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Phoenix Fan Fusion: A Geek's History of Arizona’s Biggest Pop-Culture Event

Phoenix Fan Fusion is back. Here's a look at the event's 20-year history.
Phoenix Fan Fusion is back. Here's a look at the event's 20-year history. Mark Poutenis

Luck, as the late comic book legend Stan Lee once said, is like a revolving door: You just need to know when it's the right time to walk through. For Matt Solberg, that moment came 20 years ago.

In early 2002, the former campaign worker saw a need for a homegrown comic book convention in the Valley. A few months later, he launched Phoenix Cactus Comicon, a one-day, one-room event at a Best Western Hotel in Ahwatukee with 32 dealer tables and 432 people in attendance.

From these meager beginnings, a geek empire was born. Like Steven Rogers after a dose of super-soldier serum, the event grew exponentially after its debut. Over the next decade, it transformed into a blockbuster pop culture convention every Memorial Day weekend in downtown Phoenix featuring scores of celebrities, legions of cosplayers, and thousands of exhibitors.

It's drawn as many as 106,096 people at its zenith, rivaling similar events in other major U.S. cities, and has become the event that many local geeks center their entire year around.

It also helped galvanize the Valley's geek scene, inspired countless artists (from cosplayers to comic book creators), and given thousands the opportunity to meet celebrity geek icons like Nathan Fillion, Stan Lee, William Shatner, and Jeff Goldblum.

"It's not anything I thought would grow to the magnitude that it has," Solberg told Phoenix New Times in 2019. "This is something that brings joy to thousands of people, and I feel fortunate to be a part of it."

The growth of Phoenix Comicon (now known as Phoenix Fan Fusion) coincided with the rise of geek culture into the mainstream. There have been a few bumps along the way for the event, including going dark the past three years because of COVID-19.

This week, Phoenix Fan Fusion will be staged for the first time since 2019. To mark its return, New Times has reached out to the local geek scene (and a celebrity or two) for memories of the event over the past 20 years.

Read on, true believers.

As a teen growing up in Minnesota in the '90s, Matt Solberg parlayed his childhood love of comic books into a business. As he told Phoenix New Times in 2019, he began selling his collection at conventions around the Twin Cities. The experience helped pave the way for his future endeavors.

Matt Solberg, co-founder and director of Phoenix Fan Fusion (in 2019): I grew up reading comic books and I used to attend conventions, both as an attendee, and when I was 16 or 17, as a vendor. [Now-defunct entertainment company] Great Eastern Conventions put on one-day flea market comic book conventions in the Midwest. I had all these extra comics [and] I was dabbling in speculation, too. I'd buy five copies of a new book that'd come out, and hope it'd go up in price. We'd load up my mom's station wagon with my stuff. I had one 6-foot table and a handful of long boxes I'd put out. If I walked away with a few hundred dollars, as a 15-year-old, that [seemed like] more money than in the entire world.

click to enlarge A circa-2007 guest badge for Phoenix Cactus Comicon. - SQUARE EGG ENTERTAINMENT
A circa-2007 guest badge for Phoenix Cactus Comicon.
Square Egg Entertainment

Jay Fotos, comic book artist and creator: Matt's always had a big love of comics, so it's cool he found a way to turn it into his life's work.

Solberg (in 2019): I moved here in the fall of 2001. My background is in political campaigns, and I'd just finished working on a race in Minnesota. I was just looking for something different to do that wasn't politically related. And I decided maybe getting back into comic books was the thing. I wasn't sure what [comics were] popular. I didn't know what people were buying or selling. I didn't know if there were even conventions.

Hal Astell, Arizona fandom historian: [Through the '70s and '80s] fandom in Arizona was basically the gaming side and the science fiction side. Then there was the Star Trek side, which was separate, but overlapping, with the science fiction side. Then gradually as you hit the '90s, it all started to diversify and you got these specialized events coming in, like conventions [focusing on a specific niche fandom].

Solberg (in 2019): When I started, there was LepreCon, CopperCon, [and] HexaCon as far as the three main conventions [in Arizona]. A couple focusing on some sort of science fiction and one focusing on gaming.

Fotos: I think Matt saw a void at the time for a comics convention in Phoenix.

Solberg (in 2019): That was my light bulb moment. I thought, "That'd be the thing to do: Organize a convention. Get some ticket sales, some exhibitor sales, and make it this big party." I called hotels, civic centers, and convention centers. I found the Best Western Grace Inn in Ahwatukee on the I-10 and Elliot [Road], which is now a Four Points by Sheraton. They'd rent me a ballroom space on a Sunday for $1,000. Once I solidified that, I was like, "Well, I'll need the support of the comic book stores."

