telling that story. And that was one of the threads that I really wanted to pull on.

Paul:
It’s so amazing. I’m looking forward to reading that book now. I’m going to basically pile through all your books now.

Tim:
You should take a break and read something else in between. You don’t want to burn out too much Tim!

Paul:
do you think that digging deep into the conversations with the people, looking at their process, has that changed the way that you approach things?

Tim:
Yeah, I think it gets me to appreciate just the creative process in general, one that there’s lots of different ways to do it, but also that it helps me when I’m working with my designers or working with my creative teams, that I give a lot of flexibility because I’ve seen creativity manifest in a lot of different ways. I know there’s my way of doing things. I know there are other peoples. I sort of know the creative journeys of people going back decades, being friends with Kevin Conran, understanding a little bit of how things get greenlit in Hollywood and what the process was to go from an indie film to a major motion picture with Angelina Jolie and an eye patch. Those things are really interesting. So I think that provides a perspective that hopefully shows up in my work but also lets me work with people better.

Paul:
Yeah, because the environment that they worked under, the way you describe it, it was such a family environment and also just so freeing for what people were doing because you mentioned the Pacman there, and there are images in there of the Atari designs of Pacman and it’s instantly recognizable, but also completely unique.

Tim:
Yes, for sure. And I think the question is the context when we talk about probably 2600 Pacman. I grew up with that game, and I played the heck out of it. There are some people who really dislike that game because it’s not like the arcade Pacman. But I look at the context. It’s really easy to type something out on the Internet and be like, worst game ever and just kind of have a hot take about it. That’s easy. But I think what’s hard is understanding that if you’re a creative person and you’re in a creative field, you know that everything is done either under a deadline or under some sort of context. And you understand that. Sure. Maybe fans don’t care about that. They just care about the end product. But to be a creative person, you got to understand there are always limits and there’s always rules and there’s always some reason for something to be that way. And don’t get me wrong, sometimes things just suck. Let’s be honest, not everything is amazing, and that’s fine. But it gives you a lot more empathy for people who do creative work. And you know that. Yeah. Not everything is going to be a home run. Right. You got to be content with occasionally because to mix gaming and sports metaphors, sometimes you got to take the hand that’s dealt to you and be okay with hitting a single or a double instead of home run.

Paul:
Yeah. I think you’ve sort of illustrated there what this world needs; more empathy. for realizing what the work people have done and the situations that they’re in as well, because it’s not always as black and white as we may think it is

Tim:
for sure. And I think if you appreciate that or you’re in a creative field where you have similar pressures, I think those people are not going to be the people who go see the Batman movie this weekend and be like, this sucks. This is the worst movie ever, because you know that everybody reports to somebody else. And I think that’s helpful. But it’s fun to just to hear, okay, you got thrown a curveball. How do you deal with it?

Paul:
You mentioned your history there. So who are you outside of this? Do you have sort of other interests? Hobbies, how would you describe yourself outside of the geek corner?

Tim:
Yeah, I’m a visual guy. I think as much as this sort of geeks subcultures have sort of consumed a lot of my working life, I’m still really into those things. I mean, it’s challenging when you’re designing things for Marvel Watch Bands or whatever it is, and we get these style guides and then there’s all these spoilers in there. And as a fan, I’m like, I don’t want to see this, but as a professional, I’m like, well, I need to know these things that are going to help me do what I need to do. So I can sort of separate being a fan and being a professional about this stuff.
But for me, I’m interested in architecture. I love modern architecture. I love mid-century modern. I’ve got kids, obviously, who have all their own interests. I play video games with them, and they just beat me roundly consistently on any modern console. But I like to get outside and do things like that. But a big portion of sort of, quote, unquote, living the dream, I guess, is being able to work on the things that I’m passionate about and I’m interested in and have it be something that is also a sustaining career. And I think it’s a challenge because it’s not clear. It’s like there are some careers. I don’t know if you’re a lawyer or if you’re a doctor. There’s a way. There’s a progression. You get your degree and then you do your residency and then you become a partner, whatever those things are. There’s sort of a what’s the next step in line? And the career I’ve chosen has not been that way because I’m making it up as I go, which is fun. And sometimes it’s stressful as well because you don’t know exactly where all this is going. But it’s also exciting to sort of carve your own path a little bit.

