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Stars Wars Day brought hint of normalcy for Tampa Bay comic fans

Actor Ray Park, who portrayed Star Wars baddy Darth Maul, met fans at Clearwater’s Emerald City Comics.
Steven Kanyer, of Wesley Chapel, waits in line for the opportunity to meet Ray Park, the actor who portrayed Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, at Emerald City Comics in Clearwater.
Steven Kanyer, of Wesley Chapel, waits in line for the opportunity to meet Ray Park, the actor who portrayed Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, at Emerald City Comics in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 5
Updated May 5

CLEARWATER — Star Wars fan Scott Vidd had reasons to celebrate on Tuesday.

It was May 4, Star Wars Day — May the Fourth Be With You Day.

It was also the 29-year-old Clearwater resident’s second wedding anniversary.

“We chose May 4 for Star Wars,” he said.

To celebrate, he and wife Shelby Vidd, 25, were in line at Clearwater’s Emerald City Comics to meet actor Ray Park, who portrayed Star Wars baddy Darth Maul.

“This is really exciting,” Vidd said, but not just because of his obsession with Maul.

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Vidd is among those accustomed to visiting comic shops and conventions to meet the actors, authors, illustrators and others who bring their favorite characters to life.

But, due to COVID-19, such opportunities have been rare for more than a year.

Comic conventions were cancelled in 2020. Shops struggled to find stars willing to make appearances.

“It’s been frustrating,” Vidd said. “This feels like things are getting back to normal.”

Ray Park, the actor who portrayed Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, left, poses with Dan Sloan, 30, of St. Petersburg, at Emerald City Comics in Clearwater.
Ray Park, the actor who portrayed Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, left, poses with Dan Sloan, 30, of St. Petersburg, at Emerald City Comics in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

That sentiment was echoed by others in the line of nearly 200 fans hours before Park was due to arrive.

“Things are starting to open up again now that people are getting vaccinated,” said John Conrad, 24, of Tarpon Springs. “Being in line to meet Darth Maul feels like life is normal.”

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Fans aren’t the only ones who miss the in-person meet and greets. Park posed for photos with fans who had been in line since 6 a.m.

“I like to interact with the fans,” Park said. “I want to listen to all their stories. I love this time with them.”

George Alonso, 58, drove from Miami for the opportunity to meet Park and other fans.

“I am vaccinated, so my fear is gone,” he said. “I usually go to three or four comic conventions a year — Orlando, Baltimore, Arizona and sometimes Tampa — but there were none to go to last year. I kept collecting and found other ways to stay busy, but it’s not the same as being in a crowd with people who share your passion.”

Emerald City Comics owner Neil Johnson said he has tried to fill the void created by a lack of comic conventions.

“I worked to make this a destination place this year,” he said. “We try to have something going on every week, like having people come dressed up in costumes, games, things like that.”

Johnson said he also worked to find stars willing to make public appearances during the pandemic. David Frank, the Green Ranger from Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, was there in January and Sam Jones, who portrayed Flash Gordon in the 1980 movie, appeared in February, were two of only a few booked.

“There has been a lot of doom and gloom this year,” Johnson said. “We’ve tried to make things as normal as possible, while doing it safely with masks and social distancing.”

Miranda Kelsey, of New Port Richey, left, Mark Denhard, of Pinellas Park, and Brandon Kelly, of St. Petersburg, wait in line for the opportunity to meet Ray Park, the actor who portrayed Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace at Emerald City Comics in Clearwater.
Miranda Kelsey, of New Port Richey, left, Mark Denhard, of Pinellas Park, and Brandon Kelly, of St. Petersburg, wait in line for the opportunity to meet Ray Park, the actor who portrayed Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace at Emerald City Comics in Clearwater. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Tampa Bay Times reached out to comic creators Bob Layton and John Crowther — both Tampa Bay area residents — to ask how they have handled a year away from the fans. Like Park, they said it has been a struggle.

“I miss conversing with the fans,” said Crowther, who usually promotes his series of biographical wrestling comics at up to 10 conventions a year. “A lot of fans tend to come back to shows and to a lot of the same shows, so they become part of the convention family.”

Layton, who co-founded Valiant Comics and, while with Marvel Comics, created the version of Iron Man depicted in the movies, sought new ways to connect.

“I went back to doing commissioned art for fans through my website,” said Layton, who, prior to the pandemic, made 12 to 17 appearances a year. “I also decided to take the time to finally learn watercolor painting so I could hand paint many of those commissioned drawings.”

Crowther is booking appearances now that things are opening back up. In June, he’ll be at River City Wrestling Con in Jacksonville and Daytona Beach Comic Con in November. He has yet to decide on July’s Tampa Bay Comic Con, but “it’s definitely a possibility.”

Layton is not as willing.

“I have no plans to do any cons in 2021,” he said. “I don’t think it will be safe for years to come.”

Vidd, meanwhile, said he will continue to seek out any opportunity to meet his favorites.

For his wife’s January birthday, he gifted her a video chat with Ashley Eckstein, who voices Ahsoka Tano in multiple Star Wars animated series.

“We pushed the limit,” Vidd said with a laugh. “We had 10 minutes. We ended up doing 30.”

Still, he admitted, nothing tops an in-person meeting.

“I’m happy these are returning,” he said. “They’re exciting.”