Fotos: You got to start somewhere. So you get local creators and few vendors and let people know this is happening and start building an event and a community.

Solberg (in 2019): I opened up the phone book and just started calling alphabetically. I called All About Books and Comics. They said, "Well, you need to talk to the manager." And that was Mike Banks, who went on to found Samurai Comics. From there, I talked with others within the community and we were off to the races.

Mike Banks, owner of Samurai Comics: I remember it well. We hadn't had a [comic book] convention in a while. At that point, I'd been slinging comics for 10-15 years and had seen some cons come and go. I was excited someone wanted to bring a fresh convention to Phoenix. Right off the bat, Matt and I got along very well because he had this excitement and enthusiasm for starting something new. We started Samurai Comics right around then, so I always tell people that our store and Phoenix Comicon grew up together.

click to enlarge Phoenix Cactus Comicon co-founder Matt Solberg (right) at the event’s debut in June 2002. - SQUARE EGG ENTERTAINMENT
Phoenix Cactus Comicon co-founder Matt Solberg (right) at the event’s debut in June 2002.
Square Egg Entertainment

A New Hope

The first Phoenix Cactus Comicon took place on Sunday, June 9, 2002. Solberg told New Times prior to the event that his goal was "to make this convention the best-organized, best-attended, and most fun convention Phoenix has ever had." It ran six hours and featured 32 tables, which were populated by comic book creators like Jim Mahfood and such local publishers and companies like Todd McFarlane Toys and Chaos! Comics. A total of 432 people attended.

Astell: That's pretty damn good [turnout] for a first-time event. Even nowadays, little cons starting out would be very happy to get those numbers.

Fotos: There were a handful of dealers, some artists, a few hundred fans, and a couple of costumes. Cosplay wasn't a thing then like it is now.

Banks: Samurai Comics was at the very first one. My buddy, [former Samurai Comics manager Brandon Huigens] helped us get things off the ground and we had a couple of long tables and a small space behind us. A lot of the more established [comic book] stores were like, "Eh, let's see what this kid Matt can do with his con."

Solberg (in 2017): Our big-name comic creator [at] our first show in 2002 was Jim Mahfood.

click to enlarge Indie comic book creators Jim Mahfood (right) and Eric Mengel (left) at the first Phoenix Cactus Comicon in June 2002. - SQUARE EGG ENTERTAINMENT
Indie comic book creators Jim Mahfood (right) and Eric Mengel (left) at the first Phoenix Cactus Comicon in June 2002.
Square Egg Entertainment

Jim Mahfood, indie comic book artist and former Valley resident: I was always doing signings around Arizona and I think I was officially invited as a guest by [Matt Solberg]. I had some of my 40 Oz. Comics for sale. In [this one] photo, you can see Eric Mengel standing right beside me in the blue shirt, so he was there, too. He's been on the Arizona comic scene forever and has been self-publishing this comic book called Ocho.

Fotos: It was a small show in a ballroom. I think [comic book artists] Todd Broeker and Drew Hutchinson were there with me, because at the time we were working on Cy-Gor, Sam and Twitch, and Spawn The Dark Ages [for Todd McFarlane Productions], so we had a bunch of books to promote. We were all working in the McFarlane offices, so it was probably like, "Hey we're going to go hang out at this little convention. Do you want come down and show off some stuff?" We might've brought some toys and stuff with us.

Todd McFarlane, comic book creator and entrepreneur: Somebody probably reached out and said, "Hey, we're having a local [convention]. Can you come by for a day?" Sometimes we'd bring a table, sometimes some of the employees would go and talk about the process if I was busy or out of town.

Fotos: Being a comic book artist, you're stuck in a cave most of the time, so it was fun to get out, meet with fans, talk comics, and get feedback. It was just another outlet for fan interaction since there wasn't much social media then beyond [internet] message boards. Sure, there weren't many fans that first year, but it was a start and it was only going to grow from there.

click to enlarge A comic book dealer at Phoenix Cactus Comicon 2003 in Glendale. - SQUARE EGG ENTERTAINMENT
A comic book dealer at Phoenix Cactus Comicon 2003 in Glendale.
Square Egg Entertainment

It didn't take long. Attendance almost doubled to 780 for the event's second year at the Glendale Civic Center, which was touted on the Phoenix Comicon website at the time as having "more space and options for our needs." The increased turnout and elbowroom wasn't the only growth. During the con's three-year stint in Glendale, Solberg and other organizers added elements that would become staples of the event, such programming, a costume contest, and celebrity guests.

