The eighth event in four years for producers Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg, Salt Lake Comic Con Fan X was held in Salt Lake City this past weekend, and myself and contributing photographer Matthew Brown went on the behalf of The Young Folks and spent the time with some of Salt Lake’s nerdiest and most devoted. Despite some various hiccups that we’ll get into, the event was enjoyable for us and a great tribute to all kinds of fandom.
Given the somewhat short notice of the event, as the availability of the Salt Palace Convention Center was in flux up until a few months ago, the early timing of things ended up as an advantage as there are not a lot of competing events looking for guests. Dropping from three to two days also allowed guests to stay for longer and reduced costs for attendees, which is always a plus. Guests were incredibly varied also, from comic creators like Marv Wolfman (Teen Titans) and Agnes Garbowska (My Little Pony), to television stars such as Danielle Panabaker and RJ Mitte, and even more. Billed as a more intimate event, Fan X also showed love to beloved but lapsed shows such as my beloved Psych, Charmed, and even Highlander. It was clear that there were a lot of appreciation towards this from the attendees.
According to Brandenburg, approximately 50,000 people were expected in attendance across the two days, and the halls were pretty packed, though accurate numbers were not available at the time of this writing. Managing this many people can be pretty difficult obviously, and that’s where some pain points can be found. Again, this is the eighth event by these folks, and a lot of the planning shows, but it also seems like some gaps need to be filled. The con managed to avoid any extensive lines going out side of the building, and they’ve gotten registration and entry down to a science. However, I received several reports of lines for the celebrity row area where autographs and photos take place. When I navigated myself over to that area and found it difficult to see what was what myself. Lines outside of panel rooms often became complicated and more like blobs, which never helps anyone. It almost appears like there were not enough volunteers to help manage things, at the very least it seemed like there were less.
There were also some further complications, though fairly uncontrollable, and related around a particular guest. As has been well documented, comics legend Stan Lee has been having to cancel appearances and has begun navigating to retirement. With that in mind, Lee’s appearance was toted as his “last Utah appearance.” Things got shaky when a day before the convention, his panel was moved to the following day, but Farr and Brandenburg were confident in his appearance during Friday’s press conference. Yet, by Friday afternoon it was clear-per his doctor’s orders, Lee could not travel out here. Easily, this was the best choice, but Stan himself apparently wasn’t too thrilled and reached back out to the convention to set up a Skype call for attendees. While brief and troubled by Skype being Skype, Lee was ever the showman and filled with energy despite the flu.
The guests are easily the point of the whole thing, and they really were great. I wasn’t able to get into the Psych panel due to the implementation of a lottery system (which is troublesome, but does at least offer a chance to everyone equally), but the response I heard back was incredibly positive. I caught Weird Al Yankovic’s panel, which was also enjoyable. Yankovic was kind and friendly to question askers, gave detailed answers, and had lots of fun. And these are all guests not usually brought into comic conventions. A personal highlight of mine is also a Salt Lake favorite: Twisted Toonz. The concept of this panel gets various voice actors together to read a preselected film script as characters that they have portrayed or do good impressions of. This panel is always a riot, mostly because you have to visualize these very familiar scenes with brand new voices. In this con’s edition, we were joined by Jess Harnell (Animaniacs, Transformers), Khary Payton (Young Justice, The Walking Dead), Jennifer Hale (Mass Effect, The Powerpuff Girls), and Jeff Bennett (Johnny Bravo, The Land Before Time) and were read Beauty and the Beast. Believe me, you haven’t heard that script until it’s being narrated by King Ezekiel. Not every panel was a celebrity focus, though. Various panels were held to discuss all sorts of fandom. Normal things like canon and creation history were peppered throughout, but there were also panel discussions of things like diversity and representation. Writing workshops were offered with various different writers with different styles. A sword fighting class was offered by Highlander start Adrian Paul that, according to the star, intended to give people the whole experience with not just stage fighting, but to show off the work actually put into such productions. Another running tradition is to close the night with a charity showing of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog to benefit various charities.
While lines may have been complicated, the panels themselves were pretty well ran. Moderators were selected wisely, as they showed they were prepared to ask intelligent questions and managing time the best that they could. This kind of thing in quite critical when there is so much jammed into only two days. Imagine getting to your panel location only to find that your time will be cut shorter due to someone else’s going way too long-which didn’t have to happen here. The Salt Palace is a decent building to navigate from location to location, even if takes a few moments to take stock of where one is in the building. An app is also provided to make navigation and scheduling one’s day. While I had some issues with the app, re-launching it always seemed to work, and it was far more beneficial to have than not.
Then there’s the convention’s main floor, where artists, cosplayers, and vendors are strewn all out for attendees to visit. There was a change in mapping done that labeled booths with a colored section as opposed to previous events with a full grid, though I never really glanced any such labeling on the floor itself. This did seem to change the layout ever so slightly, though. Most aisles going north to south had been widened, adding much appreciated mobility to the navigation of the floor. You might never stop people from stopping in the middle of a walkway, but the extra space left a lot of room to navigate around such things.