Paul:
It’s interesting because it’s an episode that was released, a guy called Professor Elemental. He’s called himself a chap hop artist. He does hip hop in, like, old school steampunk British style, and he says he absolutely loves it. But also sometimes there are times where he absolutely hates it because he’s now got this hobby, which is his job all the time, and he can’t escape it, and he has to do all the boring stuff to go with it. But are you at that stage where you’re in such a changing environment that you don’t experience that?

Tim:
Yes and no. I think sometimes it is. The professional side of doing some of this work is very different from the fan side. So being a creative director or writing a book, like, there’s definitely a different side of it than just being a fan and geeking out on the Internet or making your own stuff. So there’s always an element of the creative the actual professional side is going to be a little different. But it’s adjacent to the fun stuff, right? It’s still work, for sure. There’s plenty of times where I sweat it out late nights doing work, and you’re like, I really just want to go and try and catch up on Star Trek Discovery or whatever it is, which I’m way behind on, apparently. I just discovered it myself this year, and that’s one of my pressure release valves. But sometimes you’re like, yeah, I just want to go out in nature. I don’t want to hear about Spider-Man. I don’t want to hear about where you need me to place the Harry Potter logo, whatever it is. So I think it’s healthy also to treat it as a job as well.
But I think for me, the job and the fun parts have been different enough, and they keep changing. It’s not like I started blogging and having fun, and then that turned into my full-time job. It’s not quite a one to one for me. It’s sort of been the jumping-off point for all these interesting opportunities. It’s not like someone said, oh, you’ve been faithfully doing your fun blog for a year, and now you have to do that for the rest of your life. It’s not like that for me, but I try and keep it interesting because I sort of get bored easily. I spent a year of the pandemic. This was related to the Pacman book, but it happened before it when I ran a Twitter account called 365 of Pacman. So every day of 2020, I played a game of Pac Man, or I found a Pacman collectable, or I wrote about something that was related to Pacman. I tried to play basically every different Pac Man game I could get my hands on, and that was a real challenge, and that was really hard. And then halfway through it, I was like, what am I doing? Why did I do this? But it was really challenging to write and post for an entire year daily about what it was like to find a 40-year-old box of Pacman cereal and eat it. Spoiler alert. It was gross, but not as bad as you think. The actual the gum from a Pacman trading card pack is way more disgusting and actually really didn’t agree with me. But trying to do some fun things and learn some things along the way, was a great distraction during a really challenging year. It’s fun to do this stuff out in public. And not because I want accolades or anything, but because you do interesting things and you do it out in public, then I think it leads to more opportunities, which is really fun. Yeah. You’re that insane person who eats 40-year-old cereal. Maybe we could work with you. That happens all the time.

Paul:
Yeah. At the end of it, you’ll either be Pacman Guy or Serial Guy could go either way

Tim:
Right? Exactly. That’s why I got to keep changing, because I’m not a Pacman Guy or I wrote a book about Pac Man, but I’m interested in other things as well, so I’d like to continue to move on. But you can totally see there’s definitely a blast radius of things that I’m interested in. I think my actual birth into geekdom, I think really happened. I was a kid who grew up with He-Man and Masters of the Universe and GI Joe and Transformers. I mean, just like the normal kid. That was the stuff that was popular when I was a kid. But I think my sort of true sort of baptism, if you will, into serious geekiness was the 1989 Batman movie. And I remember; I can remember distinctly during the summer. I think it was earlier that summer before the movie had come out. I was watching TV with my brothers. I have three younger brothers, and they showed the first picture that I had ever seen of Michael Keaton Batman in this black leathery costume. And it just blew my little mind. I knew Batman. I watched the cartoons and all that stuff, and I read the comic books growing up. And then I saw that, and I was like, what? Like, it was so cool and so punk, and it was just this really different thing, and it felt like real and awesome, and I just was blown away by the coolness of it. So I went to see that movie, but it also sort of was like my gateway drug, because then that’s the summer where shortly after that, other movies, even the next summer, you have things like Dick Tracy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? This really interesting time, Ghostbusters two for all of these films and stuff. And I really started getting into movies. I started getting into film and really interested in being a kid who would like to go to the movies. So I went to see all sorts of things, but that led me to the comic books and the action figures and that stuff that I sort of carried with me as a kid. Okay, I got to be a teenager. Then I discovered girls. So I sort of put some of that stuff down a little bit, but it’s stuff that I’ve always been aware of, and it’s just really interesting to see.
When I was a kid, junior high and high school, going to comic book conventions. Those are places where in poorly lit hotels, dusty bins of comic books, a bunch of big, sweaty guys with questionable bathing habits. I mean, that’s what it was like. Now you turn around and you’re like, wow, you go to a comic book convention or San Diego or something, and it’s so interesting and diverse, and there’s actual women there. People are bringing their own stuff to it. And the geek stuff is kind of conquered the culture a little bit. And I think that’s so interesting for me because it’s not what you would have expected, but it’s really interesting to see the things that, hey, I was into when not that many of my friends were into them, okay? We were a small group of people who played Dungeons and Dragons or role-playing games and read comic books and watched The Flash on TV. But now that’s mainstream stuff. That’s big business.

