The Joker roamed the hallways of the Tampa Convention Center in his purple suit and trademark green grin. No Batman was to be found. Pikachu ducked behind a post where Link, from Zelda, was talking with some friends. And in the middle of a sea of pink and purple wigs, fairy wings and knee-high boots stood Iron Man.
"We're just costumers," said Zachary Hurst, 38, the man in the Iron Man suit. "I was one of those kids who watched all the movies and would make the refrigerator box into a spaceship."
Hurst and his three daughters, each dressed as characters from Neil Patrick Harris' Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, attended the 10th anniversary of Metrocon. The three-day extravaganza of anime and role-playing at the convention center has grown by about 1,000 people every year, said Morgan Canaday, director of special guests. They expect to see about 10,000 people this weekend, just two months before politicians, reporters and Mitt Romney will stroll the same halls during the Republican National Convention.
"You walk into a place like this and everybody's smiling and they accept you for who are," said Hurst, who works as a property manager in Clearwater. "It's something very special."
Hurst spent 650 hours over 10 weeks constructing the costume. The total bill, with paint and accessories, rang in at about $600. That's a bargain, though, Hurst said. Similar suits can retail online for as much as $5,000. And the costume was definitely drawing a crowd.
"He looks just like him!" one girl called out as another asked to take a picture with the moving, walking Iron Man.
While craftsmanship and showing off artwork is a big part of the convention, in the end, it all comes down to a sense of community, Canaday said. The joy comes from converging with like-minded people who share a passion for anime and video games.
Events range from a fantasy masquerade and an interactive comedy show to raves and movie screenings. The schedule includes something for everyone, Canaday said.
"Here in America, when we think of animation we think of cartoons like on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network," Canaday said. "But over in Japan, animation is part of their community and traditions. They accept it."
Sarah Jean, 22, of Tampa fell in love with anime as a preteen in Missouri. For her third Metrocon, she looks forward to gathering with 149 other Pokemon fans, all dressed as different characters. She's donning a Venomoth costume that took two months and $150 to make. On Friday, she was decked out in a gothic grim reaper outfit, complete with white and black skull makeup, purple glittery eye shadow and a foam scythe decorated with flowers and skulls.
It's hard to explain just why exactly they love coming to conventions, said Heather Galvin, 21, of Wesley Chapel.
"We've just always been into anime," Galvin said. "I was born with anime in my blood."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)226-3111.