Nerd Culture

Phoenix Comicon Fan Fest 2016: A Field Guide to This Weekend's Event in Downtown Phoenix

It seems like everyone you know has a reason to attend Phoenix Comicon Fan Fest this year.

Your friends are hoping to get a photo with Eleven from Stranger Things. Meanwhile, your boss is dying to get his copy of Iron Man #128 (featuring infamous “Demon in a Bottle” arc) signed by famed artist Bob Layton, your kids want to show off their Star Wars costumes before Halloween, and the S.O. would love to ask John Cena or Daniel Bryan some questions.

Needless to say, a lot of local geeks will be in attendance at Fan Fest, which takes place this weekend at its new home at the Phoenix Convention Center. And all of them will ultimately be there for one thing: to celebrate their fandom, no matter what form it takes.

According to Fan Fest organizers, that’s largely the focus of the two-day event, which takes place on Saturday, October 22, and Sunday, October 23. It’s also what differentiates it from from its sister event, the much larger Phoenix Comicon, which takes place in the spring.

Jillian Squires, a spokesperson for Phoenix Comicon, says that organizers are trying to help Fan Fest, which debuted in 2014, forge its own identity as an event that differs from its big sister.

“We were looking at what Fan Fest is all about,” Squires says. “And everyone has kept calling it the little mini-Comicon the first few years, so we decided that it really needed to have its own identity and destiny. It should be its own show. And so we started looking at it and what makes it different.”

Fan Fest is already markedly different from Phoenix Comicon in many respects. It's smaller and more centered on families, costuming, and fandom in general. Organizers, however, decided to accentuate and enhance the differences even further with an even greater focus on fans, and well as their particular passions and pursuits, Squires says.

“It's really about fandom, which is really a broad topic because there are fandoms in so many areas that it opens up Fan Fest to be bigger but broader, because there are fans of everything,” she says.

The increased focus on fandom is one of many changes to Fan Fest that have taken place in the last year. The event also moved its location from University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, which hosted the first two editions, and is happening in October instead of early December.

Squires says another change it that they’re also hoping to cater to fandoms and fans that are underrepresented.

“We looked at the title, Fan Fest, and considered what are the things in the Valley that people are fans of, as well as what are some of the fandoms that aren't being represented.”

And that includes both gaming and professional wrestling, both of which have a significant following in the Valley. As such, both will have a greater presence at this year’s Fan Fest, particularly wrestling (which boasts an enormous following in Arizona, where there are two or three WWE events each year). Several big-name superstars from the WWE’s past and present, including John Cena and local resident Daniel Bryan, are scheduled to appear at the event as special guests.

“One of the biggest fandoms in Phoenix that doesn't have a major [convention] in Phoenix is wrestling. And there's a huge crossover audience, actually, as we started researching it,” Squires says. “So we put some feelers out and we started talking to wrestlers across the country, and they were very interested and we think we landed some amazing guests.”

This year’s Fan Fest will also feature plenty of geek icons as well.

“We're still keeping that aspect going, but we're exploring some other options to build the show into its own thing,” Squires says. “We've still got some phenomenal actors coming out this year.”

And you may have heard of them, if you happened to watch a certain Netflix show that broke big this past summer. More specifically, Stranger Things stars Millie Bobby Brown (a.k.a. Jane “Eleven” Ives) and David Harbour, the actor who plays Police Chief Jim Hopper, both of whom are appearing at this year’s Fan Fest.

Like many in the geek world, Fan Fest organizers are big fans of the sci-fi serial, and once everyone started going gaga for it a few months ago, they leaped into action to book some of its actors and actresses as guests.

“Every one was talking about Stranger Things, and we were like, ‘We've got to jump on this, because it's amazing,’” Squires says.

And they got lucky, landing Brown for her second-ever convention appearance.

“She's so funny and so good in front of an audience,” Squires says. “She's perfect for conventions, so we're really, really excited about having her. I think she'll do a great job.”

There’s a lot more to this year’s Phoenix Comicon Fan Fest besides wrestlers and supernaturally gifted preteens, however, which is why we’ve put together a guide covering all the important information you’ll need to know about the event.

When and Where: This year’s Phoenix Comicon Fan Fest takes place on Saturday, October 22, and Sunday, October 23, in the North Building of the Phoenix Convention Center, 100 North Third Street.

Hours: Activities and events will run from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on Saturday and from 9 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. The exhibitor hall opens at 10 a.m. each day.

Single-day passes to the event are currently $30 for Saturday and $25 for Sunday. Those who are eager to geek out all weekend long, however, can spring for the two-day option that’s currently available for $40. Registration runs from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. on Sunday.

Age Limits: Given the family-friendly focus of the event, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that it's open to all ages. A “sidekick” admission is available for kids ages 3 to 12 for $10 each and children 2 and under get in free.

Getting There: Downtown Phoenix happens to be a major hub for light rail, and it's the ideal method of getting to the event with the least amount of hassle. Single-ride tickets are $2 and an all-day pass is $4. The stations at Third Street and Jefferson or Third Street and Washington are both within a short walking distance. 

Parking: Going to be driving? There are certainly plenty of parking spaces and structures available near the convention center. Street parking is approximately $1 to $1.50 per hour between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. each day. If you’d like to park at a garage, that’ll run you anywhere from $10 to $20 for the entire day. (Fan Fest organizers have a special page featuring many different parking options.)

