Nerd Culture

The Best and Worst of Phoenix Comic Fest 2018

A family cosplaying Cuphead.
A family cosplaying Cuphead. Benjamin Leatherman
The first words I heard as I entered this year's Phoenix Comic Fest (a.k.a. The Convention Formerly Known as Phoenix Comic Con) came from a dude in a Kylo Ren outfit who was quoting Buckaroo Banzai. "No matter where you go, there you are," the emo dark lord intoned to his beer-garden padawans, sweeping a black glove across the busy alley bisecting the Phoenix Convention Center.

From May 24 through May 27 last week, I kept those words in mind as I bounced around Phoenix Comic Fest. I tried to take in as much of the sights and sounds happening at the Valley's biggest annual nerdgasm as I could. Here's the best and worst from Phoenix Comic Fest 2018.

Best: Smells Like Geek Spirit

The contrast between this year’s con and last year’s was night and day. The mood last year was dour and sedate for most of the weekend, thanks to the con’s brief infiltration by a gun-toting shithead. The subsequent props ban, while an understandable reaction to such a hair-raising security breach, killed the vibe for the con’s most devoted base: cosplayers. While panels and events were still packed throughout that weekend, the levels of enthusiasm on display were pretty muted.

This year's convention was a different story. From day one, spirits were high. While attendance on Thursday and Friday seemed fairly low compared to past years, the folks who were there were stoked to be there.

Best: Smooth As Butter

Part of the reason why folks seemed so good-natured and jazzed this year: The logistics ran nice and smooth. Credit is due to the folks at Square Egg Entertainment, and the Phoenix Convention Center for leveling up on their organizational skills. Unlike last year, there was practically no wait time to get in. The lines to get checked and scanned in at the entrance moved briskly. And while I’m not sure what kind of prop policies organizers had in place this year, it definitely seemed like they had loosened up a bit: Plenty of swords, staffs, and assorted TMNT-friendly weaponry were on display.

click to enlarge Cosplaying Rorschach from Watchmen. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Cosplaying Rorschach from Watchmen.
Benjamin Leatherman

Worst: Get This Fucking Thing off of Me

One of the bigger changes this year was the con swapping out their laminated passes for RIFD tag bracelets (the kind that are ubiquitous at music festivals across the nation). While it was nice not having to worry about a tag falling off like in past years, it’s a bummer not being able to take these damn things off. And God forbid if you want to loosen up these bad boys: Push that little black bit in too far when you tighten up your bracelet and you can kiss the circulation in your wrist goodbye.

Best: The High-Fiving Security Guard

Nobody was more stoked to be at Phoenix Comic Fest than the security guard stationed at the entrance to the North Building. Throughout the weekend he greeted con attendees with a smile and a hardy high-five. He was handing out high-fives like they were candy on Halloween.

Worst: Taking Out a Student Loan for Lunch

Pro tip for attending a con: Show up on a full stomach. Convention prices for food and drink sold inside the center were BRUTAL, and the food trucks lined up by the covered beer garden outside weren’t much better price-wise (though the grub looked tantalizing). If your wallet didn’t make the dying Pac-Man sound, and collapse in upon itself from making it rain on the exhibition floor, it certainly didn’t survive a couple of trips to the food truck.

click to enlarge A Spice Girls group cosplay. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
A Spice Girls group cosplay.
Benjamin Leatherman

Best: Dedicated Followers of Fashion

Whether you're a hardcore nerd or a civilian, there's one draw that's guaranteed to attract anyone to a con: people-watching. Few things compare to the pleasure of wandering the convention center for a few days, and rubbernecking to your heart's content at the plethora of amazing costumes on display. Seeing people bring their fandoms to life, and parade through the beer gardens and Exhibition Hall, is worth the price of admission, and should definitely be on everyone's bucket list.

