LOS ANGELES - Football fans have the Super Bowl. Soccer enthusiasts have the World Cup. Cinephiles have the Academy Awards.
For pop-culture lovers - the self-professed geeks and nerds who delight in fantasy-inspired fun from anime to zombies - there is Comic-Con, the Olympic-sized celebration of movies, TV, video games, costumes and pop art that began as a humble comic-book convention 43 years ago and is now an annual marketing extravaganza.
From Thursday to Sunday, more than 100,000 pop-culture aficionados will flood the San Diego Convention Center, showing off their Storm Trooper suits, playing yet-to-be-released video games and attending panels featuring A-list filmmakers like Peter Jackson and such hot TV shows as "Game of Thrones."
But first comes Wednesday's "preview night." Available only to those who bought four-day passes to the sold-out convention, the showing is decidedly low tech, yet high end: it's all about collectible toys.
On display will be special-issue, limited-edition playthings and books made just for the pop-culture fest. These include not only the unique freebies that various booths are giving away, but also coveted collectibles that could fetch hundreds of dollars at Comic-Con and hundreds more in after-market sales.
"There are people who buy tickets for every day of the show so that on Wednesday night they can be the first in line for these exclusive collectibles. That's their reward for going to a destination like Comic-Con," said pop-culture expert and host of G4's "Attack of the Show" Blair Butler. "There are also people who flip that stuff on eBay for hundreds of dollars. They buy two: One to keep and one to sell on eBay."
Collectors will literally run across the massive convention center floor when the doors open Wednesday evening to cue up for products like Hasbro's S.H.I.E.L.D. Super Helicarrier, a four-foot-long replica of the flying superhero headquarters from the "Avengers" movie and Mattel's quirky Dana as Zuul "Ghostbusters" figurine. Others seek out small-run exclusives such as the golden Domo bobble-head doll (only 1,000 made) and Image Comics' special hardcover comics collection "The Walking Dead: Compendium One" (only 900 available).
Toy companies and publishers large and small make special products just for the Comic-Con crowd. Hasbro and Mattel each issue around 10 Comic-Con exclusives a year. These toys are introduced at Comic-Con and limited numbers are often made available for sale later at Toys "R" Us and on each company's collector websites.
"Everything is made in limited quantities. Products can double, triple, quadruple in price over the course of a year," said Hugo Stevenson, president of Huckleberry Toys, which is offering zombies and other figurines based on the upcoming film "ParaNorman." "There's a whole group of people who actually make a business out of this: Going down and buying collectibles at San Diego Comic-Con and then selling them in their stores or on eBay."
For most collectors, though, adding exclusive items to a carefully cultivated collection is priceless.
"No collector is going to sell their collection," said Scott Neitlich, a marketing manager at Mattel whose personal toy cache includes "roughly 5,000" figures. "It's not just about the physical price of the product, but the emotional connection each collector has about what figures they've decided to include."
Most toy collectors are men ages 25 to 40, he said, though women are getting into the hobby in growing numbers. Mattel is aiming its limited DC Comics Vertigo Death statuette and Polly Pocket DC Comics Villains set at female collectors. Hasbro hopes to tap the market with a special-edition My Little Pony: a gray Pegasus with blonde hair.
"It's people who grew up in the `70s and `80s who now have disposable income to recapture their youth," Neitlich said. "Toys are so important because it's the one pop-culture medium that traverses all licenses. Batman and He-Man can battle on your shelf. You're probably not going to see that movie or that comic book, but toys are that one medium that can coexist across all of pop culture. It allows your shelf to become a symbol of everything that you love. It's really about celebrating individuality and which characters speak to you."
He's most excited about the exclusive new Vykron action figure, based on a 1982 He-Man prototype, which comes with military warrior, spaceman and barbarian outfits.
"Comic-Con has become the place, really the only place, where you can go to get these limited-edition, first-edition products," said Rich Collins, chief of Big Tent Entertainment, which makes toys and products for Domo, Dark Horse Comics and other brands. "If you're a fan of this genre, this is THE show, not just in the U.S., but globally."
As Stevenson of Huckleberry Toys puts it, "They have anything and everything for sale down there. If you can't find something you like ... you must not really be into pop culture."