How did Tampa Bay Comic Con get so huge?

Here's the cold hard truth about nerddom: Sooner or later, the cool kids always show up to raise a ruckus and kick sand.

In 2010, only 550 enthusiasts of Spidey, Superman and dice-rolling Dungeons & Dragons showed up to Tampa Bay Comic Con, which was held at humble Minnreg Hall in Largo.

It was the kind of low-key hang where comic book artists were king, where a guy could wear his homemade Hulk getup — cosplay before it was a hip hobby — and not have to worry about the fashion awkwardness of 30 other dudes also strutting around as the Jade Giant.

This year, based on advance ticket sales, more than 20,000 people — and a whole lot of Hulks — are expected to smash into Comic Con when it runs at the far more spacious Tampa Convention Center from Friday through Sunday.

But this time, artists and storytellers will take a backseat to a star-studded list of TV and movie stars gobbling the spotlight and stroking autographs for fat cash.

And nerds, once the overlords of this inclusive pop-culture universe, will also take a backseat of sorts, standing in suddenly long, winding lines with reclusives and prom queens alike, everyone indulging in "geek chic" and cosplaying as their fave heroes.

Why are your neighbor, your mom and your grandmom excited about Comic Con, too?

What in the Hellboy happened these past few years?

AMC's The Walking Dead, based on the long-running graphic-novel series by Robert Kirkman, happened. And HBO's Game of Thrones, based on fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin. And blockbusters such as The Hunger Games and The Avengers. Like never before, nerd culture has been co-opted by cool culture. This isn't your weird Uncle Gerry's Comic Con anymore, geeks.

Three Thrones stars (Maisie Williams, Rory McCann, Jason Momoa) will be in town this weekend. Two from The Walking Dead (Lauren Cohan, Chad Coleman). One from Hunger Games (Willow Shields). Heck, there'll even be two Power Rangers and a Conan. If you visit Tampa Bay Comic Con's website, you have to scroll a while before you find the former rock stars of these shows: comic book artists.

"For our convention, we try to keep it to literature or nerdy related," says Stephen Solomon, whose Action 3 group hosts and promotes the event. Solomon is aware of the boom and yet he promises his Con won't lose sight of the main attraction. "We want to keep it comic related."

• • •

It happened at the Sundance Film Festival, once an indie bastion of small films, now a major launching pad for Hollywood buzz. It happened to National Record Store Day, once a bastion of indie-music and vinyl lovers, now a chance for major labels to push their bold-faced names.

Comic Con International: San Diego, routinely called the Super Bowl of popular culture, is decidedly no longer about comics, either. And its influence has spread to all of the other Comic Cons, as well.

At this year's San Diego event in July, an estimated 130,000 people showed up. There were panels, previews, pressers devoted to such noncomic (not even fantasy and sci-fi) franchises as sitcom How I Met Your Mother, the AMC series Breaking Bad, Kristen Bell P.I. series Veronica Mars and teen-sex flick The To Do List.

Entertainment Weekly, a pop-culture magazine with a circulation of 1.78 million, had a 30-page Comic Con preview in one issue — with only two pages devoted to actual comic books.

"[Cons] have become a lot different about embracing geek culture," says Dennis Quearry, manager of Emerald City Comics in Clearwater, which will have a sales booth at Tampa Bay Comic Con. "I don't know if Breaking Bad is that culture. I don't know if that's geek culture. But the cons have been packed because of these things."

In the past month alone, Tampa has hosted Metrocon, devoted to Japanese anime and fringe animation; the Fanboy Expo, a high-wattage meet-and-greet that included The Walking Dead's Chandler Riggs and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark; and now Comic Con, which merges comics and celebrity and, if the past is any indication, will be the biggest party of them all.

"You may have heard that we had severe overcrowding issues at our last [Comic Con]," says Action 3's Solomon, who comes from a "vintage comic" background. In April, more than 7,000 people showed up at the DoubleTree Hotel in Tampa, a lot of them there to see The Walking Dead's Cohan. A scrum ensued, leading to complaints and vitriol online. "It was also the weekend of the Walking Dead finale," Solomon adds, "and, well ..."

And, well, they were overrun by zombies, more or less.

That said, for as much as the major attention has shifted from comics to larger film and TV entities, the mass infusion of new attendees, from cosplayers to the casually curious, has helped Comic Con vendors.

Here's a far less cold truth: More people at Comic Cons means more sales. According to figures released by Diamond Comic Distributors, July was one of the best months for comic book sales in the 21st century, and the upward trend shows no sign of tapering off.

"If someone goes to see The Avengers movie and then they come into the store to buy an Avengers comic, that's a good thing," Quearry says.

That's exactly what they're doing. They just might have to watch a little TV first.

Quearry laughs: "Our sales of Walking Dead comics have been ridiculous."

And they'll likely stay ridiculous. Although the celebrities aren't set yet, the next Tampa Bay Comic Con is already scheduled at the Tampa Convention Center: Feb. 28 through March 2.

Maybe it's time to start buying that Hulk body paint in bulk.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

If You Go

Tampa Bay Comic Con

Tampa Bay Comic Con runs Friday (noon to 6 p.m.), Saturday (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and Sunday (10 a.m. to

5 p.m.) at the Tampa Convention Center, 333 S Franklin St., Tampa. There will be celebrity autographs (extra cost), comic book artists, a costume contest, cosplay and panels. $20 for one-day admission, $45 for three days, 12 and younger free. (407) 619-2128. Go to tampabaycomiccon.com for a schedule.

How did Tampa Bay Comic Con get so huge? 08/20/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 6:11pm]

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