This is possibly one of the stranger stories to come out of fandom this year: last Thursday, a cosplayer named Rayko Dig reported a series of texts and photos sent to her by a fan named Matthew Sterling. Matthew dressed up as Marvel’s The Punisher, complete with body armor, a shotgun, three handguns, pepper spray, a tactical knife and several rounds of ammunition. His plan was to come to Phoenix Comicon and hunt down kill Mighty Morphin Power Rangers star Jason David Frank, who was a special guest at the event that day. He had texted Rayko Dig that he was hoping to get in a shootout with the police, and had mentioned about 30 other names, both real and “Professionally Known As”, that Sterling was planning to target and potentially kill.
PCC Takes Out Ultrasabers
The immediate thing that the convention organizers did was to ban not just weapons, but nearly all props of any kind. While this unarguably made the convention safer, it also painted the situation with a very broad brush. Fans were philosophical about it, replacing their props with humorous hand lettered signs, and they generally understood what was happening and why.
There was an undercurrent, though, that also has to be addressed. In this case, it was how the convention dealt with the weapons situation. There were at least eight vendors of actual weapons at the convention, mostly bladed weapons. These are fantasy swords and daggers, that sort of thing – no firearms. Each of them agreed to deliver their sold merchandise to the customers in boxes or other packaging. In the case of Ultrasabers, a manufacturer of lightsaber props, post-sale packaging in the form of plastic bags was improvised – but here’s where that part of the story gets strange.
We got a press release out of the blue from the PR department of the Phoenix Comicon. It’s unusual for them to send out press releases except to try to get free press for their events, so when they sent us this we sat up and took notice:
Thursday night, Phoenix Comicon, in conjunction with Phoenix Convention Center staff and the Phoenix Police Department issued policy changes for Phoenix Comicon, including a prop weapon ban, security line bag checks, and new protocols for vendor sales of weapons and prop weapons on-site.
Lee Palmer, Director of Operations, and his team informed all vendors of the new procedures, which include the mandate that all weapons be securely wrapped by the vendors prior to sale. The team also held a mandatory meeting for all applicable vendors on site on Friday morning to assist with the transition. UltraSabers did not send a representative to this mandatory meeting.
On Friday, UltraSabers refused to comply with procedures, in violation of their contract. Despite the new protocols for weapon sales inside Phoenix Comicon, UltraSabers continued selling unwrapped weapons throughout the day on Friday after multiple requests from Convention Center staff, Phoenix Police Department, and Phoenix Comicon Staff.
On Friday night, Phoenix Comicon staff approached UltraSabers regarding their refusal to comply. UltraSabers representatives became combative with Phoenix Comicon staff and with Phoenix Police Department officers. Subsequently, they were asked to remove their exhibits and exit the building. UltraSabers was issued a full refund of the cost of their exhibit space and a check was issued to them onsite before they left.
This morning, representatives of UltraSabers managed to secure badges to enter the premises and distribute propaganda flyers claiming compliance with our procedures and accusing Phoenix Comicon of refusing to grant a refund. At this time, no decision has been made regarding UltraSabers’s eventual return to Phoenix Comicon or other Square Egg Entertainment events.
We appreciate the patience and understanding of all our exhibitors in complying with these new policies to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all our attendees. For additional information, please contact Kristin Rowan, Director of Marketing, Sales, and Public Relations.
This is a pretty curious thing to offer up, so we did a little more digging. Here’s the flyer Phoenix Comicon refers to in their press release:
The Ultrasabers Side of the Story
Given the Stand Up Guy reputation of Ultrasabers with the fans, we decided that a little digging was in order.
Phoenix Comicon claims Ultrasabers skated on the mandatory meeting for weapons vendors, then refused to put their sabers in covered containers upon sale, then were told to pack up their stuff and get out, after having received a full refund for the booth and their memberships.
What Ultrasabers told us is a little different.
Ultrasabers is saying they tried to get out of the convention when they saw how poor the attendance was – they knew they couldn’t make money with attendance that low, so they wanted out, and they wanted a refund of their booth fees and memberships because they felt Phoenix Comicon had grossly misrepresented the attendance numbers. According to Ultrasabers, they were refused this refund and forced to remain.
