Arts, Culture, and Entertainment

What’s Popping?: The fun behind the Funko Pops obsession

A global pandemic is not enough to stop some people from collecting Funko Pops.

Juan Esteban Jimenez was up at 6 a.m. and on the hunt for Funko Pops. The latest releases of the tiny vinyl figurines would usually debut at the 2020 New York Comic Con, but the pandemic forced the event to be held virtually. So Jimenez took a two-hour train ride from Vancouver to Surrey, British Columbia to go to one of the retail outlets selling the new items. He arrived in plenty of time and took his place in the long line waiting in the rain for the store to open at 11 a.m.

“I had to wait for over three hours and I was soaking wet but I got the ones I wanted,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez picked up three Pops that day: Kaguya Otsutsuki - an anime character from the show “Naruto”; Nightwing - a superhero in DC Comics; and Red Goblin - a supervillain in Marvel Comics.

Funko Pops go for about $10 to $15 and their value goes up based on their scarcity and exclusivity status. Some Pops are only available at certain retailers such as Target, Walmart, Hot Topic and Amazon. Others are only sold at annual Comic Con events like New York Comic Con and San Diego Comic Con.

Because some Pops are exclusive to certain stores, people go to great lengths to obtain them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people’s lives in various ways as well as the economy -- including Funko’s stocks. According to Yahoo! Finance, Funko opened 2020 with a stock price of $17.26. When the pandemic hit, the stock took a hit and dropped as low as $3.12. Their stock price has risen since, and Funko’s sales also are recovering.

According to their first quarter financial report, the company’s net sales decreased 18% to $136.7 million, with a net loss of $5.7 million. In their second quarter report, Funko made less than their first quarter, and had net sales of $98.1 million and reported a net loss of $15 million. On Nov. 5, Funko released their third quarter report, and their numbers went up. They had net sales of $191.2 million, with a net income of $15.6 million.

Despite the drop in Funko’s stock price and the challenges the company faced during the pandemic, consumers continue to purchase Funko products and some collectors show no signs of slowing down.

Bianca Calingo, Funko’s senior retail brand strategy manager, said employees share a crucial attribute with Funko fans: They are “pop culture nerds”.

“We have a very big enthusiasm for anything related to music, sports, movies, TV shows,” Calingo said. “It also helps that our artists are huge fans, so they always make sure to leave Easter eggs and fun hints when it comes to different details in the products.”

When he’s not collecting Funko Pops, Jimenez works as a chef at a restaurant called CAVO in Vancouver, British Columbia. Jimenez got hooked on Funko Pops after seeing his cousin’s collection and decided to start his own. He began his collection five to six months ago with the Tracer from [the video game] Overwatch and Vulpix from Pokémon.

“I enjoy the fact that I can have a piece that represents the things I grew up with,” Jimenez said. “All the Pops I collect are part of things I grew up with like Pokémon, Star Wars, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Dragon Ball.”

So far, his collection tops 144 Pops, drawing mixed reactions from his friends and families.

Jimenez said people who understand his obsession are supportive, but they still think he’s “losing his marbles.”

“The ones that don’t understand what this is about thinks [it’s] a waste of money but let’s be realistic, everyone wastes money one way or another,” he said.

Collectors never forget their first Pop, and for some, that’s their favorite memory. But not for Juan Torres, a collector from Pasadena, California. He recalls the day he met and got an autograph from his hero, the late Stan Lee at El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood for a movie marathon leading up to the premier of “Captain America: Civil War.”

Torres, scrambling to come up with something for Lee to sign, came across a wall of Funko Pops inspired by the movie he was going to see.

“I decided to go with the Black Panther Funko. I still have that piece, not as a part of my collection, but as a memory piece,” Torres said.

Some people recently started collecting Funko Pops, while others have been collecting for years. Arther Hendrick, a collector from Bedford, Texas, started his collection eight years ago.

For Hendrick, the molds and affordability of these Pops drew him into collecting.

“What keeps me in it is the price point and the vast collection of licenses they have acquired,” Hendrick said. “You never really know what they’re going to release.”

