SALT LAKE CITY — The inaugural Salt Lake Comic Con was expected to set records as the largest first-year convention before doors even opened.
But fans surprised guests and organizers even further Saturday as they continued to pour in and ticket sales topped 50,000.
A final count wasn't available Saturday night, but a Salt Lake Comic Con spokesman confirmed the newest comic convention had surpassed 50,000 tickets sold by 10 a.m. About five hours later, organizers declared the event sold out and a fire marshal limited entry into the Salt Palace, which was bursting at the seams.
Fans reported waiting in line for as much as four hours Saturday just to get into the front door to catch the last of the three-day convention.
On Friday, Brant Leavitt and Paul Gardner grinned happily as they looked over the convention floor, a geek's paradise of merchandise, costumery and celebrity.
Their smiles widened as they watched their sons take it all in.
The group sat down for lunch Friday afternoon, each boasting a different sci-fi or superhero T-shirt, and a few child-sized costumes of Thor and the Hulk were laid to the side. The two dads and neighbors from Pleasant Grove brought their boys to the convention to boost their growing interest in a hero culture.
"I've followed comics my whole life, and just being here among all these TV stars that I watched, it's just awesome," Leavitt said. "It's bringing back some great childhood memories, and I wanted my boys to be able to see these guys that I grew up with."
Leavitt's three sons — twin 8-year-olds Aidan and Ezra, and 5-year-old Gabe — watched as costumed conventioneers passed by, leaving their lunches to ask politely for a photo with a man dressed in a homemade Doctor Strange suit.
"I'm seeing lots of people in costumes, and it's really fun. You get to see all these superheroes and new stuff," Ezra said, listing favorites among several Marvel heroes featured in the recent film "The Avengers."
There are life lessons to be learned as father and sons share Comic Con and their superhero hobby.
"Who better to teach you to choose between right and wrong, and to control your powers and control your potential, than Superman?" Leavitt said. "Or to teach you that no matter who you are, you can be super like Batman?"
Big screen, big changes
With a revitalized superhero following meant for more mature audiences comes movies, comics, costumes and storylines with heightened violence and sexuality.
"I was debating even bringing them to this, just because I know that has become more of an issue," Leavitt said, noting he had seen some costumes through the day he considered too revealing for his children's eyes. "But there's always going to be good and bad everywhere, and here, the good certainly outweighs the few little things that may be bad."
It's all part of teaching the boys about right and wrong, Leavitt said.
Other parents argued the Comic Con scene was too mature for children, despite free admission that was offered for children under 10. They voiced concerns about overly revealing costumes and illustrations on the convention floor, some staged alongside other displays that seemed geared toward children.
Leavitt and his wife remain aware of what their children are taking in by pre-screening any movies they want to see. So far, they've been limited mostly to the cartoon incarnations of their favorite characters.
"They haven't seen any of (the new Batman movies) yet, and that's OK. They love the cartoon ones," Leavitt said. "The darker ones, I mean, I personally like them because I'm a big Batman fan, but for my boys, no, not yet."
Gardner grew up a fan of sci-fi movies and television. His son Andrew is a faithful Dr. Who fan and came to the convention sporting a shirt inspired by the popular BBC series and knee-length socks resembling The Doctor's iconic blue police box. His father saw Salt Lake's first Comic Con as a chance to learn more about his son's interests.
"What's fun for me is watching him. He knows all the characters more than I do. It's fun to be able to spend time with him, on a level and doing something he enjoys so immensely," Gardner said. "And of course, I'm having a lot of fun."
Comics and kids
Andrew Gardner is a voracious comic book reader. The 12-year-old said he's happy to have any comic from the DC or Marvel universes in his hands, but especially Green Lantern, Aquaman, Deathstroke, Batman and Superman.
"It makes me daydream about, 'What if I had these powers? What if I could be like them, and would I be good or bad?'" Andrew said. "I would always be good."
For Andrew, the illustration and flow of comic books is better than a regular book.
"It's awesome," he said.
Gardner said he and his wife have talked to their son about how to select age-appropriate comics, and the nearly 13-year-old has been careful about what he chooses.
