Nearly everything at Wondercon, the annual celebration of all things pop culture held at the Anaheim  Convention Center last weekend, was a commodity to be bought and sold, from the Funko Pops to the actors and creators of the TV shows and films invited as special guests, plugging their various properties.

Even the cosplayers who dress up and play can be viewed as a type of indirect marketing designed to sell the whole Wondercon experience.

But after the 2020 and 2021 conventions were canceled due to the pandemic – and last year’s took place with a mandatory mask requirement – at this year’s Wondercon a different kind of commodity was at play, one that can’t be quantified economically but is just as valuable and precious, one that isn’t exchanged as much as shared.


Whether attendees were dressed as Chewbacca in drag, Disney princesses, or wearing skin-tight spandex that tells no physical lies; whether they were exhibitors hawking toys to T-shirts; or whether they were conventionally attired and there to shop, attend a panel or just to take in the spectacle, it seemed to veteran attendees that WonderCon was finally back for real.  

“Last year, it was OK but nothing like this year,” said Andy Alvarez, who lives in Brea and attended Saturday with his wife and son for the second time. “We had to wear the masks, which I didn’t mind because I have asthma, but you could just feel how so many people wanted to rip them off. It felt constrained. This year the vibe seems like a lot more people who just want to have a good time and party — without the booze, of course.”

For a first-time WonderCon goer, and someone who has also never been to its higher profile sibling to the south, San Diego’s Comic-Con, I could see that good time on just about every face — even the ones obscured by masks that this year were chosen, not obligatory.  I heard it in the voices of those wearing the exquisitely detailed costumes pulled from film and TV properties past, present and, based on the number of characters unrecognizable to these non-pop-culture-saturated eyes, another dimension; the professional and amateur photographers capturing their images; and the children, parents and grandparents staring slack-jawed at a spectacle where nothing, oddly, felt unconventional even if everything was out-of-this world unconventional.

But while the good time had by all was self-evident and no self-respecting reporter on assignment to cover WonderCon could look past it, I had another reason for being at WonderCon. I was hunting for whales. Not the oceanic kind, but the human kind, the term used in gambling circles for a high-roller equipped with a fat roll of cash and not reticent about dropping multiple thousands in a heartbeat. But the whale I needed wasn’t sitting at a poker table; it could only be found, I thought, among the warren of comic book dealers housed in the northwest corner of the convention floor.

I was looking for a big-time comic book collector, someone at the top of the comic collecting food chain in order to test out a hypothesis formed after a conversation I had with Cal Burke, the owner of McFly’s Comics in Huntington Beach a few days before the convention started. 

Burke is old-school comics. He freely admits that he knows little about what has happened in their pages the last 20 years. His specialty is vintage comics, particularly ones from before the 1980s. He estimates he owns around 100,000. And though he’s only had his shop for six years, he’s been involved in comics for 53 years as a collector and convention seller. He knows comics.

So he’s had a front-row seat on the roller coaster of the comic book market, from the busts like the early 1990s when speculation and distributor issues nearly destroyed it, to the peaks in early 2021, when stimulus money was flowing, people were stuck at home and the market spiked, with many books valued at three times their pre-pandemic prices, and a legion of people jumped on board thinking it would never stop. Burke took it all with a few pillars of salt. He knew the market would self-correct, as it has, and the people who jumped in hot would bolt. But more importantly, he knew the ones who would stay.

“You see these people who get caught up in all the hype, they buy books when the market is hot or because they think a character is going to be in a movie and they go all-in on their first appearance (in comics). They buy today hoping to flip tomorrow. I call them shooting stars. But then the movie flops or a character dies and it doesn’t pan out. Once they go belly up they’re left with nothing and they’re gone. It happens over and over again.”

Then Burke drops the dime.

“Shooting stars get hot and burn out just as fast. But comic guys, real comic guys, we’re in it for life.”

Comic book dealers are a foundational part of Wondercon. Of the approximately 30 booths at this year’s WonderCon, only three were from OC: McFly’s Comic Shop in Huntington Beach, Comic Book Hideout in Fullerton, and Torpedo Comics, in Orange. CREDIT: Joel Beers/Voice of OC

When I heard that, I felt what I imagine someone who has long harbored some weird obsession with, oh I don’t know, say Star Trek, Star Wars or any of the fandoms that circulate around WonderCon must feel like when they discover others share a similar interest: I wasn’t alone. I read comic books voraciously as a kid, mostly Marvel, all superhero, from the age of 9 up to 11th grade. But then I thought I was done and they sat in boxes, bagged but unboarded, for more than 30 years. Until the pandemic. Maybe it was because I had all this newfound free time, or maybe I was subconsciously looking for some comfort in quite uncomfortable times, but after revisiting them seriously for the first time in decades, I was hooked again. 