Mike Malve, owner, Atomic Comics: I remember going to check it out and help out a buddy of mine who had a booth. When I saw the attendance, I was like, "Hey, you know, Matt's got his stuff together. I definitely want to support this."

click to enlarge Cosplayer Jessika Malic (right) at Phoenix Cactus Comicon 2003 in Glendale. - JESSIKA MALIC
Cosplayer Jessika Malic (right) at Phoenix Cactus Comicon 2003 in Glendale.
Jessika Malic

Jessika Malic (a.k.a. Jinx Cosplay), local cosplayer: I went to the second in 2003 as Lum from [the anime] Urusei Yatsura. It was probably my third-ever cosplay. There were a couple rooms and It was all geeks. I remember there were only a few cosplayers, like there was a Spider-Man and my friend came as Vash [from Trigun].

Fotos: I think one of their first actor-type guests was [Herbert Jefferson Jr.] from the original Battlestar Galactica at one of the Glendale events.

Brian Pulido, comic book creator and founder of Coffin Comics: I recall having a panel during the Glendale years. It was attended by two people and I was happy with that. I remember seeing [Phoenix Fan Fusion director of programming] Joe Boudrie running around, getting everything organized, and I think, at the time, he was accountable for six panels. It was all very urgent and these guys were still learning the ropes. It was still a baby Cactus Con at that point, still trying to find its sea legs.

Rise of an Empire

In 2006, Phoenix Cactus Comicon moved across the Valley again, this time to the Mesa Convention Center, where everything about the event continued to grow. It became a two-day event, crowds got larger and more diverse (thanks in part to word of mouth), more prominent names began attending, and its programming expanded to include nighttime events.

Malve: At that point, [Matt] was really expanding it and growing it, which is why he moved to Mesa, because it was an actual convention center, and he was able to do more programming and have it run longer than single day. I remember being able to utilize the outside and it was more of a footprint to actually do some cool stuff in and be like a real convention.

Pulido: In short order, they took over the entire place and filled it with people.

Astell: It took off really in 2006 when it went to Mesa. They went from like 700 attendees in 2005 to 2,600 in 2006.

Daniel Davis, artist and co-creator of Steam Crow and Monster Rangers: We go back to 2006, when it was in Mesa. We were in a hallway with a 6-foot table. I took over the photocopier [and] lamination machine at my day job, brought prints in, I laminated them all together to make this super crappy banner for us. I think our prints were in a pile, we didn't know how to bag them yet. We were really green back then. I think it was our second show ever.

Dawna Davis, artist and co-creator of Steam Crow and Monster Rangers: We had our 3-year-old son with us also. He hung out underneath the table, watching Godzilla movies.

Daniel Davis: It felt really crazy. The energy level was really, really high back then. The fans were super excited and all us artists were kind of gathered together at our, like we were all around a fire. Prior to this, we really didn't know any other creative people in town. And it was like, "Wow, what you do is amazing."

Dawna Davis: There was so much going on when they were [in Mesa]. There was an auditorium-like room and then a couple of rooms off to the side for panels. They had gaming in another building. It was busy and exciting.

Daniel Davis: One year we got to meet [Hellboy creator] Mike Mignola, which blew us away. They had some big names coming in.

click to enlarge Steam Crow’s Daniel Davis (center) with his son Kaid (left) and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola (right) at Phoenix Cactus Comicon in 2007. - DANIEL DAVIS
Steam Crow’s Daniel Davis (center) with his son Kaid (left) and Hellboy creator Mike Mignola (right) at Phoenix Cactus Comicon in 2007.
Daniel Davis

Pulido: I remember connecting Matt and all them to [recently deceased comic book artist and writer] George Pérez as a guest [in 2007]. I'd known him since the '70s, so I put them together. So the first day he's there, I check in with George and he goes, "I don't know about this suggestion of yours, Brian. Right now it's not going so good." I'm quaking in my boots, thinking it's not going to go well. The next day, he's like, "Oh, this is the greatest convention ever."

Malve: We had a giant booth and brought out bigger guests, like Rick Remender and Jeremy Opeña for the launch of Punisher #1. And that was so much fun. I also started bringing a mobile comic book store, which was a giant truck. It was a big deal to drive it inside and we had to empty the gas tank beforehand.