This year's crop of cosplay was outstanding. Highlights included: a group of ladies going as the Spice Girls; a Sand Worm from Dune; a trio who went as Aladdin, Jasmine, and the flying carpet; and a dude who went as Lil' Sweet from the Dr. Pepper commercials. There were also fantastic Squirrel Girls, Rose Quartzes, and Beetlejuices on display. Perhaps the best costume of all was the lady who went as BBQ Becky and spent the whole weekend wandering around the con in a pair of dark glasses with a phone permanently affixed to the side of her head.

Full disclosure: Your intrepid reporter also took part in the cosplay action. I went as The Dude from The Big Lebowski this year, carrying around a carton of half-and-half while wearing a bathrobe. Oddly enough, a few people thought I was Ron Burgundy: I heard several shouts of "MILK WAS A BAD CHOICE!" throughout the weekend.

click to enlarge A Deadpool cosplayer shakes his groove thang at Phoenix Comic Fest's Deadpool Beauty and Talent Pageant. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
A Deadpool cosplayer shakes his groove thang at Phoenix Comic Fest's Deadpool Beauty and Talent Pageant.
Benjamin Leatherman

Best: He's No Good To Me Deadpool

Every time I go to the Phoenix con, I keep a tally of the number of people I see dressed as Deadpool, Harley Quinn, The Joker, and Boba Fett. Here's this year's tally:

Deadpool: 35
Harley Quinn: 22
Boba Fett: 17
The Joker: 13

Out of these categories, the Boba Fetts definitely brought it the hardest in the creativity department this year. My personal favorite cosplay of the weekend was "Elder Fett," an attendee who wore a Boba helmet, and dressed as a Mormon missionary from the neck down (he even carried around a "Book of Mandalore"). There were also a pair of folks doing Star Wars-Tarantino cosplay: Vader and Fett wearing Reservoir Dogs-style suits.

Worst: The Smile Police

I heard from multiple female friends that they dealt with an unusually large amount of "Smile!" comments from randos throughout the con. Randos: maybe spend less time telling strangers how to present in public and more time working on your ethics in video game journalism/sex redistribution essays. Or better yet, do us all a favor and light those essays on fire and then go set yourself adrift at sea on a loose ice floe.

Best: All Marketing Activations Go To Heaven

Most exhibitor booths tend to be cookie cutter: lots of wire racks laden with goodies and walls of Funko Pop! toys so wide and tall that it wouldn't be surprising to see a brother of the Night's Watch patrolling the tops of 'em. When vendors take the extra effort to make their spots more interesting, it really stands out. Case in point is the folks at Puppet Pie, who turned the wall behind their booth into a huge fuzzy blue wall that looked like it was upholstered with a Muppet. And then there was the Zia Records booth, which turned the back of their booth into a stoner's rec room. It was early '90s period perfect: a ratty checkered couch, a turntable playing Neil Young records, and a TV playing a VHS copy of All Dogs Go To Heaven.

Best/Worst: No Play Free Play

The folks from Cobra had a bunch of free play arcade cabinets set up in the gaming center at the Exhibition Hall. Along with classic pinball machines, and old-school fighting games, there was modern games like everybody's favorite Fleischer Brothers-loving side-scroller Cuphead. Unfortunately the arcade was so popular it was hard to get any play time unless you were willing to camp a specific machine for a long time. C'est la vie.

Best: They Blinded Me With Science

Aside from cosplay, the best thing to see at this year's con was the third-floor Science Hall of Heroes. From dinosaur skulls to inflatable planets, there were a ton of fascinating things to check out. There was an alley full of interactive backdrops you could take photos in front of, including Thor's hammer embedded in a rock; the packaging of a Star Wars action figure that made it look like you were in the plastic bubble; and even the trash compactor from A New Hope (which you could actually stand inside!).

Special shout-out goes to the folks at Cactus Brick who displayed a jaw-dropping Lego landscape in the middle of the hall. Expansive enough to cover a few tables, the Lego city came complete with skyscrapers, castles, forests, and operational trains.

