Best and Worst of Writing Panels at Phoenix Comic Fest | Phoenix New Times

Phoenix Comic Fest: The View From the Center Hallway

Writers share tips and discuss sci-fi and fantasy.
Gail Carriger speaks during a panel at Phoenix Comic Fest 2018.
Gail Carriger speaks during a panel at Phoenix Comic Fest 2018. Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0/via Flickr
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Phoenix Comic Fest offers many things for many facets of fandom. For autograph hounds, it is a chance to meet and greet celebrities. Costumers show off their latest cosplay. Gamers roll the dice until the early hours of the morning.

And bookworms spend their time hopping from room to room along the center hallway of the convention center, listening to best-selling authors share writing tips, and discuss trends in sci-fi and fantasy.

The panels are uniformly interesting and presented by knowledgeable pros, who are also longtime friends. There are also the comedy panels from local fantasy author Sam Sykes, which usually involve him torturing his friend Myke Cole with fart jokes.

It is a hidden treasure for readers, and a chance for in-depth interaction between authors and their fans, as well as armloads of free books. Although the 2018 lineup was not as large as 2014’s, or as stacked with all-stars as 2016’s, it still included some of the biggest names in science fiction and fantasy, participating in informative and often hilarious discussions.

Here are some of the literary highlights from Phoenix Comic Fest.

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Beth Cato shows off her chewy honey maple cookies, which she gave to fans throughout Comic Fest.
Michael Senft
The Best

Beth Cato’s cookies

The Valley’s own Beth Cato (Breath of Earth) always brings cookies for her fans. And they are worth tracking her down for. This year, she brought her chewy honey maple cookies, and they were every bit as good as they sound. With the added security this year, Cato was worried she wouldn’t be able to bring them in, but she was able to bring a container of goodness into the convention center every day.

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Sam Sykes (center) explains the rules to Author Batsu, where the contestants (left to right), Myke Cole, Aprilynne Pike, Gail Carriger, Amy Lukavics, Sylvain Neuvel, and Scott Sigler, are punished for failure by being forced to eat habanero salsa. Emcee John Scalzi (left) watches.
Michael Senft
Author Batsu
Now in its fifth year, the Author Batsu game is the one can’t-miss panel for books and authors. After packed rooms the past couple of years, the convention organizers finally moved it to one of the largest rooms so everyone could get in. The brainchild of Sam Sykes, Batsu’s principle is that players aren’t rewarded for doing things correctly, they are punished for doing them wrong. And the punishment is eating spoonfuls of habanero salsa. The game hasn’t been kind to Cole, who was physically ill from the salsa the three previous times he’s played, and that didn’t change this time. Only this time. Sykes’ game wasn’t as well thought-out.

This year, the contestants (including Sykes) each had to pick one of the great houses from Game of Thrones, and if any of them duplicated houses, every contestant was punished. The seven contestants never completed the task successfully. After 15 minutes, they were in agony. And by 30 minutes, John Scalzi (Old Man's War), who acted as judge and timekeeper, performing renditions of the Game of Thrones theme on kazoo and vuvuzela, offered a mercy rule to end the contestants' pain. Katherine Arden, author of the Russian-influenced The Bear and the Nightingale, was overheard telling her publicist after the game was finished, "Don't ever make me do this panel."

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Myke Cole speaks during a panel at Phoenix Comic Fest 2018.
Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0/via Flickr
All Bard D&D
Sykes' panels are always fun and filled with juvenile humor, but his latest was particularly good. Kicking off the programming on Thursday, this panel featured Sykes and a handful of authors, including Delilah S. Dawson (Star Wars: Phasma), Scott Sigler, Sam Maggs, and of course, Cole, playing Dungeons and Dragons. As bards. Their task was to earn enough gold to pay their rent without combat. An encounter with an ogre quickly devolved into Maggs’ character convincing the ogre of a better way to eat humans, Dawson singing Orcish death metal, and Sigler leading the packed room in a rendition of Hit Me Baby One More Time. All the while, the long-suffering Cole’s character ended up tripping on acid, and trying to start a podcast with a talking pig.
Trust ,e, it was even weirder than it sounds.

Drinks With Creators
Another regular event, Drinks With Creators, is a fundraiser for Kids Need to Read, where fans can chat up author (and artist) guests over drinks. There are raffles for fans — usually autographed books — and as the evening goes on, crazier antics from the authors. This year, Sylvain Neuvel (Sleeping Giants) led a dozen or so authors in a singalong to Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer, and Christopher Paolini (Eragon) showed off his acrobatic skills.

