Russell Kasper likes comic books. But that's just the start.
Reading them came naturally, he's been doing that for decades, starting as a kid growing up in Sarasota. But as his interest deepened, so did his participation, and he said he started attending conventions and dressing as the characters he reads, which fans of the pursuit call cosplaying.
Now married, Russell and Crystal often bring their 9-year-old daughter Magnolia along for the fun. Most recently, on May 7's Free Comic Book Day, the family cosplayed as their favorite characters together: Russell as noir detective The Shadow and Magnolia in a Star Wars Jedi while carrying her own light saber.
Next on their list, perhaps, is Megacon held annually in Orlando.
"We've made friends over the years going to conventions, I've been to their weddings," Russell Kasper said. "Now there's all these people I know all around the region with these similar likes."
Joining the Kaspers at Dark Side, a Beneva Road comic book and game shop, for their part in a national celebration for all things nerdy were dozens of other passionate locals -- some portraying characters, some just interested in watching the spectacle and picking up, well, some free comic books from a special selection set out by store comics manager Paul Eisnaugle and owner Brian Polizzi.
"It's national promotion, we get a lot of exposure," Polizzi said. "Plus there's turnover in Sarasota, new people are moving in all the time. It's also just a reason for us to have a party and to get comics in kids' hands. A lot of kids have seen the Marvel movies but don't know there's a whole catalog of stories available."
Sarasota resident Shelli DiConstanzo brought her three grandchildren Akoya, Tru and Sceno Robinson to the shop after hearing about the event from a friend. The trio love superhero movies — Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse especially — and often bounce around their home pretending to be the famous Wall-Crawler. The group left the shop with bags full of comics and had their faces painted for good measure.
"(I love) that Spider-Man can shoot webs and climb walls," Tru Robinson said. "I like the cartoons outside that are dressed up."
The event brings a number of cosplayers and cosplay groups — including the Star Wars-centric 501st Legion, Outer Rims Guild, Rebel Legion and the superhero-focused Gotham Underground — to put on their best costumes and keep families and kids entertained. Scarecrow, Stormtroopers and even a porg walked around outdoors while Jedi knights posed for photos inside.
"It's great seeing the kids having their minds blown by the cosplayers," Polizzi said. "It's celebrating everything we like to do here."
Some visitors were trying out cosplayer of their own for the first time. Henry and Andrew Huffman arrived at the shop dressed as Marvel Comics character Moon Knight and Kingdom Hearts character Sora respectively. Henry picked up his costume out of white suit clothing on Amazon and he and his brother had their weapons 3D-printed to complete their looks.
"(The suit) stays clean if you don't sit down, don't touch anything, don't go near anyone and you're fine," Henry Huffman jokes.
Mischa Nell, who leads the Sarasota-based ShimmyBOOM belly dance troupe and has been a longtime friend with Brian Polizzi, brought a number of her dancers to the shop for a superhero-themed improvisational dance number. Nell, dressed as Marvel Comics character Moon Knight, led her fellow dancers who were dressed as the Scarlet Witch, Thor, Doctor Strange, Venom and more.
Her troupe aren't amateurs at putting on colorful costumes for their performances, but dressing up as Marvel characters was still new for some. Troupe member Stephanie Johns ordered her initial Scarlet Witch costume online and have added to it through the performances.
"I picked the Scarlet Witch because my head was red," Johns said. "The costume has evolved over time."