In one corner, the cast of AMC’s Comic Book Men filmed a segment of their show as they signed copies of their new comic Cryptozoic Man. In another, a young woman in a convincing mermaid costume sat on a chair and flipped her tail. In another, artist Robert Florio, paralyzed since age 14, painted a scene using a brush held in his mouth. In another, writer/artist Ray Fawkes sold copies of his books while a friend dressed as Sandman’s Death character kept him company. Just another day at the comic-con.

The Baltimore Comic-Con, now in its 15th year, had a record crowd to experience this pop culture carnival. While a final number wasn’t available, attendance looked to be up significantly from 15,000 of past years. And all this despite icon Stan Lee cancelling his appearance a few weeks ago. The surge has led the show to expand to three days next year, said owner Marc Nathan. “We’re overwhelmed and delighted,” he told PW. Baltimore is notable on the con circuit for featuring comics guests and not TV stars, but Nathan may bring in more celebrities for the three day show. Top attractions this year included contemporary artists such as David Finch and Amanda Conner, but veterans of the Silver Age Herb Trimpe and Ramona Fradon had many admirers as well.

However, the main draw—and the deeper appeal of such events—seemed to be personal expression, whether the many impressive cosplayers sporting elaborate home made costumes of their favorite heroes, artists selling their self-published indie comics, or just fans getting a chance to meet a respected creator and get an autograph. Comic-cons have become the safe space to connect with one’s fantasy inner life and let with world join in.

Of course there was a bit of business going on, as well. The recently combined forces of Boom! Studios and Archaia set up a dual booth—at one, the massively popular Adventure Time comic, published by Boom, was spotlighted, while the Archaia section was selling the impressively designed graphic novel Cyborg 009. Revamping the popular Japanese character for a U.S. audience, the book has a multi-level anatomical chart-styled cover printed on several sheets of acetate. According to Boom/Archaia’s Mel Caylo, the book was moving well.

Nearby at Valiant, sales managed Atom Freeman briefly donned one of the luge suits from the national team that Valiant is helping sponsor. At the Valiant spotlight panel, it was announced that popular indie artist Ming Doyle would be taking over their Quantum and Woody title.

Although they weren’t set up, Dynamite Entertainment announced an agreement with Condé Nast to bring back pulp hero Doc Savage in a new book written by Chris Roberson, to be drawn by Bilquis Evely. It’s one of several licensing deals for classic characters the New Jersey-based publisher has made of late.

At Top Shelf, congressional aide and comics writer Andrew Aydin, co-author of Rep. John Lewis’s comics memoir March, was helping publisher Chris Staros man the booth—yet another example of how you’re in for a penny, in for a pound in the comics world. Aydin has adjusted well to his new role, as March Vol. 1 has been selling briskly, backed by many media appearances by Lewis. “I like talking to people,” said Aydin of booth running. “It’s all politics.”

While March is the company’s biggest focus for now, said Staros, new titles by Jeffrey Brown and Zander Cannon have also been finding an audience.

On an even more grass roots level, Brooklyn comics guru Dean Haspiel was teasing a new publishing collective called Hang Dai Studios—some preview issues were available but the full line will be rolled out in the coming months. Haspiel’s other project is The Fox, a revamp of an Archie Comics superhero written by Mark Waid that features a classic Silver Age look.

The big event at Baltimore was Saturday’s Harvey Awards presentation, where Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples nabbed a dominating six awards, including Best Onoing, Best New Title, Best Writer, Best Artist, Best Story and Best Colorist. Sadly neither creator was in attendance, as getting the book out on a regular schedule (and producing The Dome for CBS in Vaughan’s case) precludes too many convention appearances for either.

The evening saw special awards for veteran cartoonist Sal Buscema, winner of the Hero Initiative Lifetime Achievement Award. Buscema produced a prolific body of work for Marvel from the late 60s on. Presenter Ron Frenz praised him as “part of the foundation of what became the Marvel Style and universe.” Buscema recalled his first meeting with Marvel editor in chief Stan Lee, who jumped around the room and on his desk to demonstrate how Marvel comics should be drawn. “I was absolutely terrified and thought I was in the room with a madman,” Buscema said. “But he got his point across.”

The evening’s other special award saw former DC president Paul Levitz win the Dick Giordano Hero Initiative Humanitarian of the Year Award. Steve Geppi, owner of Diamond Comics Distributors, the industry’s biggest distributor, presented the award, saying “The direct sales market never had a better friend than Paul.” In his acceptance, Levitz, who now writes comics histories and teaches at various universities, praised those who had come before. “This has all happened because of the creative people [in comics] not just today’s winners but the ones who created the things that the winners read as kids that made them want to be in this business.”

Of course, some current comics controversies also made appearances at the event. DC co-publisher Dan DiDio explained the recent decision to ban the same-sex wedding of the characters Batwoman and Maggie Sawyer, which led to writers J. H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman quitting the book. Members of the Batfamily, as they call characters related to Batman such as Nightwing and Batwoman, don’t have happy lives, he said. “It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives but it’s also just as equally important that they put it aside as they know what they are accomplishing as the hero takes precedence over everything else,” he explained. Marc Andreyko will take over the title, and presumably avoid anything to do with picking out china.

The rise of cosplay has also brought problems, as incidents of harassment and inappropriate behavior are increasing. Members of Philly Hollaback, a group dedicated to stopping street harassment of women, circulated a petition aimed at getting conventions to create stronger anti-harassment policies. “Just because you are dressed a certain way does not mean you want to be touched,” said a spokeswoman. That she happened to be dressed as a geisha—and her fellow activists were dressed as a female Wolverine and other superheroines—somehow didn’t make their message less serious. At Comic-Con, fantasy and reality are on an equal footing.

2013 Harvey Award Winners:

Best New Series: Saga

Best Continuing or Limited Series: Saga

Best Writer: Brian K. Vaughan, Saga

Best Artist: Fiona Staples, Saga

Best Single Issue or Story: Saga #1

Best Cartoonist: Jaime Hernandez, “Love and Rockets: New Stories” (Fantagraphics)

Best Letterer: Todd Klein, Fables

Best Colorist: Fiona Staples, Saga

Best Syndicated Strip: “Dick Tracy,” by Joe Staton and Mike Curtis, (Tribune Media Services)

Best Online Comics Work: Battle Pug, by Mike Norton

Best American Edition of Foreign Material: Blacksad: A Silent Hell (Dark Horse)

Best Inker: Klaus Janson, Captain America (Marvel)

Most Promising New Talent: Dennis Hopeless, Avengers Arena (Marvel)

Special Award for Humor in Comics: Ryan North, Adventure Time (Boom!)

Best Original Graphic Publication for Younger Readers: Adventure Time (Boom!)

Best Graphic Album, Previously Published: Alien: the Illustrated Story (Titan Books)

Best Anthology: Dark Horse Presents

Best Domestic Reprint Project: David Mazzucchelli‘s Daredevil: Born Again Artists Edition (IDW)

Best Cover Artist: David Aja, Hawkeye (Marvel)

Best Biographical, Historical, or Journalistic Presentation: Robot 6 blog, by Comic Book Resources

Special Award for Excellence in Presentation: Building Stories, Chris Ware (Pantheon)

Best Graphic Album, Original: Richard Stark’s Parker: The Score, by Darwyn Cooke (IDW)

Dick Giordano Hero Initiative Humanitarian of the Year Award: Paul Levitz

Hero Initiative Lifetime Achievement Award: Sal Buscema