Bring: Cash, government-issued identification, comfortable shoes, bottles of water, a bag for shwag, a fully charged phone, and a camera for all the memories and colorful characters you’re going to encounter. Props and faux weapons are also okay, but will be eyeballed and peace-tied by the security staff when entering the convention center.

Don't Bring: Anything disruptive, destructive, or dangerous, which includes your attitude. Real weaponry is also a no-no. And please avoid being creepy or rude to cosplayers, ask before taking their photos, and afford them plenty of respect.  

Food and Drink: Much like at Phoenix Comicon in the spring, Fan Fest patrons are permitted to bring a certain amount of food and beverages, including snacks or other items, along with them to eat and drink during the event. If you’d prefer not to pack a lunch, the convention center features a food court in its South Building and several concession stands on the premises. There’s also a Starbucks on the ground floor of the North Building. If none of those options suits your tastes, downtown boasts a diverse selection of restaurants, cafes, bars, and eateries, all within a few blocks.

Water: Please drink it as often as possible. For reals. It might be the middle of October (and the weather will be reasonable during Fan Fest), but we ultimately live in a desert, you’re going to be walking or expending energy all day long, possibly while wearing a costume, and need to stay hydrated. Trust us, true believer.

Exhibitor Hall: Geek-related vendors, artists, and businesses will set up shop inside the 100,000-square-foot hall on the third floor of the North Building throughout the weekend. The cavernous room, which functioned as the “Hall of Heroes” during Phoenix Comicon, will feature more than 150 different spaces and offer everything from comics, toys, and gaming items to jewelry, apparel, and costuming gear. Photo ops and autograph sessions will also take place in the hall, and an “Artist’s Alley” will be teeming with creatives from around the Valley and across the country.

Special guests: If you’re one of the many local Whovians that are still distraught over the recent news that actor Arthur Darvill (a.k.a. Eleventh Doctor companion Rory Williams) had to cancel his Fan Fest appearance this year, buck up. There are still plenty of special guests and geek icons to check out at the event.

The biggest of which, of course, are Millie Bobby Brown and David Harbour from Stranger Things, both of whom will appear at joint Q&A session on Sunday afternoon. There’s also Brett Dalton and Elizabeth Henstridge from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. fame, Battlestar Galactica’s Tahmoh Penikett, Marvel/DC artist Bob Layton (who's credited with reinventing Iron Man in the late 1970s), and Tim Rose, the voice actor and puppeteer who famously played Admiral Ackbar in two Star Wars films.

Then there are all the pro wrestlers that are that are scheduled to appear at Fan Fest.

The lineup, which is worthy of a WWE pay-per-view, includes both legends and locals alike. And believe us, there will be a lot. Future WWE hall of famers John Cena and Daniel Bryan will team up with fellow superstars Nikki and Brie Bella (who just happen to be twins and Valley natives) for a special panel on Saturday starting at noon. All four are also scheduled for photo ops and autographs following the panel.

Meanwhile, WWE legends The Honkytonk Man (who has the honor of being the longest-reigning Intercontinental Champion) and Jake “The Snake” Roberts (whose recent recovery from substance abuse and other personal demons was the subject of an excellent documentary) will also be appearing. If that weren’t enough, a cadre of local independent wrestlers will be at Fan Fest as well, including such Valley favorites as Alexander Hammerstone (who boasts a very Thor-like appearance), Jace Battle, EJ Sparks, and onetime WWE superstar Mike Knox.

Costuming and Cosplay: Flaunt ‘em if you got ‘em, especially if you’ve been working on a new one that you’d like to get feedback on or simply show off. And with Halloween being only a week or so away, you could work out some of the kinks with what you’re planning to wear. In other words, there are many different reasons to come to Fan Fest in costume, including the obvious: It's one of the biggest geek events of the year. Cosplay meetups and photo ops will be in abundance throughout the weekend and a handful of costuming panels and workshops will be offered. And speaking of programming ...

Activities and Programming: There’s going to be a lot of it at Fan Fest this year: more than 120 different panels, events, meetups, discussions, workshops, screenings, and trivia sessions will be taking place throughout the North Building. In other words, way more than the first two editions of Fan Fest, which is one of the many reasons why it moved to the convention center: more space. 

Like most of the other aspects of the event, there’s more of a focus on exploring and celebrating fandoms, including geek fodder like Star Wars, Star Trek, anime, sci-fi, and fantasy, as well as several meetups for Pokémon Go (downtown is a major hotspot for the game). Programming will run throughout the weekend starting at 9 a.m. both days and wrapping up at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday and 5:30 p.m. on Sunday. A full rundown and schedule can be found here.

Keep in Mind: Fan Fest is likely to be busy, even crowded, at times. So it's a good idea to have a modicum of patience when dealing with the inevitable lines that can and will develop. Some of the Q&A panels, autograph sessions, and photo ops for the higher-profile guests will probably have wait times, so slow your roll, cool your heels, and maybe strike up a conversation with others. Who knows? You might make a new friend or two. It beats staring at your phone, at least.

It also might behoove you to consult the programming guide (either online or at the convention center) to figure out what you’d like to do and who you’re going to see. After all, Fan Fest is only two days, and both are going to be packed with activity.

Have fun. 
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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.