Being Tron Guy
A husky 48-year-old man dressed in a spandex tron costume sits in the cockpit of the airplane and goes through the pre-flight checklist. "Put your seatbelt on," he tells me.
The pilot is Jay Maynard, a.k.a. "Tron Guy," a Minnesota computer consultant and internationally famous internet meme. Maynard is at the controls of his $133,449 pride and joy: a brand-new AMD Zodiac XLi, custom painted to match his Tron suit.
The Tron Plane was recently featured on Wired magazine's website, but that was hardly Tron Guy's first taste of fame. He has been a regular on Jimmy Kimmel Live, mocked on South Park, and the butt of ridicule on Fark.com, all just for being Tron Guy.
And yet as overexposed as Tron Guy may be—you can hardly surf the web without encountering his spandex-clad junk—surprisingly little has been written about the man behind the jpeg.
Which is how I ended up in Tron Guy's cockpit.
TRON GUY AT HOME
Maynard makes his home in Fairmont, a hilly two-hour drive south from the Twin Cities. It's a town of just over or just under 11,000 residents (depending on which roadside sign you consult) ten miles from the Iowa border in lake-dotted Martin County. Only in a tucked away Midwestern hamlet like this could a man reach worldwide internet fame and scorn, yet still grocery shop unrecognized at the local Hy-Vee.
Maynard and his roommate, Paul Neubauer, own a home together just a block from a lake. They greet me in their front yard wearing matching T-shirts from the web comic Schlock Mercenary. "This was purely coincidental," Neubauer jokes.
The first floor of the house is cluttered with empty shipping boxes, old computers (58 in all, of which they use eight or nine), and memorabilia from all corners of the geek universe. Between the sci-fi DVDs and videos, a Lego set, and a pachinko machine, the living room looks like it was decorated by a 10-year-old boy in 1997.
Noticeably absent from the home is anything related to the film Maynard is so closely tied to. There is no homemade shrine to Tron. Maynard's suit is not mounted on a stately mannequin next to glass cases of film props. There's not even a Tron movie poster on the wall.
"Everybody assumes he is obsessed with Tron," Neubauer says. "But look around you."
I'm sitting between matching Animaniacs throw pillows. Framed and autographed animation cells from the Warner Bros. cartoon dot the walls. The smallish TV has Animaniacs figurines on either side. A card-catalogue-size VHS drawer system houses every episode of the show, the numbers written neatly in black Sharpie on white labels.
Animaniacs is much closer to Maynard's heart than Tron ever could be. It was Animaniacs that brought Maynard and Neubauer together. Back in 1996, they met online in a chat room for Animaniacs fans. At that time, Neubauer was planning a move to Fairmont to work for electronic-scale maker Weigh-Tronix, while Maynard was a systems administrator in Houston. They identified in Animaniacs a throwback quality seldom found in modern cartoons. The show was unafraid to take risks and wink at the audience.
From that initial, long-distance friendship, a much deeper bond developed. They eventually met in person for the first time later that year when Maynard visited the Twin Cities on business. The men kept in touch for a few years, until earlier this decade when Maynard decided he needed a change of scenery. Tired of working in computers in Houston and ready to try small town living, Maynard took a job with a Minneapolis company that allowed him to work from wherever he desired. And he desired to be with Neubauer in Fairmont. Maynard arrived on Christmas Day 2001. It's worked out quite well for them. They even share a love of costuming: Neubauer is a furry who dresses as a made-up character named "Orven the Ox."
"I'm satisfied with things the way they are," Maynard says with a Texas drawl. "I have adequate companionship with Paul."
THE BIRTH OF TRON GUY
Maynard first saw Tron when he was 22. He remembers liking it; it was the first movie he ever saw twice in theaters.
"I went by myself. There was a brand-new movie theater that opened out in my part of Houston, and I went on a Thursday evening or some such," he recalls. "They had the 70-millimeter print and the gorgeous sound system and all that. It was a really nice way to see the movie, and almost nobody was there. I walked out of it thinking I had really gotten my money's worth out of it."
Twenty-one years later, Maynard turned that enjoyment of the film into worldwide fame.
Tron Guy was conceived in 2003 at Penguicon 1.0, a convention in Detroit for both computer and sci-fi enthusiasts.
"I was going for the computer-y kinds of stuff," Maynard recalls. "The science fiction stuff was there, too, and that was pretty interesting."
One of the events at the convention was a costume masquerade. It was here that Maynard had his inspiration.
