Aaron Forrester bends over a table in his father's garage, furiously sanding a shin guard. Beads of sweat trickle down his forehead and gather atop his thick goggles. Surrounded only by the whir of the sanding machine and the smell of Bondo, he's unblinking in his focus, even though the mid-May Phoenix heat is turning him into a water fountain.
He's got the garage door open and a floor fan running, but his dark gray Monty Python T-shirt, the one that reads "I fart in your general direction," is soaked with sweat.
On the table in front of him are a dozen or so unfinished fiberglass body parts. He intends to put them together into the coolest costume Phoenix Comicon has ever seen. The annual pop culture geek convention takes place May 27 through 30 at the Phoenix Convention Center, where Forrester will debut his "biggest costume design" to date — an elaborate full body suit of armor based on the Marvel Comics character Iron Man.
It's no cheap Halloween costume, either — Forrester spent more than a year and $1,200 on its construction, fabricating every component from scratch. He can hardly wait to finish the suit, and he's in a hurry right now.
It's the third Sunday in May, and Phoenix Comicon is less than two weeks away. That's why he's in this garage, unshaven with bags under his eyes, diligently sanding, priming, and painting. He will do this for the next several hours. "I'm not looking pretty and I'm not smelling pretty, but I am getting this done by Comicon," he says with a smile.
The con's a big deal to Forrester for many reasons: In addition to the debut of his suit, he hopes to meet special guest Stan Lee (creator of Iron Man, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and a ton of other superheroes) for a photo opportunity. He's also scheduled to participate in a panel on comic book costuming.
Phoenix Comicon, now in its ninth year, is arguably one of the best conventions in the West and certainly is one of the most colorful. Attendance continues to grow as more comic book writers, artists, and sci-fi authors settle in the Valley.
But it's hardcore devotees like Forrester, who combine high costuming craftsmanship with a flair for the dramatic, that make Phoenix Comicon truly entertaining for everyone. The best thing about Phoenix Comicon is the people-watching. Nowhere else in Phoenix can you see Strawberry Shortcake stuffing her face with ramen noodles or watch an old woman dressed as Wonder Woman push a walker through a group of Ghostbusters.
We're not talking about a couple hundred people, either — these geeks are legion, and more than 10,000 are expected to converge on the Phoenix Convention Center this weekend. But only one will truly be Iron Man.
The Atomic Comics store at Chandler Fashion Center faces an open outdoor plaza. Passersby are greeted by the store's giant, radioactive-yellow marquee and the lanky Spider-Man sign that appears to crawl toward it. The storefront windows are covered in colorful Caped Crusader collages and neon Batman signs.
Once a month, the same family shops here. They know Aaron Forrester by name. To the family's kids, he's not just the tall, skinny guy at the comic book shop — he's the man with the magic quarters and the bubble gum.
When he sees them come in, he makes candy materialize. "I ask them and their parents if they were good and did their schoolwork," he says. "And if they say yes, I'll be, like, 'Here's a piece of bubble gum.'"
Forrester, 27, loves to do little magic tricks as a hobby. Sometimes, he'll just walk up to kids at GameWorks and pull coins out from behind their ears. "I'll just be, like, 'Hey, do you like money? Let me show you a little trick,'" he says with a boyish grin.
Atomic Comics is a natural fit for Forrester, a lifelong comic book fan who loves to show off. As an assistant manager, he provides as much entertainment as he does retail service. One year, for the store's annual "Super Villain Day," he dressed as Batman nemesis The Joker. His costume included a canvas straitjacket with buckle straps and a prosthetic face.
Forrester has worked 21/2 years at Atomic Comics, the third-largest comic retailer in the nation. Originally founded in Phoenix as Bubba's Comics Store in 1988 by Michael Malve (and rechristened soon thereafter with a move to Mesa), Atomic Comics now includes four retail stores throughout the Valley and a substantial online business. To comic book fans, the stores are places not just to shop, but to hang out and talk about their favorite characters.
