It was like Black Friday, but without the deeply discounted entertainment systems and Wal-Mart brawls. At 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, San Diego Comic-Con had opened its exhibit hall. Throngs of attendees with the coveted Preview Night badge, allowing access to the venue a day early, were ready to shop. Security ushered the crowd into the building with reminders of "Don't push!" A line wrapped around the second floor of the convention center, starting at the top of one escalator and ending at the bottom of another one. On the final escalator ride, fans cheered. San Diego Comic-Con had started. They had gotten through the line. Inside the exhibit hall, they would probably have to stand in a few more.
San Diego Comic-Con is as famous for its lines as it is for celebrity sightings and an hour wait is nothing when it comes to scoring the latest, and most collectible, merchandise. Nearly every booth in here, from corporate toy companies to independent comic book artists, will offer something that's exclusive to Comic-Con. Those include comics with variant covers, limited edition toys and small-run t-shirts. "That's one of the appeals of the show," says Chris Callahan, writer and artist of the comic book series RoboChuck. Years before, Callahan would come to Comic-Con to shop for exclusives. This year, he has his own, a version of the first issue of his comic with a variant cover and bonus material.
Vendors may bring exclusive items to other conventions, but not to this extent. The weeks leading up to Comic-Con are filled with big announcements about one wild exclusive after the next. For the companies, this convention is the perfect audience for unusual merchandise. "Comic-Con has become one of those shows where you get a lot of the early adopters," says Mel Caylo, marketing manager for Boom! Studios, whose own exclusives included a mini-comic housed in an old video game cartridge. "They're the ones who have that fervor to come to a show like this, come to the booth as soon as it opens and get that exclusive because they want to be the first person to possess that."
As varied as the exclusive merchandise is, you'll still see some distinct trends. Franchises that are currently experiencing peak popularity dominate the want lists. This year's hot ticket exclusive was Funko's vinyl figure based on Ghost, Jon Snow's direwolf in Game of Thrones. You'll see a lot of exclusives for franchises that are celebrating a milestone anniversary, like Alien or Ghostbusters or Hello Kitty. There are also the staples. You can never have enough soon-to-be-rare Star Wars toys. Beyond that, there are the independent artists who supply exclusive merchandise for their fanbases. If you're going to set up shop inside San Diego Comic-Con's exhibit hall, you need to have something that will only be available here.
Vancouver-based artist Camilla d'Errico goes all out for Comic-Con. At any other convention, she might bring one exclusive item with her. For San Diego, she create between 12 and 15 new products specifically for the event. It takes months to plan. This year, amongst the t-shirts, accessories and prints, d'Errico created a new series of tiny paintings called "Sweets and Treats." The 5"x7" oil-on-wood originals are the smallest she has ever made. It's a chance for her to offer paintings at a lower price point, several hundred dollars versus the several thousand that her larger, gallery works would cost. On Wednesday night, fans were ready to snatch up the works. She sold three within the first half-hour of the show.
For the shoppers, scoring an exclusive requires a certain amount of planning as well. No matter how organized you are, there's no guarantee that your quest will be successful.
On Thursday morning, Ken and Simone Seto made their journey to the exhibit hall. The Newport Beach couple attends Comic-Con every year and spend their first day at the convention buying exclusives. It's an ordeal. Days in advance, they'll go through the exclusive announcements, check the prices, and decide what they want. They make a plan detailing which booths they will visit. This year, they woke up at 5 a.m. and made it to the convention center to join the line by 7:30.
When the exhibit hall opened a couple hours later, Simone headed to Funko, the toy company that's generating a lot of buzz for quirky figures based on TV and film characters. "It was a total bust," she says of that first attempt. The line had been cut off minutes after the hall opened. She checked back at the booth throughout the day. Late in the afternoon, Simone had her chance and was able to purchase "almost everything" on her list, including Pulp Fiction, Ghostbusters and Firefly toys. They were thinking about heading back Friday morning for a few more things.
To accommodate fans who won't be attending the entire convention, companies with the in-demand items only sell a certain amount daily. Still, they go fast. This year, Viz Media and Sanrio collaborated on Hello Kitty, Hello 40, an anniversary art book that's only available at Comic-Con. They sold out of Wednesday's allotment in about 45 minutes.
The crowd is always thickest in the middle of the exhibit hall, where Hasbro, Lucasfilm and other household names set up shop. In recent years, Hasbro's booth has been one that fills con-goers with excitement as much as dread. They handle extremely popular franchises, like My Little Pony and Transformers, as well as Star Wars. This year, the mega-toy company released a sweet Jabba the Hutt figure that comes with a hookah and the Star Wars villain's tiny pal Salacious Crumb. In order to get one of these, fans need to queue up in the morning to secure a time when they can return, stand in line again and finally buy something.
Oftentimes, companies will limit per person purchases for exclusives. Buying for resale is something that happens a lot at San Diego Comic-Con. Simone says that she's actually seen people flip exclusives on eBay while still inside the convention center. For Simone, who works in the video game industry, and Ken, an attorney, heavy-duty Comic-Con shopping isn't for resale opportunities. Everything they buy — from the Pulp Fiction toys to the Stan Sakai art prints — are for their home. "We're just fans," says Ken.
And for fans, spending all day in the exhibit hall isn't so bad. "We meet really nice people. Everyone is super friendly," says Simone. "I like the community feeling."
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