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Geeks & Greeks

By Steve Altes ’84 (writer), Andy Fish (artist), Veronica Fish (colorist)

Released March 16, 2016

For those unfamiliar with MIT, reading Geeks & Greeks will likely be an eye-opening experience, as the graphic novel quickly dispels many MIT stereotypes. In the first few chapters, we see that Greek life exists at MIT, and that students aren’t a bunch of overly serious nerds — they like to joke around, prank each other, and put large objects on top of buildings. I’m a campus tour guide, and you wouldn’t believe (and would maybe be a little insulted) by the number of tourists and prospective students who ask if MIT even has clubs, Greek life, and sports. The artwork is consistently pleasing throughout the novel, and certainly does a great job at bringing many unbelievable events to life. In this way, the novel is certainly a compelling read, filled with jokes that will please anyone with nerdier sensibilities and stories that are sure to inspire young readers to apply to the Institute.

The story follows Jim Walden, a fictional freshman with a penchant for trouble, and his misadventures during his first year at MIT. Jim joins a fraternity notorious for its hacking activity, and when a hack goes wrong and the group leaves Jim to shoulder the blame, Jim must engage in some creative problem solving to quickly pay property damage fines.

There are some elements of the story that picky readers might criticize. For example, in the story, Jim gets into MIT without even applying, hacks occur every other day, and freshmen can live in fraternities (which is no longer allowed, but was actually common when Altes attended MIT). These are the type of things that a reasonable reader can overlook, understanding the suspension-of-disbelief inherent in reading fiction.

While the book is packed with instances of hazing, Altes adds a disclaimer in the preface saying that MIT has been strongly enforcing anti-hazing rules for many years now, but that this wasn’t the case when he attended MIT.

One downfall of the novel is blatant racial and gender under-representation (the author acknowledges the gender disparity in the preface). The only female characters that appear are Jim’s love interest and a few cheerleaders (who, ironically, mention that the MIT gender ratio is fairly equal these days) — such tired tropes. In the preface, the author remarks that when he went to MIT, the student population was 80 percent male, and that “the women [he knew] at MIT were far too levelheaded to be involved in many of the absurd events that are recounted in Geeks & Greeks.” This graphic novel certainly doesn’t incorporate elements of diversity, and once again, resorts to stereotypes when people of color are included. For example, when Jim needs to coerce black men to donate sperm at a local sperm bank (it’s a long story), he approaches (and practically kidnaps) a basketball team whose members are wearing jerseys that say “Ebony City” (a reference to Chocolate City). The author takes liberties to add modern elements to his story, updating campus buildings and incorporating new technology like smartphones, but unfortunately didn’t seem to translate social advances.

I had mixed feelings about the appendix, which explains MIT jargon and easter eggs hidden throughout the story. While it was helpful to have this, it did feel a little heavy handed at times. It is certainly worth explaining MIT jargon, or adding a disclaimer that the MIT football team is actually pretty good nowadays, particularly for audience members who have not attended MIT. However, I would have preferred if things like Star Trek or math jokes, for example, weren’t so explicitly enumerated.

While the book lists four hacking rules — be safe, don’t damage anything, don’t hurt anyone, and be funny — I was worried that it might undermine the discreet nature of hacking. Hackers will have to read the story for themselves to see if they feel outed.

While I think that the general reader will enjoy Geeks & Greeks, I’m curious to see how this book will be received by current and former MIT students, and even more curious to see what hackers and fraternity members will think.