The energetic, social vibe inspired the makers of the movie Kick-Ass (starring Nicolas Cage), which was released April 16. Producers used the Atomic Comics name, storefront, logo, and T-shirts prominently in the film, which chronicles the adventures of a ragtag pack of people who become self-made superheroes. The movie's main characters hang out there and watch the drama of their secret lives unfold on the TV.
Forrester doesn't really have a secret life. His family and friends know he is trying to become Iron Man; he's been dreaming of stepping into that armor since he was 8 years old.
The fourth of five children, Forrester was born in Phoenix and raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though he and his siblings always got excited about Halloween, Aaron was the only one who took to performing, starting with a role as one of the von Trapp kids in a production of The Sound of Music at a charter elementary school in Mesa. "I have a background in being an exhibitionist in performing arts," he says.
His family moved to San Diego from Phoenix when he was still in elementary school, and Forrester continued performing in school and community theater. He fell in love with Southern California's theme parks, especially Disneyland and Six Flags. "I'm a theme park junkie. I've been to Six Flags more times than I can count. My best friend and I would go two or three times a month," Forrester says.
He discovered superheroes and comic books when he was about 7. He loved watching cartoons like X-Men, Batman, and Iron Man growing up, and one of the first things he ever bought was a cartoon cel of Iron Man.
Batman and Iron Man have always been Forrester's two favorite superheroes, because they're human. Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) don't possess supernatural powers, just lots of expensive, high-tech tools.
"They're self-made heroes," Forrester says. "Granted, they had a lot of money, but they've always relied on their intellect and ingenuity to make themselves 'super.' Superman had all these powers; even the Hulk has gamma radiation powers. But Iron Man and Batman have to rely on their own skills to try and do some good."
Forrester's family moved back to Phoenix in 2003, and the following year, the Mormon Church sent him on a two-year mission to Arkansas and Tennessee. "I learned a foreign language while I was there. It's called redneck," Forrester jokes.
He doesn't call his mission the best two years of his life, but they were "the best two years for my life." He says his volunteer work at an Arkansas hospital made him want to costume for charity. He got married after he returned to Phoenix in 2006, but the marriage quickly fell apart. It was one of the toughest periods of his life, and another impetus for costuming.
"I lost about 25 pounds from all the stress with my ex-wife," Forrester says. "She had some serious problems. She was schizophrenic and suicidal, and we tried everything we could to help her. She tried to commit suicide three times before the divorce. No matter how hard I tried, she gave up on the marriage."
Forrester was working more than 70 hours a week as a mattress salesman and wasn't eating or sleeping well. He made the decision to move back in with his parents about two years ago. He left his mattress sales job for Atomic Comics, where he rediscovered superheroes.
"It's the whole escapism from hard times," Forrester says. "Comic books have heroes, and they're making the ideal characters, like someone can be so completely incorruptible — above and beyond. You can have such a wonderful escape into another world."
The Iron Man armor suit has perhaps become Forrester's ultimate escape — instead of just reading about his hero, he can become him. Costuming has become his new mission, his own form of heroics. Ultimately, he wants to wear his costumes to children's hospitals and at charity events.
"My mom's an office manager for a pediatrician, so she's got all kinds of connections with local hospitals and children's organizations," Forrester says. "I'm very much looking forward to our first visit to a children's hospital, because I've seen how kids light up around their heroes. I know it's not much, but if it brings a smile, it's worth it to me."
This past January, Forrester established a costuming group called Arizona Avengers. He's been recruiting people to dress as other Avengers heroes and Marvel characters so they can start doing charity work together. In five months, the group has gotten more than 400 fans on their Facebook page. So far, Forrester's got Spider-Man, Scarlet Witch, Thor, Black Widow, and himself, as Iron Man. There's also someone to play Pepper Potts, the secretary and love interest of Tony Stark (a.k.a. Iron Man).
