Iron Man chases a horde of zombies down Third Street in Downtown Phoenix, followed by Captain Hook and men dressed as women from Japanese animation films. Iron Man creator and Marvel maven Stan Lee is on hand to see it happen.
No, it’s not the set of Iron Man 4. It’s Phoenix Comicon (PCC), where costumed fans flood the Phoenix Convention Center every year to meet an array of comic creators and pop culture purveyors. But they’ll have a harder time finding local artists, because as the convention increasingly balloons from its humble roots into a big-time celebrity rodeo, Valley creatives – once a “discovery” draw for the event – struggle to snag exhibitors’ tables. Booths are sold-out every year, and many local artists are relegated to far-flung areas.
This year’s event, scheduled for June 5-8, casts an all-star lineup of national guests (see sidebar). A few Valley-based comic creators get prominent positions on the exhibition floor, but they’re already national success stories in the industry, like Spawn creator and action-figure mogul Todd McFarlane, and Brian Pulido, creator of Lady Death comics. “As a local creator with an international reach, I attend conventions all over the world,” Pulido says. “Phoenix Comicon has distinguished itself as a global-class event.”
Truly, PCC has grown to epic proportions from modest beginnings. What started in 2002 as Phoenix Cactus Comicon, a six-hour event held in a single room at an Ahwatukee hotel with guests paying $3 each, has mushroomed into a four-day soiree that draws more than 55,000 people (who pay upwards of $60 for full-event passes) and sells out surrounding host hotels Hyatt Regency, Renaissance Hotel and Sheraton Downtown, where nighttime events are held. It’s the fifth largest comic convention in the U.S., making it a boon for local fans, and historically, a spotlight for local artists looking to get their work seen by potential new fans and industry pros. But as the event gets bigger, are local artists being edged out in favor of the A-listers?
That apparently depends on whom you ask. Local artist Bryan “bg” Graham, who used Kickstarter to fund his comic series, Parallels, got a table this year, and oozes hope about the exposure. “[PCC] not only brings in thousands of people, all of which have the potential to be introduced to [my] characters, but it also brings in such legendary talent that may also be introduced to my work,” he says.
But getting space to show at PCC isn’t easy. Spaces cost $230-$600, and sell out almost a year in advance. Exhibitor Manager Erin Cooper says this year, they are hosting 364 exhibitor booths and 484 tables. “We sold out within two weeks of opening up sales to new vendors this year,” she says, adding the con’s current waiting list includes more than 300 vendors, and starting next year, participation “will strictly be by invite-only, based upon our waiting list.”
Priority was traditionally given to returning exhibitors, who reserved a spot for the next year on the Sunday of each convention. “We buy our booth before we leave the show,” says Francisca Pulido, who co-owns Michief Maker Studios with husband Brian Pulido. “PCC is such an amazing show and growing so fast, you better buy early or miss out.”
When the con was held at Mesa Convention Center (through 2010), local artists filled the hallways around the vendor hall in what was known as “Artist Alley.” Tables were affordable and abundant, and artists benefited from foot traffic going to and from the main vendor hall and event panels. There is still an “Artist Alley,” but it’s recently been subsumed into the back half of the vendor hall, on the opposite end from the security-saturated celebrity booths. Cooper says next year, they’ll add more booths, and “To allow for this expansion, we are moving the celebrity signing area up to the third floor of the Phoenix Convention Center.” So much for Stan Lee getting a glimpse of local art.
But local artist and returning PCC attendee Jeff Pina says the presence of people like Lee puts more eyes on their work. “The famous names are a draw for people to come to a show, and once they’re there and they walk around a bit, they discover the local talent,” he says. “Big or small name, all of us are there to meet and talk to fans new and old.”
In addition to Stan Lee, here are a few of the celebs coming to comicon this year:
Nathan Fillion: Actor on ABC’s Castle and Fox’s short-lived Firefly.
Bruce Campbell: Played the character Ash in the Evil Dead films.
John Barrowman: Actor on TV shows including Torchwood and Arrow.
For a full list of PCC guests, visit phoenixcomicon.com