Costume Party: Phoenix Comicon Is Here

Aaron Forrester bends over a table in his father's garage, furiously sanding a shin guard. Beads of sweat trickle down his forehead and gather atop his thick goggles. Surrounded only by the whir of the sanding machine and the smell of Bondo, he's unblinking in his focus, even though the mid-May Phoenix heat is turning him into a water fountain.

He's got the garage door open and a floor fan running, but his dark gray Monty Python T-shirt, the one that reads "I fart in your general direction," is soaked with sweat.

On the table in front of him are a dozen or so unfinished fiberglass body parts. He intends to put them together into the coolest costume Phoenix Comicon has ever seen. The annual pop culture geek convention takes place May 27 through 30 at the Phoenix Convention Center, where Forrester will debut his "biggest costume design" to date — an elaborate full body suit of armor based on the Marvel Comics character Iron Man.

It's no cheap Halloween costume, either — Forrester spent more than a year and $1,200 on its construction, fabricating every component from scratch. He can hardly wait to finish the suit, and he's in a hurry right now.

It's the third Sunday in May, and Phoenix Comicon is less than two weeks away. That's why he's in this garage, unshaven with bags under his eyes, diligently sanding, priming, and painting. He will do this for the next several hours. "I'm not looking pretty and I'm not smelling pretty, but I am getting this done by Comicon," he says with a smile.

The con's a big deal to Forrester for many reasons: In addition to the debut of his suit, he hopes to meet special guest Stan Lee (creator of Iron Man, Spider-Man, the X-Men, and a ton of other superheroes) for a photo opportunity. He's also scheduled to participate in a panel on comic book costuming.

Phoenix Comicon, now in its ninth year, is arguably one of the best conventions in the West and certainly is one of the most colorful. Attendance continues to grow as more comic book writers, artists, and sci-fi authors settle in the Valley.

But it's hardcore devotees like Forrester, who combine high costuming craftsmanship with a flair for the dramatic, that make Phoenix Comicon truly entertaining for everyone. The best thing about Phoenix Comicon is the people-watching. Nowhere else in Phoenix can you see Strawberry Shortcake stuffing her face with ramen noodles or watch an old woman dressed as Wonder Woman push a walker through a group of Ghostbusters.

We're not talking about a couple hundred people, either — these geeks are legion, and more than 10,000 are expected to converge on the Phoenix Convention Center this weekend. But only one will truly be Iron Man.

The Atomic Comics store at Chandler Fashion Center faces an open outdoor plaza. Passersby are greeted by the store's giant, radioactive-yellow marquee and the lanky Spider-Man sign that appears to crawl toward it. The storefront windows are covered in colorful Caped Crusader collages and neon Batman signs.

Once a month, the same family shops here. They know Aaron Forrester by name. To the family's kids, he's not just the tall, skinny guy at the comic book shop — he's the man with the magic quarters and the bubble gum.

When he sees them come in, he makes candy materialize. "I ask them and their parents if they were good and did their schoolwork," he says. "And if they say yes, I'll be, like, 'Here's a piece of bubble gum.'"

Forrester, 27, loves to do little magic tricks as a hobby. Sometimes, he'll just walk up to kids at GameWorks and pull coins out from behind their ears. "I'll just be, like, 'Hey, do you like money? Let me show you a little trick,'" he says with a boyish grin.

Atomic Comics is a natural fit for Forrester, a lifelong comic book fan who loves to show off. As an assistant manager, he provides as much entertainment as he does retail service. One year, for the store's annual "Super Villain Day," he dressed as Batman nemesis The Joker. His costume included a canvas straitjacket with buckle straps and a prosthetic face.

Forrester has worked 21/2 years at Atomic Comics, the third-largest comic retailer in the nation. Originally founded in Phoenix as Bubba's Comics Store in 1988 by Michael Malve (and rechristened soon thereafter with a move to Mesa), Atomic Comics now includes four retail stores throughout the Valley and a substantial online business. To comic book fans, the stores are places not just to shop, but to hang out and talk about their favorite characters.

The energetic, social vibe inspired the makers of the movie Kick-Ass (starring Nicolas Cage), which was released April 16. Producers used the Atomic Comics name, storefront, logo, and T-shirts prominently in the film, which chronicles the adventures of a ragtag pack of people who become self-made superheroes. The movie's main characters hang out there and watch the drama of their secret lives unfold on the TV.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea