SALT LAKE CITY — For many, being a fan of Salt Lake Comic Con events is like being part of a family.
In some cases, it's literal.
Kaylynn Wolfe, an elementary school teacher from Clearfield by day and costumed marvel by night, credits Utah's semiannual nerd conference (at least indirectly) with creating a new hobby for her and her mother, and introducing her to her husband.
Now, as the couple is busily planning for their baby boy due in July, they're also preparing to see their extended "comic con family" this weekend at FanX, happening Friday and Saturday at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
Like Wolfe, fans, volunteers, organizers and celebrity guests alike have come to consider the thousands of people who attend Salt Lake Comic Con part of a special kinship that extends beyond the convention floor and keeps them connected between events.
Now in its fourth year, Salt Lake Comic Con floods downtown twice annually with its major pop culture and comic conventions. Its headline event, which happens each September, attracted more than 120,000 attendees last year. Attendance for FanX, a smaller event held each spring, was around 50,000 people in 2016.
When Salt Lake Comic Con's inaugural event was announced in 2013, Wolfe's mother, who had loved making costumes for her outgoing daughter as a child, announced she wanted to sew a dress matching that of Princess Anna in "Frozen" for her daughter to wear in the cosplay contest.
When they won, they were hooked.
Together, the mother and daughter began creating outfits to wear together to every Salt Lake Comic Con since then, and Wolfe developed a fan following for her cosplay — short for "costume play" — persona, including 3,000 people on Facebook and 2,000 more on Instagram.
They were together at an equally nerdy event in the summer of 2015 when Wolfe's mother, JoLynn Drott, spotted a costumed fellow jogging past and thought he seemed like a cute match for her daughter. She reached out, grabbed the man by the large belt on his steampunk outfit, and insisted he stop for a photo.
"She about bent me in half because of how fast I was going," Nic Wolfe recalled.
After Drott also insisted the pair exchange numbers so they could share their photos, the two later talked and arranged to meet for a date, and "the rest is history," Nic Wolfe said.
Now, the couple says they're part of a "cosplay community" that regularly gets together, forming a tight-knit social circle that the schoolteacher and work-from-home IT guy don't think they would have found otherwise.
"Some of my closest friends are people I've met through the cosplay world," Kaylynn Wolfe said. "Now we go and do events and we have dinner together, and I've created some really lasting friendships. And then, of course, your social circle expands to the thousands and thousands of people who go to comic con."
For FanX, the couple will likely be dressing as Spider-Man and his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson, complete with a printed "Spider-Baby" on Kaylynn Wolfe's tummy. They say it's a tribute to Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, who has chosen to return to Salt Lake for one of his final comic con appearances.
Drott, meanwhile, has assembled an intricate Doctor Strange costume that stays true to Benedict Cumberbatch's look in last year's Marvel movie.
Other celebrities coming to town include Zachary Levi, who played the loveable nerd-turned-super spy in the TV series "Chuck" and voiced "Tangled" hero Flynn Rider; James Roday and Dule Hill, the mystery-solving duo from "Psych"; "The Princess Bride" actors Cary Elwes, Wallace Shawn and Chris Sarandon; and musician "Weird Al" Yankovic.
Also on the lengthy FanX guest list is voice actor/rocker Jess Harnell, who has voiced characters in movies and television series including "Animaniacs," "Sofia the First," "Up," "Wall-E" and "Wreck-It Ralph."
A Salt Lake Comic Con fan himself since his first visit, this is Harnell's fifth convention appearance in a row. It's a record he alone holds.
Each event, he says, is like "going to a family reunion with 120,000 family members."
"I have a very, very soft spot in my heart for Salt Lake City and I don't even live there," Harnell said. "Not that I'm insulting any other cons in the world, because they're all good in their own way, but to me, the Salt Lake Comic Con and the Salt Lake City FanXperience are the greatest comic cons in the world, bar none."
Harnell credits a number of factors.
First, he praises event co-founders, Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg, for the all-star treatment they give each celebrity guest, no matter how much of a celebrity they may be. Next, he says, there's a level of excitement among Salt Lake Comic Con attendees that can't be matched or suppressed.
"They walk around in the costumes they've spent so much time on, and everyone wants to take pictures with them and shake their hand talking about shared interests that in the outside world might make them misfits, but inside those walls, they're the kings and queens of the arena," Harnell said.
Even alongside guests like Lee, or past guests Chris Evans and Mark Hamill, the line of guests waiting to see Harnell is one of the longest. It's also one of the slowest moving, which fans don't seem to mind, as Harnell frequently pops out from behind his table for autographs and photos, to ask fans questions about their costumes, or to greet children using the voices of the many cartoon characters he has played.
A number of the people in that line have met Harnell before, but come by again to chat and update him on their lives.
"The people who attend the Salt Lake con have become dear to me," Harnell said. "I've had some really nice, heartfelt conversations with a lot of people at this con in particular, who come back to see me six months or a year later and say, 'Guess what happened since last time?' For whatever reason, I have a weird memory and I actually hold onto details and names really well, and I generally remember exactly what they're talking about, so we get to pick up where we left off."
Harnell has also taken to visiting Utah in between events.
While at Sundance in February, Harnell dropped by Farr's home for a visit and to snap a goofy photo pretending he was shoveling snow from the driveway in exchange for an invite to FanX. Staff at the Grand America Hotel know him by name, he said, and he's such a frequent diner at Valter's Osteria that the restaurant's owner once dropped by a performance of Harnell's band, Rock Sugar.
Farr admits that when he and Brandenburg first started Salt Lake Comic Con, they underestimated the impact it would have.
"I would say my circle of friends really is 90 percent convention related," Farr said. "We hear stories time and time again from the volunteers about how this has become an adopted family for them. We also hear it from the attendees. I met one family that told me they had moved in and they didn't really know any of their neighbors. They started coming to the conventions, and now they have a whole group of friends that they met through the convention."
In going back on their previous decision to skip this edition of FanX, Farr and Brandenburg cut the event down to two days rather than three and advised fans they were considering a more modest lineup of celebrity guests.
But as plans got underway, Lee, who had previously announced he was done with fan events, asked to return, and stars they had been wooing for a while — including Levi, Roday and Hill — said they were now ready to visit Utah based on Salt Lake Comic Con's shining reputation, Farr said.
"Our lineup ended much stronger than we anticipated when we decided to do FanX," Farr said. "When it came down to who was available and everything, we ended up in more of an epic mode with such a powerful lineup."Comment on this story
As he chatted with Levi on some of Utah's slopes last week, Farr says the actor told him that while he had been leery of convention appearances in the past, the positive buzz surrounding Salt Lake's events as well as pleas from fans online asking him to come visit convinced him to accept the invitation.
"It's not about us offering big money or anything like that. It comes down to us having just a great reputation," Farr said. "I'd say the relationships we've been able to foster here have really helped to kind of keep that word going out there."