Will Evans and Omar Holmon take Black Nerd Problems from pixel to paper
Columbus writer and poet Will Evans talks about the site's humble beginnings, a new essay collection and the 'garbage' Lion King character Simba
When Will Evans and Omar Holmon launched the Black Nerd Problems website in 2014, their aims were unique but humble.
“Omar and I, we talk nerdy stuff, and we wanted to find other Black nerds who wanted to have a voice in the critique of pop culture,” said Evans, a Columbus writer and poet (and part of Alive’s 2016 class of People to Watch).
Evans and Holmon found seven other writers to help broaden the site’s coverage. “Our voice was very prominent in the early years, but we brought on folks who had interests that were a little bit outside of ours — people that were covering cosplay or people that like convention culture or a certain type of manga,” Evans said. "We were different than other pop culture sites because we were going through the lens of marginalized voices. But we also wanted to diversify within ourselves.”
From the get-go, Black Nerd Problems also set itself apart by consistently incorporating humor. The writing was thoughtful, and the contributors took the work seriously, but the tone was never dry or overly reverent. Initially, though, that playful approach created a problem.
“At the beginning, we were all Black, and some of us had some writing credentials, but even Omar and I, who probably had the most writing credentials, we were coming out of the performance poetry world,” Evans said. “When you start stacking those things on top of each other, one of the things that worried me in the beginning was, ‘How seriously are people going to take us?’”
Some online commenters did have some harsh critiques for Black Nerd Problems in those early days. “Folks were like, ‘Oh, these people are using made-up words.’ And it was really hard. ... Omar and I, we started on slam stages, so our skin is probably a little thicker than the average person in terms of receiving critique. But I wanted to protect my writers,” Evans said. “I think at some point we were just like, ‘Hey, this is our voice. This is where we're comfortable. This is where our commentary is at.’ And so we just fully embraced that. … Eventually the praise we got started to be much louder than the criticism.”
Before long, Black Nerd Problems wasn’t merely a website; it was a community. Readers began depending on the site for its take on Marvel movies and anime classics, and if Evans, Holmon or one of the other contributors didn’t write about it, they’d hear about it.
“What they were actually saying was, ‘Your opinion on this thing is something that we value.’ And when that realization started to happen more and more: that we were a destination for a lot of people who wanted our perspective on something. That's where it started to click, like, oh, wow, we're not just posting things on the Internet. … We're actually building a community here,” Evans said. “I wasn't really prepared for that. I didn't anticipate that there would be something other than the content we posted that would sustain us.”
Now, Black Nerd Problems has grown to include about 20 regular contributors across different mediums, including podcasts, video, Twitch livestreams and more. On Sept. 14, Evans and Holmon released Black Nerd Problems the book, which collects BNP essays from the last several years, as well as new pieces written for the book. Tonight (Wednesday, Sept. 29) at 7:30 p.m., Evans and Holmon will discuss the new collection with moderator (and recent “genius grant” recipient) Hanif Abdurraqib at Two Dollar Radio HQ.
In the book, Evans and Holmon tackle essays on "Kung Fu Panda," comic book characters (Green Lantern, Superman, Batman), actor/filmmaker Jordan Peele, "The Wire" character Stringer Bell, the definition of a nerd and more.
At first, Evans, who published a poetry collection last year, balked at a Black Nerd Problems book when his editor at Simon & Schuster proposed the idea. He wondered if the site’s older content would still be relevant. But after talking it over with Holmon, and realizing the pair could write new material for the book, they got excited about it and began making plans in early 2020. Evans and Holmon, who lives in New York, planned to get together for writing and brainstorming sessions until the book was complete. Then the pandemic hit.
Toiling away at the book on his own, while at the same time working towards an MFA from Randolph College, Evans was getting worn down. For years, he and Holmon had often worked collaboratively, sometimes writing pieces by bantering back and forth over Google Chat. The isolation was making him listless. “The fact that we weren't going to be able to spend time in each other's presence to write this book, it just felt like a death blow,” Evans said.
Eventually, Evans and Holmon booked a hotel for a weekend writing session, which marked a creative turning point. “I don't know if this book gets finished without that weekend, because I was really at a loss. I felt like I had no ideas,” Evans said. “With the pandemic and everything else happening, I felt like all my energy for creativity was being pulled through this grad school program I was in. But coming off of that weekend definitely energized me.”
Still, amid a raging pandemic, it took extra effort to dig deep and find the sense of humor that runs like a current through the world of Black Nerd Problems. “It was hard to be funny,” Evans said. "Omar is the funny one between the two of us, and he was just like, ‘Man, I don't know. Sometimes I write something funny and I feel guilty about it.’”
In the end, the book ably captures the tone of the site in essays like, “It’s Time We Stop Pretending That Simba Wasn’t Garbage in The Lion King,” in which Evans writes, “Simba was the son of the king. This dude ain’t have no chores, stayed getting into shit and never taking responsibility for his actions. Basically Simba is the lion version of privilege and affluenza.”
“I didn't think that my take on Simba was a popular one, but I did not realize how protective people were of Simba. The vitriol I got for that! People were coming at me, like, ‘I can't believe you talked about my boy like that,’” Evans said, noting that his beef was as much about (spoiler alert) the death of Simba’s far-superior father, Mufasa. "That messed me up, man. I remember being, like, ‘Well, they wouldn't show him this long if he's dead, right? He's going to get up, right?’ They just show us the dead body of Mufasa for like two minutes, man!”