Daniel Davis: We kept making our booth better and we eventually moved to inside the [main hall at Mesa Convention Center] where some of the guests were. We were next to Wil Wheaton that year.

click to enlarge Actor, author, and geek icon Wil Wheaton at Phoenix Cactus Comicon in 2008. - JASON GALLEGOS
Actor, author, and geek icon Wil Wheaton at Phoenix Cactus Comicon in 2008.
Jason Gallegos

Matt Hinds, co-founder of the Blue Ribbon Army fan group: Wil Wheaton's been a big part of the con going back to when it was in Mesa.

Wil Wheaton, actor, author, and geek icon: Somebody from the con, it may have been Matt, reached out and said, "Hey, we have this very small con up here in Phoenix. And we're just expanding from anime and comics into something a bit bigger. And we were wondering if you would come be a guest. We know this is a smaller con than you usually do, but we just feel like you would be a good match here for us. And we just think that you could help us grow the con." I thought that was really cool. I thought that was exciting, and I loved that idea. I instantly liked the people who were associated with putting the con together.

Wheaton: It was still really little ... just a few hundred people, I think. It was great. There was this incredible sense of community and fellowship everywhere. Clearly, even though it was a small con, it had a dedicated and passionate base of people who really cared about it. I just loved it. It was everything that made cons the place I loved to be when I was a kid. I felt safe. I felt welcome. I felt like I was surrounded by my people, and I loved it. When the [following] year came around, and they asked me if I’d come back, I said, "Yes, absolutely."

Matt Hinds: My wife and I started going in 2009. A friend of ours knew we were big fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation and told us [in 2009] that Wil Wheaton, Brent Spiner, and Marina Sirtis were going to be at this comic book convention. We'd never met a celebrity before, didn't know anything about anime or convention life, and didn't even know what a weeb was. So we walked in not knowing what to expect.

Jen Hinds, co-founder of the Blue Ribbon Army fan group: As soon as we get there, we saw Peter Mayhew was there, too, and we were able to walk right up to him.

Matt Hinds: This was back when conventions in the Valley didn't have ginormous lines. You could just walk up to people. Like, "How you doing, Chewbacca?" And he was the sweetest guy ever. So we just bounced around this really small convention hall. We also met Lou Ferrigno, who probably wouldn't have talked to us unless we had cash. We had to hit an ATM, since it was cash only for most people then.

Jen Hinds: The con was so different then. You'd be walking to a panel room through the hallways and there were artists along artists kind sitting on the floor along the walls or at tables. It was like a convention at a hotel.

Matt Hinds: Wil Wheaton was there with copies of Just a Geek, or whatever book he was promoting at the time. Being a smart-ass, I decided to print out an 8-by-10 glossy photo of myself and signed it to give to Wil Wheaton. We checked out his panel with Marina Sirtis and Brent Spiner. Then, we dipped. We were probably there for four hours tops. Then in 2010, everything changed for us and for the con, too.

click to enlarge Spawn makes an appearance in the exhibitor hall at Phoenix Comicon in 2011. - KEVIN DOOLEY/CC BY 2.0/FLICKR
Spawn makes an appearance in the exhibitor hall at Phoenix Comicon in 2011.
Kevin Dooley/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

The Phoenix Saga

In 2010, the con (now known as just Phoenix Comicon) hit some major milestones. It relocated to downtown Phoenix, started taking place over Memorial Day weekend, expanded its size, and saw attendance swell past 13,000 people. Some local geeks refer to it as the beginning of the event's biggest era, a period of phenomenal growth where the number of attendees and guests steadily increased. By then, it was becoming more of a pop culture event focused on more than just comics.

Wheaton: Then, all of a sudden, [the con was] in this massive convention center. And instead of being a few hundred people was now several thousand people, and it was amazing. It was everything that I hoped it would be the very first time that I attended.

Pulido: I remember during the transition from Mesa to the Phoenix Convention Center, some people were holding their breath. "Can pop-culture and comics really sustain this event in Phoenix?" And it could. It was a house on fire right off the bat.

Jen Hinds: So in the span of a couple years, it went from artists crowding the hallways to more than 10,000 people spread out between two buildings and many hotels. I would say that was a huge jump.

Daniel Davis: The show just took a step into the big time. It really started to explode. We were doing big shows in other cities like WonderCon [in San Francisco] and San Diego Comic-Con. It just felt like, "Hey, Phoenix was stepping up with the rest of the country."

Astell: There were over 13,000 people there in 2010, and it was the big dog of local cons by then and just kept growing. Cons in every city were doing that, too, and not just in Phoenix. I think it had a lot to do with the growing popularity of geek culture and how it was crossing over into the mainstream.