Paul:
Do you really think that it’s all positive then? Because there are there’s been a couple of times when I’ve had conversations with people, and there’s almost a slight resentment that all these people love the things that you love now. And as Professor Almighty said, you haven’t put the work in. You weren’t there through the tough times. Do you think it’s a really good thing? Do you have some reservations about it?

Tim:
I think by and large I’m positive about it. I feel like there’s always room on the bandwagon and I think there are people who like stuff who just like it, right? I liked the X-Men because I thought it was cool. I liked Batman because I just was drawn to the art and the stories and it wasn’t because I got something out of it. I just really enjoyed it for what it is and I feel like if that’s what you want, that’s what you want. This idea of this is a popular word like gatekeeping it and saying you know what, you’re not as big a fan so we don’t want to let you in the club. Everybody starts out being a small fan, you get into it. Nobody comes in fully baked and fully formed as this super ultra fan who can edit all the Wikipedia entries, right? You start somewhere you’re like I don’t know, I just read this and I thought it was cool and I feel like if we don’t allow that, if we sort of gatekeep off be like you know what? This isn’t for you, this is the hardcore fan. Sorry, there’s a velvet rope between us. That just feels kind of mean and I think you forget what it’s like to come in with no knowledge.
I could have done the same thing whether you were talking about the Atari fandom or comic books. I mean I know a lot about Batman but also for the last 15 years I don’t know that much. So there are people who know way more about the Court of Owls and Jorge Jimenez and the super popular artists and that’s fine. It’s not on me to be the superfan all the time but also I’m not going to look down my nose on someone who’s never read The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller. I’m going to say to them, oh you don’t know that. I won’t be like yeah, you’re not a real fan because you haven’t read Batman Year One. I’m going to be like you know what, here, read this. This is fun and that’s really fun for me. I think I really like the idea of sort of ushering people into it, sort of curating it and suggesting stuff and almost evangelizing and saying hey you know what, I really enjoyed this book, you should check it out. And that’s a very different posture than saying you haven’t read this book. I don’t think you’re cool enough or I don’t know if you’re a big enough fan why are we associating like a negative social cost? When I was twelve and I liked Batman and that’s not cool to like or whatever. Nobody wants to have a cost for what they like saying oh you’re going to be ostracized because you’re a comic book guy. That’s lame. So why would I put that on anybody else. I’d say the more the merrier.
Now I think it’s nice to have some perspective. You have somebody who watches The Flash TV show, and they’re like, I’m the biggest hardcore flash. Well, you weren’t even alive when the first TV show came out, so it’s good to have some perspective. We also realize, you know what? There’s plenty of room on the train as far as I’m concerned.

Paul:
You do seem to have, like… you don’t have a corner of the geek section. You described that the big thing for you was that film, but you had watched some of the cartoons and read some of the comic books. I said at the beginning, but you are basically geek. You are every corner of it. What is it about the geek culture that you think speaks to you?

