The excitement at the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention, which opened Thursday at the Salt Palace Convention Center, was a force to be reckoned with.
Inside the convention center, the massive crowd started gathering as early as 11 a.m., eager to attend the panels and peruse the many kinds of fan merchandise on the vendor floor. Outside, passersby in downtown Salt Lake City likely noticed cosplay-wearing fans from all over.
Inside one conference room, panelists were taking their seats, chatting as they waited for people to trickle in. Ten seconds before the clock strikes 1 p.m., a roar echoes in the foyer outside, followed by a countdown.
At 1 p.m. precisely, the vendor floor opened, and the fans rush in, cheering, wielding their swords and other costume props. FanX was on.
On the vendor floor, the crowd — which in pre-pandemic years topped 100,000 over the three days — could indulge in practically any fandom. One Etsy-based vendor had Celtic and elven headwear. Another booth provided a “Doctor Who” experience. Several sold Funko Pops, the popular big-headed figurines. Posters and costume memorabilia abounded.
Larry Nielsen and his wife, Gay, run Trendy Creations, a booth that sells all sort of fan merchandise; their most impressive item is a rack of Harry Potter wands. Down the same lane, Mikell Price of Mud In My Blood sells a wide array of custom Harry Potter merchandise: Character-themed candles, bath bombs, and mini “potion” bottles of hand sanitizer.
Some vendors travel long distances to sell their goods at FanX, but there are a lot of locals, too. Travis Romney, for example, has a booth to sell copies of the comic book he’s been writing since 2014, called “The Mighty Utahn.”
Romney — who also is the chief of police of Stockton, Utah, a town in Tooele County of about 600 people — described “The Mighty Utahn” as “Utah’s Superman,” who gets his powers from radioactive green Jell-O.
Romney said he got the idea when he was playing with his son in the backyard, and the son said, “Superman isn’t fat.” Romney decided to make his own hero, who is a little wider.
“I like to draw a lot of local interest comics, and poke fun at that kind of culture we have here, but in a way that’s respectful, not degrading,” Romney said. He pointed to the cover of one issue, which depicted the Mighty Utahn smashing ground in front of the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
FanX is something Romney absolutely loves to do. “In my day job, I deal with a lot of really horrific things,” he said. “For me, this is a nice escape from all the stuff we’ve got to deal with.” In short, FanX lets him relax and be his true self.
One of the first panels carried the title “A Priest, a Mormon, and a Rabbi Walk Into a Comic Book: When Religion and Pop Culture Collide.” The panelists discussed the significance of religious imagery in pop culture, with fielded audience questions about religious representation in culture — both positive and negative — as well as how religion can serve as a personal moral compass, and how pop culture portrays characters who experience a loss of faith.
Benjamin Jeppsen — an associate professor of psychology at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, S.D. — talked about the psychological processes that happen when someone is having “spiritual struggles,” or a loss of faith.
“One is an intra-personal, something within myself that feels inconsistent,” Jeppsen said. “Another is a conflict between me and another person. [The third] is when you’re angry at the God you believe in.”
Science-fiction author Eric James Stone said that, in real life, he has seen many people find that their personal moral compasses don’t align with the doctrines of their religion. “That presents a conflict for them, in essence, they have chosen their personal war,” Stone said.
Colorado author Aaron Michael Ritchey cited the character Sam Winchester — played by Jared Padalecki in 327 episodes of the TV series “Supernatural” — who faced existential faith struggles while hunting demons and monsters.
“The idea [was] that God becomes an antagonist to those players,” Ritchey said. But even as some characters were in the process of losing their faith, other characters found their faith deepening.
When it comes to role models in pop culture who struggle with religion, fantasy and science-fiction writer Kary English picked a counterintuitive example: The title character of the TV series “Lucifer.”
Lucifer Morningstar, the character played for six seasons by Tom Ellis, was “not a very good devil,” English said. Fans, she said, would “watch him grapple with ‘What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to do good in the world?’”
FanX continues Friday and Saturday at the Salt Palace, 100 S. West Temple, Salt Lake City, with some of the biggest celebrities scheduled to appear onstage.
Friday’s line-up includes “Star Trek” legend William Shatner, “Clerks” director Kevin Smith, “The Princess Bride” star Cary Elwes, and a new superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Xochitl Gomez, who played dimension-jumping America Chavez in this year’s “Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.”
Perhaps the most anticipated star set to appear Saturday is Steve Burns, known to millions of twenty-somethings and their parents as Steve, human companion to the title puppy in the Nickelodeon children’s show “Blue’s Clues.”
Tickets for FanX are available at FanXSaltLake.com.