Solberg (in 2019): I'm not sure anybody really could have predicted the rise of geek culture, and the impact social media would have. Or superhero movies, Star Wars coming back, or shows like [The] Walking Dead or Big Bang Theory being as successful as they [were]. When all of that took place, geek went mainstream and became even more popular.

Matt Hinds: One of our friends told us, "Comicon's downtown now and it's a lot bigger. You should really get a hotel and make a weekend of it." We did and fell in love with geek conventions. It became a vacation instead of going to the geek swap meet. We got a room at the Hyatt [Regency], which was rocking a soundtrack of geeky theme songs in their lobby and had parties at night. We'd go smoke outside and see groups of people in costume or gathered talking about Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog or The Guild. It was like we found our people.

Jen Hinds: It showed us there was this large community we wanted to be involved with.

Matt Hinds: It was only in the [Phoenix] Convention Center's South Building. It didn't feel crowded because everything was spread out, but it definitely was populated.

Malve: There were also more artists and vendors. You walked through the exhibitor hall and there were people who started doing businesses from home — crafty businesses, cosplay businesses, jewelry and trinkets. They all bought booths. These people had 9 to 5 jobs but had these hobbies on the side. They could go to this convention and make money and add to the whole synergy of the fans.

Jen Hinds: There started to be more parties. Almost every hotel had something going on in that general area. I remember walking through [the convention center] and raves and parties were going off until the middle of the night.

Matt Hinds: Wil Wheaton was a huge Rock Band fan and had a Rock Band night in 2009. The next year, he did another one after the con moved to Phoenix.

Lee Whiteside, former Phoenix Comicon volunteer: One of the things he talked about a lot in those days was playing Rock Band and other games with his kids. And in one of the conversations we had, he said, "Wouldn't it be neat to set things up to where we could play Rock Band? Like we bring people up on stage and I play whatever instrument other people don't want to do." Wil had a lot of fun with it. We did it [in 2009] and it was almost thrown together at the last minute. The next year, he said, "Let's do it really big." And one of our author guests, Peter Orullian, was a manager for Microsoft at the time and he arranged to have some Xbox people bring out a system fully loaded with every single Rock Band song. So whatever song people wanted to do, we had it.

Jen Hinds: You could sign up and play Rock Band with him, like with a specific song or [instrument]. So we signed up for that and Matt got up there with Wil Wheaton and then right after, Felicia Day came up and did [Blink-182's] "The Rock Show" for one of the songs. That was super-fun, because it was a very small event. There weren't a lot of spectators. It just felt very intimate and very cool.

click to enlarge Geek icon Wil Wheaton playing Rock Band at Phoenix Comicon 2009. - TARAREBEKA/CC BY 2.0/FLICKR
Geek icon Wil Wheaton playing Rock Band at Phoenix Comicon 2009.
TaraRebeka/CC BY 2.0/Flickr
Wheaton: Gosh, that was so fun. Who doesn't want to pretend they're a rock star? Who doesn't want to pretend they're a rock star in front of a room full of people who are also in on it? It was so fun. I loved all of it. I loved that those videos exist. I loved how much fun we had.

Whiteside: What's neat is that we also had [author] John Scalzi and Felicia Day there and they hung out and sung a bunch of songs.

Wheaton: My wife and I were just talking about this yesterday. I'm turning 50 this year, and I don't have the energy that I used to have to stay up late after working at a con all day and put on a performance after working at a con all day. I will never do that again. But when we were doing it, it was just great, and it added to the sense of community.

Jen Hinds: It was just neat. He was just so cool about everything. Seeing someone I used to watch on TV as a kid in person and having a blast playing rock band was one of those great con experiences. Everything felt like that. Everything felt welcoming, like this is where you belonged. After that, they showed up at the Geek Prom, him and Felecia Day, and jumped up on the stage and celebrated.

Wheaton: The thing that makes a con special, I think, I would consider the Phoenix con to be on the border between local con and regional con and definitely on its way to becoming a tent pole con like any of the big ones, right? But at the time, we were straddling that line between local and regional. There was just this desire to invest in building the community and making connections that made this worth coming back to year after year after year. The Rock Band parties were part of that effort.

Wheaton: We also started doing these terrific [Geek] Prom events to support [literacy charity Kids Need to Read]. I think that was Felicia Day's idea. We did those for a couple of years. It was just really fun. I've done this long enough to know the huge, huge, huge difference between people who put on a convention because they absolutely love it. They care about the community, and they want to create an environment for celebration and fellowship.

By 2010, Phoenix Comicon started to get competition from other cons around Arizona, including a few spin-offs they'd started.

