SALT LAKE CITY — When Salt Lake's homegrown geek and pop culture convention comes to town, one thing is clear looking at the bustling convention floor, the lines of fans flooding through the doors and the staffers working behind the scenes.
They may not have superpowers, but female fans form an impressive league, accounting for 47 percent of Salt Lake Comic Con's base, according to organizers.
They're women like Jennifer Smart, who is building a new career around the portraits and statues she makes entirely of Lego bricks.
They're women like Marial Clark, who has found camaraderie and encouragement in fitness challenges and cosplay groups connected to the event.
And they're women like Erika Earl, whose work as a volunteer for the event has taken her all the way up to running the program.
As she sat up late into the night working on what will become a 6-foot-tall statue of Wonder Woman, Smart speculated that because of the positive and inclusive atmosphere surrounding Salt Lake Comic Con, its female fans have thrived.
"I think women are naturally a little more outgoing, a little more social, a little more artistic, and so to have this kind of an event where we can take this excitement that we have about what we already do naturally … and be excited together, it just builds our community," Smart said.
The fifth annual Salt Lake Comic Con starts Thursday, Sept. 21, and runs through Saturday, Sept. 23, at the Salt Palace Convention Center.
The Lego woman
A mother of six, Jennifer Smart remembers playing with her son in their kitchen in American Fork when she got an idea. Looking at the "picture" they were putting together with Lego bricks, a simplistic rendering of the video game character, Mario, she thought, "I wonder if I could make a face."
Without a second thought, Smart put in a bulk order and got to work.
Meanwhile, Smart was getting involved in Salt Lake Comic Con, having volunteered at the event's smaller spring convention, FanX, in 2015 to check whether she wanted to take her family.
When she returned to volunteer at Salt Lake Comic Con that fall, she brought her kids as well as a Lego logo she had built for fun and brought to show to organizers Dan Farr and Bryan Brandenburg.
"It wasn't until the last day, because I had been driving celebrities backstage, that I went in front of the stage and saw that my Lego (piece) had been sitting up on the stage for the whole convention," Smart said. "It was amazing, it was so cool."
Now, Smart is making two or three Lego creations and a new logo for each Salt Lake Comic Con event. This time, she has constructed a mosaic of "Wonder Woman" star Gal Gadot and is about halfway through her statue of the comic book heroine.
"I've got four days to pretty much finish her before I go back to work," Smart said. "I think I'll make it. I'm determined, I'm tenacious and I've got my kids here helping me."
Smart is a nurse who was working two hospital jobs when she started her Lego creations. She recently dropped one of them and is putting together a business for her brick art, which has spread the Lego infestation even further through her home but gives her more time with her children.
"I am apologizing constantly to my husband — I'm sorry I have taken over your counter, I'm in your way while you're trying to cook. The living room is unwalkable right now because I have bags of Lego all over," she says with a laugh. "(The kids) will Snapchat me while I'm building or something like that and say things like 'I have the coolest mom ever.' It just cracks me up."
Smart has now taken her creations to fan conventions around the country. But out of all of them, she believes Salt Lake Comic Con is the most welcoming event she has found for her family, her daughters and her sons, and all kinds of people.
"The state in general is so family focused," Smart said. "(Women) are actively engaged in trying to get out and find things that we can do with our kids, things we can do with each other, and art and community, that's what comic con is all about."
A fit fan
Marial Clark, of Herriman, has been performing since she was 3 years old, dressing up for theater and dance productions and making the most of every Halloween while she grew up in California. When she married her husband, a Utah native, and moved to the state, she was looking for something to fill that void.
A little over a year later, the first Salt Lake Comic Con event was held.
Clark was nearly ready to deliver her first child, and so it wasn't until the second event that she got to check out the geek celebration.
"Bryan and Dan make sure to bring a huge array of different types of guests … and there are so many of them who are women, it's wonderful to be able to go and meet them," Clark said, rattling off a list including local female artists, creators of inspiring female characters and celebrities who bring those characters to life.
Clark hasn't missed an event since and is an active member of Heroic, a cosplay group that raises money for charities. This time, they will fundraise for The Christmas Box.
Meanwhile, Clark had her second baby, experiencing complications from pre-eclampsia, an issue which can lead to high blood pressure during pregnancy, headaches, fatigue and more.
Clark was looking for ways to increase her fitness and lose weight in hopes of avoiding problems in future pregnancies when Salt Lake Comic Con fans hoping to get the attention of organizers and celebrities began putting together fitness challenges. She was one of the first to join the "Millions for Merlin" group, which had promised to do 1 million crunches in hopes that stars from the TV series "Merlin" would come to an event.
Not only did the campaign grow, becoming part of an online fitness community organized by Brandenburg called The Comic Con Challenge, but Clark started losing weight.
"It was nice to have the Comic Con Challenge group to go back to every time I was like, 'Oh maybe I should just stop,' and instead it was like, 'No, here are all my friends and we're all supporting each other and helping each other,'" Clark said. "If we feel like giving up, we're all there supporting each other."
Clark has lost 25 pounds, now weighing in at a healthy 140 pounds. She hopes to lose a few more pounds to give some "cheat room" when the holidays come.
"It's been great. I'm actually in the process of taking in my most famous cosplay costume, which is the evil queen from 'Snow White.' Because I have lost 25 pounds, when I was wearing her recently to a couple of charity events I realized she was hanging funny," Clark said with a laugh.
Clark plans to wear the newly fitted costume at Salt Lake Comic Con next week.
The volunteers' volunteer
When Erika Earl went to the first Salt Lake Comic Con event, she wanted to make sure she would have plenty to keep her busy.
So she volunteered.
"When I volunteered, I got to do things with my kids and my husband, but then I still had other things to do, so it was never boring and it never has been since then," said Earl, of Salt Lake City.
After a few events, the director of the volunteer program left and Earl offered to fill any gaps. She was bumped up to being a senior manager, and after two events, Brandenburg asked her to take on the director role.
Earl was shocked, but as she transitioned into the role, she was encouraged by the support system within the organization. With her fourth event coming up next week, she marvels at the long list of people has met through the program so far.
"These are people I never would have met. There's no way we ever would have crossed paths," Earl said. "Now they introduce their kids to me, they invite me to their kids' weddings, and they all bring something different to the table. It has definitely expanded how I look at just about everything around me."
She has also reveled in the accepting atmosphere at the events.
"I have never been anywhere that's more accepting of everyone. You see people who never would have met in any other spot in the world, and everyone just accepts everybody," Earl said, praising the event's organizers and staff. "That whole environment kind of starts at the little office we have, and then it just follows me to the Salt Palace."