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Shatner, Lee and record-breaking crowds: Inaugural Salt Lake Comic Con ends with a bang

SALT LAKE CITY — As thousands of people filled the Salt Palace Convention Center’s main stage Saturday waiting to see Marvel's icon, the audience started chanting “Stan Lee.”

“Look at all of you with nothing better to do,” Lee told the crowd as he walked on stage.

Looking at his image on the screen behind him, Lee said, “Wow, do I look great. No wonder you came to see me.” The audience cheered.

When the question-and-answer session was about to begin, Lee quipped, “I have to answer questions? This is going to be work? I thought we were here to have fun.”

The “Comic King” was just one of dozens of special guests who attracted thousands of attendees to Salt Lake City’s first Comic Con.

According Salt Lake Comic Con, the convention broke records for the largest inaugural Comic Con for any city.

With more than 50,000 tickets sold, Comic Con goers filled the Salt Palace halls to the max during the final day of the convention. At one point during the afternoon, fire marshals restricted access to the center to control the booming numbers of attendees; only one person could enter for every attendee that left the convention center.

For Dan Farr, the event’s creator, the turnout was almost unbelievable.

“Talk about a wild ride,” Farr said on Thursday. “This Comic Con has gotten so much bigger than we ever imagined. This is has gone better than my wildest dreams.”

Stars come to Utah

One of the keys to the convention’s success was the diverse lineup of guests. From Power Rangers to Darth Maul to orcs and dwarves, the convention provided a guest for almost any fandom.

For some of the guests, it was not their first visit to Utah.

Before beginning his Q&A Saturday, William Shatner spoke of his previous travels to Utah, usually to ski or hike along the Wasatch Front. But twice his visits to Utah coincided with Star Trek history.

Before landing the role of Captain James T. Kirk, Shatner starred in a Broadway bond play that premiered at the University of Utah.

“I got a call saying, ‘You can’t go to Broadway,’” Shatner said.

Shatner was needed for the pilot of a new series — “Star Trek.”

“It was right here,” Shatner said.

Manu Bennett — known for his roles in “Spartacus,” “Arrow” and as Azog the Pale Orc in “The Hobbit” — first came to Utah as a 19-year-old traveling by bus from Buffalo, N.Y., to Los Angeles. One of the places the bus stopped along the way was Salt Lake City.

“I was wondering what this city was doing out here in the middle of the desert. But it fascinated me,” Bennett said. “So when Dan said 'Salt Lake City,' I had this flashback to being a 19-year-old traveling across the expanse of America, and it just sounded like it was calling me back, really. I sort of ritually signed on and said, ‘Sure, that sounds like a great place to go and do a Comic Con.’”

As guests signed on to Comic Con, more guests followed.

After Bennett signed on, Weta Workshops and William Kircher, who stars as Bifur in “The Hobbit,” also became guests. Weta Workshops is known for its work creating weaponry, figurines and prosthetics for films such as “King Kong,” the Lord of the Rings trilogy and “The Hobbit.” Weta Workshops has never appeared at a U.S. Comic Con outside of San Diego Comic Con — until Salt Lake.

Lee also rarely appears at Comic Cons and didn’t join the Salt Lake event until late. It was Lou Ferrigno, the original Incredible Hulk, who convinced Lee to attend the event.

Lee inducted Ferrigno into the Muscle Beach Hall of Fame on Monday. Ferrigno encouraged Lee to attend Salt Lake Comic Con.

“He said he’d beat me up if I didn’t come,” Lee said.

By Saturday, Lee was in Salt Lake signing autographs, posing for pictures and speaking to a crowd of more than 4,000.

Fans get behind-the-scenes look

One of the many draws to Comic Cons across the world is the chance for fans, vendors and special guests to interact. Salt Lake Comic Con was no exception.

Saturday, the convention hosted panels by two of its biggest guests — Lee and Shatner.

During both panels fans had the rare opportunity to ask the guests any question.