There are some parallels between Forrester and Tony Stark. Like Stark, Forrester designed a suit of body armor from scratch, in an impressive display of craftsmanship. Unlike Stark, Forrester doesn't have a sprawling, billion-dollar lab with robot helpers, but he does make ample use of the garage and workshop at his family's sizeable Chandler home, where tools and parts hang from the walls and crowd various shelves.
And like Stark, Forrester learned much of what he knows from his father. "As long as I can remember, I've been turning wrenches with my dad," he says. "Anything that breaks — clutch job, transmissions, virtually anything you can think of repairing on a car, we've done."
Raymond Forrester is an aerospace engineer with a lifelong passion for racing and auto mechanics. The Forrester's current fleet includes a shiny silver BMW convertible, a black Porsche Turbo, and Aaron's custom white Mitsubishi Roadster convertible.
"As Aaron was growing up, every time I had something to do on one of the cars, I made sure he was there so I could teach him," Raymond says. "We've redone his car a couple of times. I've always been a gearhead, ever since I can remember, and Aaron's got that same affection . . . But that superhero costume is a lot of work. He's got a lot more patience than I've got. I couldn't spend that kind of time on it."
In addition to his full-time job at Atomic Comics, Forrester is a full-time student, studying industrial auto design at Mesa Community College. He plans to transfer to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, within the next couple of years.
Maybe he'll build a Batmobile. "If I had one, I'd drive it all over the place," he says. "In a perfect world, if money were not an object and I were done with school, I'd have my own car company and design exotic cars for a living. How many people can say, 'Hey, look — I thought of this car and designed it with my own two hands.' That's down the road."
For now, his focus is to finish his Iron Man costume so he can wear it to Phoenix Comicon with the Arizona Avengers and meet Marvel maven Stan Lee. "It's very important for me to get a photo with Stan Lee," Forrester says. "Stan's the creator of so many classic characters. It's important for us to be there with him and to show the world, 'Hey, here we are with the creator of so many different Marvel characters and the icon of Marvel comics — with us! C'mon, check it out.'"
"That's motivation for me to finish the suit," Forrester says. "And bragging rights, I guess."
The biggest comic convention in the United States was founded in 1970, when a man named Shel Dorf held the first Golden State Comic Book Convention in San Diego. That annual event is now known as San Diego Comic-Con International, and almost 140,000 people attended last year.
It's gotten so big that it pushes the capacity of the San Diego Convention Center. This year's event takes place in July and has been sold out since last November.
For Aaron Forrester, who grew up in San Diego and attended Comic-Con many times, the event has gotten so big in the past decade that it's hard to enjoy anymore. There are long lines from the entrance to the booths and the panel rooms — and in the background of every photo he's taken, herds of random people clutching plastic bags.
"San Diego is not what it used to be," Forrester says. "It's so big and there are so many panels and so much going on. It's an entertainment compound. It's not just a comic con anymore. You have movies, video games, novelists, cartoons, everything pop culture in San Diego."
"It's good because it brings all these closet nerds out in the open," he adds, "but if you want more straight-up comics, you've got to go to Long Beach or Chicago — or Arizona, which is going to become a really cool icon because of the hard work of Phoenix Comicon."
The presence of so many comic creators in the Valley doesn't hurt, either. In the past several years, Phoenix has become a haven for industry talent: In addition to Lady Death comic writer and The Graves director Brian Pulido, the Valley is home to Spawn creator and action-figure mogul Todd McFarlane, Chew writer John Layman, best-selling sci-fi author Michael Stackpole, and award-winning Outlander series author Diana Gabaldon. Every one of them is a confirmed guest at this year's Phoenix Comicon, and fans won't have to wait in line for hours to meet and mingle with them.
For costumers like Forrester, there's more room in the limelight at Phoenix Comicon, too. They don't have to share the cameras with as many other self-made superheroes or spend 30 minutes clearing people from the background before posing.
