SALT LAKE CITY — For the founders of the FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention, taking place at the Salt Palace Convention Center Thursday through Saturday, it's been a year that might cause even a superhero to flinch.
"You’re either comfortable or learning something," said FanX co-founder Bryan Brandenburg at a press event Thursday.
In December 2017, a San Diego jury determined that Brandenburg and his co-founder Dan Farr had violated a trademark by using the name "comic con." Following the court's decision, the founders changed their previously titled Salt Lake Comic Con to FanX Salt Lake Comic Convention.
Then in May of this year, controversy found the comic convention once more.
Following an email exchange between Brandenburg and best-selling Utah author Shannon Hale regarding the convention's sexual harassment policy, Hale tweeted out a section of Brandenburg's email but did not name either him or FanX specifically. In their exchange, Brandenburg had suggested to Hale that she "sit this one out" in regards to attending the convention after she raised questions about complaints made against fellow Utah author Richard Paul Evans' behavior at a previous event.
In response, FanX tweeted the full email exchange, and in doing so, released Hale's private email address. Their exchange set off an online firestorm, which resulted in Brandenburg announcing that he was taking a leave of absence from FanX.
He has since resumed his work with the convention.
"We asked what was great about what happened, and what was great is that we’ve had an opportunity to be better and we’ve taken measurable, real action and we are so much better in so many ways in terms of harassment, inclusivity, diversity (and) ADA accommodations," Brandenburg said.
Those improvements this year include the formation of the Community Council on Harassment and Safety and partnering with the Utah Attorney General's Office, which maintains a 24-hour hotline for convention attendees to report bullying, harassment, assault or any kind of abuse at the convention. The hotline number is 1-833-OUR-FANX.
Additionally, FanX has changed its sexual harassment campaign from "Cosplay is not consent" to "Consent is key." According to Brandenburg, the events of the past year inspired the campaign change.
"Prior to May, the whole conversation and narrative was 'Cosplay is not consent,'" he said. "But then when we had an incident that happened in May between a guest author and another guest author, we realized 'Cosplay is not consent' doesn’t fit the bill. We need something that’s broad and inclusive that covers every person that’s in the Salt Palace the weekend of our event."
The event, which is currently on track to bring in over 100,000 people, packs in cosplayers, pop culture fans, artists, vendors, celebrities and those who just want to observe the spectacle.
Although FanX lost a handful of its high-profile guests this year, most notably Hollywood legend Dick Van Dyke and Oscar-winning director and actor Ben Affleck, who dropped out in August after announcing he would be spending time in rehab, Farr feels confident that attendees will have plenty to enjoy.
"Even losing Ben and Dick Van Dyke … we still have our most successful lineup that we’ve ever had — it’s the biggest as far as star power," Farr said.
FanX's celebrity guests this year include Jeff Goldblum, Tim Curry, David Tennant and Evangeline Lilly, among many others. Ticket sales have already soared past those of 2017 and 2016.
And although Brandenburg indicated there was a slight dip in ticket sales when Affleck dropped out of the convention, fans outside of the Salt Palace seemed unaffected by FanX's problems this year.
Jasmine Luna, from West Valley City, said she is "still excited" to be at the convention, even without Affleck and Van Dyke, while her friend, Markus Moss, from Pocatello, Idaho, said that for him, coming to FanX each year is like "coming home." As a cosplayer who started dressing up after becoming interested in the Power Rangers, he is especially excited to meet two original Power Rangers who will be at this year's convention, Jason David Frank and Amy Jo Johnson.
"I have my photo-op today with Jason David Frank and tomorrow is with Amy Jo," he said. "It’s definitely exciting."
The fans' enthusiasm hasn’t been lost on the celebrities either.
“I love meeting the fans and hearing their stories,” said actress Paige O’Hara, best known as the voice behind Belle in the 1991 Disney animated classic "Beauty and the Beast." “I’m excited.”
For Farr, it’s that shared passion between fans and celebrity guests that continues to make up the heart of FanX, even after the year’s missteps and setbacks.
“I love the connections that come out of these events. Being able to observe those fan experiences is what this is all about,” he said.
His co-founder added this final thought: "We’re here to entertain a hundred-plus thousand people this weekend and we have amazing things happening," Brandenburg said. "I think most people are going to have a great time."