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"What is my sexuality? Hopeful!" Gail Carriger (left) speaks at the LGBTQ panel. Other panelists include (left to right) K Arsenault Rivera, Melissa Marr, and Sam Maggs.
Michael Senft
Feminist and LGBTQ representation
Sci-fi and fantasy have long been the playground of white males. In recent years, however, that has changed, as writers like Charlie Jane Anders, NK Jemisin, and Ann Leckie have dominated the award lists with their critically acclaimed work.

“People who don’t look like us have decided they don’t want to put up with our shit anymore,” Cory Doctorow said of the recent rise in female, queer, and POC voices during his conversation with John Scalzi.

And Phoenix Comic Fest reflected that changing attitude with several panels on feminism and LGBTQ issues in literature. One straight author, Delilah S. Dawson, even bowed out of a panel so there could be more LGBTQ representation.

The con has been on the forefront of the “Cosplay Is Not Consent” movement, it is nice to see them championing women’s and LGBTQ voices as well.

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Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi discuss contemporary issues and politics, and how they influence science fiction, at Phoenix Comic Fest.
Michael Senft
John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow
“Two white men talking about politics” is how Scalzi described their panel. The two friends had an enlightening chat about current events, covering the political spectrum, “from radical leftist to flaming liberal,” as Doctorow said. They analyzed political and technological trends, and how they informed their work, as well as sci-fi in general. Doctorow even commented on how sci-fi informed our current state of events.

“We’re getting Huxleyed into the full Orwell,” Doctorow said, referring to the dystopian novels Brave New World and 1984.

And kudos to Scalzi for not taking the bait when an audience member tried to troll him about right-wing author (and longtime Scalzi critic) Larry Correia.

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The witty and fashionable Gail Carriger shows off her latest accessory.
Michael Senft
Gail Carriger’s purse
The steampunk author has a delightful retro fashion sense, which includes vintage dresses and a crochet octopus fascinator, but her teapot purse was the accessory of Comic Fest.

“My life is now complete,” she said after finding the purse for sale in the exhibitor hall.

Her sharp fashion was matched by her sharp wit. When asked to come up with a term for science-fiction novels that contained graphic sex, she immediately responded, “Heinlein,” referring to the controversial Grandmaster, whose Stranger in a Strange Land was a bible to the free -love movement.

Later in the panel, she quoted the smart observation, “Everything we do is about sex. Except sex, which is about power.”

The Worst
From a programming standpoint, there was little wrong with Comic Fest. The focus changed a bit from previous years, with more children’s authors, and there was less room for adult programming or guests as a result. And the guests skewed heavier toward sci-fi than fantasy, meaning more talks about technology, and less about magic systems. But those are minor quibbles.

There were a few major issues that need to be addressed, however.

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John Scalzi steps in to moderate a panel on the prophets of science fiction featuring (left to right) Cory Doctorow, Sylvain Neuvel, and Emily Devenport.
Michael Senft
Good moderators are essential to panels, as they keep the guests on subject by controlling the discussion and questions from the audience. Unfortunately, most of the books and authors panels had no moderator, and the authors themselves often had to step into the role. Even worse, a lot of them weren’t aware they were expected to do this, and some were clearly uncomfortable.

That said, Scalzi demonstrated repeatedly how to moderate. Working on the fly, and seeming a little upset that he had to, he still led wonderful discussions on research, and sci-fi futurism. He also made it a point to ask for questions from minority voices before calling on white men. It would have been nice if he had known he would be expected to moderate, however.

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Daniel Jose Older at one of Phoenix Comic Fest 2018's literary-focused panels.
Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0/via Flickr
POC representation
While there was a plethora of panels about kick-ass writing females, and making sure that gender and sexuality were represented, there was little discussion of race. Sam Maggs was quick to mention reading books by people of color, and John Scalzi gave a shout-out to N.K Jemisin and her “Broken Earth” trilogy, and that was about it. Probably because there weren’t that many: POC author guests attending were K Arsenault Rivera, Daniel Jose Older, Romina Russell, and Alexandra Monir. Next year, it would be nice to see some other faces of color, like Jemisin, Okorofor, Tobias Buckell and Nisi Shawl, to reflect the growing diversity of the sci-fi/fantasy community.

Repetitive Panels
As we said above, there were a lot of panels on feminism and writing female characters. But they all featured the same authors and ended up as slightly different ways of saying the same thing, be it writing fearless women, writing rebel girls, or the importance of female representation. Even the LGBTQ panel hit many of the same points, as all the authors were women. Outside of that, many of the other panels were longtime warhorses on magic systems, or mythical creatures, fan favorites that have been covered to death. It was nice to see those panels being presented by newer guests, however, giving them a fresher voice.
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