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Geeking out: Salt Lake Comic Con draws huge crowd

SALT LAKE CITY — "I love your costume. Can I take a picture with you?"

Melody Tripp didn't seem to mind that she couldn't browse the booths at Salt Lake Comic Con for more than a few minutes Thursday without being approached by admirers asking about her elaborate suit.

"This is the test run for Saturday. I'm in the Cosplay games," she said, handing her husband a stray fabric band that had come loose from her sleeve. "These need to be fixed."

Cosplay, or costume play, is a high point of any Comic Con, a celebration of science fiction, fantasy and comics. Salt Lake conventiongoers swarmed downtown Thursday dressed as their favorite superhero, video game character, mythical creature or sci-fi icon during the first day of the three-day convention.

Outfits ranged from simple homemade assortments to meticulous, high-quality replicas.

Tripp, from Sandy, spent more than two months preparing her costume for Salt Lake's inaugural Comic Con. She came dressed as a "rogue" from her favorite fantasy role-play board game, Pathfinder. The elaborate leather outfit was complete with a silver wig, hand-painted ornaments, a homemade corset and a set of ornamental knives.

"I learned how to leather work in the meantime, so I've got a new skill," she beamed, looking up at her husband, Jack, and their 3-year-old son, Jack Jr. "I've been driving these guys crazy with crafts all over the house."

Jack Tripp wore a simple Star Wars T-shirt, happy to leave the spotlight to his wife. Young Jack came as himself, but oohed and ahhed at the characters he recognized, like a passing group of storm troopers.

"We'd been wanting to go to a Con for a long time, but it's just hard getting out of town," Jack Tripp said. "Having it here in Salt Lake is way easy."

Utah's inaugural convention didn't disappoint. With nearly 40,000 tickets sold by Thursday evening, and last-minute celebrity additions like Marvel mastermind Stan Lee, the downtown geek gathering looks like it could become a national player in the convention scene.

Other big-name guests at the inaugural Con include William Shatner, the original Captain Kirk; Adam West, the first Batman; Lou Ferrigno, the Incredible Hulk; and David Prowse, who played Darth Vadar.

Dan Farr, the event's organizer and a Salt Lake native, has attended Comic Con events across the nation and couldn't shake the idea of bringing a convention home to Utah. What he envisioned as a gathering of a few hundred locals has grown "beyond my wildest dreams."

"As far as any research we've done, this Comic Con is hitting numbers that we're the biggest convention (in Salt Lake), and still growing … and we're going to hold the record for the biggest first-year Comic Con," Farr said.

Nearby Denver staged its first Comic Con in 2012, selling 27,000 tickets. Salt Lake Comic Con isn't far behind Dragon Con, which wrapped up its 26th convention Monday in Atlanta, drawing an estimated 46,000 people, CNN reported.

Most ticket holders are Utahns, Farr said. He credits the event's explosive growth to social media, as fans one by one went online to invite friends and family.

Shawn Stinson, communications director for the Salt Lake Convention & Visitors Bureau, said it's difficult to estimate what kind of an economic boon the homegrown convention brings. If it keeps growing, however, it could pack a punch.

"They're estimating huge numbers, which kind of puts Utah on the map for a different target audience," Stinson said. "I think the fact that it's making such a large splash within the Comic Con world, I think that will raise some eyebrows and perhaps interest people (from other states) into coming to future Salt Lake Comic Cons."

The convention has a local flavor, presenting hometown exhibitors like the University of Utah's Entertainment Arts and Engineering program, an area specialist in video games, computer animation, special effects and entertainment art.

Director of Game Design Roger Altizer will speak on a panel Saturday about the U.'s distinct program, and students and educators will spend all three days answering questions on the convention floor.

Cory Haltinner, a first-year master's student in the program, is splitting his time between the program's booth and his own. Haltinner and some classmates are hoping the convention will help them launch their original game, Magnetic By Nature, which recently took top honors at the Utah Game Wars. The team used part of its winnings to pay for a spot at Salt Lake Comic Con.

"We were just really excited to be part of such a big venue and a big audience, to be able to put our game out there in front of so many people," Haltinner said. "There's no better way to market our game than to be here."

Magnetic By Nature is available to play on Xbox, and the students are currently seeking support as they develop the game for PC, Mac and Linux platforms. They are also asking conventiongoers to playtest a new project at their booth.


Twitter: McKenzieRomero