"Penguicon, being a crossover between science fiction and computing, it struck me that Tron would be a good subject to draw from. I spent the next year plotting and planning and designing."
He scoured Ebay for Tron costumes, finding and buying the battle armor. After seeing a couple other fans' costumes, Maynard decided his was going to be even more authentic.
"There were two things they did that I didn't think very highly of. By and large they were all white, as were the originals. And if you watch though, the characters in the movie are green not white," he says. "So, I decided that I was going to try to capture that green color. The second thing was that very few of them used spandex. I felt that it was important to get that as close as I could."
With these artistic standards in mind, he found a satisfactory green paint color at Mills Fleet Farm, sent it off to the costume maker who had previously made his Renaissance-fair outfits, and received back a custom-dyed unitard. With all the pieces put together, Maynard spent the week before Penguicon 2.0 in 2004 applying blue paint to the unitard, gluing electroluminescent wire to the armor and helmet, and attaching battery packs under the armor to power the glowing.
At the masquerade that year, "Tron Guy," a sci-fi debutante in green spandex and light-up plastic armor, wowed the costume judges, and was awarded the coveted Best Workmanship prize.
Soon after, Maynard heard that an editor from geek culture website Slashdot.org, which had run a story about Tron costumes around the same time, was at Penguicon. Maynard submitted photos of himself and information about the suit, which the editor dutifully posted to Slashdot at 2:02 p.m. Sunday, April 18.
And with that, the clock on Maynard's life as a normal citizen began to tick down.
As Maynard drove his friends to the airport, web commentators moved in for the kill. Since he wore nothing under the unitard, many of the comments were aimed squarely at Maynard's crotch.
"AH! MY EYES!" one commenter snarked. "Any chance we can add a warning to the story, something along the lines of 'Images of Overweight Man in Skintight Bodysuit Enclosed' or such?"
Another chimed in: "Whatever lingering heterosexuality was left in our resident geek girls is probably forever gone after viewing that page."
Within a half hour, someone had coined a MasterCard-style "Tron Guy" joke:
One custom-made leotard (Size: XXXL): $75.00
1 can of acrylic paint: $12.95.
3 yards of el-tape (blue): $30 dollars.
Having the largest camel-toe at Penguicon 1.0: Priceless.
Then, with Maynard still unaware, the story jumped to Fark.
"Most [comments on Slashdot] were along the lines of 'Ah! Fat guy in spandex! Don't look!'" he says. "Then it hit Fark almost immediately behind it. The difference between Slashdot and Fark is that comments on Slashdot were about 8th grade, and the comments on Fark were about 6th grade."
The teaser on the Fark homepage read: "Geek makes spandex TRON costume, doesn't realize wearing it endangers collective sanity of mankind (large man in spandex—you are warned)."
Inside the thread, the comments got progressively nastier.
"I think this is a good example of a guy who completely gives up on getting laid, ever," zinged one.
"He even has a camel-toe hanging off of that slow descent into madness he calls a butt," added another.
By the time Maynard returned from dropping his friends off at the airport, the internet had become a feeding frenzy and he was the chum. In all, more than 500 mostly disparaging comments piled up on Fark and Slashdot. Maynard was devastated.
"Monday, I got in my car to drive the 700 miles back by myself. That was not a fun drive," Maynard says. "I'd put a lot of effort into it, and I had honestly thought the Slashdot types would look at it and say, 'Ho hum, another costume, big deal.' A few folks would say, 'That's pretty neat.' And that would be the end of it."
But Fark wasn't done with him. He would reappear several times in the week after Penguicon 2.0. Someone even found his Livejournal blog about the fallout and posted it for further ridicule. Tron Guy was crestfallen but resilient.
"What turned it around, though, was that I started getting interest from the media," Maynard says. "First a college radio station in Philadelphia, then the Don and Mike Show, a syndicated radio show out of Washington D.C. I'm not a fan of what I call 'asshole-in-the-morning radio.' These guys were assholes in the afternoon, but I went on there. It was my chance to show my side of the story. And they played 'Let's make fun of the geek.' But I decided that if they were going to ask me a question, they were going to get an answer. If they didn't like it, that was just too damn bad."
By the end of the interview, Maynard had won their respect. After that, Maynard decided he was not going to be the world's geek piñata.
"I didn't have a choice," he says. "The Star Wars Kid had shown me there wasn't going to be any way to hide from it. This kid was 15, and they tried real hard to get the video taken down and hidden, and they flat failed."