When asked whom he would like to play him in a movie about his life, Shatner immediately said, "Chris Pine," to the laughter of the audience. (Chris Pine currently stars as Captain Kirk in the new Star Trek films, the same character Shatner began playing in 1966).

Shatner also shared behind-the-scenes pranks on the set of “Star Trek” between him and co-star Leonard Nimoy (Spock).

The actors only had 30 minutes of lunch — a rare break during long days of filming, according to Shatner.

“That half hour was very precious for those of us (who) wanted to eat. So by the time they said, 'It’s time for lu —' I was gone and the first person (in the cafeteria),” Shatner said. “By the time Leonard got there I was gone, so Leonard bought a bike.”

For days the two raced to the cafeteria, with Shatner chaining up Nimoy’s bike, hiding it in his dressing room and even having the lighting crew help him put it in the set’s rafters.

Shatner also encouraged audience participation during his Q&A.

“There’s one episode, I don’t remember the name but you’ll tell me, where we all age,” Shatner said while talking with an attendee.

A few members of the audience quickly shouted “The Deadly Years” as the audience laughed.

“Are you Googling this or something?” Shatner responded.

Lee also teased the audience, in his case about their love and knowledge of the Marvel universe.

“I’m going to tell you something but I don’t want it to leave this room: These are fictitious characters. We write about them, but — I don’t want to disillusion you,” Lee said.

Through out the Q&A, the 90-year-old Lee charmed the audience with his joking manner and stories of working with Marvel.

Lee has been involved with comic books for more than 60 years and created some of Marvel’s most iconic characters, including Thor, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, the Fantastic Four, X-Men and Spider-Man.

When asked what inspired him to create so many iconic characters, Lee’s first response was, "Greed."

“It was a job. That’s all it was, but I guess I’ve got lucky,” Lee said.

Today, Lee’s creations have inspired some of the biggest blockbusters of the past decade. Lee often makes cameo appearances in the films.

“The movies were great, as you know,” Lee said. “I have very little to do with the movies, but everyone gives me credit. And I’m such a phony that I let them.”

As the Marvel comic book world has expanded, Lee admitted he has not been able to keep up with all of the books. But when asked who his favorite Marvel character was, Lee quickly responded with “Spider-Man,” an answer the crowd seemed to approve of.

“The funny thing is no matter what character I would have mentioned, you all would have cheered,” Lee said.

The hero spirit abounds

During his panel, Lee talked about his own hero as a child: Errol Flynn. The 1930s star was the hero actor of his era. From Captain Blood to Robin Hood, Flynn played characters who defended the poor or helpless. Lee said that as a child, Flynn was “the sheriff of Dodge City.”

“So there I was, 12 years old, leaving the movie theater with a crooked smile, the kind I thought Errol Flynn would have, and I’d be looking around for some little girl that might be bothered by a bully so I could defend her,” Lee said. “That’s how Errol Flynn affected me. I wanted to do good deeds.”

Several years ago, Shatner did a skit on "Saturday Night Live" where he attended a Star Trek convention and told the participants to “get a life.” While the skit was all in good humor, Shatner said he was always intrigued by why people feel drawn to the conventions.

“What are you doing here?” Shatner asked the audience. “What brought you to come here on a beautiful Saturday to listen to an actor speak?”

Shatner said that after hundreds of conventions, a book and even a documentary, he found that at the heart of Comic Con is a celebration of heroism and community. During the conventions, Shatner said, participants are able to celebrate the larger mythology behind the comics, movies, TV shows — themes of courage and heroism.

Bennett, of “The Hobbit,” said the messages in these media can be a powerful tool used to promote morality and change and help us become better people.

“I think that the lingering kind of message behind most of the comics is morality. In some way, the fans of these comics are not just connecting with a comic; they’re not just connecting with a drawing of a figure in a costume,” Bennett said. “They’re connecting with themselves and they’re connecting with society. I think one of the interesting things about Comic Con — the reason that it’s becoming so popular — is because they’re looking for answers and they’re finding it and connecting with it in each other.”

Katie Harmer is a journalism graduate of Brigham Young University and writes for Mormon Times. Email: Twitter: harmerk