Three years later, I own more than I began with.  But I’m just a minnow in the collecting pond, my 4,000 comics worth maybe three times that. But I felt I was a lifer; what about a big-time collector? Someone who, unlike me, when a dealer placed a copy of “Fantastic Four” No. 1 with a quarter-million price tag in front of them then turned around to help a real customer, didn’t think of grabbing it and running like hell, but seriously thought about buying it? Were they also lifers, people that had some kind of bond with comics that never truly went away, or was it just another investment, albeit a costly one? 

Yes, this reporting assignment entailed covering WonderCon. But I also really wanted to go to a convention with comics and find that whale. It’s not like the two were mutually exclusive.

Comic books and conventions like WonderCon and ComicCon are inextricably linked by history. Both were created by comic book retailers as places for those who sold comics and bought comics to gather under the same roof. San Diego’s began in 1970 and has stayed there ever since. WonderCon began in Oakland in 1987, moved to San Francisco in 2003 and then to Anaheim in 2012. Both are owned by the same nonprofit corporation and each has long outgrown the comic books that created them in the first place.

This year, fandom of all stripes, from Star Wars to Walking Dead enthusiasts, seamlessly interacted with families and the more profit-oriented, such as those there to pick up exclusive toys and other swag they could turn around for a profit on eBay. Outside was dominated by cosplayers, inside commerce reigned supreme on the ground floor, while upstairs the meeting rooms featured a wide array of panels ranging from the History of Sci-Fi Costumes, Representation in Horror Comics, The Five Secrets of Cosplay Leathercraft and the Future of Dr. Who. 

Speaking of commerce on the first floor: while scores of vendors sold everything from coasters and apparel to toys, games and action figures (the manga/anime Chainsaw Man the hottest of the latter category) a 4-inch vinyl monarch sat atop the throne: Funko Pops! At least 20 booths sold the figurines, which are kind of like a cartoon Bobblehead, but the dominant watering hole was the massive Funko Fun House, a carnival-themed attraction beneath a circus big top featuring games, exclusive Funko Pops! and lots of boisterous cheering. It was packed throughout the three days even if it was accessible only by reserving ahead of time and standing in a very long line.

Beth Carnesi, who lives in South Orange County, said she waited in line for three hours with her two nephews. I didn’t need to ask if the wait was worth it. The answer was all over the beaming faces of the two kids when I asked what was inside the massive oversize paper bags given to anyone who purchased something inside the tent. (I didn’t recognize the characters, but each had three).

Enthusiasts of all things Funko Pop! stood in line for up to two hours to enter the Funko Fun House at WonderCon 2023 at the Anaheim Convention Center. CREDIT: Joel Beers/Voice of OC

OC Headcount

An interesting thing about WonderCon is that while it’s been in Orange County since 2012, it was surprisingly difficult finding people from Orange County. Maybe it was the luck of the draw, but I must have asked 75 people where they lived and maybe two out of 10 said they were OC residents. 

WonderCon doesn’t keep track of figures like that, so I had to lean on hard scientific data for the answer. It was near the end of one of the panels I dropped in on, a spotlight on Marv Wolfman, a comic book writer whose turn on “The Tomb of Dracula” for Marvel in the 1970s is considered one of the high-water marks from that period and whose work for DC in the 1980s on “The New Teen Titans”  nearly matched the popularity of  Marvel’s  X-Men titles for a few years. It was the largest crowd of any of the panels I saw; I counted 205 heads. I sat in the back and casually mentioned to the volunteer monitoring that room for the day that I was covering the convention and wished I knew how many people were from OC. Right as the panel concluded, he stood up and bellowed:


About a third of the people raised their hands, so that’s what I’m going with: about a third of WonderCon attendees were from OC. (I know it’s not the most scientific data collection, but we can’t all be Reed Richards).

Lily and Andre Bhattacharyya were two of them. Dressed as characters from “Dora the Explorer,” the Trabuco Canyon residents were there with their mother, who echoed comments I heard from several people that might offer an explanation why so many from Los Angeles or San Diego counties were in Anaheim: the inability to score tickets for San Diego’s show, which sells out nearly immediately after tickets go on sale.

“We’ve been trying for years and finally got them this year,” Lily said.

Lily and Andre Bhattacharyya of Trabuco Canyon, kneeling, came as characters from “Dora the Explorer.” They are WonderCon veterans who will explore San Diego Comic-Con this summer for the first time since they finally scored tickets. CREDIT: Joel Beers/Voice of OC

But none of the attendees I talked to at WonderCon feel like it’s a consolation prize compared to San Diego; many prefer the more laid-back atmosphere.

Mehrda Modjtahedi, an actor who lives in Placentia, attended his first Comic-Con in 1999 and was captivated instantly. As a fan of video games, animation, comics and pop culture in general, he said, “It scratches every inch you have and even creates ones you didn’t know.”

He attended most years up to 2013, but when WonderCon moved to Anaheim in 2012 he was ready.

“ComicCon had become too big for its britches,” he said. “It was packed to the gills, parking was at least $100. The cost of rooms everywhere skyrocketed. I mean, it’s a great event, they even offered free child care but it was too much of a hassle.”

He attended the first WonderCon in Anaheim in 2012 and nearly every one since, including this year.

“I fell in love with it,” he said. “It was more subdued but that was great because it offered all the experiences that Comic-Con used to. The celebrity panels were more intimate and personable. And even though the big studio presence isn’t as prevalent at WonderCon and you don’t get the big news announcements, there’s enough here that it’s still a good way to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on now and what to expect.”

 What About the Whale?

I never found my whale. I asked dealers and dozens of people carrying lists with issues of a particular title they needed to complete a run and rifling through the hundreds of boxes stuffed with comics. I eavesdropped on conversations and scoped out the most expensive comics on display at the back of each booth (the highest being the aforementioned Fantastic Four No. 1) and asked if there had been any bites.

But nothing. The most expensive purchase I heard of over the weekend was at Brad Sloan’s F/VF comics: $8,000. Turns out that most people who buy books in the six figures aren’t collectors, they’re investors who realize those books will always be valuable and will hold onto them for a year and then sell at a small percentage profit that is still sizable considering the dollar amount.

As McFly’s Burke says, “They’ll buy nine to make 10.” Or they already have relationships with dealers and work with them in more private channels. Or they’re dealers buying from other dealers.

But I didn’t need the heavy hitters. Without fail, those people I talked to who were deliberate while going through the comic bins, the ones careful about not being too rough and bending the bagged and boarded comics, the ones who I could tell were collectors, were living proof that comic guys (and, of course, girls and non-binary or gender non-conforming individuals) are in it for life, whether that connection has been a straight line or has had some gaps.

It’s never stopped for Rick Leon of La Habra, who was selling at his second  WonderCon. He started reading comics when he was 3 and has accumulated enough to now sell then in order to “help pay for my hobby.” He’s kept the hobby alive even while owning three restaurants. But the most telling example of how much comics are entwined in his life happened 20 years ago, when he was celebrating his one-year anniversary with a woman he was dating. As a present, she bought him a copy of “Giant Size X-Men” No. 1, the 1975 comic that launched what would eventually become Marvel’s first multiple-film franchise.

“Twenty years later, I’m married to her,” Leon said.

Others, like Kelly, who didn’t want his last name used, took a long break. He bought his first comic book in 1964, read them avidly for three years and then stopped when he was 9, throwing or giving most of them away.  Forty years later, he attended Comic-Con just to scratch it off his bucket list. But he saw the comic dealer section, stopped in, and four years later has amassed 4,000 books, none of which he has spent more than $20 on.

“I’m a reader,” he said. “I have no interest in hanging them on a wall and reselling them again. They make me feel like a kid again and the more I buy, the more I like it.” 

And some, like Joseph Melodia, 44, an Orange resident and English teacher at Cypress College, are in it for life – plus some. He started reading comics when he was 10, drifted away slightly during high school and college but never completely detached and today owns 17 long boxes filled with comics.

“There’s a childhood nostalgia factor for sure,” says Melodia, when asked why he collects. “Then when you get older you realize they have some (monetary) value. But ultimately it’s fun and entertaining, and I like them.”

Melodia paused for a moment and then continued.

“But it’s also a legacy thing. I have a son and I’d like to pass these on to him. Whether he wants to read and enjoy them or he wants to sell them.”

So, there you have it. Finding joy in the moment whether by dressing up and playing or doing what you love. Rediscovering the kind of joy that comes naturally to children but grows ever more evasive the older we get. Giving someone else the chance to feel joy sometime down the road. WonderCon, and the attachment and connection that some have to the cheap, fragile paper comic books that inspired, conceived and nourished it, brings them all together. And if that isn’t a commodity as precious and valuable as gold, what is?

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the convention was shut down in 2019 and 2020 due to the pandemic. It was 2020 and 2021. We regret the error.

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