PHXCC 2013: Reflections on Phoenix Comicon 2013

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Now more than two and a half months since the event, this post is way over due. Especially since the folks at Phoenix Comicon were nice enough to confirm me for a press pass and attend the event for free. They were the first people to give Nerdophiles that recognition and I very much appreciated it.

The reason for this delay is that the Monday after Phoenix Comicon I started an internship with one of the local prosecutor’s offices here in the Valley and then just a few days after the convention I had to be hospitalized for several days. It turns out I have an autoimmune disease – among other issues – and had started hemorrhaging internally. I joke around a lot about it and I’m pretty good-natured about the whole thing but the truth of the matter is that I almost died. Now I am in and out of my doctor’s office every week for testing and trying out new medications. It has been a very stressful period of time for me and I barely had the opportunity to keep up with anything let alone Nerdophiles stuff. (Which is why you may have noticed our number of posts in June was particularly low.)

But I wanted to get this up because I really enjoyed Phoenix Comicon. This was the second of three comic conventions that I have attended this year (the first was Wondercon in Anaheim and the third was San Diego Comic Con) and it offered a very different experience from those other conventions. It’s a great convention and I think if you’re looking for a good, low key experience (on a surprisingly massive scale) that caters much more to the every day fans and gives you that feel of being put on by every day fans this is definitely the convention for you.

So without anything further, let’s talk about Phoenix Comicon 2013.

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ATTENDANCE

First off, Phoenix Comicon is an unexpectedly massive event. I’m not just talking about programming – which I’ll discuss further in a moment. I’m talking about sheer attendance and the number of bodies that are present in the downtown convention center vicinity for those four days.

This year’s 2013 convention not only set the record for attendance it blew it completely and totally out of the water. And I want to try and put this in context for you. The first year they ran this convention 432 people showed up. It cost $3 at the door and ran for six-hours on one day. In the past twelve years the convention has increased in attendance at a remarkable rate. In 2009 just about seven thousand people attended. Just a year later that number had almost doubled. Two years later, in 2011, attendance stood at 23,001 exactly and in 2012 attendance stood at a respectable 32,127. For about three years in a row they had an increase of nine to ten thousand people.

That’s a lot.

So what were the final attendance records for this year’s convention? You might want to sit down for this one. According to Wikipedia, Phoenix Comic Con 2013 saw over 55,200 people attend. So much for increasing by ten thousand a year. That’s an increase of over 23,000 people. That makes Phoenix Comicon the seventh largest comic-centric convention in the United States. That’s more people than attended the San Diego Comic Con affiliated Wondercon in Anaheim (46,000 in 2013) or the often praised C2E3 in Chicago (53, 000 in 2013).

To be fair, the numbers for some of these conventions might be wrong. I’ve seen different numbers – some much higher than listed here – now and again. But the point remains that Phoenix Comicon has suddenly become one of the largest conventions in just three years.

What was interesting was that I don’t think there was ever a time when you felt like there were that many people around. Other than initially entering to pick up your badge maybe in the busy mornings or the initial opening of the exhibit hall, the flow of traffic was constant. I never found  myself stuck in a crowd. It helped that Phoenix Comicon’s programming was spread out over several buildings and that the programming was so extensive there was always something to do. But even when we were shoved together by circumstances we never expected, you never would have known that many people were there because of how well-organized and executed everything was.

But just think about that number.

There were over fifty-five thousand people at Phoenix Comicon this year. It’s crazy. And with that kind of attendance – especially if it just keeps increasing – people (and by people I mean media professionals) are bound to start taking notice of the convention. But if the show does start increasing I wonder just how long they can manage to keep things confined their particular location. And I wonder how long they can continue to offer on-site registration before they have to start limiting attendance. They’ve probably got a few years before that becomes a concern (unless next year sees another 20K+ rise in attendance) but it’s something that I wonder about.

Still, considering how well they’ve done keeping things together even with the massive increase in attendance we saw this year I feel like they’ll be able to handle it.

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PROGRAMMING

One thing that is very important to note about Phoenix Comicon is the massive amount of programming they had to offer this year and I already know from friends that they intend to offer next year as well. They had a lot of programming options and that helped a lot with keeping people out of the traffic lanes in the convention center and hotels. Yeah, you could walk around and check things out but if you spent all your time walking around you would miss out on the ridiculous number of awesome, almost exclusively fan-organized and run panels.

I’ve got my guide book here next to me right now and I’m counting out many rooms they used per day. On Thursday, which was the shorter day since programming didn’t start until around 4:00 PM, they were using thirty-eight rooms spread across three or four buildings. Granted, on Thursday, there were only one to three things going on in each room throughout the day (except for the ‘costuming rooms’ which had an impressive five panels each). Friday saw forty-seven rooms in use for panels and events while Saturday expanded  to forty-nine rooms. Sunday was the last day of the convention and still saw forty-five rooms in use up until 7:00 PM that night.

