It’s crunch time for Ashley Maul. Phoenix Fan Fusion is only days away, and the geeky artist and “fandom seamstress” has a lot to accomplish to get ready for the event.
There are comic book-themed purses and dresses to finish sewing, supplies to gather for her booth, municipal tax licenses to verify, and myriad other tasks she needs to get done — like yesterday. The 33-year-old also has a few shifts at her day job as a sales associate at Drawn to Comics in Glendale, and there are a couple of Maul’s personal costumes she’d like to have ready for the convention if she can find the time.
“I have this to-do list in my head that feels like it’s miles long,” Maul says. “But I’m the type of person who isn’t happy unless I’ve got 20 things going on all at once. I kind of thrive in that sense of chaos.”
It’s sort of chaotic at the moment inside the living room of the north Phoenix home she shares with her husband, Jake, and their two children. As an uproarious Rabbids Invasion cartoon plays on their television, Maul takes care of a few things while her son, Xander, plays with a toy version of Mjolnir. Meanwhile, a rambunctious pit bull named Daisy bounds around looking for attention, dodging a metal basket and pushcart filled with fabric printed with comic book characters.
Like Maul herself, who sports numerous geeky tattoos on her 4-foot-11 frame set off by her electric pink hair, the room is awash in colorful geekiness. A bookcase filled with Funko Pop! figures sits next to an array of posters for movies like Watchmen, Galaxy Quest, and V for Vendetta lining the walls, as do a few art prints and rare comic books.
There’s also a 6-foot-tall cardboard cutout of Chris Evans as Captain America, one of many collectibles devoted to the Marvel Comics character dotting the room. Maul has a thing for Cap, to put it mildly.
“He’s always been my favorite Avenger,” Maul says. “But I don’t think I really fell in love with him until the first Civil War in the comic books. I was absolutely on Team Cap.”
Hence the corset dress she’s currently wearing, which Maul patterned off of Cap’s iconic red, white, and blue uniform. It’s one of many nerd-themed costumes and accessories she’s made over the last four years.
Maul is one of the most popular seamstresses in the Valley’s geek scene. She estimates she does between $3,000 to $5,000 or more in sales every year at local conventions and through her Sew Ashtastic store on Etsy. “It’s kind of a side gig that’s turned into a growing career,” Maul says.
And she’s on the cusp of what she hopes will be her biggest weekend of the year. Maul will be selling her creations at Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019, which runs from Thursday, May 23, to Sunday, May 26, at the Phoenix Convention Center. It’s the first time she’ll have a table at the annual event (formerly known as Phoenix Comicon) at booth A410 in the lower-level exhibitor hall.
She plans on wearing her “Rockin’ Robin” (a 1950s take on Batman’s famed sidekick) and Captain America dresses, and might also be wearing one of her newest costumes, a disco version of Nightwing.
“It’s a huge moment. I feel equally excited as I do nervous, but there’s a level of confidence I don’t think I would have had in years prior,” Maul says. “It’s a big show, so I don’t know what to expect, so I’m going crazy overanalyzing everything and making as much as possible.”
Maul is not the only local enterprising or artistic geek in the midst of zero hour while prepping for Fan Fusion. Fellow artists like Steam Crow’s Daniel and Dawna Davis, comic book creator Jay Fotos, and others are all gearing up for the biggest pop culture event of the year.
Each of these geeks has taken their particular passions to do something greater than just spectate. They’ve reinvented their lives and careers, brought unique businesses to the Valley, filled a void in the geek community, or even tried to affect social change.
Along with Maul, they make up Phoenix’s super-geeks.
By day, Ashten Fizer works as a talent attraction specialist for GoDaddy. On various nights and weekends, she becomes ASH10, the ultra-nerdy DJ for renowned video game rapper Mega Ran. Armed with a laptop and a red “Proto Buster” prop arm cannon, Fizer backs up the local hip-hop artist at his gigs, selecting tracks and dropping sound clips from old-school video games. (She’s essentially the DJ Jazzy Jeff to his Fresh Prince).
“I incorporate a lot of Final Fantasy VII, a lot of Mega Man 2, a lot of Mario, ’cause that’s my favorite, and a lot of [Sonic the Hedgehog], ’cause I’m a huge fan,” Fizer says. “Just all these video game sounds and sound effects that I use to make things more awesome.”
