Best Museum for Veterans 2012 | Arizona Military Museum | People & Places | Phoenix

Pop quiz, hot shot: What's the only major Civil War battle ever to be fought in Arizona? If you're drawing a blank on the answer (it was the Battle of Picacho Peak, by the way), consider spending an afternoon boning up on your history at the Arizona Military Museum.

Inside this 1930s-era adobe building located on an Arizona National Guard base are displays and dioramas exhaustively chronicling our state's vast military past, including every single skirmish ever fought around these parts. Depictions of historic moments from local military lore are in abundance, ranging from the U.S. Cavalry's battles with Geronimo and General John J. Pershing's pursuit of Pancho Villa to the World War II-era caper when 25 captured German soldiers tunneled out of a Papago Park POW camp. And if any kith and kin happen to be veterans, be sure to invite 'em to tag along, as a significant number of exhibits are designed to honor Arizonans who served in every major armed conflict of the last 150 years — from the Spanish-American War right up to the current combat taking place in the Middle East. An endless cache of military supplies and retired vehicles also occupies the place, such as a meticulously restored Huey UH-1C gunship from the Vietnam War. And though freedom ain't free, admission to the museum certainly is, as there's never a charge to enter.

John W. Edwards has never met an action figure he didn't like. Or didn't want to immediately buy, for that matter. The 54-year-old's sprawling collection of more than 13,000 figures and toys, all of which are housed in a cavernous location at Desert Ridge Marketplace, is evidence of this. Edwards, who grew up wanting to be an astronaut, has been accumulating out-of-this-world playthings since childhood, and his haul includes toys from every geek-friendly franchise imaginable. The rooms and halls are filled from floor to ceiling with mint-on-card figures from Star Wars, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, and Doctor Who, as well as mannequins sporting screen-worn costumes from Stargate and Caprica. And that's just the first floor. Upstairs is a twisting maze of racks containing plastic representations of sports heroes and rock 'n' roll icons, as well as numerous G.I. Joe dolls. More than just a gigantic nerdatorium and museum, the Arizona Pop Culture Experience is an example of the joys of a second childhood, as well as a massive monument to one man's various obsessions. For instance, Edwards apparently is a die-hard DC Comics supporter, as superheroes like Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash widely outnumber their Marvel counterparts on the walls and inside a case filled with custom figures. We're sure Superman would approve.

For most locals, Memorial Day weekend is a time to bust out bikinis and board shorts, fire up the grill, and dive into the nearest pool. For geeks of the Valley, however, it's a time to dust off costumes inspired by superheroes and dive headfirst into the pop culture extravaganza known as Phoenix Comicon. For four days, the Phoenix Convention Center becomes ground zero for diehard devotees seeking to celebrate any and all aspects of geekdom, be it anime, science fiction, horror flicks, fantasy worlds, or video games. Oh, and there's also enough comic book-related content to satisfy any follower of the sequential art form. Phoenix Comicon's popularity keeps growing each year, blowing up faster than Apache Chief after chanting his magic phrase, as evidenced by the record-setting crowd of 32,127 who attended this year. The cavernous exhibition hall, which featured more than 800 vendors and artists, doubled in size. And there were twice as many geek-oriented panels, seminars, workshops, and discussions devoted to topics ranging from cosplay to getting into the sci-fi writing game. Then there were the special guests, who included some of the biggest nerd icons ever. For instance, this year's edition offered an appearance by William "Captain Kirk" Shatner, DC illustration god George Perez, and Preacher creator Garth Ennis. And that was just on Saturday. We can't wait to see what they come up with next year.

Phoenix's downtown art scene is alive with unique and colorful characters, whether it's a homeless artist adorned in aluminum pull-tab chain mail or some punker sporting a multicolored Mohawk. None of these freaky folk, however, is as memorable as Don Roth. After all, it's hard to forget an encounter with a septuagenarian spoken-word artist who's known to many as Space-Alien Donald and refers to himself as "the world's oldest gay Canadian rapper." A regular at such eclectic art establishments as Space 55 (natch) or his own funky venue Funny World, the spacey septuagenarian has a yen for performing eccentric and humorous beat poetry set to warbling keyboard beats. And he usually does it while wielding a plastic lightsaber and wearing a rainbow hat and a silver lamé sarong. Roth possesses a lifelong fascination with outer space after spending decades as a technician in the radio astronomy lab at UC-Berkeley, and that obsession bleeds over into his performance art pieces, which typically concern intergalactic affairs. Needless to say, the eccentric artist crowd populating downtown has embraced him as one of its own.

Video-gaming isn't just an ordinary hobby for Melissa Kaylor. In fact, it's a ginormous obsession for the 25-year-old Tempe resident, who spends practically all her waking hours either wielding a control pad or engaging in gaming-related pursuits in many different forms. As her alter ego, Mel the Office Gamer girl, Kaylor produces a YouTube series profiling obscure old-school titles, crafts cutesy plastic "pixel art" of iconic characters like Yoshi and Sonic the Hedgehog, and blogs about the gaming scene in the Valley. And in the past year alone, Kaylor has also helped organize a Nintendo-related art show at Bookmans in Mesa and participated in a nationwide 24-hour gaming marathon last fall to help raise money for the Children's Miracle Network. So devoted is Kaylor to gaming that she managed to keep up her playing habits even after suffering a fractured pinky last year. Now that's hardcore.

