It’s not every week that we have back-to-back interviews with a Mandalorian, a Ghostbuster, The Joker and an Imperial officer from the Dune Sea Garrison of the 501st Legion.
Any other time of year and we might consider having our heads checked.
But it’s par for the course in late August, as Southern Arizona’s cosplay community gears up for the return of Tucson Comic-Con to the Tucson Convention Center, downtown.
The annual pop culture extravaganza is set to take place for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, this Friday, Sept. 2 through Sunday, Sept. 4.
Comic-Con founder Mike Olivares is happy to welcome folks back.
“Like a lot of other conventions, everyone is still re-acclimating as far as organizing and navigating the bumps in the road,” said Olivares, who launched the first Tucson Comic-Con 15 years ago. “A lot of us haven’t had those bumps in the road in two years.”
People are also reading…
For the thousands expected to attend this year, there will be a healthy roster of comic book pros on-site, names such as James O’Barr, creator of “The Crow;” illustrator Rick Leonardi; artist and Arizona Daily Star illustrator Chiara Bautista; and Jim Shooter, editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics from 1978-87.
Scores of vendors, selling everything from original artwork to gaming gear, will be on-hand to help you spend your hard-earned cash.
Perhaps the most entertaining aspect will be the costume fan groups, more than 25 in all, who will bring some of pop culture’s most interesting and intriguing fictional characters to life amid immersive backdrops.
Many of the groups attending this year are nonprofits. When they are not doing conventions, you can find them committing selfless acts like true superheroes, visiting hospitals and bringing attention to charitable causes.
Here are some of the groups you’ll see at this year’s Tucson Comic-Con.
Dune Sea Garrison
Sure, you are capable of committing villainous deeds worthy of a pat on the back and a show of appreciation from the likes of Darth Vader.
But can you keep your costume up to spec?
In order to join the 501st Legion, a fan group dedicated to the bad boys and girls of the “Star Wars” universe, your costume must be “movie ready,” says Kellie Ambrosia, commander of the Dune Sea Garrison, the Legion’s Arizona chapter.
“In Season 1 of ‘The Mandalorian’ and Episode 5 of ‘Obi Wan Kenobi,’ the stormtroopers are 501st Legion members,” Ambrosia said. “If we are called, any of us should be able to walk on and off set.”
It’s what makes the 501st one of the best known and most respected costume groups in the game, with more than 14,000 members spanning six continents.
More than 200 of those members call Arizona home, hailing from Bullhead City to Sierra Vista. Many of them will be on-hand this weekend at Tucson Comic-Con.
The good news if you feel like joining the 501st is that you can be just about any villain in the “Star Wars” franchise, from the nefarious barflies at the Mos Eisley Cantina to a stormtrooper to Vader himself. The Legion even has reference guides at databank.501st.com that will let you know exactly what you need to make each outfit happen.
Ambrosia joined the Dune Sea Garrison as an Imperial officer. A couple of years later, she had a Jawa costume approved.
“It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” Ambrosia said. “As long as you can put it together and you look like the character, you should be good.”
The Dune Sea Garrison is bringing several backdrops for photo opportunities to the convention this weekend, including one of the infamous Sarlacc pit, where Jabba the Hutt sent many of his enemies to become dinner.
Ambrosia said conventions are where the Garrison often recruits its newest bad guys.
“It is not easy to join,” she said. “But once you do get in, it is such a good group.”
Downtown spirits, the walk-through-walls kind, not the tasty craft cocktails kind, may want to steer clear of the TCC this weekend.
The Arizona Ghostbusters will be on patrol in force at Comic-Con with many of its members coming from the Phoenix area and from destinations as far flung as Prescott and Yuma.
Co-founders Jeffrey Lewis and Matt Haynes started the group after first running into each other dressed in Ghostbuster attire at Phoenix Comic-Con more than 15 years ago.
Today, Arizona Ghostbusters sits at 60 members strong, participating in more than 50 events per year throughout the state.
“We started the group because we really respected the 501st (Dune Sea Garrison), what they were doing,” Lewis said. “We thought we could do that as Ghostbusters. The Ghostbusters logo is one of the most recognized symbols in the world. It was a no-brainer.”
Inspired by the original 1984 “Ghostbusters” and its 1989 sequel, and reinvigorated by the release of an all-female film version in 2016 and the most recent ghostbusters film, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” in 2021, Arizona Ghostbusters goes all out when helping new members create their costumes.
While you can now buy a proton pack at places like the seasonal Spirit Halloween store, Lewis said, the team encourages members to create their own.
“We help them build one,” Lewis said. “It is kind of like their rite of passage, like being a Jedi and making your lightsaber.”
Lewis said the process can take between three to six months.
“There are different variations,” he said. “Some people make more than one proton pack. It is like working on a hot rod. You are never truly done.”