When you spend thousands of dollars on costuming, as Forrester does, the price of attending conventions matters, too. Not counting transportation costs from Phoenix, a four-day pass to San Diego Comic-Con costs $75 (more if purchased from a scalper), and hotel costs run anywhere from $500 to well over a thousand dollars for the weekend.
Weekend passes for Phoenix Comicon, on the other hand, cost $30, and if attendees want to rent a room at the nearby Hyatt Regency (where there will be additional convention programming and events), they start at $119 a night.
For the first time, this year's Phoenix Comicon will feature a cash bar. That could make things doubly interesting. Hopefully, the zombies can hold their liquor and the stormtroopers won't use their helmets as yuck buckets.
But more importantly, at least for people like Aaron Forrester, there's the opportunity — all weekend long — to run around in elaborate, colorful costumes that show off their creative flair. Costuming is huge in the Valley, with several costuming groups dressing up for events (and for the heck of it) all year long.
They all have their reasons. "People ask me, 'Why the heck do you do this?' Because it's fun," Forrester says. "And also, I love the armor. Chicks dig the armor, too."
On a scorching Saturday in April, a dozen campy superheroes strut and stagger across Rio Salado Parkway to do battle at Tempe Beach Park. They have just left the Tavern on Mill, and most are three drinks deep on screwdrivers, squinting through their masks at the blazing afternoon sun.
At the head of this pack is Captain Bullshit, casting long shadows with his horned helmet and flowing black cape. Among his allies: Thong Man, sporting a silver spandex bodysuit and a painfully taut G-string; Firefly, wearing a shiny red luchador mask and bulbous codpiece; and Evil Eve, wearing little besides flesh-colored tights and artificial vines. Drivers honk and wave at them; they wave back and strike heroic poses.
This is supposed to be the "Epic Superheroes vs. Villains" battle, but so far, this motley crew is the only group here. They're all members of Arizona Costumed Revelers, a social group of Valley costuming fans who don a variety of guises for themed club nights and bar crawls. They're debating whether or not to grab drinks at Rúla Búla when the "opposition" finally arrives.
The second wave of superheroes is larger — about 40 people — and consists of such characters as Super Cow (udders and all), The King (somebody in an Elvis pantsuit with a gorilla mask on his head), Sparta the Custodian (weapon of choice: long-stick broom), and a Viking man who keeps lifting his loincloth to reveal hot pink spandex shorts that read "Pow!" on the crotch and "Smash!" on the ass.
Plastic swords and swimming-pool noodles fly as the two sides clash at the entrance to Tempe Beach Park. Cries of "Mwahaha!" "Die, evil villains!" and "Where's my wig?" fill the air.
The mock melee lasts about 10 minutes, and then the legion of superheroes boards the Metro light rail to catch a matinee screening of Kick-Ass at the Arizona Center. It's a small taste of the eye candy to appear at Phoenix Comicon.
Some Valley costuming fans, like Aaron Forrester and the Arizona Avengers, gear up for Phoenix Comicon and charity events for months. Others, like AZ Costumed Revelers, dress up year-round just to party. Costuming crosses all factions of fandom, from sci-fi to anime, and the weekend of Comicon brings them all together in a quirky catwalk where Yoda and Pokémon walk hand in hand.
Perhaps the best-known international costuming group is the 501st Legion — whose members dress as Star Wars stormtroopers, in white plastic body armor and helmets, and carry black prop rifles. Members of the Arizona chapter, the Dune Sea Garrison, will be at Comicon this year to host a mixer with women dressed as 1940s pinup girls. They're also scheduled to attend the Comicon "Geek Prom," a fundraiser for Kids Need to Read hosted by actors Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stand By Me) and Felicia Day (The Guild, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog).
Like the DSG, the Arizona Ghostbusters will be at the con to raise money for charity, complete with proton packs and their Ecto-1 mobile (which will probably be parked near a DeLorean).
Arizona Costumed Revelers will also be there, to promote their own "Wild Wild West Con" in Tucson next year. You might find them by the bar, dressed up as futuristic cowboys.