Solberg (in 2019): A few years after we started, you then had AniZona start up. [In 2008], we took a lot of our anime content and started up Saboten Con, but then split that off a couple of years later and sold it to [current Saboten Con owner] Greg Fennell. Con-Nichiwa down in Tucson, same situation. And then there was kind of a flurry of other local conventions that have started up, in the last five or 10 years.

Malve: So there's other big players doing shows around the country who come here, because they saw the numbers Phoenix Comicon or Fan Fusion were doing. The Jay Brothers, who run a show in Hawaii and Vegas, tried for a while to put on a show here [Amazing Arizona Comic Con] to compete, and it only lasted a few years.

click to enlarge A crowd of Phoenix Comicon attendees outside of the Phoenix Convention Center in 2011 - KEVIN DOOLEY/CC BY 2.0/FLICKR
A crowd of Phoenix Comicon attendees outside of the Phoenix Convention Center in 2011
Kevin Dooley/CC BY 2.0/Flickr

Meanwhile, Phoenix Comicon continued its expansion.

Matt Hinds: Comicon started making these huge leaps forward. In 2011, it was moved to the [Phoenix Convention Center's] North and West buildings and the vendors took up half the space in the downstairs exhibitor hall. By 2014, there were vendors, authors, artists, and an entire downtown space.

Daniel Davis: It was growing exponentially. Every year the con was bigger, and we were able to grow our audience. Our booths had been getting bigger or more elaborate. By the early Phoenix days, we jumped to a 10-foot-by-20-foot [booth].

Russ Kazmierczak, local comic book creator: My first year exhibiting was 2011. I remember feeling delightfully overwhelmed by everything. I sat next to a lovely woman named Susan selling handmade jewelry, purses, and lanyards and we hit it off and have been booth neighbors every year since. So it was about creating longstanding relationships that I appreciate the most, along with the enthusiasm of the fans and the artists in artist alley, which is where I spend most of my time. For a lot of self-publishers and cartoonists, this is the event. This is what they're looking forward to and working toward all year long.

One of the major hallmarks of the event has been its cosplay, and the number of attendees coming in costume has steadily increased over the years.

Malve: Fans get to cosplay and become heroes or whoever they want for the weekend, escape, and just have fun.

Jen Hinds: Saturdays are when the biggest costumes come out because that's when crowds are the biggest and you get the most appreciation for your hard work and have more eyes on you. Plus the cosplay masquerade is that night.

click to enlarge A Hawkgirl cosplayer at Phoenix Comicon 2017. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
A Hawkgirl cosplayer at Phoenix Comicon 2017.
Benjamin Leatherman

Robert Warners, Legion of Sand blogger: I think the cosplay community in Arizona has gotten a lot bigger because of [Fan Fusion]. People show up, see amazing and elaborate costumes, and leave wanting to make their own, so it's a perpetual cycle.

Local costuming groups also started stepping up their game after the con moved to downtown Phoenix, building huge displays where attendees can pose for photos or interact with characters.

Kellie Ambrosia, commanding officer of the Dune Sea Garrison: All the local Star Wars [cosplay groups] have built sets for years. We started off small in Mesa with a table and a backdrop. As our space has grown, we've built more sets. We've added things like the Mos Eisley Cantina, a Mandalorian jail, and Docking Bay 94.

Jeff Jones, organizer of AZ TARDIS: Our founders built a TARDIS [mockup] for Burning Man and decided to set it up in the middle of Phoenix Comicon. So many people reacted to it, we started our own group in 2013. We built a Time Console, a rudimentary K-9, and it evolved from there. Now people can walk through the TARDIS into a full-blown control room.

Ambrosia: All of these local [cosplay] groups are all together in one corner [of the exhibitor hall]. There's cross-pollination between [us and] all these other groups, like some of our members are in Phoenix Ghostbusters or some are in the [Justice League of Arizona], or the Arizona Avengers.

Warners: Not a lot of conventions devote that much space to cosplay groups. It makes for a really fun photo op and a memorable experience.

Many memorable times at the event over the years have also involved celebrities.

Matt Hinds: From 2010 to 2014, there was turnout was small enough to where celebrities could stay at a nearby hotel and interact with everyone. It was a lot looser and more accessible then.

Kazmierczak: When I saw Ed Asner was there, I was blown away. It was 20 bucks to meet him, and I thought, "20 bucks? A Lou Grant DVD costs more, so I'll go talk to Ed Asner, I guess." So I paid $20 and I chatted with him for like 10 minutes. It was an amazing time.

