Salt Lake City was a busy place to be last weekend. Between the football games, fair and various events, parking was slammed, trains were full, and the sidewalks were packed. The largest event was the first-ever Salt Lake Comic Con. More than 50,000 people attended over the three-day weekend, culminating in a massive Saturday and the Salt Palace Convention center. I got tickets the day I heard about the event back in July.
I wanted to be boots on the ground during the busiest part of the convention. I went Saturday afternoon, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever attended. As a disclaimer: I did not go the other days. Those who went earlier in the week informed me it was very relaxed and more fun than Saturday.
One thing became immediately apparent upon arrival Saturday afternoon: We weren’t getting in the door anytime soon. Because I hadn’t picked up my press pass or my wife’s pre-paid ticket, we were looking at standing in the two-hour line wrapping around the Salt Palace. If you hadn’t already gotten your wristband, you waited outside. Eventually, the facility filled to capacity, and fire marshals barred anyone from entering until enough people exited.
We got in, and it was as packed as you can imagine. The floor wasn’t visible, and vendors in booths couldn’t reach people fast enough. A few of the booths were really great. The Weta workshop, which has never been to a conference outside of San Diego, was a Mecca for Tolkienites like me. The Lego-builders area was a miniature city, buildings, streets, and towers assembled from tiny bricks. Fan jewelry, action figures, and swords were all available for purchase.
Sadly, many booths seemed lost in the chaos of the Con. One or two people in a booth drawing stick figures, guys pleading for help with their Kickstarter project, and local artists were ignored in favor of the center booths. It felt like these unexciting vendors signed up at the beginning of the Con, before it exploded into the largest convention in Utah history. Many booths that were only for hard-core comic nerds were ignored or seen as weird. This was unfortunate.
One key feature of larger Cons is the appeal to everyone. There are video game releases, big movie teasers, and panels from pop-culture icons. Salt Lake just wasn’t that appealing to the average person. Sure, a lifelong comic book reader would be excited to meet artists, attend panels about maintaining a video game character or creating a fiction world, but the rest of us were looking for fun things to do. To drive sales, next year’s Con will have to have a broader set of vendors, panels, and guests.
The worst part of the entire affair was the feeling of extortion. Those running the show seemed determined to suck as much money as possible from the attendees. I expect having to pay extra for getting a picture from high-profile guests like Lou Ferrigno and Stan Lee; that was advertised before hand. I don’t want to fork out 65 dollars to get an autograph with a second-string actor from a less-than-okay TV show or a star who hasn’t been relevant in decades.
When the PA announced the Stan Lee and William Shatner panels, we all immediately began lining up to get in the conference room. There was a fair amount of disappointment and anger when we were told getting into these high-demand panels was an extra fee. That’s right; to see the main guests or take a picture cost you money, getting an autograph cost you money, and even hearing them speak was a surprise fee we all expected came with the entrance.
Embarrassingly enough, most of the people were fed up with this and refused to pay. When the fat cats realized only a third of the room would be full, they opened it up to everyone.
They weren’t done extorting the audience. Twenty minutes after Stan Lee began starting answering questions, the audience was informed he had to leave and finish signing autographs. Mr. Lee wasn’t enthusiastic about this information, but said he “would do as he was told.”
The crowd was overwhelming, like pushing through an all-consuming fog. You didn’t move; you stepped into a current and hope it took you somewhere exciting. The press of bodies, costumes, and cameras was constant. The smell burned the inside of your nose: alcohol, cheap snacks, Lysol, and perspiration combined to create an unholy cocktail of odors. Babies crying, yelling, laughter, shouts, slams, and a hundred other unidentifiable sounds compounded into an orchestral cacophony.
I thrive in crowds; they make me feel like part of something greater, part of the con’s lifeblood. However, this crowd crossed the line to painful and claustrophobia inducing.
I stumbled upon the “professional cosplay” booths in the middle of the floor, fighting through a Cheetos cloud to see what everyone was looking at. What I saw took my breath away: a living video game girl. Brown fur bikini with perfect breasts exploding out the top, every step a flirtation, every curve ideal, she had the eye of surrounding male. They orbited around her, never touching, but eagerly buying her posters.
Once I shook off the initial shock and awe, I realized the sad reality. The “professionals” weren’t comic fanatics or costumes aficionados; they were saleswomen, capitalizing on nerds’ masturbatory fantasies. These girls weren’t even dressed as characters; they were posing for a ring of sweating boy-men pawing at photos and wishing for a “sexy” Pikachu.
While the pros where hawking their wares to the more-than-obliging masses, the rest of the cosplayers were in fact very good. This was the silver lining in the dense cloud of confusion. Many attendees obviously spent hours nailing down intricate details of their costumes. The attention and dedication to their source was inspiring.
They were a happy bunch, always agreeably posing for a picture or affirmation of an exclamation of praise. My wife and I chased down a Batman and Scarecrow. I fulfilled a lifelong fantasy and posed between Link and Zelda. We have a Christmas card photo of us posing with the Galactic Empire, Darth Vader included. Saturday was the show day for costumes, and everyone knew it.
All in all, we left feeling overwhelmed and disappointed. It seemed like a nice convention that wasn’t sure what it wanted to be. But, while getting dinner, I saw a pack of Deadpools roaming around City Creek, and that sight almost made up for everything else.
Joshua Wartena is a senior studying Journalism and Spanish at UVU and will graduate in Fall 2014. He is hoping to work as a middle-east correspondent or long-form magazine writer in South America. Josh is currently living in Orem and is the Opinions Section Editor