Nerd Culture

9 Must-See Guests at Phoenix Comicon Fan Fest 2015

Booking special guests for a big geek convention often takes a lot of time, effort, patience, and persistence. Just ask Brandy Kuschel, who spends most of the year wrangling all manner of famed actors, artists, and geek icons for both Phoenix Comicon in the spring and its spinoff wintertime event, Fan Fest.

“There are a lot of moving parts involved with getting guests,” says Kuschel, who serves as Comicon’s director of guest relations.

There’s also a bit of luck involved and fortune has been known to suddenly smile upon her. Like, for instance, when the chance to host Doctor Who’s Karen Gillan at this year’s Phoenix Comicon Fan Fest next month fell into her lap.

As Kuschel explains, the Phoenix Comicon staff has a standing booking offer with agents representing many of the stars from the renowned BBC sci-fi show’s history, including David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Billie Piper. “We’ve let it be know that we’re always interested in having any Doctor Who guests out to Phoenix Comicon,” Kuschel says.

A few months ago, she got an e-mail offering up an appearance from Gillan, the Scottish actress who played ultra-popular companion Amy Pond, on a silver platter.

It was an offer that Kuschel and the rest of the Phoenix Comicon staff couldn’t refuse, especially since they’d been trying to book Gillan for years. Thing is, they’d been hoping to feature her at Phoenix Comicon proper, which brings upwards of 70,000 people to downtown and features a huge array of blockbuster guests. The Fan Fest, which debuted last December, is a much smaller event that’s geared more towards artists and families.

According to Phoenix Comicon director Matt Solberg, while Fan Fest includes appearances by some notable names, such as actor Tom Skeritt or artist Bob Layton at last year’s event, the emphasis isn’t necessarily on big guests.

“Last year we had a couple of headliners and a few other special guests and I think everyone fit in with what we were doing,” Solberg says. “But this year it wasn't like we were going after a big-named person for Fan Fest. And then it just kind of happened with Karen Gillan.”

Solberg says that when Kuschel told him the Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy actress would be available for the event, the two were amused by the irony over finally getting the guest they wanted, albeit at a completely different time of year.

“Brandy and I had a really good chuckle together,” Solberg says, “Because it was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me. We've spent all this time trying to get her for Phoenix Comicon and now it’s being handed to us?’ But we both knew right away, we weren't passing up this opportunity. You just don't.”

Nor did they pass on any of the other big guests that they had the chance to feature at this year’s Phoenix Comicon Fan Fest, which takes place from Friday, December 4, to Sunday, December 6, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale and will include such famous names as A-Team/Battlestar Galactica star Dirk Benedict, veteran character actor W. Morgan Shepard, Torchwood’s Gareth David-Lloyd, and Sean Maher from Firefly.

All of the aforementioned actors are among the guests at the event that are really worth seeking out at the event, whether it's at each of their Q&A panels or one of many autograph and photo op sessions that will happen throughout the weekend.

Kevin Sorbo

It’s a given that actor Kevin Sorbo will forever be linked with Hercules after portraying the mythological character on television for six seasons. And he’s well aware of this and even pokes fun at it on his Twitter account, stating “Yes, the Hercules guy” in his description. That said, there’s more to the man than his most famous role, both personally and professionally.

Like the fact that Sorbo was not only strongly considered to star as the Man of Steel in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, and reportedly was also in the running for the role of Fox Mulder on The X-Files. He also once modeled for Versace, actively believes in ghosts, and considers himself to be a space geek. In other words, there’s more to chat about at Fan Fest than what it was like working with Bruce Campbell or Lucy Lawless. 

Melendy Britt & Alan Oppenheimer
As children of the 1980s, we spent many a half-hour engrossed in the intergalactic animated adventures of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. In fact, so enormous was our fandom for the cartoon and toy line, which saw the titular hero doing battle with the evil Skeletor and his dastardly minions, we tuned into its girl-centric spin-off She-Ra: Princess of Power. No joke. (We watched Jem and the Holograms, too.) Hell, we even paid to see the Secret of the Sword, the animated film starring the duo (who, in the context of the franchise, were brother and sister).

We’re willing to bet we aren’t the only ones who did so and both men and women will flock to meet actress Melendy Britt, who voiced She-Ra, during her various photo and autograph sessions or attend the “Animation Classics” panel on Saturday, December 5, she will participate in with Skeletor actor Alan Oppenheimer and Masters of the Universe animator Tom Cook.

Sean Maher
Speaking of sci-fi shows sadly axed before their time, the much-beloved but short-lived Firefly will always be the ultimate example of network shortsightedness because of Fox's tragic decision to cancel the promising show a mere 11 episodes into its run. Not that its actors are dwelling on it much, since all have gone on to star in equally memorable roles.

That includes Sean Maher, who played Dr. Simon Tam on both the show and its big-screen continuation, Serenity. Following Firefly’s cancellation, he went on to act in a number of geek-friendly shows, including a recurring role on Arrow as the villainous Shrapnel and Nightwing in the Batman and Robin cartoon from a few years back. We’re certain he’ll discuss both projects, as well a field the inevitable slew of Firefly questions during Q&A session on Saturday, December 5, at Fan Fest.