Matt Hinds: The year Jeff Lewis and Sandeep [Parikh] from The Guild were at the con, it was 10 o'clock and they're getting a late-night appetizer outside at [the Hyatt's bar]. And I'm just trashed and walk up to the table and ask to sit down, and they were cool with it.

Jones: We came up with a "Who-llywood Squares" game [in 2013] with our cosplayers as the stars. And John Barrowman, who played Captain Jack Harkness on Doctor Who, was there that year. So we're in the middle of the game and in walks John Barrowman. He taps our Captain Jack on the shoulder and says, "You're in my seat," and joins the game. We were all flabbergasted.

Whiteside: When [Author] John Scalzi was there [in 2013], he and Wil did a big panel together. And that came out of this piece of art John commissioned with Wil in his clown sweater riding on top of a Pegasus unicorn kitten while Scalzi was fighting him as an orc.

Wheaton: John and I did all kinds of ridiculous things there. [That] year, we had a contest where John, Pat Rothfuss, Mary Robinette Kowal, and I all wrote fan fiction based on a ridiculous painting that somebody did of John as an orc attacking me with a spear, and I'm in my clown sweater. It was 100 percent ridiculous. And 100 percent of it was highly specialized references that nobody understands or appreciates unless they were actually in a very small room for a very specific moment in time. But for the 500 people who are part of that, it remains this incredibly special event.

Whiteside: And they ended up releasing [the fan fiction] an e-book through Subterranean Press as a charity thing.

That same year, Phoenix Comicon also hosted a 20th-anniversary panel for Babylon 5, which featured the largest reunion of the cast since the show aired in the '90s.

Whiteside: I'd known J. Michael Straczynski from the days of CompuServe and was a big fan of Babylon 5. I'd been talking with him about trying to set up some sort of fan-run anniversary event. He thought if we were going to get the actors involved, it needed to be something bigger. And we had pretty much all of the major cast members who were still alive at the time. Just seeing all of them on stage and interacting with each other was amazing.

Warners: One of my favorite years was 2014, when they had panels by Adam West, Nathan Fillion, Stephen Amell, and Bruce Campbell one after the other in the same ballroom. I spent all day in there. Totally worth it. I think Stan Lee had a panel moderated by Todd McFarlane somewhere in that mix, too.

click to enlarge Todd McFarlane (right) emcees a panel for Stan Lee (left) at Phoenix Comicon in 2014. - GAGE SKIDMORE/CC BY-SA 2.0/FLICKR
Todd McFarlane (right) emcees a panel for Stan Lee (left) at Phoenix Comicon in 2014.
Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr

McFarlane: I was sorta Robin to Stan Lee's Batman. He needed someone to emcee and asked, "Hey Todd, I'm getting old, I can't see, and I can't hear. Can you come do panels with me?" What I remember is, even at his age then, the energy of that man was phenomenal. He was a born performer.

Warners: I remember 2015, was also an amazing year for guests. They had Jason Momoa and Karl Urban, which were both really good gets.

The convention's biggest year to date happened in 2016, when attendance topped out at 106,096 people.

Astell: It was easily one of the biggest events in the state, second only to the Tucson Festival of Books, which typically got around 120,000 each year [before the pandemic].

Dawna Davis: The people coming by our booth [that year] were nonstop. I was really tired when it was over.

Matt Hinds: Every inch of [exhibitor hall] was occupied by vendors and artists. There was stuff all over the convention center, the Hall of Heroes on the third floor, and hotels like the Hyatt. That was the absolute peak.

Wheaton: Even as the con has grown and become the beautiful success that I always hoped it would, I'm not aware of it losing that, feeling, that identity of we're a local con on the verge of being a regional con, even though the con has clearly gotten much larger than that.

Wheaton: When we were building the con and we were watching it become what it is today, it was really guests like Felicia Day and John Scalzi and me … we were fans before we were creators, and we all know what we wanted to experience at a con. I think we saw this opportunity where we had partners in Matt and everybody else that puts this con on where we all had the same idea” Let's have this awesome celebration of stuff we love. That's the fundamental experience that I have always had at this con.

Matt Hinds: This has been a thing that we've all cared about and invested in over the years. And we've all watched it grow into this huge thing that still is a blast to attend.

Wheaton: I have been to cons that have great guests and great panels, but it's very clearly about how much money can we get from you. That is an agreement we enter into. It's a thing that we know is going on, right? Then there are cons that are really there to shake all the coins out of your pocket, but they pretend that they're not. Those are cons I don't go to. Then there are cons in Phoenix where it's just like, yo, we want you to have a good time. We want this to be special. We want it to feel like a fun party with you and your buddies in a house.