Tim:
I think some of it is just the creativity. I mean, if you’re talking about comic books or video games, there’s the storytelling aspect, movies. I consider myself a storyteller. I love to tell stories. I’m really interested in that. I’m also a visual person. So I think about comics. I’m a graphic designer. So when I look at Spiderman, I think about, oh, it’s really interesting how even the costume, the original Spider Man costume or the Black Spiderman costume, like as a piece of design, how does that work? So I look at it from a couple of different angles, and I just think it’s just interesting. It’s fun to see. Why do we keep coming back to superheroes? Whether you look at in the 50s, the Superman TV show was really popular or in the 30s and the 40s, there was the Superman cartoons that they show before films that were really well done. Now the 80s, it was the first live action superhero movie that really kind of broke through. And you see this stuff continue to pop up in the culture. In some ways, it’s a little bit of like modern mythmaking where I think we have shared stories that everyone can connect to. The nerdy kid who got bitten by a radioactive Spider and doesn’t know how to handle it all. You can connect with us. Okay. What would it do to you if you saw your parents shot in front of you and you kind of claimed vengeance on the world?
I think those are sort of; they’re a little bit universal in their themes, and I think that’s really interesting. So I think the storytelling plus the visual side, I’m a visual person. I’m a designer, so I like the combination of those two things, and I think you see them a lot. All this geek stuff.

Paul:
Was that sort of true as when you were a kid, then when you were first looking at comic books or cartoons, was it very much visual and storytelling?

Tim:
Yeah, I think so. And I’ve always had a writer’s bench as well. So I loved books. I was reading Stephen King way earlier than I should have been reading Stephen King, but transfixed by that stuff and loving someone be able to sort of jump into their world and usher me through it and tell stories. So I have friends who are just unbelievable with numbers and projecting and how strategic they are. One is an actuary, this one’s an engineer. My brain does not work like that. It just doesn’t to my detriment, probably. But I do connect with stories. I do connect with creators and creating, and I think there’s a lot of that here.

Paul:
As you say, you’re a writer. You’re very much an artistic person. Was there ever a time when you thought maybe you could do this, you could do comic books or animation, anything like that?

Tim:
It’s something that I’ve thought about at different points. I’m not a great artist. I’m a very mediocre artist. And I don’t know that I have a great American novel in me necessarily, but I would love to if the opportunity came to try my hand at writing a comic book or something like that or being involved in character design or something like that, I would love to do that because there’s a lot of crossover. Right. If you’re writing a history book or you’re writing about characters, I think I could do some of those things. I mean, obviously I’d like to leave some of it to the professionals, but I would be lying if I didn’t say yes it’d be on my bucket list to write an issue of a comic book that was like a Marvel or DC. I would love it. I have no idea how exactly to do that. I’m going to have some sense of it. I have some sense of what goes into it, but I would love to do that. I would love to tell a story that turned into a children’s book or a movie or something like that. So that would be really interesting to me. I don’t know if I’ll get there, but I keep putting my fingers in pies.
It’s fun, later this year, some toys will come out, films that I grew up with. I got to design the packaging for toys related to those. So who knows? Ten years ago, if you said, Tim, you’re going to write a book about Pac Man or you’re going to design action figure packaging of the characters that you grew up and loved, I would have been like, yeah, I don’t see how that’s going to happen, but I’ve learned to never say never. Who knows?

Paul:
Yeah. You’re only one conversation and an accidental agreement away from that.

Tim:
Exactly. True. And I think that’s fine. I think you got to take some risks and try and say yes to these things and see where they go. Obviously, there’s the responsible side of you got to feed your family, pay your mortgage, all that stuff. And that’s like really important. Clearly that’s number one. But also, I think the ideal is like, can you do the thing you love and do it with people you like and make a living out of it? I think that’s always the goal.

Paul:
Would you have any advice for someone who’s looking at sort of a risk like that about whether or not they should take it and the calculated risk on it?

