I bought my first Funko Pop! a few days ago. It’s Max from the movie Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s staring at me now with its signature dead, black eyes, a gun hanging loosely from one hand. I’m imagining its square head half-protruding from the sand of some desolate Australian wasteland centuries from now, cracked and faded, leaking microplastics into the already sterile soil. Forged from the same crushed fossil remains of dinosaurs and long dead forests that brought the droughts and bushfires that birthed this desert, it’s rejected by every passing human scavenger for its singular lack of utility. But it doesn’t care. It’ll outlive them all, and me. It’ll outlive all of us.
Everyone is a fan of something is present-day Funko’s corporate motto, but when Mike Becker founded the company in 1998 it was little more than a pet-project to satisfy his personal obsessions. A collector of retro toys with a nostalgia for the fading Americana of corporate mascots, Becker was frustrated at being unable to find an affordable coin bank of the giant fiber-glass Big Boy Restaurant statues that have towered over U.S. highways since the 1950s. So he acquired the license and started producing his own. They were a total flop. Yet Becker persisted, somehow managing to get the license to produce Austin Powers bobbleheads. Funko shifted in excess of 80,000 units, allowing Becker to return to his mascot obsession, licensing and making toys based on familiar cereal box characters like Tony The Tiger and the Cheerios Bee. In 2005 he sold the company to Brian Mariotti—still the company’s CEO—who started pursuing a far more aggressive approach to licensing characters and properties.
2011 saw the launch of Funko’s Pop! line—the now instantly familiar, four-inch-tall, square headed and black-eyed figurines that grace children’s bedrooms, adult nerd’s bookshelves, and office worker’s cubicles around the world. Aesthetically they’re a mashup of the cheap, nostalgic bobblehead toys that had originally inspired Becker and more contemporary and expensive Japanese super-deformed vinyl figures—often based on anime and manga characters —made primarily for enthusiasts and collectors.
Mariotti’s plan was to take this format and make it appealing to a wider range of consumers by basing them on instantly recognizable franchises and properties, starting by licensing characters from DC comics, with Marvel, Star Wars, and Disney following shortly after. It was a strategy that quickly and exponentially paid off. The company is now a globally recognized brand, with four offices in the U.S. and one in London, over 8,000 different Pop! characters, and net sales of over $686m reported in 2018. There’s a smartphone app, where you can record the Pops! you own, share them with others, and make a Pop! likeness of yourself. There’s subscription boxes you can sign up to, where for upwards of $15 a month you can be sent figures from your favorite corporate entertainment franchise. There’s Funko based clothes, books, backpacks, board games you can buy, and even special plastic boxes designed to keep the mere cardboard boxes that Pop! figures ship in pristine. Packaging for packaging. And there is, of course, currently both a Funko pop! video game and movie in development.
But it’s not the accessories and merchandise that have been the secret to Funko’s success, it’s a radical and aggressive diversification of its product line. Everyone is a fan of something is more than a marketing motto, it’s the core of the company’s business and expansion model. Those 8,000—and climbing with every month—different Pop! figures are no longer limited to geeky comic and movie heroes. They now include historical figures, famous scientists, sports personalities, rock and pop stars, celebrities, characters from adverts, TV stars, talk show hosts (there’s 29 different Conan O’Brien Pops! alone), and of course politicians. The 2016 election saw the company launch the Funko Pop! The Vote range, featuring pops of Hilary, Bernie, and Trump. Perhaps due to the political climate Funko never announced a 2020 line, meaning that prices for the 2016 figures skyrocketed. Because of course everyone—regardless of their political beliefs—is a fan of something.
I bought my first Pop! in my local comic store. I didn’t have to go far, just a couple of blocks from my apartment building here in Ottawa. It was just a couple of weeks before the city—like most of the world—would go into full lockdown, shuttering the store for months. Although you can buy them pretty much anywhere now—from Walmart and CVS to Amazon and Barnes & Noble—it felt somehow important to get one from a comic store, directly from the fandom source, as though that will somehow help me understand the whole thing better. Initially, I’m not sure it does. Instead I found myself staring blankly at a wall of Funko Pop! boxes, paralyzed by choice.