Fizer has been a DJ for a decade, dating back to a stint working at the campus radio station at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She’s been a die-hard gamer for even longer, starting off in her childhood days playing Sonic on the Sega Genesis nonstop at age 10. It led to the Super Nintendo and games like Super Mario World and then the first Sony PlayStation. These days, she owns four gaming consoles (including the Nintendo Switch and Xbox One S) and plays about 30 hours a week.
Fizer says her gaming obsession has definitely helped prep her for her adventures with Mega Ran.
“You can’t imagine how many people will tell you when you’re playing video games all night that it’s not going to amount to anything,” she says. “So, it’s really great that it did and I could prove them all wrong.”
Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019 Plans: Fizer plans to attend all four days and will compete in the Super Smash Bros. double-elimination tournament on Thursday and also cosplay as Proto Man from the Mega Man series.
Syndicate Saber United
Tyler Bain has been handling lightsabers since he was a young Padawan. As a grade-schooler, he’d steal the tubes from gift-wrapping rolls with his siblings to stage some cardboard combat around their house (“They’d last for about one or two hits before falling apart,” Bain says.) Later, their parents gave them toy versions of the iconic Star Wars weapons, which proved a bit more durable during duels.
In 2013, Bain graduated to a high-tech prop lightsaber, which he bought as Christmas gift to himself. He eventually realized, however, that it’d be nice to know how to use it beyond just goofing around.
“I took it out of the box and swung it around a bit and thought, ‘I bought a $400 lightsaber that I can just look at,’” he says. “So, I started looking around to see if there’s somewhere I could learn to use it rather than playing with it in my house.”
Enter Syndicate Saber United, the local Star Wars-themed cosplay and theatrical combat group which had launched around that time. Bain attended their first-ever meetings and was trained in choreography, swordsmanship, and martial arts; he’s shown off his skills during the epic performances that Syndicate Saber has staged at local geek and charity events over the last five years.
The student has also become the teacher, as Bain is now a master-level member of the group, as well as one of the group’s organizers. He passes on what he’s learned to new recruits. May the Force be with him.
Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019 Plans: Syndicate Saber will present three performances in West 105ABC during the weekend. “Masters of the Seven Styles” will take place on Friday, followed by “Another Twist of the Knife” on Saturday, and “The Lost Hope to Save the Galaxy” on Sunday. Each runs from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.
Very Awesome Girls Into Nerdy Activities
t hasn’t been easy being a girl geek these days. Between gatekeeping, misogyny, and the toxic behavior inherent to the nerd world, it can be difficult for females to get into fandom. That’s where Very Awesome Girls Into Nerdy Activities, a women’s-only social group with chapters around the U.S., comes in. (And, yes, the acronym spells out what you think it does.)
Mesa resident Margaret Paris-Vogt, who’s been with the Very Awesome Girls’ Phoenix chapter since shortly after it formed in 2013, describes the group as somewhere “women can to be as nerdy as they want to be” without fear of being judged or having their geek cred questioned.
“It’s a place where you can embrace your nerdy side while trying to do some good in the world while doing so,” she says.
The group can be found at geek events like the Tempe Library Con or Free Comic Book Day. Members also do volunteer work, pack boxes for food banks, or put on charity fundraisers and clothing drives. They even adopted an Arizona highway. “There’s so much nastiness and negativity in geek communities now,” Paris-Vogt says. “We’re counteracting that by doing something positive and trying to effect change.”
Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019 Plans: Very Awesome Girls booth will be at A203 in the lower-level exhibitors hall. Members will also participate in several panels throughout the weekend, including the “Wandmaking for Muggles” workshop at 6 p.m. on Friday in West 101ABC and the "Swish and Flick! Hogwarts Wizards in Training” session on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in North 126ABC. You can also catch them at the “Disney Divas Wanted! A Disney Sing-A-Long” on Sunday at 6 p.m. in North 122ABC.
Jay Fotos Studios
Local artist Jay Fotos has a yen for all things creepy and scary. For proof, look no further than his, um, body of work, which includes stints on such comic books as Spawn, the vampire-themed 30 Days of Night, and the Lovecraftian horror title Locke & Key. The Tempe resident also co-created the Vietnam War-themed zombie comic ’68 (think Platoon meets Night of the Living Dead) along with Mark Kidwell.
His latest efforts are just as spooky. Fotos is currently creating concept designs for the hit Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House and working on the IDW comic book George A. Romero’s Road of the Dead. Last year, he began publishing the independent series Rising Rebels, a love letter of sorts to the campy horror films of the ’80s that Fotos was weaned on as a kid.
