Tampa Bay Comic Con Attracts Real Characters

Are you ready comic book fans? Dress up like your favorite character and prepare to be in good company Friday through Sunday as Tampa Bay Comic Con takes over the Tampa Convention Center.

Organizers are expecting between 30,000 and 50,000 fans to converge on downtown Tampa Aug. 1-3 to worship their heroes, find their peers, share creative ideas and plan the next meet up.

The convention's featured guests draw from some of the hottest shows in the nation including actors like Richard Madden and Pedro Pascal of Game of Thrones, and John Rhys-Davies of Lord of the Rings and many of the country's top comic artists.

Capitalizing On A Trend

The numbers are impressive -- last year's Tampa Comic Con attracted 28,000 attendees. This year could bring 50,000.

And considering attendance started at 550 when Stephen Solomon and Bill Rocker bought it only four years ago, perspective on the growth spiral is astounding even to the founders.  

"I think Tampa is probably the fastest growing [Comic Con event] in the country,'' says Solomon, Tampa Comic Con's managing member and creative leader. Contributing to the success, he says, are the organization's marketing initiatives and having "more comic artists, higher profile names, and celebrities are a huge part of that.'' They have also made some smart partnerships this year such as with Hearst Television's MOR-TV and the Tampa Bay Rays, which bolster their presence and credibility.

Yet, clearly much of the success is being at the right place at the right time as part of a much broader trend sweeping the nation. These types of conventions are everywhere it seems -- MegaCon, MetroCon, DragonCon, etc.  They are essentially lively networking hubs both for the industry and for fans, the latter making up the bulk of the growth.

And it's not just about the comics anymore. There is an entire fanciful subculture that connects at these conventions -- fans of comics, yes, but also fans of the geeky-turned-trendy world of Big Bang Theory and Nerdy Trivia type TV shows to virtually any of the movie blockbusters.

"People are getting back into it the readership of comic books, which was down for awhile,'' says Tampa Comic Con spokeswoman Kailee Baylor. "But when they started doing the movies, it really started bringing people back in -- Agents of Shield, Captain Americas.''

Welcome To Cosplay!

"Cosplay'' -- short for costume play -- has become a noun and a verb and plays an integral role in these events with at least "80 percent of attendees coming dressed up,'' according to Baylor. "People are falling in love with cosplay, so they come to the convention not just to engulf themselves in the activities but to show off their craftsmanship.''

A typical attendee, St. Pete resident Josh Duart, started attending "cons'' about a year ago and has  tickets for Tampa Comic Con. He will be attending in the dramatic Thranduil costume that he made himself. Although he read comics growing up and still does occasionally, he says attending the cons is a great opportunity to "meet people from the shows that you watch, attend the panels, talk about different things like how to make costumes, how to make armor.''

He says the appeal is largely social and widely chattered about on social media in advance of the shows.

"You go to these things and meet like-minded people and they are fans too, and that is the most awesome part,'' Duart says, adding that he is glad for this event in Tampa. "It's nice that people I want to see are coming, locally.'' 

Something For Everyone

Tampa's Comic Con aims at being thoroughly family-friendly, which is not necessarily the case at other venues, and this is important to its owners.

"People like to be able to get away and be a kid again and share that with their families,'' Solomon says, noting that the desire to encourage access for families helps keep prices reasonable: $20 for adults, which he says is fairly low, and children 12 & under are free. "A single father or mother could bring all of their kids.''

In addition to the celebrities available for photo ops and autographs, some of the biggest comic book artists in the industry are accessible for requests as well. Lining Tampa Comic Con's "Artists's Alley'' are more than 30 well-known artists from across the country, including Paul Pelletier and Bart Sears, who call Tampa home.

Pelletier who currently pencils Aquaman for DC Comics, is also known for his work over the past 25 years on The Hulk, Wolverine, She-Hulk, The Flash, and Green Lantern, among others. He says conventions are important for the artists, too.  

"It's good to get out and meet fans face-to-face and try to sell some artwork or sketches,'' he says. "For a lot of us who are guest artists, it's a lot of work, and usually a pretty good money making opportunity.''

He notes that for new artists trying to break into the industry, conventions can be important for networking with editors and other professionals.

Comic Entrepreneurs

Stephen Solomon and Bill Rocker, both serious comic fans, met years ago at a Tampa Comic Con, then a simple event at the Doubletree Hotel in Tampa. Solomon, 16 at the time, carried around a small box of old X-men comics hoping to sell his wares at the event. Over time, the two became business partners buying the Tampa Comic Con in 2010. In that short time, in addition to their tremendous success in Tampa, they have tested the waters in a handful of other cities, with mixed results.

Orlando and Nashville turnouts were disappointing, but in March of this year the first comic convention in Indianapolis attracted 20,000 guests. Yes, they will be going back to Indianapolis in 2015.  

Solomon, now 27, left his job as an account administrator for mutual funds at BNY Mellon, and is dedicated fulltime to managing and growing the business. Solomon and Rocker recently renamed their company Imaginarium, LLC, which will soon offer advertising and creative services in addition to the conventions business. He says they are targeting another city to launch their convention, but he can't say where yet.  

They are also experimenting with other types of conventions. Coming in November to Tampa is their Cartoon Convention, a first of its kind anywhere as far as he knows. This one will have the "same type of feel'' (as Comic Con) but animation-based, Solomon says.

"It will feature voice actors for the celebrities -- such as Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Jasmine from Aladdin -- storyboard artists, and animators versus graphic artists,'' he says. "We haven't seen anything else like that, it doesn't really exist right now.''

Stay tooned, Tampa!

Kendra Langlie is a freelance writer and cultural enthusiast based in Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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