Best: These Are The Droids You're Looking For

I have no idea who built them or where they came from, but kudos to the folks who built the fully mobile R2-D2 and BB-8 units that roamed the con. Watching little kids lose their shit when they crossed paths with them was a delight.

click to enlarge Phoenix Comic Fest attendees leave the Phoenix Convention Center after alarms sound. - BENJAMIN LEATHERMAN
Phoenix Comic Fest attendees leave the Phoenix Convention Center after alarms sound.
Benjamin Leatherman

Worst: Saturday Night's Alright for Nothing

Everything was running smooth until Saturday night when whatever hex that's been laid upon the folks running this con struck again. Around 7:30, the alarms in the center started going off and the convention had to be evacuated. All things considered, the evac was pretty smooth and uneventful. We were deposited outside on the sidewalk and waited for updates, watching as fire trucks and police cars pulled in. The lines of folks waiting (and hoping) to get back in were huge. Communication between the crowd and the con organizers was nonexistent for most of the night: folks were using Twitter to puzzle together what was going on. There were rumors of chemical spills and that someone had pulled an alarm on purpose. Folks waiting to get back in for the con's masquerade or Rocket The Raccoon-themed '80s dance party stayed on the streets until after 10 p.m., when reports that security was clocking out for the night started circulating, and the con eventually announced that all programming for Saturday night was canceled.

To give the con their due: They did offer refunds for signature events like the Rocket dance party, and also gave any attendee with a Saturday day pass a free pass for Sunday. They also had volunteers handing out water to people waiting on the various lines. But it didn't ultimately overcome the feelings of frustration and loss among attendees. Saturday night is the peak of the con: It's when people really cut loose, and when some of the con's most eagerly anticipated programming is happening. While the cosplay Masquerade was rescheduled for the next day, most of the rest of the programming was shit out of luck.

Worst: Shame in Their Name Game

At a press conference on Sunday, the con explained that the evacuation was due to a false alarm. They also took the opportunity to address an issue on the minds of most con regulars: how absolutely terrible Phoenix Comic Fest is as a name. Having to change their name due to legal wranglings with San Diego Comic-Con, Square Egg landed on PCF. I don't think I crossed paths with a single person at the con who actually called it that: to everyone there, from vendors to panel hosts, it was still Phoenix Comic Con. Conceding that Phoenix Comic Fest doesn't roll off the tongue, the con announced at the press conference that they would be changing the name of the event to Phoenix Fan Fusion. It's not every day that someone decides to double down on a bad name change by springing for an even worse name, but they pulled it off. Personally I would've settled for something like Phoenix Comic Fest Electric Bugaloo, Nerdamania Running Wild, or What Fresh Hell Will Plague Us Next Year? than go with a name that sounds like some kind of Mountain Dew variant.

Best: Dead Poets Society

The award for Best Cancelled Programming goes to Saturday's Nerd Poetry Slam, which ended up hosting a poetry cypher on the sidewalk. What better way to spend all that time waiting for a con to not open back up than to listen to people on the street spit hot fire about Harry Potter and declaiming poetic odes to wanting to eat Beyonce's butthole?

Worst: The Customer Is Almost Always an Asshole

Special tip of the cap to all the people whining online that they had to pay for a full week pass while the Saturday -only people got to go to an extra day of con for free. You people truly are the worst. What the hell do you expect the con to do: refund you for the four hours of programming you missed on Saturday? You're like the kids at preschool who throw a hissyfit because Jeremy got a Nutty Bar in his lunch bag and you didn't.

Best: Puttin' The Yo In Yondu

Most celebrity guests at panels treat it as a pretty laid-back experience, sitting on a chair and addressing the crowd from a mic mounted on the table. Not so for Michael Rooker, who treated his panel like he was high on some Sally Jesse Raphael shit. Armed with a wireless mic, the gravelly-voiced Rooker weaved and wandered around the room. If you ever wanted to get close enough to Merle from The Walking Dead that you could literally touch him, boy howdy, was it your lucky day.
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Ashley Naftule