Denise Crosby
Sometimes in life, what seems like a bad situation at the time might wind up working out for the best. In the case of actress Denise Crosby, who played Lieutenant Tasha Yar on Star Trek: The Next Generation, her decision to abandon the role after only one season might have been upsetting to Trekkers at the time, but wound up being beneficial to both the show and her career.

Killing off Yar allowed Crosby, who felt she was being underused, to try a series of different acting roles while TNG's creators got to beef up the character of Lieutenant Worf. Plus, it laid the groundwork for Tasha to return for a few unforgettable one-off appearances in future episodes (like the iconic “Yesterday’s Enterprise”). Crosby has stated she doesn’t regret her choice, which she’ll probably expound upon when appearing at Fan Fest on Sunday, December 6.

W. Morgan Shepard

This British-born thespian is one of those chacacter actors you’ve seen in dozens of different roles over the years, including episodes of MacGyver, Diagnosis: Murder, Cold Case, Mad Men, and NCIS. Geeks will undoubtedly recognize him from Doctor Who (where he was featured in an episode with his son and fellow actor Mark Shepard) or several appearances throughout the Star Trek franchise.

Oh, and he also was crusty old punker Blank Reg in both the British and Americanized version of dystopian sci-fi show Max Headroom. It’s a role that Brandy Kuschel most associates Shepard with playing. “Of course, he's known for being on Doctor Who, but for me, he’ll always be Blank Reg,” she says. “If you watched Max Headroom in the '80s when it was kind of a big deal, you remember him.”

Gareth David-Lloyd
Okay, we’ll admit it. When the organizers of Phoenix Comicon Fan Fest announced that Torchwood stars Gareth David-Lloyd and Eve Myles were scheduled to appear at this year’s event, we had a bit of a squeefest, considering our avid fandom of the Doctor Who spin-off. (And, up until recently, we were also expecting them to somehow wrangle repeat Comicon guest John Barrowman to complete the trifecta.)

Even the fact that Myles’ ultimately postponed her appearance until next year’s Comicon didn’t diminish the excitement of getting to see David-Lloyd in person and hear him offer insight into his nuanced portrayal of Ianto Jones, one of the show’s more interesting and complex characters. A straight-laced bureaucrat with a dry wit, dapper style, and meticulous nature who meekly played second fiddle to the rest of the alien-hunting Torchwood members, Jones evolved over the course of two seasons into more of multi-facted, personable, and flawed individual who had feelings for team leader Jack Harkness. His surprising death at the beginning of season three was as of a tragedy as the fact the program was later cancelled by the BBC, before he could be resurrected.

Dirk Benedict
Ask Matt Solberg who he’s looking forward to seeing at Fan Fest this year and the Phoenix Comicon executive director won’t take long to respond. “Dirk Benedict,” he says without hesitation, barely containing his glee. Solberg’s anticipation is understandable, considering he was an avid fan of iconic ‘80s program The A-Team, which featured Benedict as ladies man Templeton “Faceman” Peck, since childhood. (He’s equally as famous for his role as Starbuck on the original Battlestar Galactica.)

“I watched The A-Team a lot while growing up and I’ve wanted bring Dirk Benedict out as a guest for the last couple of years now,” Solberg says. The actor, however, proved to be as elusive as his fugitive, soldier of fortune character on show as things haven’t quite worked out schedule-wise. Finally, the stars aligned earlier and Solberg was able to nail down Benedict for an appearance. And once the details were all ironed out, Solberg got to invoke the catchphrase of The A-Team’s leader, John “Hannibal” Smith. “Yeah, I said to myself, ‘I love it when a plan comes together,’” he says. “It was a plan 13 years in the making, but it finally happened. I feel just like Hannibal. Where's my cigar?”

Karen Gillan
Solberg admits there were a few “logistical challenges” involved with hosting Doctor Who actress Karen Gillan at this year’s Fan Fest. Namely, finding a big enough room to handle all the fans. “She’s the type of person that can get a couple thousand people to come to her panel, and we're limited on that type of space even at a somewhere as big as the stadium.” Solberg says. “The largest [meeting] room there only holds a couple hundred people"

As a result, Gillan’s Q&A session on Sunday will take place in the Solana Ballroom at the nearby Renaissance Glendale Hotel. And we’re guessing it will be filled to capacity, probably because of her enormous popularity. Gillan’s Doctor Who character Amy Pond, the rambunctious sidekick to the 11th Doctor, is widely considered to be one of the best companions in the show’s 52-year history (second only to Sarah Jane Smith and Donna Noble). The actress is pretty cheeky and fun herself, especially during convention appearances, and plenty ballsy to boot, considering she was willing to shave her head in order to play blue-skinned bad girl Nebula in the blockbuster film adaptation of Guardians of the Galaxy.

Phoenix Comicon Fan Fest 2015 takes place Friday, December 4, to Sunday, December 6, at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Tickets are $30 for the full event or $10 to $20 per day.
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.

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