As attendees trickled out of the Salt Palace Convention Center on Saturday at the end of the 5th annual Salt Lake Comic Con, many of the big moments will be associated with big names. Whether it's Q&A sessions in the big ballroom, or one-on-one autographs and photo-ops, the chance for interactions with celebrities like Elijah Wood, Dick Van Dyke, Christopher Lloyd and John & Joan Cusack is one of the event's big selling points, and the source of plenty of memories.
Relatively speaking, the convention's panel programming takes a marketing back seat to famous names, and even to the massive convention floor with its specialty vendors and eye-catching parade of cosplaying humanity. But it's in the smaller meeting rooms where some of the most fascinating events—and hard conversations—are taking place.
Full disclosure of a potentially self-serving message: I was a panelist for three panels at this year's Comic Con, and have been on panels at several previous events. From my place up on the stage, they're a terrific opportunity to talk about the subjects of my own fan love, whether it's movies or Disney theme parks, and maybe enlighten a listener or two.
I also found plenty of time to be an audience member for other panels, and I generally think I get even more out of those experiences. The panel programmers fill plenty of time slots, to be sure, with geeked-out conversations about comic-book movies, video games, fan-favorite TV shows and beloved books, and those who attend often simply want to share their affection with experts who can offer a bit of insight, or maybe just a funny comment. But every year, programmers also address topics that challenge some of the more uncomfortable aspects of pop-culture fandom: the whitewashing of Asian characters in movies like Ghost in the Shell
and Doctor Strange
; gatekeeping and bullying of dissenting fan opinions; representation (or the lack thereof) of minorities in a more general sense in genre filmmaking; gender issues like harassment of women by the gaming community. As easy as it can be for fans of all kinds to be comfortable with their favorites, Salt Lake Comic Con also makes it okay to say that there are things we shouldn't
be comfortable with, and that there are ways to be better and more inclusive.
It's undeniable that for many attendees, the high point of these three days might be a photo of themselves with a celebrity, or a chance to ask a TV hero a question. Personally, I got to watch retired Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter show archival footage of construction at Disneyland from the 1950s and 1960s, with all the accompanying nerd-out moments. I also got a chance to watch panelists and attendees wrestle with messy questions, recognizing that these make-believe universes have real-world implications, and acknowledging that it's okay to think critically even about the things we love. It was a celebration that didn't ask its guests to believe that everything is perfect, and that's what helps make it so good.