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Icons of pop culture

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Los Angeles Daily News, July 15, 2008

By Sandra Barrera

Before the disciples of Gotham City lore line up for Thursday's midnight screening of the new Batman film, many of these moviegoers will head to toy stores searching for the latest from "The Dark Knight."

It may be a 13-inch Batman with detailed body armor, utility belt and a pose-able fabric cape; a remote control Batmobile; or a Grappling Launcher prop replica.

These are just a few of the items that already have flown off the virtual shelves at collectibles Web and mail-order store Entertainment Earth.

"Batman is a pretty big line for us," says Aaron Labowitz, the 39-year-old co-founder and CEO of the North Hollywood-based company. "Because there's a lot of marketing behind the new movie, we've sold a lot of these things. But there's still a huge demand for classic stuff, too."

Superheroes are big business in the growing niche of pop-culture collectibles.

As insiders will tell you, that demand is driven by nostalgia for these beloved characters that people have come to know through comic books, TV shows and movies.

But collectors aren't interested in just any toy that reminds them of things they enjoyed back in the day.

They want authenticity even if the overall look of the character has evolved with the times, explains Doug Wadleigh, vice president of action play at El Segundo-based Mattel.

Among the products from "The Dark Knight" that his company has introduced to the adult collector are the true-to-life Movie Masters' 6-inch collectible figures, Hot Wheels Batmobile and Lair of the Joker portable play set.

"The kids don't know any different," Wadleigh says, adding that "when they're exposed to a new feature, they're seeing it for the first time.

"For the collecting community, they only embrace the new format if it's done properly and it has all the elements familiar to them."

Take last year's unveiling at San Diego's Comic- Con International of a limited-edition Hot Wheels Batmobile flocked in bat fuzz - a tribute to the George Barris design seen in some episodes of the "Batman" TV series that starred Adam West.

"We had the original version as you would see it on TV and then did the limited edition ... to get people excited about collecting," Wadleigh says.

To gauge reaction of new products and respond to collectors' needs, Mattel keeps a presence at online forums and blogs. The Internet has long played a role in the pop-collectibles community, including when Labowitz and his brother, company president Jason Labowitz, were getting Entertainment Earth off the ground 12 years ago.

That was before toy companies began rolling out high-end action figures for adults, and the Comic-Con convention - kicking off July 23 - was splashed across the pages of the Automobile Club of Southern California's Westways magazine.

"All of a sudden this is mainstream," says Jason Labowitz, 37, whose longtime passion for collecting "Star Wars" memorabilia is what originally led to the founding of his company.

Labowitz was 9 when he started compiling his collection of action figures. After playing with his space toys, he'd pack them away in their original boxes, which he kept neatly stored away in the closet of his bedroom.

"When everybody else was into girls, I was still collecting these toys," he says.

But his collection was incomplete. Kenner had stopped producing the "Star Wars" line in 1985.

A decade later, when the company announced it would be releasing new, redesigned versions of the classic toys from the intergalactic epic, Jason was working as a computer consultant and says he didn't have time to go chasing these pieces around town in what collectors call "the hunt."

So, he created a Web co-op of sorts for people interested in buying directly from the manufacturer at retail prices.

Granted, Entertainment Earth got off to a bumpy start. The company didn't receive its first shipment of merchandise until nine months after placing its order.

Today, though, it offers a cornucopia of more than 6,500 licensed products, ranging from dolls to high-end limited-edition pieces and exclusive collectibles such as "The Big Lebowski" action figures inspired by the 1998 cult film by the Coen brothers.

"Just about anything you're a fan of, there might be merchandise for, and if there isn't, there might be something in the works," says Jason, referring to "The Big Lebowski" collectibles, which Entertainment Earth has the exclusive rights to manufacture.

The company will be taking The Dude, complete with his Ralphs Club Card, rug and White Russian, to Comic-Con next week, along with its exclusive lines from the Showtime series "Dexter" and Scott Ian of Anthrax bobble heads.

New toys are added to the site every day.

"There's just a constant stream of great stuff and, as you can tell, some of us get very excited about it," says Adam Pawlus, 28, who holds the official title of Toy Evangelist at Entertainment Earth.

Judging by his cubicle, it's no wonder. Action figures are everywhere, which begs the question: What does home look like?

"It looks like this," Pawlus says. "And believe it or not, I'm actually married. So, someone out there is good enough to put up with this insanity, which is a nice bonus."

But, he adds, there's always room for more. He's gearing up for the July 26 launch of all-new "Star Wars" merchandise.

"It's essentially a shopping holiday," Pawlus says. "People are going to be scheduling time off to get the latest and the greatest. And we're going to have it all on our Web site at 12:01 a.m. when this launches."

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