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Joss WhedonWhedonverse in How fans of fictional realms are giving back
Monday 15 April 2013, by Webmaster
Doctor Who returns this weekend, bringing along his latest companion, his newest enemies, and his longstanding belief that intellect and romance can overcome brute force and cynicism.
Considering the good Doctor’s ethos, it’s no surprise Doctor Who star Matt Smith recently stopped by Red Nose Day, the admirable, long-running, moderately excruciating telethon. Red Nose Day raised over $100 million for Comic Relief, which funds charities in the U.K. and Africa. Doctor Who has lent its support to the organization before, and it’s pretty remarkable to see someone we recognize as a guy who zips around time and space, doing fictional good deeds, help make the real world a better place.
The world of geekdom and charity often intersect. From the Harry Potter Alliance, which promotes literacy and civic engagement, to Child’s Play, which brings videogames into children’s hospitals, there’s no shortage of altruistic organizations harnessing geeks’ passion and connectivity.
“I believe that people are inherently good. More than that, I think everyone wants to do good,” says author Patrick Rothfuss.
Rothfuss, the author of the bestselling fantasy novels The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear, runs Worldbuilders. He created the organization to raise money for Heifer International, which provides animals like cows, bees and goats to people in developing nations. He believes the geek community can do more good than most.
“We’re an imaginative bunch,” he says. “That makes it easier for us to be empathetic toward our fellow humans. Also, a lot of us were ostracized or picked on when we were young. I think getting a taste of that early in your life encourages you to be more compassionate to your fellow humans later on.”
Rothfuss runs an annual Worldbuilders fundraiser, which features prizes like autographed books, and promises to partially match every donation. Proceeds from his online store also support Worldbuilders. It all started in 2008, shortly after The Name of the Wind became a massive hit.
“I hoped we might raise $5,000 by the end of the month,” he said. “But we hit $5,000 in three days. By the end of the month, we’d raised over $55,000. The matching donation completely cleaned me out.”
It’s only gotten bigger. In 2012, Worldbuilders raised $600,000 for Heifer International. Over the past four years, it’s raised about $1.7 million. That’s a lot of goats —and a lot of work. Not that Rothfuss has any plans to stop. “I could never stop doing Worldbuilders,” he says. “I spend a lot of time building imaginary worlds, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about the real one.”
Cloud City Garrison is the Portland, Oregon chapter of the 501st Legion, the Star Wars costuming organization that, worldwide, boasts over 10,000 members, many of whom sweat under plastic helmets for a good cause.
“If the cause is really great, people will rally to make it happen,” commanding officer Steven Squire said. That means blood drives and walk-a-thons, not to mention afternoons with special-needs children or helping a military dad provide an amazing homecoming for his Star Wars-crazed son.
“We don’t accept any payment for appearing, but ask the requester to make a donation to one of our preferred charities,” Squire said. In 2012, the Cloud City Garrison held more than 73 events, 50 of which brought in charitable donations. The garrison raised more than $9,000.
“It’s great to see the generosity that some people have,” said Squire, who, depending upon the day, dresses as Boba Fett or stormtrooper TK-502. “Those kinds of things really help you get through the long drives, uncomfortable costumes, and lost Saturday afternoons. It’s all worth it.”
Worth it not only for stormtroopers, but Jedi, too. The Empire-leaning Cloud City Garrison works with Kashyyyk Base, the local Rebel Legion chapter, on every event.
“I think the 501st Legion has more visibility as an organization,” Squire added. “But in many areas, both groups work together.”
From a galaxy far, far away to, well, another galaxy far, far away, Serenity fans have shown an equally ambitious interest in doing good.
Serenity was not a financial success. Sure, writer and director Joss Whedon went on to direct a little flick called The Avengers, but the big-screen follow-up to his cancelled television sci-fi western Firefly was a flop at the box office. Still, the show’s hardcore fans, who call themselves Browncoats, saw it. A lot. And a charity was born.
“With Serenity failing at the box office, local fans were going pretty routinely. Weekly, really,” says Christopher Frankonis, a scholar of all things Whedon better known by his online handle, The One True b!X. “On the way home from one of these second-run viewings, we were discussing how to see it yet again. So I suggested that perhaps we could convince a theater to hold a charity screening.”
Frankonis said it took “maybe 30 seconds” for the idea to grow into something bigger. “At that point,” he says, “it just became a matter of convincing everyone else.”
That was not a problem.
“We had 42 screenings last year, and we’ll probably pick up a few more [this year],” said Dave Catoe, global coordinator of Can’t Stop the Serenity. “Most events draw at least 200 people, so you’re talking about 8,000 Browncoats, maybe more, raising money for charity.”
Since the annual screenings began in 2006, Can’t Stop the Serenity has raised more than $800,000. Most of it has gone to Equality Now, an organization focused on advancing women’s rights. The remainder goes to charities selected by local organizers.
“Part of what I think happened in this particular fandom is that the loss of the show so early on left fans with nothing new to speak of, except what they offered to each other,” Frankonis says. “And the energy of maintaining those fandom circles became this whole other thing. Fans without a show can either become merely insular and masturbatory, or can look outside themselves.”
He’s right. Here’s the thing about geeks: Sometimes we spend our time writing stuff like this. And if years of futile Stargate diatribes and furious arguments about Jon Snow’s parentage are any indication, being this passionate about inconsequential stuff is burned into our DNA.
At the same time, and more than just about anyone, we’ve figured out how to digitally connect with each other, and how to use the internet as an extension of ourselves. Yes, some of our time will always be spent arguing over whether Matt Smith or David Tennant is the better Doctor — but that same passion, interconnectivity, and OCD-ness can be used for good. The trick is to keep that in mind — even when somebody’s totally wrong about Doctor Who — and see what else we can accomplish.
“It’s not just my fans,” Rothfuss says of everyone who’s made Worldbuilders successful. “It might have started off that way, but these days it’s a combined effort of the entire geek community. Many authors. Many readers. Boardgamers. Roleplayers. Geeks of all creeds and nations.”
And, just for the record: Matt Smith.