Vendors were varied, but if you’ve visited a comic con before, you’ll recognize what is on offer. Lots of collectable statues and figures, Funko Pop, comics, prints of well known art, anime merchandise, and so on. I didn’t have issues talking with any of the vendors that I dealt with, and many were helpful even as they were clearly “on the job.” As a collector myself, this is always a huge boon. For myself, I was able to secure a particular Funko Pop that had proven illusive. I did so under the understanding that it was the last one they had in stock, and a few returns to the booth appeared to confirm that, making me feel better about the purchase. Notably, as I understand, one vendor was not able to sell its primary product. Harebrained is a startup that offers Period Panties, female underwear designed to avoid staining and featuring nerdy lighthearted takes on women’s periods, but was apparently not permitted to sell these on the show floor. Looking at the collection, I do see a couple of words that might have been troublesome, but nothing that should have warranted the removal of an entire product, particularly a useful one. While I understand the concept of offering a family-friendly convention, ignoring that women have periods is not protecting that image. Especially when you have three or four booths selling anime swords.
The artist and creator presence was also strong, even if I still feel that SLCC has trouble bringing in comic creators. Having the aforementioned Marv Wolfman was a big deal, and I did get the chance to ask him about the potential Nightwing movie Warner Brothers is cooking up. He replied with a single word: “Positivity.” (Take note, WB.) Tons of individual works lined Artist Alley, and all of them were gorgeous. Seriously, given a massive income, I’d have bought everything I could glimpse. Artists like Kris Kehasukjaren brought unique and detailed prints, while others worked live and on the scene. One such was artist Rob Prior, who painted multiple works throughout the convention. It was particularly fun to watch, as Prior paints to heavy metal and uses both of his hands at the same time, producing gorgeous work. Prior also provided a special artwork of Carrie Fisher to SLCC, prints of which were sold at cost to benefit the Make-A-Wish foundation as Fan X was dedicated to Fisher’s memory.
Likely due to the smaller scale of the event, there were less professional cosplayers brought in than normal, but they brought their A-game. Incredible costumes were seen all around, in fact. It is very clear that Utah people like their cosplay and take it seriously. SLCC did also enforce the ever important Cosplay Is Not Consent rule, including some of the largest signage for the entire convention placed at entrances. While I can’t say for certain everything was perfect on this front, I didn’t receive any reports of harassment or touching of cosplayers, which is a huge relief to everyone. Matthew took about 300 photos, a majority of them being of people’s wonderful cosplay, which I’m still working into a functional gallery for.
Not everyone’s experience is going to be perfect, and the way this is handled is easily the best part of the convention. Both of the founders and their direct support team were out in the midst of the events, handling issues and meeting their customers, friendly as ever. They have a running Facebook group that is monitored by Brandenburg personally, which proved invaluable for up-to-date information and problem reporting. Even now, issues that are being reported and are investigated by the team that puts on this convention. Given how easy it would be to make this a hands-off experience, it’s encouraging to know that concerns and praise are heard equally.
There is one issue that makes Fan X (and the full fledged Salt Lake Comic Con) a difficult recommendation for out-of-towners. See, this convention had to cut off sales at the aforementioned 50,000 due to size, and that’s a lot. Yet, Downtown Salt Lake City isn’t really equipped to handle an influx of even that size. That isn’t helped by the Salt Palace Convention Center being only a block away from a sports stadium during March Madness. Parking lots, including the ones overcharging, were full by 1 PM on Saturday, with still seven hours left of the convention. Utah does have a light rail system, but it has never been expansive enough to be properly viable for everyone, for reasons that I don’t need to get into here. All of this makes things really irritating for locals, I can only imagine what it does to tourists. I realize there really isn’t much that can be done on the convention’s part, but the convention really does not have anywhere to expand past if it desires to remain in downtown Salt Lake. I want to be clear here-I live here, and I’m hesitant to ever go into that area.
Even so, it looked like the guests were having a pretty good time. I’ve been regaled with stories from attendees of guests being kind and receptive to fans, including stories about Zachary Levi’s propensity for random hugs. During the time I spent with some guests, I found them to be warm and inviting of my brief questions, and would expect the same when in their own panels. You really get a sense that they enjoy all of this, and not remotely just for the money. For the guests, being able to celebrate each other’s work and spend some time with those impacted by it is just as important to them as to the fans.
In spite of some flaws, Fan X 2017 was a great experience. Between great panels and a great atmosphere, it was impossible to not get a smile out of everything. There was a wonderful amount of representation of fandom, amazing cosplay, some good guests, and more to behold. Growing pains still exist, but I do feel confident that the SLCC team is hitting the ground running to learn and adapt more and more
Salt Lake Fan X ran March 17th-18th, 2017. Salt Lake Comic Con is scheduled for September 21st-23rd, 2017.