Geeks & Greeks
Writer: Steve Altes
Artist: Andy Fish
Geeks & Greeks was an indie comic book that was sent my way a few weeks ago. Writer Steve Altes requested that I review his book, and he pitched it to me as Good Will Hunting meets National Lampoon’s Animal House; now, I’m a big fan of both of those movies, and a little known fact about me is that I was in a Fraternity myself during my brief stint at Cal State East Bay. I’m also considered a nerd by those who know me best (more of the literary type, mind you… for instance, I can school you on things like Elizabethan literature and the works of Chaucer, but I struggled in my science and math classes), so just the title of this book gave me hopes that I’d be reading something that appealed to my own life experiences…
Well, from what I can surmise from the book, the Greek life at MIT is a bit more focused on complex pranks (or “hacking”, as is the preferred term I’ll be using from here on out) than the more social aspects of the scene I was a part of. Ultimately, I didn’t feel that sense of kinship with the story that I thought I would; this is very different from what I lived and experienced myself, and it’s extremely different from the stereotypes other people expect to find when they read a book centered on a Fraternity. It’s still enjoyable, and I’m not pointing out these differences to dump on the book, I’m only bringing them up to point out that this is very, very different from something like National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.
Geeks & Greeks is a semi-autobiographical story about Jim Walden, a new MIT student with a secret that could lead to his expulsion. His dreams of becoming an astronaut are jeopardized when he stumbles his way into the AZO Fraternity. Jim becomes trapped in a battle of pranks with Luke Bardolf, an MIT senior AZO brother who is obsessed with pulling off a grand prank that will ensure his legacy and win him the Golden Dome Trophy, the anonymously gifted award for best campus prank. Jim and Luke butt heads based on Luke’s proclivity for abusing associate members (specifically the Dexter character, more on him later) and being so single-mindedly focused on earning the Golden Dome Trophy that he’ll put his goals before the safety and wellbeing of everybody else. Luke has discovered Jim’s secret, so that serves as the leverage Luke needs to amp up the evil and really make Jim’s life problematic.
There’s a lot of love about this book! Its main strength, in my opinion, lies in its it’s sharp, witty, and often times laugh out loud funny dialogue. Jim Walden is likeable, and he represents the perfect mixture of brilliance and comicality. The book is fast paced, and it never feels like it drags; it’s an incredibly relatable story with a nice flow. Most of the hacks are clever and amusing, and their setups are reminiscent of some of the great heist movies of yesteryear. Writer Steve Altes really nails the tone of the story, and he gives his readers a nice peek into the lives and motivation of an MIT Fraternity. It’s very obvious Altes looks back on his days at MIT fondly, and he’s crafted a wonderful story that highlights his experiences. This book left me wanting to read more into the history of the MIT hacks long after I put it down, and it’s a topic I’ve been browsing around on Google for a few days now. It’s a fascinating culture, and Steve Altes does a magnificent job in introducing it to the uninitiated such as myself.
Andy Fish does a superb job as the artist; it fits the story perfectly, and he captures the humorous moments and action in a way that’s very visually pleasing. There’s a ton of easter eggs you can find in his panels, I loved all the fun little references that Altes and Fish had hidden in their backgrounds. I thought the character designs fit well with their individual personalities, and I really thought Andy Fish nailed it with the architecture; like I said, I’ve been looking into all these different hacks, and I’ve become aware of some of the buildings on campus, it’s neat to see them translated into comic book form almost flawlessly.
As I mentioned above, there is a lot to love about Geeks & Greeks, but I feel it has a few missteps and weaknesses. I feel like we only get to really know four of the characters, and two of them we don’t even get to really know that well. The story focuses on Jim, Luke, Jim’s girlfriend Natalie, and the unequivocally nerdy and socially awkward Dexter Garfinkel. Jim is an interesting character, and I enjoyed following the story through his eyes; he’s charismatic, charming, and incredibly intelligent. You feel for him when he gets himself into trouble, and you feel a tinge of excitement when he comes up with a plan to set things right. Luke is the primary antagonist of the story, and he often feels a bit too evil…like cartoony evil. If he had a mustache, he’d be twirling it in every panel he’s in. If Luke is actually based on a real person, and his antics are true to life, then I hope whoever served as the basis for the character is in prison cut off from rest of society.
We get to know a lot about Jim and Luke, but the Natalie character isn’t very fleshed out; I wish we knew more about her and what attracted her to Jim. What’s her educational background? What are her interests outside of theater? I wish there was more room to get to know her. I cringed whenever Dexter Garfinkel showed up; his brand of humor felt a bit too forced. I wish he could have been toned down a bit, and maybe given a better arc where he learned more about sticking up for himself, I felt his payoff at the end was a bit rushed.
There’s a couple of jokes in the book that don’t work for me; a female MIT student dresses down the boys for a sexist remark and it just felt really awkward and out-of-place. I get that the book is light on female characters, but if you wanted to comment on that fact it could have done it in a more interesting way, or maybe even introduce another female character to add some more gender balance. I get that the story focuses on a Fraternity, and Fraternities are male dominated organizations, but there are ways to get around it without having a random female character show up and bark statistics. For instance, Natalie could have been the one who exposits this commentary. She could have been the one who tells the guys about the female attendance numbers. Jim also does something a bit creepy at the fertility clinic that Natalie just allows and shrugs off; it’s early in their acquaintance, so it makes Jim kind of seem like a total creep. Maybe if this gag took place after they started dating, it’d be more playful, but as is it gave me a really uneasy feeling.
I enjoyed Geeks & Greeks, and I’m sure most others will too. It’s not a perfect book, but it does earn itself some very high marks. It’s a fun glimpse into the brilliant lives that make up the MIT student body, and a marvelous peek into what makes their Greek life so different from what most people think Greek life is all about. It’s riddled with funny pop culture references, some nice science lessons exposited via hilarious hacks, and artwork that really brings the piece together as a graphic novel. Check it out for yourself, it’s one of the smartest things you can do!
Check out Steve Altes’ website: www.stevealtes.com
Check out Andy Fish’s website: http://www.andytfish.com
Purchase Geeks & Greeks here: http://stevealtes.wixsite.com/geeks-and-greeks/buy
Despite a few missteps, Geeks & Greeks is an absolutely entertaining book that gives readers a look into the MIT hacking culture. It’s a devilishly smart book with hilarious pop culture references blended with interesting scientific terminology that explodes into one amazing book. Give it a read!