They complained about the insistence by the convention staff that they deliver their high-ticket products in trash bags, but complied with the last minute demands by the convention that they do so despite the fact that no rational person would look at what is essentially a three-foot light-up plastic wand with a fancy handle and think “oh, somebody could kill or maim me with that.” Then they were ordered out of the convention after extended exhibit hall hours, and were forced to pack up their entire installation under watch of the police for failure to comply.
Then there was the mandatory security meeting for weapons vendors. The President of Ultrasabers, Emory Harris, had planned to attend except for one small problem: he was being held at one of Phoenix Comicon’s security checkpoints for 20 minutes because they wouldn’t let him bring a cart with restock merchandise in. By the time they decided to let him in an alternative employee door and he was able to get to his booth with the merchandise, the meeting was effectively over.
The prompt and immediate reimbursement? That allegedly didn’t happen either. Ultrasabers relates that PCC management staff made no attempt to reimburse Ultrasabers until they informed Matt Solberg that they were recording the conversation. That was the point at which they finally relented and gave them the refund (in other words, they didn’t do it until they were forced to).
Ultrasabers’ take on this is that they were removed simply because convention director Matt Solberg didn’t like the way he was spoken to, and had the right to remove any vendor for any reason and without refund of any portion of the booth rental. Their version of events is in stark contrast to the press release sent to us by Phoenix Comicon, which is starting to look more like an attempt at damage control than an honest reporting of events.
Who Should We Believe?
We’re not sure, but we do know that Matt Solberg has a less than exemplary relationship with vendors and convention goers to start with. For example, last January the news broke that, in a break with decades of tradition in geek culture conventions, fans now actually had to pay to volunteer. It didn’t go well. The convention has also been subject to complaints about mistreatment of disabled attendees, forcing them to completely exit the building and move – in wheelchairs – around the block to reenter the building, all the while enduring 100+ degree weather. Comments we have seen on Facebook from vendors range from “I had a great time, and it was a great convention!” to comments about the rather poor implementation of site security, including this insider’s observation (we are not publishing this person’s identity to protect them from the possibility of reprisal for speaking out:
Matt Solberg is so cheap that he decided that risking lives and people’s health was worth the cost trimming received. He consistently and repeatedly cuts corners and costs to defend his money intake, and his background as a political campaign representative allows him to spin things to a group of people who he’s abusing for their talent and time.
This is the second year in a row that unsafe waits occurred under his watch, and last year was a PR fiasco because he’d actually fired all the people who made sure that he wasn’t allowed to use the corporate Facebook account. Salt Lake City threw some now-deleted shade, and Alamo City threw some too. EVERY major convention has sensible rules in place to protect guests. They work with local, state, and federal agencies to produce the best balance between safety and convenience.
Matt abolished bag checks, after pushback on line delays instead of just looking at and copying what far more professionally run organizations do, and has the nerve to crow about how much better his con is held in esteem. Two years ago, we had bag checks implemented, along with peace bonding and police presence. Instead of hiring appropriately trained security/event staff, he did the absolute minimum required of him by the convention center. Well, police presence has always been there. But bag checks were stopped shortly after complaints about delays started pouring in.
Last year, Line and Access staff was slashed to the marrow. It was already clear that they were hurting bad as a result. This year… …I can’t imagine how bad it got.
Ultrasabers is not without its drama, however. Over the years there have been complaints about faulty products, unresponsiveness via their customer support, even trademark or copyright violations. While Ultrasabers does use the word “lightsaber” on their web site, they make no mention of licensing the term from Lucas Licensing, nor do they mention Star Wars on their web site. There is no way to know, indirectly, whether they have a license to use the word to describe their products. To be fair, if you’re in business long enough and what you sell is expensive enough, sooner or later somebody is going to complain about you.
While it isn’t possible to fully substantiate complaints against either party, these conflicting reports do indicate that there is more going on here than is being told. It is telling, though, that PCC has not returned our press inquiries, while Ultrasabers answered all our questions and even offered to show us the email exchange between themselves and PCC should we need this for a future article, which demonstrates that they think they have nothing to hide.
The Final Analysis
If not for the compassion of Rayko for everyone she meets, and her willingness to become involved in the matter when things went sideways – if not for the willingness of Sgt. Nichols to help her get the word to the Phoenix PD and be taken seriously in time to do something about it – a great many people could have died in a horrific one-sided shootout in a very crowded public place. Rayko and Sgt. Nichols are, without doubt, Big Damn Heroes.
The uneven and sometimes questionable approach of Phoenix Comicon to the situation bears attention, and that situation is still unfolding.