Tim:
I would say try and say yes to things. I recognize how much when I started doing side projects, when I was doing different work than this, like that Atari book started as a side project, it meant that I wasn’t doing other things. I was watching a lot less TV, and I was doing that. So that’s some of the cost. So I think, are you willing to give up some of the other things to try some of these side hustles and see if they work? But I think the other thing is you got to be very real with yourself. Is it good enough? Right? Hold it up to the professional standards and look at it and take a cold, hard look in the mirror. Is it good enough? When I wrote The Art of Atari, that was probably the most words that I had ever strung together in terms of a book. And it’s a pretty small book in terms of the writing. But it was a lot. And I was very conscious of the fact that, hey, I’d written long articles, I had written features, I had written a lot of blogs. But it was a jump, right? I wasn’t totally 100% sure that I could. How would that go? Do I know how to do that? And I did it, and it was okay. It turned out all right. There’s things I would change. And then when you jump to something like the Pacman book where we’re talking now, a lot more words. It’s tens of thousands of words, many. And that was out of my comfort zone a little bit as well. I was pretty sure I could do it, but I kept holding up to it, like the professional standard that I have and looking at other people’s stuff. And it’s like, Is this good enough? Is this as good as that? And I think that’s a cold. You got to ask other people. You’re like, Am I really good at this? And find somebody who’s not your wife or your girlfriend or your brother or your best friend who’s going to tell it to you straight and say, yeah, you can still work on this, or, yeah, maybe just keep that as a hobby. I think you need somebody to tell it to you for real and say, hey, you know what? That needs some work. And I think that’s the most loving thing. So I think those are the two big things to say yes to it. Try it. Because nobody gets any points for saying no or being like, I’m not so sure. I don’t know if I have time or that sounds like it’d be hard. I think you’ve got to go for it. And I think those doors I don’t know, it’s easy for me to say this in privilege because I’m somebody who whatever. I had some time I was able to do this and make those connections. But I’m not any sort of genius. I’m not rich and well connected. I just started talking to people and being kind to people, not just to get what I wanted, but because that’s what I believe is the right thing to do. And all sorts of doors are open. So in that way, yeah, absolutely. Go and do it, because if I can do it, then surely you can do it. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer here. I should be an aspirational story, because if I can do it, surely a lot of other people can, too.

Paul:
Yeah. I mean, the way you describe it, the way, I joked about it slightly, but you accidentally fell into it. It could happen to anyone that way.

Tim:
Yeah, for sure. And I feel I’ve been blessed with all sorts of interesting opportunities. And if I brought something to it, maybe it’s a little bit of moxie and just saying, yeah, you know what, I’m just going to call this person. But also you’ve got to make friends with people. If you come into a situation where it’s like I’m just out to get what I can get from you. People find that and they can tell really quickly that that’s the case. You’re just here for what you can get out of the relationship.
Whereas me, I actually like people. I just like getting to know people. I’m really interested in creative folks who do things. And I’m not shy about asking for help or asking what they think. You look at working with Super Seven, those guys who are some of my favorite people on the planet. I met them through a friend of a friend who was a friend of mine here in Chicago knew some of them, so I reached out to them and we had talked about doing a book signing in California at one of the Super Seven stores. And that led to lunch, and that led to an ongoing relationship that led to being able to do some design work. And now I’ve got all kinds of good friends over there, and that’s just really fun to just connect those dots. So if you come in with an agenda and say, okay, I’m going to be the number one top dog here, and I’m going to meet all the movers and the shakers, that’s one thing. But I think it’s more about, you know what, just see where the relationships go and enjoy people for who they are, because that’s fun.
I just like meeting people. I like hanging out. I’m kind of an extrovert, but I’m curious about people’s stories. What do they think about the things they do? And we can just share those interests. I think that’s the fun thing about, people forget about sort of the geek culture. It’s one of the things that connects us. This love for the stuff is a really fun bridge. But it’s got to go beyond that, right? You’re not just like, let’s only talk about Spiderman, right? It’s like you’re a cool guy who likes Spiderman. But you know what else I’m really interested in? What else you do, and that’s how those relationships unfold, and then all kinds of fun things happen.

Paul
I’m curious about how when you were growing up, about the relationships you had around you, your parents or siblings, the friends, as you were going through geek culture, how their reactions were, and sort of how they imprinted on you, whether you think that made a difference to the way that you see other people.

