You see them at Hot Topic, Barnes and Noble, and even Michaels. They adorn kiosks at major theme parks. They’re stuffed into Christmas stockings. Go to any geeky convention and you’ll see dozens of vendors peddling them, and potentially, two die-hard collectors fighting over them.
They are Funko Pops, and they are a frighteningly powerful cultural movement.
I bought the Daenerys [with] Drogon Pop for my wife to put on her desk at work because she was kicking ass as the new boss at work and she was newly obsessed with [Game of Thrones]. She wasn’t interested so I kept it and now she hates the Pop abyss I’ve fallen into. So I blame her. — SA_Bert_Macklin, Reddit
You’re probably familiar with the adorable vinyl figures, which, despite their oversized heads, all-black eyes and often, no mouth, aren’t as terrifying as they sound. They’re tremendously important to merchandising, and indeed, whoever your favorite character is, Funko likely has a whimsical rendition of it.
I bought Spock at Barnes and Noble back in…2013? I think? Because I also collect Star Trek action figures and he was too cute to pass up. I wasn’t planning on getting any others, but then they released the TNG ones so I needed Data too. I bought Stitch a little after too, also because he’s so cute, and my boyfriend bought me Kirk to match my Spock for Christmas like a year later. Then we one day just decided we wanted to collect them and have over 550 now… — TheWishingStar, Reddit
With each release of a major movie or TV show, you can expect to see the major characters “Pop-ified.” Funko also has been rolling out figures for popular films and movies that were released before the dawn of Funko, and there are Pop versions of well-known mascots, other toy lines, and even politicians and public figures. Franchise film merchandisers get a lot of mileage out of Pops by releasing new versions of the recurring characters that reflect costume changes, such as the Avengers: Endgame line of time-traveler Pops.
Collectible figures are hardly a new aspect of merchandising, but Funko pops are unique in that they mold characters into their distinctive style rather than typical “action figures.” How did this style come about, and how did Funko Pops take over the world?
Like many great businesses, Funko began in a home studio, when founder Mike Becker didn’t want to pay collectors’ prices for a coin bank version of of restaurant mascot Big Boy. So he decided to license and make it himself (like you do!), along with a bobblehead version. The Pops didn’t come about until after Funko was sold to Brian Mariotti, a collector who wanted to expand the company beyond bobbleheads. In 2010, Warner Bros. expressed interest in a line of DC Comics characters, and Mariotti co-designed the first Pops, which were debuted at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con. And so the Pop movement was born.
The Pops helped shift the gender imbalance in figure collection, as Mariotti and team observed at that first Comic-Con. As I’ve observed in my many rounds of Pop shopping, people of all genders, ages, and fandoms are united by a worldwide treasure hunt, as collectors share their finds and tip others to store availability on Reddit and bring their wishlists to cons and trade shows. Pops are a powerful way to express one’s fandom and, sometimes, express affinity for a favorite character. Either way, they become an obsession:
[I] was collecting Princess Leia items for my daughter and saw [a Princess Leia Pop] and liked it. She really loved [Star Wars] at the time. She was about 8 and her whole room was [Star Wars]. Started to buy more SW POPs to decorate her room with. Eventually I became hooked and she grew out of wanting a [Star Wars] room so I took them all to my cave/den. Slowly expanded from there into other lines and now I have almost 1,100 POPs in my collection. — RollTateRoll, Reddit
As Mariotti says, the Pops are “a gateway drug to collection.” It helps that they’re affordable: Although the limited editions or custom-made Pops fetch high prices, the basic Pops and all new releases run about $10 to 15 at most stores. Even older Pops go for relatively low prices compared to the hundreds of dollars that collectors might spend on other collectible figures.
The pops are made of vinyl, which has been used to make toy figures for decades. Increasingly, as with music, “vinyl” offers a nostalgic value and implies higher quality. Vinyl toys are effectively synonymous with so-called “designer toys,” although such toys can be made from resin or other materials as well. Funko represents a strong American entrant in the market, which was dominated by Japanese toy designers for many years. Not surprisingly, Pops bear some aesthetic similarity to the Chibi style of Japanese toys popular in the 1980s.
The combination of these designer elements with the toys’ affordability and availability in everyone’s favorite character was a winning combination. The company’s wealth has been growing exponentially, from $40 million pulled in 2013 to an insane $686.1 million just five years later. Love ’em or hate ’em (and I’m betting you love ‘em), Funko Pops aren’t going anywhere any time soon.
I honestly don’t remember which was my first Pop. I don’t have as many as I’d like, but I have many of my favorite characters. I’ve purchased my Pops at cons, big-box stores, bookstores, and collectors’ shops, and I’ve received several as gifts. The Pops reflect one of my side hustles, a puppets-and-toys business I run with my husband. Indeed, our house is filled with vinyl figures of various types, but the Pops hold their own against some of our expensive Japanese vinyl figures. We have everything from The Dark Crystal to Austin Powers represented.
I’ve written a lot about the dark sides of geek culture, but Funko Pops are definitely a positive aspect that gives everyone a way to show their fandom in a fun way. There are Funko Pop swap meets, online communities, and parties. When someone posts their Pops online, there are hardly any negative comments. They’re simply adorable and accessible, and that’s something that can unite us all.