 Bumps In the Road

In 2017, tragedy was averted after Phoenix Police arrested local resident Matthew Sterling brought a cache of weapons — including three handguns, a shotgun, and a combat knife — into the convention center during the first day of the convention. He intended to kill Mighty Morphin Power Rangers actor Jason David Frank, a guest of that year's event. (Sterling was later sentenced to 25 years in Arizona State Hospital for the incident.)

The situation caused Square Egg Entertainment, the con's parent company, to implement stricter security measures at the behest of the convention center, including banning all cosplay weapons and props. It caused lengthy delays and long lines in the 110-degree-plus heat as attendees were screened by security.

Matt Hinds: Somebody pinged me about the situation and I was like, "Okay, they dealt with it. He's arrested. We're good. Controversy handled. I didn't think it was an issue until we woke up the next day. I was like, "I'm willing to go get people's props to store them in our hotel room and give them water.

Warners: The day after, I got to the convention center super-early in the morning because I wasn't sure what was going to happen. Sure enough, the line to get in was wrapped around the building.

click to enlarge Signs advise Phoenix Comicon attendees in 2017 that all prop weapon restrictions that year. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Signs advise Phoenix Comicon attendees in 2017 that all prop weapon restrictions that year.
Benjamin Leatherman

Jen Hinds: We were trying to help make this go smoothly, because nobody wanted this to happen.

Matt Hinds: To be completely honest, it was an overstep by the Phoenix Convention Center. It was too much. But what do you do? They made that call. Square Egg was not the bad guy. They were just trying to keep the con going.

Jen Hinds: A lot of people took it in stride and even tried having some fun with it. I saw some Stormtroopers with baguettes and a few cosplayers with bananas as guns.

Square Egg partially lifted some of the prop restrictions by the end of 2017's event, but kept the rest in place every event since (such as banning all metal swords and anything resembling a gun or explosive device). It wasn't the only change, as the event was renamed Phoenix Comic Fest in 2018. It was likely due to the San Diego Comic-Con copyrighting its name and suing other conventions for using derivations of the phrase "comic-con."

Six months later, Square Egg updated the event's branding again, this time to Phoenix Fan Fusion, because of the public backlash to the Comic Fest name. Hinds and others say Phoenix Fan Fusion has taken some to get used to. (For its part, Square Egg has embraced the unusual nature of the event's moniker, referring to it as "your local, homegrown convention ... with the silly, quirky name" on social media.)

Matt Hinds: I liked the name Phoenix Comicon, and Comic Fest was pretty decent, too. It's called Fan Fusion now, but I still refer to it as Comicon.

Jen Hinds: I think Fan Fest wouldn't have fit, because there's a lot of other states that have Fan Fests. I do feel like it was necessary to change it.

click to enlarge The crowd inside the Phoenix Convention Center at Fan Fusion in 2019. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
The crowd inside the Phoenix Convention Center at Fan Fusion in 2019.
Benjamin Leatherman

There and Back Again

Like most other local events, Phoenix Fan Fusion went dark in 2020 after COVID-19 put life on lockdown. Square Egg rescheduled the event a number of times, only to be stymied as the pandemic continued to drag on.

Matt Hinds: It was [early March 2020] and we initially didn't think it was going to be a problem. Just like everybody else. And maybe a month later, Solberg's like, "I gotta call it off and we're going to try for September." I told him, "Dude, that's six months away. We're good. COVID will be gone by then. When July came around and we were like, "Fuck." Then he pushed it till January 2021 and I thought it'd happen then. I thought wrong.

In September 2021, Square Egg announced Fan Fusion 2022 would finally happen the following May, exactly three years since the previous edition. Local geeks say they're excited about its return.

Warners: Right after Fan Fusion 2019, I was actually ready to take a break from conventions, and then I was obviously forced to take a break for the past few years. So now I'm itching to start going back.

Kazmierczak: It kinda offered this reset and gave us all an appreciation for the event.

Jen Hinds: For like two years, life became the same old, same old every day. Where it's just my four walls. And I didn't really remember what it was like to be with the community. To be with our people. The pandemic's not over, but with [Fan Fusion] coming back, and us being able to be together again, it's reigniting the passion for it again.

Editor's note: Some quotes were edited or condensed for clarity.

Phoenix Fan Fusion 2022 runs from Friday, May 27, to Sunday, May 29, at the Phoenix Convention Center, 100 North Third Street. Daily general admission is $40-$55, a full-event pass is $90, and kids 3-12 are $15 with a paid adult.

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