It wasn’t the only early influence that shaped his aesthetic. Fotos recalls sneaking into the attic of his family’s New Jersey home to check out his dad’s issues of Heavy Metal, the renowned sci-fi/fantasy comics magazine. “My dad got mad when I did that,” Fotos says. “But I loved Heavy Metal and especially the art of Frank Frazetta.” (He later co-created several titles showcasing the late painter’s works.)
A job with Todd MacFarlane brought Fotos to the Valley in the late ’90s to work for the Spawn creator (and local resident) during the height of his popularity. Fotos learned the ins and outs of the comics biz from the gig, including how to give readers a good scare.
Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019 Plans: Fotos’ space will be at 779-781 and 878-880 in the downstairs exhibitor hall. (Look for the ghoulish creatures decorating the booth). He’ll be selling exclusives like a Rising Rebels “Grow Your Own Ghoul” action figure kit and a Haunting of Hill House “Bent-Neck Lady” concept collection print.
Daniel and Dawna Davis
Steam Crow/Monster Rangers
Local couple Daniel and Dawna Davis’ passion for monsters not only transformed their lives, but it also made them into local geek icons. In 2008, Daniel, an artist and illustrator, used his frustrations about the daily grind of driving across the Valley to his office job to create the webcomic Monster Commute. The cutesy cartoon, which was inspired by steampunk and a lifelong love of kooky and creepy things, chronicled the adventures of two monsters traveling to work along the “Hellway.”
It proved to be a big hit online and led to the couple, both former punk rockers from the Pacific Northwest, creating a wide range of T-shirts, prints, books, and buttons, and other ephemera through their Steam Crow brand. Everything features Daniel’s atrocious-yet-adorable art style, which mashes up such influences as sci-fi and steampunk.
The same goes for Monster Rangers, a self-described “alt-scouting community centered on an imaginary world of monsters” they launched three years ago. The group is dedicated to “Believing, Studying, and Protecting our Monster Friends,” according to an interview with the couple last year with local website Voyage Phoenix. True to form, there’s an artsy element involved.
“We create badges that can be earned by going on missions. We host campouts across the western United States, where we have secret ceremonies, we do crafts projects, and we play games, and talk monsters,” Daniel says. “While adult campouts are a new trend out there, ours is different because it’s more about imagination and creativity, rather than nostalgically remembering the ’80s or getting drunk and hooking up.”
Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019 Plans: Steam Crow and Monster Rangers will have an enormous booth at 873-875 and 972-974 in the downstairs exhibitor hall.
Sarah and Matthew Stubbs
Geeks Who Eat
Everyone needs to eat, even nerds. As a matter of fact, Scottsdale couple Sarah and Matthew Stubbs say that there’s a commonality between the foodie world and geekdom. Hence their website, Geeks Who Eat, where the two create themed food and drink recipes based off movies, television shows, video games, and other bits of pop culture.
“Believe it or not, the geek community actually are big foodies,” Sarah says. “Think about it: They get into certain things like movies or comic books the way that foodies really obsess about what they’re eating. So, we thought this could cater to both crowds.”
Sarah, whose mother taught her to cook as a child, has blogged about food since 2014, when she wrote for a Disney fan site and started creating recipes inspired by the company’s films and cartoons. In 2015, she launched and transitioned over to Geeks Who Eat, partly because she couldn’t discuss alcoholic beverages on the family-friendly Disney fan site. It’s now her full-time job.
The Stubbs post several new recipes a month — ranging from appetizers and main dishes to cocktails and desserts — most of which are timed with the release of newly released movies. (To wit: They whipped up Agrabah Baklava Bites in honor of the live-action remake of Aladdin.) Some of their most popular creations include the Star Wars-themed Thermal Detonator Spicy Meatballs and Xenomorph Egg Cups, which were created for Alien: Covenant.
They’ve amassed a significant fanbase over the last four years, including close 10,000 followers on Instagram. Movie studios like Disney and Sony Pictures have also commissioned the couple to craft recipes for their projects, which is pretty sweet.
Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019 Plans: Sarah and Matthew will take over the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel’s Instagram account during Fan Fusion weekend.
Cobra Arcade Bar
Ariel Bracamonte is a joystick junkie who’s always on the lookout for his next fix. As co-owner of Cobra Arcade Bar, he’s constantly searching for vintage games to buy, restore, and use at the game bar’s locations in downtown Phoenix and Tucson. And the 40-year-old’s addiction to arcade games started in his childhood.