Founded in 1998 by Mike Becker, Funko started off selling nostalgia-themed toys. The company’s first product line were bobbleheads known as Wacky Wobblers, and their first manufactured item was the well-known restaurant advertising icon, the Big Boy mascot.

For the history of Funko, visit the interactive timeline below.

Funko Pops are collectible figurines that depict characters within pop culture. The original Pop figure started off with the following features: they are 3.75 to 4 inches tall with a square-shaped head with rounded edges, button-like black eyes with no pupils, a small nose and no mouth. These characters can either be of a real person or a fictional character from movies, comic books, etc. The early iterations of these Pop figures had them in a neutral pose, but in the last few years, Funko expanded their Pop! line and created different molds for their Pops. The sizes of these Pops have changed as well, with Funko producing 6 inches, 10 inches and even a supersized 18 inch Pop. Now, newer Funko Pops have distinct poses which makes each one unique and different compared to each other.

Funko has obtained many licensing rights which allows them to create thousands of these unique vinyl figurines. The licenses serve as agreement fees that Funko pays other parties (like DC Comics, Disney and Marvel) for permission to produce these figures. Comic book characters, pop icons, sports and movie stars are just some of the characters that these Pops depict.

Joan Miller, a doctoral candidate in communication at USC, also collects Pops and understands why people are drawn to them.

“There’s a certain point at which your collection becomes your hobby and it becomes part of your identity, and then you start spending stupid amounts of money on it,” Miller said.

Some people may see this hobby as childish, or a waste of money, but Miller disagrees. She senses a stigma against adults enjoying childish stuff because they are at an age where they should have outgrown these items.

“There’s nothing inherently more adult about buying a game-used hockey puck than there is about buying an autographed Funko Pop,” Miller said.

Aside from exclusives, other factors determine a Pop’s value: when they were created, whether or not the item is still produced and how many were produced.

Funko can cap off a Pop’s quantity to different amounts. By doing so, they are able to generate excitement for collectors with a desire for rare and limited items. For example, the 2020 SDCC exclusive Black Lightning Pop was limited to 3,000 pieces. Other limited amounts included a 144-count silver Superman Pop and 24-count gold Ken Griffrey Jr. Pop. The fewer that are produced, the more difficult it is for collectors to obtain them, which drives up the value of these highly sought-after collectibles.

Funko’s two retail stores are at Funko Hollywood in Hollywood and Funko HQ at company headquarters in Everett, Washington.

Collecting is not only a transactional activity, but can also serve an emotional purpose.. For some, it’s a stress reliever, but for others, it can be a coping mechanism in times of distress.

USC alumnus Tito Villareal had only a couple of Funko Pops before 2018. However, when his German Shepherd passed away from a heart attack, collecting Pops gave him relief.

“This triggered my shopping spree,” Villareal said. “To block the pain of my fur baby’s sudden loss, I preoccupied my head with Funko Pops.”

Villareal is currently unemployed, but makes a few dollars selling Pops. “Buying & selling Pops helps in relieving stress as well,” he said.”Once in a while, so I “flip” (sell for a profit) my extra exclusives to earn a few bucks.”

Villareal sells his extra Pops on Mercari, an app where people can buy or sell items. The most he made was an $80 net profit for a Medusa Pop.

While people may enjoy the thrill of the hunt and have no issues spending hundreds, and in some cases thousands of dollars on these Pops this may make people happy in the moment, it can actually be harmful to them in the future, Miller said.

“If you start to intertwine your identity as a person with your identity as a collector, it can be hard to separate them and it can start to become a really destructive downward spiral if you’re not careful about it,” said Miller, the USC doctoral student.. “At the same time, it’s not up to anyone else to tell you what this should mean to you. Yeah, it’s the commercial tiny plastic thing, but it’s not about the item itself. It’s about the meaning that it symbolizes.”

Funko continues to create new figures to stay fresh and keep their customers coming back for more. Their fans are grateful and see their growing community serving a greater purpose.

“During these unprecedented times, I can totally see people buying Funko Pops as a way of coping with everything that is going on,” Torres said.”Collecting Funko Pops can give people a sense of purpose and a sense of normalcy that seems to be lacking as of late.”