The Arizona Ghostbusters will have a 20-foot marshmallow man at Tucson Comic-Con, as well as a whole lab set-up, complete with oscilloscopes, and a mock-up of the containment unit from the original films.
Actor and Tucson resident Jim Fye, who served as several characters in “Ghostbusters II,” including the Statue of Liberty, will be at their booth on Saturday.
Lewis said Tucson Comic-Con is the biggest event of the year for the team.
“Tucson treats us like superstars,” Lewis said. “The staff, everyone is just amazing. They are into the costume groups.”
Justice League Arizona
In Justice League Arizona, you don’t necessarily have to be Wonder Woman or Batman to get the kids excited.
Smaller children might be more wary of the groups’ villains — characters like The Joker and Harlequin — visiting them in the hospital, but 8- to 13-year-olds dig it, said Justice League president Robert Rowlands.
“They will start telling you random facts about the characters,” said Rowlands, who will often make appearances as The Joker. “It is amazing how much they know.”
Many of Justice League Arizona’s heroes and villains, plucked straight from the pages of DC Comics, will be on-hand at Tucson Comic-Con this weekend.
Rowlands is based in Mesa, but the group got its start in Tucson in 2011, the brainchild of Dustin Dial, cosplay department manager of this year’s Tucson Comic-Con.
Dial first realized the power that costume groups had at drawing attention to a good cause while serving as a member of the 501st Legion, at a clothing drive at Bookmans on West Ina Road.
“It was instant stardom,” he told the Star in a 2013 interview. “People were jamming on their brakes and pulling in to take pictures of us.”
He thought a group using DC Comics characters would be just as popular.
Today, Justice League Arizona stands at about 50 members, mostly in Phoenix and Tucson. Its characters make regular appearances at charity events in both cities and up until COVID, made regular visits to local children’s hospitals. These days, they are cheering up children remotely with virtual visits through telepresence robots.
Rowlands said the group is always on the hunt for more aspiring Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman characters to join the team.
“Those are our big three, our big draws,” Rowlands said. “We can never have enough of those three. If we can get another Batman, we will take him in a heartbeat.”
Justice League Arizona will have a large wall at Tucson Comic-Con, made to look like a 1960s building facade, the same type that Adam West’s Batman would scale on the television series, for photo opportunities.
They will also be set-up near a replica of the 1966 Batmobile, on loan from the Tucson Auto Museum.
AZ Mando Mercs
Long before the wildly popular Disney+ series “The Mandalorian,” the Shonare Vhekadla Clan (AZ Mando Mercs) were roaming the deserts of Southern and Central Arizona.
A chapter of the national Mando Mercs costume group, whose focus is on the Mandalorians from “Star Wars,” the Shonare Vhekadla clan come dressed in highly detailed costumes, with each member putting their own twist on their attire.
Commanding officer Tiana Rasmussen has made her Mandalorian outfit a light blue to represent her upbringing in the Hawaiian islands.
“I stand out like a sore thumb,” Rasmussen said. “It doesn’t really fit into the culture. You want to blend in. But when I am at a charity event, people love the difference in colors.”
She is one of nearly 70 Arizona-based Mandalorians, a group that has seen an increase in appearance requests since Disney’s “The Mandalorian” hit the small screen.
Like many of her fellow Mandalorians, Rasmussen, who spent much of her career as a geophysicist, is a “Star Wars” nerd going way back.
She grew up with the movies and the books by Karen Traviss, the prolific author of multiple “Star Wars” novels.
Rasmussen was particularly attracted to the Mandalorian lifestyle.
“Their culture is basically that of a warrior culture,” she said. “There is a sense of tribe, community.”
Rasmussen said the group attends events nearly every weekend. They will be sharing props and backdrops at Tucson Comic-Con with their sister groups, the 501st, the Rebel Legion, the Dark Empire and the Droid Builders.
Tucson Comic-Con seems to have a fan group for just about every pop culture phenomenon.
• 405th Infantry Division (405th.com) — This group celebrates all-things “Halo,” a military-style science fiction game franchise with a global following.
• Arizona Avengers (facebook.com/ArizonaAvengers) — Some of the best of the best characters from the Marvel Universe — Captain America, Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Thor — will represent as part of the Arizona Avengers, a nonprofit founded in 2009.
• Arizona Browncoats (azbrowncoats.us) — This group pays homage to the plucky crew of Serenity, a ship making its way through the Wild West of space, in the short-lived science-fiction series “Firefly” and follow-up film, “Serenity.”
• Star Trek Tucson (facebook.com/StarTrekTucson) — Toss the Tribble and sit in the captain’s chair at this Tucson fan group’s comic-con booth, dedicated to all incarnations of the popular sci-fi franchise.
Photos: Fans deck out for Tucson Comic-Con at the Tucson Convention Center