In the mid-’80s, the Glendale native and his friends were constantly venturing to nearby arcades or other spots featuring quarter-powered distractions. “Back then, there were games at every 7-Eleven and Circle K,” Bracamonte says. “We used to ride our bikes over to the old Valley West Mall and checked out the arcade they had there.”
He fondly remembers being fascinated by the arcade titles of the era, including such classics as Space Harrier, Rolling Thunder, After Burner, and Rampage. “There were some really great games back then,” Bracamonte says. “I was hooked.”
The obsession stuck with him as an adult. In 2012, he began amassing a collection of games to restore and play, starting with a Pac-Man machine he bought off Craigslist on the cheap. It led to even more scores, including many from nearby states like Texas and California, and his stash swelled to over 100 games.
Four years later, he partnered with local entrepreneur Chuckie Duff and restaurateur Tucker Woodbury to open Cobra Arcade Bar off Roosevelt Row, putting his collection of more than 350 vintage arcade games to use. It’s been a smashing success, becoming an ultra-popular Valley nightspot and leading to a second location in Tucson.
Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019 Plans: Cobra will have a booth at space 410 in the downstairs exhibitor hall with dozens of arcade and pinball games available for play.
Matt & Jen Hinds
Blue Ribbon Army
It started as an informal group of friends and eventually became an army. Back in 2014, local couple Matt and Jen Hinds and 20 of their fellow geeks who were all into Phoenix Comicon began wearing blue ribbons on their lanyards to identify each other at local geek events. Others joined in the fun, and thus, the Blue Ribbon Army was born.
Since then, more people have enlisted in the army. A lot more. As a matter of fact, BRA’s main Facebook group currently boasts more than 14,000 people. Over the years, it has become a social club and community forum for locals to gush about their favorite topics, typically of a geeky variety. And anyone and everyone can join the group.
“It also allows people to connect with the local geek scene and find out about what’s going on,” Matt says. “People have told us they’ve had anxiety about going out to events and joining our group has helped them get over that.”
And it’s not just on the Blue Ribbon Army’s main Facebook account. More than 50 BRA-endorsed side groups have been created over the past few years. Each pertains on a specific interest, from discussions about the newest movies or traveling advice to others focusing on weight loss or crafting tips.
BRA’s gatherings go beyond connecting online, as there are meetups at local bars and outings to geeky events like the Arizona Renaissance Festival. And they don’t use ribbons any longer, as “BRA” stickers now adorn everyone’s cars to help spot members out in the wild. (It’s become somewhat of a popular pastime.)
“We’re everywhere,” Jen says.
Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019 Plans: Stop by the BRA booth at H443 in the third-floor exhibitor hall for some free swag. They’ll also host a panel on all its various interest-specific side groups at 7:30 p.m. on Friday night in North 129B, as well as the “Superhero Showdown” party from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. on Saturday North 210CD. Tickets are $20 in addition to a paid Fan Fusion admission. Proceeds benefit the Kids Need to Read charity.
Phoenix Fan Fusion
Long before he was the force behind Arizona’s biggest pop-cultural event, Phoenix Fan Fusion founder Matt Solberg was a teenage comic book fanatic who sold his excess titles at small conventions around the Minneapolis area.
“I had all these extra comics [and] I was dabbling in speculation, too,” he says. “We’d load up my mom’s station wagon with all my stuff. I had one six-foot or eight-foot table and a handful of long boxes that I’d put out.”
After moving to the Valley in 2001, Solberg upped his con game considerably. He launched Phoenix Cactus Comicon a year later at a Best Western Hotel in Ahwatukee. It was a six-hour event boasting 30-odd dealer tables and 432 people in attendance.
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Needless to say, it got bigger from there. Nearly two decades later, it’s now Phoenix Fan Fusion, which features thousands of exhibitors and draws 60,000-plus people yearly. It’s also pretty much become the event that many local geeks center their entire year around.
“It’s not anything I thought would grow to the magnitude that it has,” Solberg says. “This is something that brings joy to thousands of people, and I feel fortunate to be a part of it.”
Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019 Plans: Solberg will be on-site at the event from 8:30 a.m. up until 11 p.m. or later “making sure things go as smoothly as possible.”
Phoenix Fan Fusion 2019. Thursday, May 23, to Sunday, May 26, at the Phoenix Convention Center, 100 North Third Street; phoenixfanfusion.com. Daily admission is $25-$50 and a full event pass is $90 via the event website.