SANDY — At the McKinney home, sounds of sewing machines whir, tools bang and lots of laughter is heard late into the night.
For months, the blended family of five has been laboring together over a set of costumes for Salt Lake Comic Con.
The whole house is affected, as handmade kilts hang over the railing in the entryway, power tools lay scattered across the kitchen table, and handmade replica weapons dry around the front room. Down the hall, an entire room has been dedicated to costume production.
They are among thousands of families across Utah and beyond getting ready for the second installment of Salt Lake Comic Con, beginning Thursday with the potential to attract 120,000 fans to downtown Salt Lake over its three-day run.
"We talked about going to San Diego Comic-Con for years," says patriarch Chris McKinney. "We never were able to with a big family."
"We're so glad it's here. We'll continue doing it forever," adds his wife, Erika.
"We have the most interesting conversations at dinner," says Erika McKinney with a laugh, anxious to boast about her creative children.
Her anecdote is interrupted by the teenagers, who reminisce about past projects and their time at last year's local pop culture and comic convention.
When Erika and Chris married more than a decade ago, their his-and-hers family bonded over their shared nerdiness. The kids put together costumes and waited in line for hours to pick up new Harry Potter books the day they were released. If they went to the movies, it was to see the latest Star Wars or Lord of the Rings installment. On road trips, they listened to audiobooks together.
Now the boys are in high school and the girls are in college, but their new tradition is attending Salt Lake Comic Con. A few of the kids' friends have gotten in on the fun, coming to the McKinney home to work on their own costumes.
"It's just fun because we all get together and we get to know each other even more than we thought we did," said 17-year-old Broden McKinney, who spent the evening aging a leather pouch he sewed himself. "It's a fun collaboration."
The family is stunned by the homegrown convention's overnight success, Erika McKinney said. Planning for the upcoming event began as soon as April's FanX event ended.
This year, the family is putting together a group costume, donning looks from the fantasy book series and HBO show "Game of Thrones."
The girls — Denali McKinney, 18, and Cairo Nord, 23 — are students at the University of Utah, but their first week of classes hasn't kept them from helping with costume prep at their parents' house.
Denali McKinney helped her mother fit foam armor for her brother, 17-year-old Aidan McKinney, while Nord and Chris McKinney began a duct tape model that will be used to make a suit for a family friend.
"It's kind of hard to always come down here, but somehow we always make time," said Denali McKinney, who is juggling school, her sorority responsibilities and now Comic Con.
Nathan Caldwell and his brothers decided after attending FanX together that the April event will be an annual get-together for them. He's tackling the upcoming convention alone, but after attending both Salt Lake Comic Con last year and FanX earlier this year, the young National Guardsman is something of a Comic Con veteran.
"I pay the most attention to the artists announced and listed in artist alley. With each new artist announced, I go through what comics they have worked on to see if I have any of their works in my collection," Caldwell said. "A few days before the con, I go through the panel list to see which panels really interest me so that I can plan my convention floor time around them."
At FanX, Caldwell showed up hours early (partly because of nerves) in order to snag good seats at a presentation by "Firefly" and "Castle" star Nathan Fillion and winning him the chance to ask the fictional captain a question.
"The night before, I had decided that if I got the chance I wanted to ask a question. So when I saw another fan already lined up, I went and got in line behind him. I spent a couple hours in line to ask a question while general admission was waiting to get in," Caldwell said.
He has purchased VIP tickets to get him through the lines, a practice that helped him in April, and he has a savings account growing with money just for Salt Lake Comic Con.
Organizers predict VIP passes for next week's Comic Con will sell out, as they did in April, as convention day approaches.
In order to experience more of the convention, the McKinney family has decided to volunteer with Salt Lake Comic Con. Parents Chris and Ericka will work Thursday and Friday before pulling out their costumes for the cosplay contest Saturday.
Salt Lake Comic Con founder Dan Farr called the final days before the convention "a crazy fun time."
"This is the time I love because it all starts coming together," he said.
Farr is in the midst of finalizing travel plans for a number of celebrity guests, spanning a range that he says appeals to all kinds of people.
"This has a broader appeal than just the hardcore comic book fan," he said. "Once you miss one (convention), you can never get that back. At every event, we will continue to add new and exciting things, but you can't go back and relive the ones you've missed."
The McKinneys still have much to do as well. They're currently making plans for their cosplay weapons, but they've perfected the art of repurposing leather from discarded couches for costumes and using a combination of rope, epoxy and paper mache to construct a wearable rib cage for Chris. And they're not done yet.
"They're very artsy kids," said Erika McKinney, undaunted at spending the next few days in final preparations. "I'd rather have a messy house and have us all be happy."
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