TAMPA — On a 95-degree Sunday, Captain America, Darth Vader and Batwoman filed into the comforting cool of the Tampa Convention Center, a medley 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 was held with mask warnings as the delta variant raged.
Among the crowd relishing in the festivities this year was Lyric Etheridge, 19 years old and dressed as Spider-Woman. “It is so comforting to be back and be in costume,” she said. She and her girlfriend were visiting from Orlando, having booked a hotel room for the weekend. The pair met at a convention last year.
Nearby, in room 123, guests marveled at tables groaning with Lego creations. Two doors down, the foam sword-fighting arena was being set up. It’s both a sport and a game, organizers say.
Some participants passed through a “weapons check” area and all must adhere to a slate of rules ensuring a fun and safe environment: No projectiles. No metal or wooden bats. No bare feet. No costumes smaller than a standard swimsuit. Lassos and ropes were permitted if coiled and secured. Stilts were allowed, as long as they are worn.
The convention, which started in 2010 as a small small, one-day gathering at a Largo hotel, drew more than 50,000 people before the pandemic. Organizers said they are on track to exceed last year’s attendance and be on par with pre-pandemic attendance numbers.
Among the weekend’s highlights was the vendor hall, a labyrinth of 525 booths selling commercial and handmade merchandise.
At one corner sat Brandon Philbrick, who crisscrosses the country in a Ford Transit, peddling his wares coast to coast at conventions. After Tampa he will travel to Chicago. Then home to Texas for five days. Then Seattle and Toronto. His best-selling item is the 8-inch prayer candle emblazoned with Obi Wan Kenobi, a Sacred Heart on his chest and a halo around his head.
“The Tampa turnout has been massive,” said Philbrick, a former comic book store owner. “We’re completely stunned.”
Outside in the baking Florida heat, Wonder Woman waited in line for BBQ from a nearby food truck and a boy tugged at his parent’s hand, pleading, “Mommy, I want a real lightsaber.”
Others tried to capitalize on the crowd, registering people to vote, and drivers craned their necks as they zoomed past the convention center, marveling at those in costume.