Each of those groups has invested time and money in the creation of their costumes and props, but few have put in the kind of hours Aaron Forrester has. For him, finally putting on his Iron Man armor will be an epic moment. The painstaking process of creating it has been an endless ladder of steps, filled with "all these little details."
To create the molds for his armor, Forrester used a computer program called Pepakura, which takes the dimensions of objects (like paper craft flowers, card-stock airplanes, or Iron Man's codpiece) and creates a numbered template which can be cut, folded, and glued into a 3D object.
Using Pepakura, data from an Iron Man costuming fan in Norway, and his own body measurements, Forrester created 3D paper models for each of the costume's 30-plus parts. Then, he assembled each paper model and coated it with resin and a thick layer of fiberglass.
"It starts off as card stock, just basic paper. The torso alone took 24 man-hours — just paper alone, not including fiberglass time," Forrester says. "Plus, I wanted to add some really fun details, like the vents in the back. There's lots of steps, lots of little pieces."
Once every piece was assembled, covered with resin, and formed in fiberglass, Forrester applied Bondo putty to them all. "It's basically automotive body filler, nothing special," he says. "You can get it at any AutoZone."
He sands the Bondo on every part, adds a layer of glazing or lacquer putty, and finally, a layer of primer. It's a long, hot, caustic process, and Forrester often wears a gas mask when working.
After the primer is sanded, Forrester covers each part in auto body paint — hot-rod red for the torso, feet, and gloves; bright gold for the arms and legs; both colors for the helmet.
But even after all the individual parts — chest, shoulders, biceps, forearms, elbows, gauntlets, shin guards, and so forth — are finished, there are, as Forrester always says, "the little details."
In the comics and films, Iron Man has a glowing blue circle called an "arc reactor" in his chest. There are various instructions on the Internet describing how to construct one for a costume, but Forrester took his own approach.
"I looked at the real thing. I wish I could afford the real thing — they actually auctioned off the Mark 1 chest piece at the Chicago Comicon this year, the one they used in the film. I wish I could have bought it," he says. "Anyway, I just looked at it and made my own version of the reactor."
Forrester's arc reactor is assembled from various parts he picked up at Ace Hardware, including copper wire and the electrical housing for a ceiling fan. The centerpiece is painted card stock covered with the same opaque plastic he used for the eyes in his helmet. To make the arc reactor light up, he installed LED lights and attached them to the battery for a paintball gun. When connected, the reactor gives off a steely blue glow.
He couldn't make every single part of the costume himself. He did order a custom-made rubber collarbone that will allow him to turn his head in the suit, and he also wants to order a latex abdomen. "I don't have a six-pack like I used to," Forrester says. "I don't have muscles, but I can make muscles or have someone make them for me. And it doesn't look like a foam pad; it actually looks real."
"I'm a skinny sucker. I'll be the first to admit," he says. "By wearing armor, I can look bigger than I am and I don't have to worry about being buff or anything."
For more special effects, Forrester installed a microphone in his helmet, wired to a speaker in the armor torso. He also installed LED lights in his helmet, as well as the palms of his gloves. The palm lights are actually just touch lights from Ace Hardware.
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"Things like that make costuming fun," Forrester says. "The cool part about costuming is you buy stuff and you think, 'Ooh, I could use that for something else.' There's lots of materials from the automotive industry."
To finish off the costume, Forrester says he might use a rubberized coating spray under some of the parts, and sew ice-pack pockets into his jumpsuit. It's going to be hot underneath 40 pounds of armor.
Even after its debut, he'll continue to add to the costume. "It's constant maintenance on the finished pieces, too," Forrester says. "There are things I'll add to the suit after Phoenix Comicon," like pinstripes and shading. He also plans to have custom, bendable rubber knee joints made, along with hip sockets.
And no, he doesn't expect to get much sleep the night before Phoenix Comicon. "I'll probably be up very, very late doing last minute touches," he says. "It's all the little details."