Tim:
Yeah. My brothers and I, we all had our things. Whether it was Atari or one of my brothers is really into Star Trek. My other brother was a teenager of turtles, and we all have the things we were into. And I think from the start of it, my parents were like, hey, that’s cool. We like that, it’s fine. We’ll buy some of the toys, and they weren’t put off by that. We did a lot of things, though. We played on computers, we all played sports. We actually got outside, too. But I think I was generally raised in a family who’d say, hey, that stuff is fine. So I think you grow up in that and you’re like, okay, that’s cool. And then it sort of stays with you. But I think there’s an ebb and flow, and you never know what’s going to happen. I mean, I was sort of done with video games for the most part when I got to College, and then my freshman year of College, I dated myself here. This is the mid 90s, and I got to school, and I hadn’t picked up an Atari for a while. It’s the mid 90s already. And I had a bunch of guys on my dorm floor who would play it to have Atari tournaments on their dorm floor, and we would play warlords and stuff like, we’d have these round Robin tournaments. And it was really and I was like, oh, yeah, I totally forgot. So I went home from school and pulled that stuff out of the dusty place that it was in my basement. And that sort of reenergized me. And then the Internet, I think, was a really interesting thing where it’s like, oh, you know what? What else is out there? Well, that was right around the same time the first fan games started getting made for the Atari 2600, where you have these Homebrew games. And that was really my introduction to sort of fan culture, right? When there’s people making stuff on their own and talking about it early Internet. I remember flirting with some girl that I met on the Internet who had an Atari shirt, and I’m like, oh, that’s a great Atari shirt. And one thing went to another. She gave me free tickets to go see they Might Be Giants. I had VIP seats to go see they Might Be Giants. And that was it. They never actually went anywhere, which is fine, but you would never do that today on the 2022 Internet. But, yeah, I think for me, it’s my family.
I think the interesting thing for us is this professionalization of the geek stuff, the idea that okay, that’s all fun and good. You have a basement full of toys and the Gi Joe aircraft carrier or whatever it is. But there are actually people who make that stuff, and they do that stuff in there. And it’s not just a small thing. It’s a big business, and there’s a lot to be done there. So my thinking is, you got to work. I’ve designed a lot of other things that are really interesting. I’ve worked in food packaging and corporate communications, and I don’t mind when you’re designing a gluten free noodle packaging. I mean, that’s okay. The world needs gluten free. I need gluten free things. My wife does too. That’s great. That’s important. But if I had my druthers, would I rather be working on Spiderman or Venom or GI Joe or Transformers? Absolutely. Same challenges, same work. How do you communicate with people on packaging? How do you tell the story? How do you have this design craft, this level of craft that you want to have? I mean, all the same stuff. It just applied to something else. So it’s not all fun and games, but I mean, if I, you know, if it’s up to me, I’d rather do the thing where more people are connected. No one walks through the store, and it’s like, I’m so excited about this noodle packaging. The company’s excited because they want to sell more noodles. That’s great. I mean, I think it’s fine. That’s part of commerce, right? But also when you get the feedback from somebody and saying, hey, you know what? Your book has a special place on my shelf or, you know, like, I bought this because of your packaging. Like, that’s really fun. Or like, this is my favorite thing enough that I’m going to wear it on my wrist. It’s hard to beat that kind of connection.
Again, it’s not about me. It’s about this shared thing that we’re into together. And I think it’s satisfying. So if I can continue to do that, I would love to.

Paul:
in your book, you talk about sort of the demise of Atari, and I think that kind of era there was some of these big brand geek cultures. Do you think you grew up in a bit of a peak point for geek culture, and then it dipped off, and maybe we’re now coming to another peak where if you’re in the middle bit, you might have a more negative view on geek culture.

