Comic Convention returns to Tampa, in person and in character

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TAMPA — On a 95-degree Sunday, Captain America, Darth Vader and Batwoman dropped into the comforting coolness of the Tampa Convention Center, a mix of polyester, sweat and smiles.

The Tampa Bay Comic Convention returned this weekend for what felt like its first normal gathering since 2019. It was canceled in 2020, like so much else. Last year it stood with mask warnings as the Delta variant raged on.

Among the crowd enjoying the festivities this year was 19-year-old Lyric Etheridge dressed as Spider-Woman. “It’s so heartwarming to be back and be in costume,” she said. She and her girlfriend were traveling from Orlando, booking a hotel room for the weekend. The couple met at a convention last year.

Nearby, in Room 123, guests marveled at tables teeming with Lego creations. Two doors down, the foam sword fighting arena was being set up. Both a sport and a game, organizers say.

Some attendees went through a ‘weapons check’ area, and all must adhere to a list of rules that ensure a fun and safe environment: No projectiles. No metal or wooden bats. No bare feet. No costumes smaller than a standard bathing suit. Lassos and ropes were allowed if rolled up and secured. Stilts were allowed, as long as they were worn.

The convention, which began in 2010 as a small, one-day gathering at a Largo hotel, drew more than 50,000 people before the pandemic hit. Organizers said they were on track to surpass last year’s attendance and be on par with pre-pandemic attendance figures.

Among the highlights of the weekend was the Vendors’ Hall, a maze of 525 kiosks selling trade and craft wares.

On a corner sat Brandon Philbrick, who criss-crosses the country in a Ford Transit, peddling his wares at conventions from coast to coast. After Tampa, he will go to Chicago. Then back to Texas for five days. Then Seattle and Toronto. His top-selling item is the 8-inch prayer candle adorned with Obi Wan, a Sacred Heart on his chest, and a hallo around his head.

“Tampa’s turnout was massive,” said Philbrick, a former comic book store owner. “We are completely stunned.”

Outside in the scorching Florida heat, Wonder Woman lined up for a barbecue from a nearby food truck and a boy tugged at his parents’ hand, pleading, “Mom, I want a real lightsaber.”

Others tried to capitalize on the crowds, registering people to vote, and drivers craned their necks past the convention center, marveling at those in costume.

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