It was impressive. It was crazy.

And sometimes it felt like there was almost too much going on.

They did their best to assign a specific genre or topic to each building or section of rooms so that when reading through the guide book it was easy to find panels that might interest you. On Saturday, for example, they had six rooms under the heading of “Science Fiction” and all of them were placed right next to one another. The convention did it’s best throughout the four days to make sure that similar programming were placed in rooms that were generally close together. The science fiction programming on Saturday ran from panels about the enduring Harry Potter, Doctor Who, Babylon 5, and Star Trek fandoms to panels on astronomy and a ton of panels about Star Wars (be it trivia, the future of the series, etc.) to Sci-Fi speed dating. Obviously, with the massive number of panels and programming non-genre related panels would find their way into the rooms. For example, Arrested Development’s Dean Lorry did a panel on Friday in one of the “Books & Authors” rooms.

In a lot of ways, Phoenix Comicon is like several conventions in one. They have enough guests and programming to make any comprabable anime convention, comic book, or science fiction convention jealous. Anime fans could go the entire convention in their own little world with plenty to do the entire four days while sci-fi fans could go pal around with other Whedonites, Whovians, and more. It was great.

Really, my only complaint was that sometimes the programming overlapped a bit too much. Zombie fans would be disappointed to see that a lot of zombie-related panels were hosted at the same time in different rooms forcing people to choose between equally awesome panels. Similarly, anime fans would have been disappointed to see that on some days very high profile anime guests were scheduled to do panels at the same time. This isn’t so bad for multi-day con goers but for those attending for just one or two days it significantly limited the things they could see and do.

That said, the programming itself was fantastic. All of the panelists and moderators were great and very professional. The vast majority of them were just fans there to share their love of their favorite shows, comics, fandoms, etc. It gave you an extremely small-con feel despite how massive it’s all become in the past few years.

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EXHIBIT HALL

Having now attended some of the largest conventions in the country, I think that I might have to say that Phoenix Comicon’s exhibit hall was one of the best organized ones I’ve seen. Much like Wondercon’s exhibit hall, I never found myself crowded and it was very easy to move from booth to booth. It was easy to find booths and the map they provided was useful if slightly set apart from the key listing which booth was which. (They had that page some four pages later for some reason.)

Like most conventions, they had their artist alleys and rows of authors in one section. Autograph booths were roped off at the far end of the hall and each booth had a new sign each day listing who would be at which signing location which was handy when you forgot your convention guide or – as in my case – you were trying to find a friend who was doing signings. Larger exhibit type booths were generally around the edges of the exhibit hall. This included photo op booths and prop pieces provided by the 501st Legion and other Valley-based Star Wars fan groups, the Arizona Avengers group, and the Justice League of Arizona among others.

The vendor booths then took up the vast majority of the rest of the space. Smaller vendors and small time craft vendors were clumped together while everyone else with larger booths were placed in a very organized manor.  It wasn’t hard to find who you were looking for even without the map – at least when it came to the larger booths.

Granted, they hardly had big name media booths at their convention. This wasn’t a San Diego Comic Con or even Wondercon sort of situation. While Microsoft was there, yes, it was in a very limited capacity. SuperHeroStuff.com and other online vendors made appearances but a lot of the bigger booths that didn’t go to them went to local organizations such as Bookmans and some local comic book stores that showed up in force.

Now, maybe that might change in the future. I don’t know why organizations like Funimation at the very least didn’t make an appearance. Maybe Phoenix Comicon isn’t quite the venue for DC Comics or Marvel just yet but smaller companies or more niche companies certainly could have shown up. Maybe this is because the convention doesn’t yet have the sort of media outreach to draw in those sorts of sponsors and attendees. Maybe that’s something the folks that help with Phoenix Comicon can work on. Or maybe the lack of presence was because until this year Phoenix Comicon – at around 30,000 – was still a pretty mid-level convention. Maybe they don’t want to have that sort of a presence in their exhibit hall and would prefer to keep the smaller convention feel going.

Either way, it would be nice to see more bigger names in the exhibit hall and running panels next year.

But really, the only issue I had with the convention was the lack of communication in the author and artist alleys. Many of the booths were being split between authors and artists or they were rotating who was going to be where. We would go back to one booth to talk to someone only find someone else there entirely. It would have been nice for that to have been worked out a bit better.

But beyond that we had a great time walking the hall and I honestly spent a lot more of my time doing that than anything else. I loved talking to everyone and meeting the ridiculously talented people that live here in the Valley or came through this way to visit. It really was a lot of fun and we met some really cool people. I’m looking forward to walking the hall again next year!