Tim:
Yeah, that’s a good point. I think there are sort of these peaks and valleys, but I think there’s probably something else there. It depends on which fandom you’re in. I think before you look at the 80s, and there was sort of a monoculture where it’s like, we had five channels. Everybody was watching kind of the same things. The only toys that there were were the things you could buy at Toys R US. There was very much a shared cultural experience. So I think, yes, I think that was a peak time. People talk about, like, 1982 as one of the greatest years for genre film. You had Blade Runner, and what else came out? The thing and all these ET, all these phenomenal films that we hold up is like, these are amazing science fiction, fantasy, all the stuff. Like, it’s a great year for all that stuff. And then maybe there’s a dip there, and now we’re coming back to this. Like, there’s almost more geeky stuff than you can really keep track of. You’re like, have you watched Batwoman? Have you seen The Gospel? I mean, there’s too much of it. I can’t keep track of it. I haven’t watched Star Trek until it’s been out for four years. And maybe there’s a Valley there, depending on what you’re into. But also there’s a whole other family tree of geekness. Like, what about all the people now who are like, we’re coming home from College and saying, I’m going to go find my PlayStation, one that I dusted off, and it’s like a whole different generation of geeks, and they have all their own stuff. Then the rise of the super 90s stuff, where we’re getting reboots of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and all that kind of stuff. Teenage mutant turtles. Again, it’s my younger brother’s stuff where it’s like, wow, this is all still relevant. And I think it just depends on which one of those trains you’re on.
I think it does beg the question of when will we get some original stuff. I think it’s so easy to keep recycling some of the same stuff and trying to refresh it for the same audience. But I think, Lucasfilm, people are starting to realize that you can’t keep going back to the same well of 40 and 50 year old Star Wars fans. Like, you got to figure out a way to make something new. And I get it. I mean, think about the times we live in. It’s like life’s crazy and hard. And whether you’re talking about pandemics or wars or politics, I think people want something that’s safe and familiar. I’d rather watch Frasier than deal with that. Or I just want to respite from what’s going on in the world. So maybe I would rather see a Ghostbuster sequel than see something I don’t know about. But if you take that to its logical conclusion, in ten years from now, we will have no new stuff. It’ll just be the constant retreading. It’s like, I’m excited to see the Batman, the new Batman this weekend. But how many more Batman movies do we need? Can we do something different? And I get it. You understand the market forces for these changes, but I also hope that we can be making new stuff so that 20 years from now, some kid can be like, yeah, I grew up with that, and it’s so cool. Maybe it’s the Sky Captain franchise or whatever it is. I don’t know. It’s some brand new thing. And all the old people be like, we didn’t have that when I was a kid. Right. But everybody needs their own stuff. I don’t need my kids to be into GI Joe. Still, 40 years later, they have their own stuff.

Paul:
Yeah. I saw someone say the other day, if this new Batman film makes us watch his parents die again, they’re leaving the cinema because we don’t need it anymore.

Tim:
Yeah. And I appreciate it from a creative challenge. It’s like, how do you tackle this in a different way? That hasn’t been done before, but at some point you have to be like, okay, can we put our resources towards something else? That’s really interesting, but it’s big culture, though. I think that’s we’re talking about the last bastion of mass culture where it’s like, we want a movie that’s going to make a billion dollars. Right. But there’s all these other opportunities for whether it’s smaller TV series or small films or Indie toy companies. I mean, there’s all these opportunities with culture sort of fragmenting out. There’s always opportunities to work with these small, interesting things. I mean, you see people starting their own toy lines and finding an audience. Everything doesn’t have to be big, and the audience is so fragmented that if you’re into anime inspired designer vinyl action figures that look like restaurant condiments or something like that, there’s probably a whole subculture dedicated to that. And maybe you could make a living doing that. And if you do it, you have more power to you.

Paul:
Hopefully someone will now get onto that.

Tim:
Oh, I hope that’s a thing. I hope it already exists. That’d be fun. I want to see a walking, talking mustard bottle.

Paul:
What are your hopes then for the future of geek culture and in particular, sort of people’s impressions on it as well?

Tim:
Well, I would like to retire the idea of Toxic Fandoms. I would love for Fandoms to be a place where it actually brings people together instead of divides them. That sounds sort of touchy feely, but people get into this for the love of something like they really connect with a story, whether it’s a character or it’s a game or it’s a shared experience of doing a thing. I would hope that geek culture can be more welcoming in that way. And there’s room for everybody on this boat if this thing’s not your thing or that thing is not your thing. Just move along, find something else. There’s a lot of opportunities. So I’m of the inclusive mind on this stuff, I think there’s a lot of room for everybody. So I hope that geek culture at its best is something that connects people and doesn’t divide them, that unites them around shared storytelling and the love of characters or stories, because really that’s what it comes down to, right our shared love of telling stories. And I think that’s something that can be common ground instead of something that pushes us further apart. In a time when I feel like we could use anything that can connect us as much as possible, everything else seems to be dividing us.

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