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The secret world of Comic-Con collectors

By Henry Hanks, CNN
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Collecting exclusive Comic-Con toys
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Comic-Con in San Diego is largest comic book and popular arts convention in world
  • For collectors of action figures, Comic-Con is the place to be
  • Mattel, Hasbro and other companies get chance to meet collectors in person
  • Collector Carlos Prieto has his eye on items from G.I. Joe
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(CNN) -- Justin Hauner and his friend, Ben Fucik, were in a hurry. Their flight home from San Diego, California, to Appleton, Wisconsin, was taking off soon, and they had to get to the airport in time.

However, Hauner had a change in plans that had them in a race against the clock: He had to ship the collectibles he had purchased on his trip back to Wisconsin.

"I had so much stuff that I bought that I didn't have enough room to get into my luggage," he said.

Are you going to Comic-Con? Share your photos and experiences

Fortunately, Hauner was able to send his toys, many of which were "Comic-Con exclusives," back home in enough time for them to return the rental car and board the plane on time.

It was one year ago and Hauner's first time at Comic-Con International in San Diego, the largest comic book and popular arts convention in the world. He had heard about it for years. When he finally made the pilgramage, he was immediately hooked, especially when he laid eyes on all of the exclusive toys he could pick up.

San Diego Comic-Con may have celebrities, video games and colorful costumes. But for people like Hauner, a big draw are the collectible toys. These Comic-Con exclusives can't be found in Wal-Mart, and the lines start forming for them this Wednesday night.

Of course, Hauner came prepared for it all.

"I went on all of the collectible websites and found out which booths they would be selling them at so I could get there before the rush to get the most popular," he said. "You've gotta plan it out ahead of time. If you think you're going to get them the second or third day, you're wrong. They're definitely going to sell out fast."

His most prized possession from last year's trip? Two detailed, articulated action figures of Egon and Slimer from "Ghostbusters." He bought them for $20, and they can be found for sale online for $150. Hauner's entire purchase last year racked up at $300.

Hauner always goes for Marvel Comics, G.I. Joe and Transformers items. As one might expect, nostalgia plays a big part in it.

"I've been collecting ever since I was a kid, starting with G.I. Joe and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," he said. "I got back into it, starting when I was 15, with the rerelease of the 'Star Wars' figures. I nearly have 300 of those."

He hasn't looked back since, and Comic-Con is tailor-made for him.

As for this year, Hauner said, "I have my eyes on some Masters of the Universe collectibles."

Those nostalgic for He-Man's glory days in the 1980s can grab a Prince Adam figure with color-changing Orko before anyone else.

Mattel, one of the top toy companies in the country, targets these hardcore collectors with their website, Mattycollector.com.

"For us, Comic-Con has transformed into this great phenomenon that we have increased our offering to give collectors new options and even more ways to enjoy our iconic brands," said Tim Kilpin, general manager of Mattel Brands.

Kilpin said Mattel looks forward to Comic-Con each year because it's a rare opportunity to meet these collectors in person.

Another giant of the toy industry, Hasbro, is also taking advantage of the opportunity.

Its reproduction of the popular 1984 Transformers Soundwave figure was a big hit at last year's convention, and this year they're following up with a similar figure, a reproduction of the Blaster figure.

And of course, there's that much beloved action-figure set, G.I. Joe. Hasbro plans to bring two new versions of the Sgt. Slaughter figure to Comic-Con, something that collector Carlos Prieto is sure to line up to get his hands on.

He runs a Facebook group solely focused on toys and cartoons of the 1980s. The 2007 G.I. Joe action figure set reinvigorated his interest in collecting, and the exclusives at Comic-Con are a part of why he goes every year.

"Hanging with friends and going to Comic-Con with friends and family has become such a big part of our life that it has become our yearly vacation spot to meet other people with the same interest," he said.

iReport: See some of Prieto's collection

Comic-Con exclusives aren't just big business for the Hasbros of the world.

Hallmark, best known for greeting cards, is getting in on the act with exclusive ornaments of droids from "Star Wars," among other items.

Smaller companies such as Entertainment Earth, which is putting out 8-inch figures of Jacob and the Man in Black from "Lost," and the Tonner Doll Company, which hit the jackpot last year, are also represented.

"We did an Edward Cullen from 'Twilight' doll. We did a limited edition, and people went crazy to get it," said Shauna Perry from Tonner. "People are still calling today to get one."

Those who missed out on it last year won't be disappointed, though.

"We have a brand-new Edward and Bella since they sold out last year, and this will be the first time we've done them," she said.

So, you may not be able to see the "Twilight" saga actors in person at the convention, but like so many other favorite film and TV properties at Comic-Con, you can own the toy.

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