"He comes and talks to us and says, 'Hey, is this one OK? Is this one appropriate?'" Gardner said. "Of course there's concerns about them, but for the most part we trust that he'll choose the right when it comes to that sort of thing."
For Rachael and Jonathan Pust, owners of the Heebeegeebeez comics and game shop, fun is the whole point, no matter what age. The couple ran a busy booth at the event offering a selection of comics and merchandise from their four locations.
Rachael Pust juggled her 7-month-old daughter in a baby carrier as she helped customers. Running the business day-to-day, she has noticed an adult crowd that is returning to the comic book stories they loved as kids now that they have reached a more comfortable financial standing.
Many of them are bringing their children with them.
"I think the great thing about parents trying to get their children into comics right now is they use it as a reward system, and it's reading material to get their kids involved in literacy," Rachael Pust said. "It's really fun, especially for dads, to introduce their kids to something that was special to them when they were young that has been revamped."
The Pusts help customers find the right comic for their age, interest and maturity level. The comics they carry are ranked with a rating system, ranging from fun stories for kids 10 and under, up to teen and adult comics.
Comics for adult readers have moved away from the traditional battle of good versus evil, exploring a darker middle ground between the two.
"It's not your dad's Superman anymore," Rachael Pust said. "It's really turned into an art form, and with that in mind, you have to expect the darker parts of our culture and our existence and life to be included there."
Their oldest daughter, 19-year-old Joslyn, said the key for families is knowing which comics are intended for which age group. As she grew, she asked her parents to help her choose comics that would interest her and discussed the story with them after she finished. Now, she does the same for families that come into the store.
"I can be like, 'Here, this is what I got into at this age. This is the more age-appropriate (story) that they're going to be able to relate to,'" Joslyn Pust said. "Even now I'm barely getting into some of the older ones that are more mature and definitely a bit more in-depth."
Coming to the Con
As the Pust family worked side-by-side selling comics, a highlight for Rachael Pust was seeing parents and children who had dressed up together.
For three days, couples dressed as Han Solo and Princess Leia paraded through the Salt Palace holding hands; parents came as villains, while their children played the roles of superheroes; mothers pushed strollers disguised as spacecrafts; and fathers in capes carried toddlers on their shoulders.
"These families are maybe even starting a new tradition," Rachael Pust said. "I'm all for anything that puts a family together to have something that they enjoy and that's different, inclusive and has something for everyone."
Some of the inaugural weekend's celebrity lineup noticed the difference as well. Actor Richard Hatch, best known for his roles as Apollo and Tom Zarek in both generations of the sci-fi hit "Battlestar Galactica," is a frequent visitor to Utah, where he teaches regular acting courses.
A longtime veteran of Comic Cons across the country, when Hatch agreed to come to Salt Lake's inaugural event, he expected a few hundred people.
Instead, it became what many believe set records as the largest first-year comic book convention as stars such as Stan Lee, William Shatner and Adam West agreed to appear.
"I never thought I would be coming to a mega sci-fi convention like this," Hatch said, applauding organizer Dan Farr for his groundbreaking Comic Con debut. "As a beginning event, this is only going to grow and get bigger and more epic, and I think it's going to be a great, wonderful event for Salt Lake that the whole family will discover is a place they want to go."
Every convention has its own flavor, Hatch said, and Salt Lake is no different.
"It feels like a whole new adventure each time," he said, adding that he would enjoy coming back to see how the convention grows.
Camden Toy, a character actor recognized playing several ghoulish adversaries in shows such as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," was stunned at the convention's size and the number of young fans. He credited online streaming for movies and TV series for the rising popularity of comic book and sci-fi culture and conventions.
"'Buffy' and 'Angel' have a whole new following. We have a whole new generation of fans," Toy said. "I am having 15- and 16-year-old fans coming up to me, and obviously they didn't watch it when it was on TV. We're getting a new resurgence. It's great to see these new, young fans coming up."
Toy was especially excited to greet the welcoming Salt Lake City fans, several hundred of whom showed their appreciation online when Toy was added to the lineup.
"That's unheard of. Even in the bigger conventions, it's rare (when) that many fans will stop and take notice and make a comment," Toy said. "I don't know what (event organizers) are doing, but they're doing something right."