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Geek time: Comic book culture takes off in Tampa Bay

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Published:   |   Updated: July 26, 2013 at 08:54 AM

They could argue for hours over who would win a fight between Superman and the Hulk, and a debate over whether a lightsaber could cut through Wolverine's adamantium skeleton could get ugly real quick.

But there is one thing the staffs at Tampa Bay area comic book stores enthusiastically agree on: they're selling more comic books than ever.

"Sales have shot up like a rocket," said Duane Stamper, owner of Comics Club in Brandon. "Everyone is buying them. For years it was overwhelmingly white males in their 30s and 40s. Now we have more people in their 20s than ever before, more women than ever before, more people of color than ever before."

Of course, ask them why this is happening, and the disagreement starts again.

Some credited the explosion of comic book based TV shows and movies - "The Wolverine," which opened Thursday, marks the fifth major release this summer alone.

Others said it's smart moves by publishers such as DC's "New 52," which reset all its titles to No. 1, making it less intimidating for newcomers to jump in.

One store owner pointed to digital comics apps, which hook customers at home, but drive them to eventually seek out stores.

And another noted more diverse heroes, such as Miles Morales, a black and Latino character who has replaced Peter Parker as Spider-Man in the Marvel Ultimates universe.

Luis Rivera, manager at Heroes' Haven in Tampa, said it's all that, but more importantly it's a cultural shift. In an age when the Zuckerbergs and Jobses are the rock stars, interests that fall under the vast geek umbrella, such as comic books, have become acceptable - even cool.

"People started coming out of the nerd closet," Rivera said. "All the sudden you have people actually wanting to be geeks."

On a rainy Saturday afternoon at Heroes' Haven, customers lounge on a leather couch across from a life-size Silver Surfer sculpture, discussing their purchases, in no hurry to get anywhere.

"It's like a hub. People come to interact. They come in to talk about what they're reading, and not just comics, it's movies and sports, its everything. I've seen friendships made out of this place. You can buy stuff online, but you can't get that anywhere else," Rivera said.

William Insignares has owned the Demolition Comics chain in Tampa for more than 20 years. Two years ago he opened Blockbuster Comics near the AMC Regency 20 in Brandon. There, mixed among the comic books are signed movie posters, film props, watches, T-shirts, ray guns, masks and action figures. You can buy Captain America's shield or Thor's Hammer. It's as bright and organized as a Crate & Barrel or a Gap.

"These days it's like a Spencer's gifts without the glow in the dark sex toys," Insignares jokes, after remembering an era when many comic shops were dark, dingy places with only the latest comics, a few back issues, and maybe a T-shirt or two - the kind of places that were acceptable to die-hard comics junkies, but not a "mainstream" audience.

"Now the stigma is gone. I remember times in the past when somebody would be talking on the phone in my store and someone on the other end would ask where they were and they'd kind of cough and mumble 'Uhh, laundromat,' and I'd look at them like 'Dude, shame on you.'" Insignares said. "Now people say it proudly, 'I'm at a comic book store, so what.' "

 

As the geek scene in Tampa goes, there is no larger event than the Tampa Bay Comic Con.

This summer it's going to get a lot bigger.

When co-owner Stephen Solomon, 26, and his partners Bill Rocker and Neil Norman took over the convention in 2010, the small event had been around for about 10 years without much growth.

They made a better, brighter website, and started booking higher profile guests.

In April, the Tampa Bay Comic Con featuring actress Lauren Cohan from "The Walking Dead" attracted so many people to the Westshore Doubletree hotel, the fire marshal had to shut down ticket sales and turn people away.

Shortly after that, they announced the next one would be moved to a 75,000-square-foot space in the Tampa Convention Center - nearly seven times larger than the old space.

"We knew there was a market, but we really had no idea," Solomon said.

Solomon said he's expecting between 10,000 and 20,000 people at the Aug. 23 to 25 Con, featuring their largest lineup of celebrity guests yet, with more "Walking Dead" actors, as well as actors from HBO's "Game of Thrones" and the "Hunger Games" franchise.

As he wrapped up his final week at his job managing mutual funds for BNY Mellon, Solomon was excited for the future. He's quitting to run conventions full time.

"If we can get Robert Downey Jr. someday, hey, that would be great," Solomon said. "We're just going to let it grow as big as it will grow. I know we want artists and creators we've never had, like Jim Lee and Robert Kirkman, big names like that."

Croix Provence is a 22-year-old actress who hosts panels, costume contests, and speed dating events at the Tampa Bay Comic Con.

She'd read comic books for years, but said it was going to her first convention at 20 that opened her up to a world she didn't know existed, and hooked her for life.

She's currently working on four costumes to wear to a single convention coming up in Atlanta: a female version of "Kick-Ass," Shé from "Machete," Red XIII from the video game "Final Fantasy VII" and Buzz Lightyear.

This weekend in Tampa, costumed fans of Japanese animation will flood the Tampa Convention Center for Metrocon, billed as the largest Anime convention in Florida.

"Deep down everyone wants to dress up and be crazy," she said of Tampa Comic Con's popularity explosion. "There aren't many other situations where you show up and instantly you have a ton of common ground with people. It's a very, very welcoming world to step into."

 

Some of the most rare and valuable comic books in the world have passed through Tampa native David Alexander's hands.

Today, he stores his collection of more than 1 million comic books and counting in a 5,000 square foot warehouse in Carrollwood. He's running out of room. His new store in Seminole Heights, Culture and Thrills Collectibles, which specializes in the rare, old and valuable side of comics, is packed to capacity as well, he said.

"It's not the largest collection, but it's certainly one of the most unique in the world," Alexander says of his comic books, which are mostly from the 1970s and earlier. "There are people who have more total, but nobody has the amount of older comic books that I have."

For Alexander, 69, conventions and new comics are OK, but the real draw is the thrill of the hunt, he said. He spends about half the year on the road, perusing collections in flea markets and attics and homes all over America. As he prepped for a treasure hunting drive to New York, he said he expected to see more than 5 milllion comic books over the following 10 days.

Sometimes he strikes gold, such as when a man found a copy of "Action Comics" No. 1, the first-ever appearance of Superman, inside the drywall of an old house.

Alexander purchased the badly damaged comic book from the man and later sold it at auction for $175,000.

"It's a real thrill to have something that other people don't have in your hand. It's a thrill to have something really valuable. It's a real thrill to have a major part of comic and popular culture history, something that was the beginning of a whole concept," Alexander said.

He has had the comic featuring the first appearance of Batman (sold it for $400,000) and still has the first appearance of Spider-Man in "Amazing Fantasy" No. 15. He remembers going to Comic Con in San Diego, which last weekend drew hundreds of thousands of fans and A-list movie stars, back when it was "10 guys in a hotel basement." He remembers going to a used magazine exchange on Florida Avenue in the '50s and filling his bike basket up with dozens of used comic books for a dollar. He kept those comics.

On Saturday, he's holding a Comic Book Swap Meet at Culture and Thrills to try to recapture the days before the books "took a backseat" to movies and animation and all the other conventions hoopla, he said.

"If a guy wants to dress up in a Captain Marvel costume, that's cool, but that's not what this is about," he said. "This is about the comic books, old school style."

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