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EVENTS

To be perfectly fair, I did not attend any of the events that were actually put on at this convention. I spent most of the four days of the convention in panels or in the exhibition hall and at the end of the day I went home drained and utterly exhausted. (Again, see the opening of this article. My body was preparing to almost die on me!) The only exception was the Walking Dead Prison Escape Obstacle Course that was put on in the Hyatt Regency Ballroom by the Department of Zombie Defense. And that was a heck of a lot of fun. Short, sweet, and honestly worth the long, long wait.

Though, maybe not listening to the DOZD people say their cheer every freakin’ ten minutes. “Heeeeey zombies, where you be? Why you runnin’ from the DOZD?” Seriously, though. We were all standing there in the same line for like an hour, man. C’mon.

I heard from friends, though, that the other annual events were great. I really wanted to stay for the Zombie Walk in order to take pictures because I heard it was going to be awesome but unfortunately I didn’t make it that long. I almost missed the premier of Vic Mignogna and crew’s Star Trek Continues which really disappointed me. (I did, however, catch the tail end of Nichelle Nichols’ panel and my God. That woman is fantastic.)

The Geek Prom, Talk Nerdy to Me burlesque show, and the Adventure Time Rave, in particular, seemed to have been particularly fun. Next year I’m really looking forward to the Geek Prom. Get my groove on.

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GUESTS

Phoenix Comicon has managed to bring in a lot of really exciting, high calibre guests in the past few years. In the past few years they’ve had pretty much the entire cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation out here in Phoenix, Stan Lee, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei, Max Brooks, Bruce Boxleitner, William Shatner, Felicia Day, Jon Bernthal, James Marsters, John Scalzi, Cherie Priest, Colin Ferguson, Grant Ennis, and countless others.

This year they brought not only the majority of the cast of Babylon 5 for their 20th Anniversary but also Jon Barrowman, Wil Wheaton, Jewel Straite, Sam Witwer, and several cast members from the Walking Dead including Michael Rooker and Chandler Riggs among others. They had classic science fiction series stars signing autographs and had an anime voice actor guest list that would make any anime convention jealous. I was super impressed.

I was equally impressed at how well their signings seemed to work and how organized things seemed to remain even when you had certain guests (*cough* Jon Barrowman *cough*) acting a fool all the time.

All I know that I’m really excited to see who they manage to get out here next year.

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Over all, I had a great time at Phoenix Comicon. For an almost entirely volunteer run 55,000+ convention they really impressed me. No, things weren’t perfect. We had a very easy time registering as press and getting our badges but there was very little communication with the press attendees (essentially none) and we had a hard time figuring out what we could and could do at times. Still, that issue effected really just us and other press attendees. It did not effect the panels or the scheduling (though one panel I tried to attend did get moved and no one seemed to know what happened).

In fact, I think this year the staff proved beyond a doubt that they could handle just about anything that was thrown at them. Including needing to evacuate the entire convention center on Sunday afternoon after a fire alarm on the third floor – which was a section blocked off to convention goers and not used by the convention – went off. I can’t even believe how orderly that was done and how well the staff and hired security responded.

I was very, very impressed.

But here’s the real question that I think anyone who has braved this entire post really wants to ask:

SHOULD YOU GO TO PHOENIX COMICON 2014?

My answer is yes. Of course. If you’re in Phoenix or even the general Southwest part of the country it’s more than worth the trip.

But let me qualify that a bit.

If you’re looking for an alternative to San Diego Comic Con, this is not it. Nothing ever really will compare to San Diego Comic Con. SDCC is a different beast all together and it’s set up to be a particular sort of convention. It’s meant to be big, crowded, and full of all sorts of exciting exclusive announcements and mainstream media panels. You go all out to get swag and see pilots before anyone else.

If you’re looking for a real fan-centered convention where you can attend panels about the fandoms you enjoy put on by people who enjoy it just as much as you, then come to Phoenix Comicon. If you want more intimate interaction with celebrities and more low key signings and autographs, then come to Phoenix Comicon. If you want to get to know some of the talent here in the Southwest and Phoenix area, come to Phoenix Comicon.

For $50 and the reasonable cost of a hotel room or – if you’re in the area – downtown parking (or a light rail pass), you can have a lot of fun. It won’t be busy. You’ll never have to worry about getting stuck or lost in the crowd. You’ll be burdened with a plethora of awesome panels to attend and special events to attend. It’ll be fun. It’ll be low key. You can take the exhibit hall at your leisure, do some table top gaming with new folks, and really just feel like you’re part of a larger and very supportive community. You’ll get to meet people just like you from right around the area and maybe even find some more long term nerdy groups to join and spend time with even beyond Comic Con.

Phoenix Comicon is a fan’s convention and if you’re in the area you really can’t miss it.

I know that as long as I am still in Phoenix I won’t be missing it.

And hopefully I’ll see you all of you there next year, too, at Phoenix Comicon 2014!

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