If you’ve grown tired of the frustration machine known as San Diego Comic-Con and you’re casting about for something that has a bit of that old comic con magic, then do yourself a favor and head on over to Phoenix next year, because Phoenix Comicon has got it going on.
In a word, the Phoenix Comicon was fun. In another word, it was friendly. In yet another, it was fantastic. As we stepped off the train (Phoenix has a light-rail system) we noted the distinct lack of scantily-clad women desperately trying to rid themselves of glossy ad stock. In San Diego, you would be laden with three pounds of ads, brochures, magazines, and other assorted debris before you could make it to the convention center. Many cannot bear the load; so many ads litter the street that you could walk from the Gaslamp to the convention center and never touch pavement.
Briefly taken aback by the lack of barkers, balloons, and speakers blasting bass lines, we casually strolled to the convention center–yes, our little band from the train actually strolled along the sidewalk as if enjoying a casual walk in the park, instead of rushing headlong into the unknown like a dozen doughy battering rams, only to be absorbed into the ever-expanding blob of flesh, as is the norm in San Diego.
The entire vibe of the con was accepting, laid-back, and just plain fun. People weren’t all stressed-out about getting to a panel, or bored-to-death from standing in line for hours, or exhausted from being packed like sardines into a tiny space filled with some of the whitest people you will ever see. We didn’t witness packs of aggressive young men pushing and shoving each other out of the way to snatch worthless trinkets being thrown indiscriminately from a booth, like some obscene parody of third-world folks desperately vying for meager rations of food distributed from the back of an aid truck.
Everyone was happy to be there and it showed. You were able to take things as they came, instead of feeling pressure to do this now so you can get there then and oh god, I’m never gonna make it to–no, none of that harried exhaustion was in evidence here. People were happy to stop and talk for as long as they wanted. It’s amazing how enjoyable a con is when everyone you meet doesn’t have that sense of urgency to be somewhere else. At San Diego, everyone looks like they’ve just felt the first burble of bubble guts and realizes they need to get to a restroom quickly, but don’t want to look like they need to get to the restroom quickly, even though it’s plainly obvious to everyone else that they need to get someplace else quickly. I didn’t see one person running or doing that weird, brisk walk that people do when they want to run but don’t want to look like Usain Bolt off the blocks, so they just keep their upper body stiff as a board while their legs furiously propel them forward at an awkward pace. Multiply that constant low-level stress and anxiety by 150,000 people and you’re exhausted by noon.
And the lack of people–oh god, the glorious lack of people! Phoenix had just the right amount of people so that it wasn’t too crowded, nor did it feel like a meeting of the LM386 Integrated Circuit Appreciation Club at the airport Hilton. It was just the right size for the venue with the right mix of people. They were all in a great mood and that mood permeated everything so that you were just happy to be there with them at that place. Mood is a force multiplier. A good mood can spread and grow and feedback on itself so that everything is enjoyable and little setbacks can be brushed away like the trivialities that they are. A good vibe is hard to spread and maintain, but Phoenix made it look easy. It was like a rock concert without the threat of imminent hearing loss. Unlike SDCC, Phoenix Comicon is to be enjoyed rather than endured.
The other great thing about Phoenix is that the con felt like it was organized by the fans for the fans. It had an organic, bottom-up feel, with dozens of little panels on the schedule that had limited appeal, but seemed equally valued nonetheless. The problem with San Diego is that it’s become just another stop on the Hollywood junket tour, with everything geared to promote movies and TV shows at the expense of everything else. It has a very top-down, authoritarian feel that leaves no mistake about who the con is really servicing. The sad thing about it is that people miss all of the great things about the convention by standing in line for hours just to sit in the same room and watch HD screens of movie/TV panels for the rest of the day. With the minor exception of a couple of panels where a little advanced planning was needed, you could walk right into any panel at the Phoenix con and check out something cool. You never felt like you missed out at Phoenix Comicon.
The only thing that could really improve the Phoenix con would be better support from the major comics publishers. Marvel and DC: send your artists and writers, but keep the massive booths and meaningless spectacle in San Diego. Hasbro and Mattel, just stay away. You can keep your Exclusive Con Giveaways and the ridiculous ticketing systems you use for them with the other BS in San Diego.
I really hope Phoenix is able to maintain the great organization and camaraderie they’ve fostered without being lost to the Dark Side like SDCC was. I can’t emphasize enough how incredibly fun Phoenix Comicon was this year and I’m already looking forward to going next year. If you can fit it in your schedule, you owe it to yourself to go. I’ll see you there.