Salt Lake City—As Salt Lake Comic Con’s third Fan Xperience rolls underway this weekend, a field of superheroes and creators of pop culture legends will descend upon the Salt Palace Convention Center.
But for Salt Lake Comic Con’s sixth event, organizers also brought in a real-life hero and legend—former astronaut and moon-walker Buzz Aldrin—as they expand the scope of the popular convention.
“As we were looking at the FanX brand, and asked what is the fan experience—we chose to do FanX to complement Comic Con because we had the ability to go outside of what is traditionally a Comic Con,” said Bryan Brandenburg, co-founder of Salt Lake Comic Con. “In the science community, [Aldrin] is royalty. With Utah’s obsession of fandoms and heroes, somebody like Aldrin, who actually is a hero, would solidify how we’re going to expand the Fan Xperience.”
Brandenburg said he comes from a background in physics and science, and remembers watching Aldrin walking on the moon. His father, a rocket engineer, called his siblings and him over to watch the moon landing in 1969.
“He said, ‘there’s going to be a man land on the moon and walk on the moon.’ I didn’t quite understand it; I was 10 years old at the time—but I can see how it really influenced me over my life,” Brandenburg said.
When Brandenburg found out Aldrin was available for speaking engagements, he discussed the possibility of bringing him to this year’s Fan Xperience with his Salt Lake Comic Con co-founder, Dan Farr. Despite Aldrin’s status as a real American hero, Brandenburg and Farr were still unsure how Utah would react to this expansion out of the pop culture universe—until the tickets to Aldrin’s event, “Mission to Mars,” were posted.
“We sold out the majority of his experience and covered his [speaking] fee in 24 hours, which we hadn’t done with any of our other guests,” Brandenburg said. “Now, people from the governor to senators are wanting to come and meet Buzz, and it’s kind of solidifying, yes, this is somebody really important in culture.”
“A Comic Con is a comic convention, and certainly all the comic cons in the country have gone outside—Buzz Aldrin has been to San Diego, talking about going to Mars as part of that convention, so it’s not unheard of that he would go to that—but what our plan is, is we think with the right synergy, we’d love to have Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil Degrasse Tyson come to our event,” he said. “The reason people are interested and fascinated with things like science fiction is because they’re interested in science, and science fiction is an entertaining way to engage in that kind of science. We think this is the right move for us.”
This year’s Fan Xperience also expanded somewhat from the comic book realm with the addition of members of boy bands—Nick Carter and AJ McLean of Backstreet Boys and Joey Fatone of N*Sync. The three are part of the cast of a movie coming out this summer on the SyFy channel, Dead 7, about a zombie apocalypse hitting a small Western town, but are chiefly known for their musical stardom in the late 90s and early 2000s. However, Brandenburg said, organizers aren’t planning to expand the brand too much.
“Buzz Aldrin was a good fit because he’s an American hero, and Nick Carter and AJ McLean are a nice fit because they’re pop culture celebrities and they’re doing a zombie movie for the SyFy Channel, but whether we’re going to bring in Richard Simmons—that might be too far out of the realm,” he said. “We want to play around with this, because certainly based on the astonishing success of Buzz Aldrin’s panel and the kind of people that are contacting us at the highest level, it’s the right thing to do.”
Be sure to listen to more of Brandenburg’s thoughts on Fan Xperience 2016 and the future of the convention in our podcast.
Although Aldrin’s place in history is secure, Aldrin says he’s not done yet, and is still an active part of the science community. He is currently involved in raising awareness of the vital role the space program plays in the future of the world and why leaders should take the idea of going to Mars seriously, and has a collection of designs for various crafts that could be used in that endeavor.
In addition to his scientific projects, Aldrin has traveled the globe, from the North Pole to the depths of the ocean. He’s also made a name for himself with a new generation for his appearances on television shows like The Simpson’s, Dancing with the Stars and 30 Rock.
“I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, yeah, that guy. Is he still around, or did he die?” he joked at a press conference before his event, on his frequency in the public eye.
Just as Brandenburg predicted, Aldrin appeared to an enthusiastic crowd, and related his story of becoming the second man to walk on the moon as one of fortunate circumstances, hard work and collaboration.
“I was in the right place at the right time. I had a good education, and a strong work ethic, so that helped. I had a good family upbringing, and a sense of adventure,” he said.
A background as a decorated combat pilot in the Korean War and a keen interest in being part of the fledgling space program prompted Aldrin to earn a doctorate from MIT. His doctoral thesis referred back to his fighter pilot days—more specifically, about the trajectory needed to intercept an enemy. That thesis concept was later adapted for use in Aldrin’s historic mission, and became a vital part of space exploration history.
The effort to get man to the moon—and back safely—was the result of strong government backing and hundreds of thousands of people in disciplines from engineering to sewing, he said. Although reaching Mars, let alone colonizing it, seems impossible, he said, reaching the moon was once thought to be, too, and the same kind of coordination and vision that got him and Armstrong there can get man to Mars.
“Apollo would have never happened without people working together for a shared goal,” he said. “When people work together, sometimes you can accomplish the impossible.”
Also at Fan Xperience…
Utah Business editors were also on-hand to hear LeVar Burton of Roots, Reading Rainbow and Star Trek: The Next Generation fame, talk about his experience with books, education, and making entertainment that means something.
When one fan asked Burton how Reading Rainbow, which Burton has been the face of since the show started in 1986, stacks up against current educational children’s television, Burton replied, “What’s out there in educational children’s TV?” When his question was met with silence, he said, “I think you have your answer.”
Although Reading Rainbow lived most of its considerable run on PBS stations, the show was recently canceled, only to be saved by fans contributing to a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that helped create a new home for Reading Rainbow via app. One fan asked Burton about the app’s $5 per month fee, and if there was any hope of it being offered for free.
“I would like nothing more than to make Reading Rainbow free. We license those books so we have to pay royalties to publishers and authors and illustrators. We are looking at several different ways to make the Reading Rainbow app free,” he said. “When we did the Kickstarter we were looking at ways to make a product free for schools—for 10,000 classrooms. We are halfway to our goal now.”
“I would love to be able to give Skybrary Family away. If you know any corporation or individual of high net worth who would be willing to underwrite that effort, please send them to me,” he added.
Reading Rainbow began as a way to combat the mesmerizing draw television had on children, especially since it often replaced books as their choice of entertainment.
“It started as a response to what teachers called ‘the summer slide’. When emerging readers would go home for the summer and their engagement would drop. We all knew where children were in the summer in the ‘80s. In front of the television,” said Burton. “The radical idea at that time, in a very counterintuitive way, was to use television as that access to steer children back into the written word. It sounds crazy. It is crazy. But it worked.”
Burton starred in the 1977 television miniseries Roots, which has been remade—with Burton as an executive producer—and will air this Memorial Day weekend. Burton said he feels that series was hugely important in making viewers engage with a chapter in history most are unaware of, and its importance is only trumped by the literacy and love of reading Reading Rainbow has brought to children for the last three decades.
“Roots was pretty monumental. Also, we have remade Roots for a new generation. The remake will be broadcast this Memorial Day weekend. I’m incredibly proud of this new telling of Roots for a new generation of Americans who don’t know the story and need to,” he said. “[But] I really do believe that Reading Rainbow is the most important work I’ve ever done.”
Photo courtesy Melissa Majchrzak.