Maynard sums it up this way: "I wasn't setting out to achieve fame. I got struck by it. I found myself riding a tiger. And when you ride a tiger, you got two choices: You can jump off and hope he doesn't turn around and eat you, or you can grab his ears and enjoy the ride."
TRON GUY GOES HOLLYWOOD
In May of 2004, the tiger took him to the Los Angeles studio of Jimmy Kimmel Live for an interview. The footage is the embodiment of Maynard's blunt approach to the media.
Kimmel opens Maynard's segment by saying rather mockingly, "As kids, I think we can all remember dressing up as a superhero or a character from a favorite movie, but when a 43-year-old man from Fairmont, Minnesota does it, it's unusual to say the least. Our next guest has turned his love for the 1982 movie Tron into an outfit, and he's become very popular on the internet for doing it. Here he is, Jay Maynard, everybody."
The lights dim, and Maynard stands illuminated in his Tron suit. After he sits down next to Kimmel, the audience can barely stifle its laughter. Maynard tells Kimmel that the only other movie he has seen twice in theaters is Disney's The Emperor's New Groove, and the audience guffaws. He explains that he's wearing batteries to power the suit, and people whistle and cackle.
As Kimmel fires away, the audience begins to resemble bloodthirsty Romans at a gladiator match. They jeer Maynard, eager to see him struck down. And Kimmel obliges, going for the nerd jugular by asking if Maynard is married. Maynard replies that he isn't, and the audience lights up with more laughter and whistles.
But Maynard keeps his cool, makes a joke about a wedding proposal he received, and toward the end of the interview, the audience quiets down and actually listens to Maynard explain how the suit works. His plan of being straightforward and answering every question works.
Following that initial appearance, Maynard did 14 more guest spots on Kimmel, even acting as a correspondent. Later, ABC made Kimmel retool the show, asking that he scale back the nerd stuff, and Maynard's appearances dried up. He toyed with the idea of trying to make a go at show biz, but Maynard thought better of it and returned to his quiet life with Neubauer.
TAKING FLIGHT WITH TRON GUY
Maynard dropped out of the public eye until about a month ago when, as a pilot of 20 years, he finally achieved one of his longtime goals: to buy his own plane.
He had it custom painted to match the Tron suit and posted pictures on the internet. This time, however, some of the web commentators changed their tune. When the Wired story about the Tron plane was put up on Fark, it still drew cruel jokes about his looks, but even his critics had to admit it's a pretty sweet plane.
Forum member PartTimeBuddha summed up Maynard's latest web celebrity best: "With the whole internet against him, he remains who he is and says, 'fark you.'"
After I spent the afternoon with him, Maynard put on the Tron suit and agreed to take me up for a cruise in the Tron plane. Maynard, Neubauer and I piled into his 2007 Lexus RX 350 and made the five-minute drive to the Fairmont airport, where his plane stood out as the newest. Neubauer pulled the slick little blue and white bird out of the hangar and Maynard taxied to the runway. He got out briefly, and a teenage boy wandered over and asked to have his photo taken with Tron Guy.
"People always ask if I mind having my photo taken with them, but I wouldn't be wearing the suit if I did mind," Maynard explained.
Once the impromptu photo op was over, Maynard and I climbed under the canopy. It was a brutally hot day, and the plane only has two holes for ventilation.
As Maynard turned the plane toward the empty runway, I could feel the strong winds getting pushy.
"If you have any trouble with airsickness, just let me know," Maynard said once we were airborne.
"I'll be fine," I said doubtfully.
The turbulent air jostled us like a lottery ball. After about 20 minutes, we flew over Fairmont before our final approach. From above it was nothing more than a small thicket of roads and neighborhoods, a brief interruption in a sea of green farmland stretching in every direction for miles.
Maynard turned the plane back toward the airstrip. The winds were still gusty and swaying us around. Maynard remained focused, unfazed. He announced our landing approach over the radio (although I wasn't sure anybody was listening) and we began to slope toward the earth. Maynard fought off the breeze and gently plunked us onto the tarmac.
Of course we're fine, I thought as the plane slowed to a stop. This is Tron Guy, the man who survived 15 appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live with his ample gut squeezed into spandex in front of the entire nation, the man who has endured four years of savage attacks from anonymous commentators on internet boards, the guy who has weathered dozens of interviews with snarky media types looking to have a laugh at his expense. And he's held his head high through it all. This is not a man easily shaken by a little wind.
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