Hardcore Star Trek geeks can be an obsessive lot, to say the least. Fanatic followers of the final frontier regularly spend thousands of dollars collecting Trek-related merchandise, devote hours to creating screen-accurate costuming, or exhaustively translate great works of Earthen literature into Klingon. Valley resident — and lifelong Trekker — Andrew Atwood, on the other hand, chose another route for showing off his obsession: He had one of the most recognizable symbols of the Star Trek universe painted onto the side of his CenPho auto repair business. Several years ago, the local gearhead integrated the triangular sigil of the Klingons (the noble warrior race that served as longtime foes for Captain James T. Kirk and the USS Enterprise) into the logo of his garage, which services European imports and sports cars. It also bears more than a passing resemblance to the iconic logo of Mercedes-Benz, one of the makes the shop handles. Atwood, who has watched Star Trek since childhood and is adorned with a pair of tattoos inspired by the show, also has a copy of a Klingon-English dictionary at the shop on the off-chance that a wayward Bird of Prey might cruise by to get its laser guns repaired.

Whenever the members of the Arizona Cacophony Society don crazy costumes and stage one of their events, three things are guaranteed to ensue: drinking, hilarity, and mass amounts of chaos (pretty much in that order). These masters of madcap mischief organize four outrageous outings throughout the year that are open to the public and boast hundreds of participants. Each essentially is a massive bar crawl or boozefest where nutty outfits (not to mention a sense of humor) are the norm.

In the midst of the Christmas season, they don red Kris Kringle wear for Santarchy and descend upon Old Town Scottsdale in droves for a ho-ho hootenanny. Come springtime, bridal gowns are de rigueur for both men and women during the Brides of March bar crawl, followed a few weeks later by Fluor-Ascent (where participants cover themselves with glowsticks before climbing Piestewa Peak at night). The most creative annual event has to be the yearly Idiotarod, featuring humorously decorated shopping carts getting pulled and pushed around downtown Phoenix. If you happen to spy any of the Cacophony members bombing around, find a safe spot away from the madness and grab a few memorable pics with your cell phone. Or better yet, hit up their website and plan on joining in the fun.

Local pub Rúla Búla is a stomping ground for all manner of colorful characters, including beer-swilling frat cats, devotees of Irish culture, and the usual Mill Avenue party crowd. And according to local author Kevin Hearne, it's also the preferred hangout of a 2,100-year-old druid named Atticus O'Sullivan, or at least it is in the pages of his bestselling urban fantasy novels. In the canon of Hearne's teen-oriented Iron Druid Chronicles, which depict an alternate universe version of the Valley in which supernatural beings like werewolves and demons are real, O'Sullivan is an immortal warrior-monk who possesses flaming red hair and a pair of mystical swords called Fragarach and Mortalltach. When he isn't working at his fictional Tempe occult shop Third Eye Books and Herbs or fighting demons or Celtic gods, the acerbic and quick-witted antagonist downs pints, feasts on fish and chips, and flirts with cute waitresses (one of whom reportedly is a witch) at Rúla Búla. Hearne, who was born and raised in Arizona, fills each Iron Druid tome (now at six books and counting) with plenty of humor and wry observations about Arizona life. We especially dig the fact he chose to set his series entirely in the Valley.

By anyone's measure, Priya Anjali Rai is in the midst of a successful acting career. The 34-year-old East Indian starlet has been featured in dozens of movies, had her picture splashed across the pages of glossy magazines, won a major award for her talents, and has countless fans across the globe. Not bad for an ASU dropout.

There's one small difference between Rai and your average Hollywood ingénue, however: She acts in hardcore pornography. A native of New Delhi who emigrated to the United States as a child, she eventually wound up in Tempe studying as a Sun Devil in 2008, stripping and starring in skin flicks to help pay her way. When porn proved to be far more lucrative than higher learning, the voluptuous vixen (whose measurements are 34-25-35) decided to put ASU in the rearview. And she hasn't looked back. Rai, who divides her time between Phoenix and L.A., has been cast in more than 60 videos, including Office Perverts 2, Spicy Sexcapades, Cougar Hunter, and even an X-rated parody of HBO show Entourage. By the way, Rai's middle name roughly translates to "angel" in Hindi. Isn't it ironic?

Longtime Valley residents have loved homegrown photographer Bob Carey for years, but in 2012, the rest of the world met him — and fell in love, too. Carey first donned a tutu for a self-portrait in 2002 at the behest of Ballet Arizona, but sometime after his wife Linda was diagnosed with breast cancer, The Tutu Project took on a name and a mission: raising money for breast cancer research. And then Bob-Carey-in-a-tutu went viral on the Internet. Maybe it was the void left by the beleaguered Susan G. Komen organization; most likely, it was the image of a burly 50-something dude in a pink tutu posing everywhere from a football field to Times Square that captured the world's attention, landing him on television shows from here to Australia. In any case, we all waited impatiently for Carey's book (full disclosure: New Times contributor Kathleen Vanesian wrote the introduction) to be released this fall, in conjunction with a show at Mesa Arts Center that runs through December 2. Bob, you are too-too much — and we wouldn't have it any other way.

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