What am I a fan off? I asked myself. Detroit techno? I can’t see a Juan Atkins or a Robert Hood figure. There are 80s and 90s hip hop legends Pops!, but this store doesn’t have any. There is no JG Ballard Funko Pop! to be seen. I almost opt for a Jawa from Disney’s The Mandalorian TV show, but that seems like a cop-out somehow—I enjoyed the show, but I stopped thinking of myself as a Star Wars fan decades ago when I got on the internet and saw what the “real” fans were like, what they talked about and spent their money on. Plus, y’know, the prequels happened. And isn’t the whole point that my Pop! choice should represent something very personal to me, that badge of fandom that makes up an important part of my identity?
I try to think back to the 80s and 90s, to the things that excited a younger me, who was much more invested in movie series and comic books. I scan the shelves again. There’s no Ripley from Alien here, no Rachel or Leon from Blade Runner, no Clarence Boddicker from Robocop—all of which I’m sure exist. Reluctantly I grab a (Mad) Max Rockatansky figure as it feels like the next best thing, a tiny recreation of Tom Hardy stripped of all the identifying facial features that make him Tom Hardy. Plus it’s been discounted to just $10 from the usual $15, for some reason that the clerk is unsure of. It might just be that it was unpopular, he told me. I feel like my fan-based identity is being valued and ranked.
Comic book stores are complex places for me these days, I have to admit. I get a weird mix of nostalgia and dread when I walk into one. I spent a sizable chunk of my life growing up in the UK hanging out in them, pouring over top-shelf copies of Heavy Metal magazine, sci-fi artbooks, Love and Rockets comics, and the translated manga that was still such a rarity back then. Up until a couple of years ago I’d still pop in to any comic book store I passed to see what interesting indie published stuff they had. But increasingly it started to feel like that stuff was being pushed to the back of the store, to some ever shrinking dark corner, while valuable shelf space was taken up by the products from the big corporate franchises—Marvel, Star Wars, DC, Harry Potter. Very American stories about good and evil from very American corporations. Sure I could dismiss a lot of this feeling to being a grumpy old man—I’m well into my 40s now—but I see plenty of other men in their 40s in these stores, and they usually look far less grumpy than me. They look like they still belong. Instead I feel like I’m being crushed by an unstoppable wave of nerd imperialism, a steamrolling of pop culture by corporate franchises that want to reduce everything to product lines of episodic stories that never end, generic Lego playsets, and uniformly sized and packaged vinyl toys.
Plus there was something else that pulled me out of my comic and movies obsession when I was a teenager. Fueled by early hip-hop and rave culture I became engrossed with music, and the comic stores I hung out in soon gave way to record stores. Buying and collecting vinyl became my new obsession, my new main source for spending the little money I had, and the new way of defining myself, of giving teenage me an identity. I was one of those record guys. A wannabee DJ. Over the following years I amassed a collection of a few thousand cassette tapes, CDs, and vinyl records. I still have most of them now, stored away in a friend’s attic back in the UK.
And it was then, just as I was leaving the store with my Mad Max Funko Pop! that it hit me, the most basic of connections I’d somehow failed to already make. Wait a minute. Vinyl records? Vinyl toys? Are they made from the same thing?
As far as I can tell, nobody outside Funko really knows what Pops! are made of. Funko’s PR department refused to tell me, cutting off all further communication when I started asking more technical questions.
“Greenpeace has been campaigning against overuse of plastic and against the use of certain types of plastic…[and] we’ve been flagging concerns about vinyl because it’s so polluting to make,” Greenpeace Research scientist David Santillo told me over Skype from his lab at Exeter University in the UK. “If what they mean by vinyl, which I’m assuming is PVC, polyvinyl chloride, then the chlorine aspect of that makes it a real problem to manufacture and a real problem then to dispose of because of the chlorine it puts into the waste stream.”
PVC, Santillo explains to me, is a widely used plastic that contains both carbon and chloride. The carbon comes usually from crude oil—back in 2017 the Petroleum Service Company made Funko Pops! their ‘Petroleum Product of the Week’—while the chlorine is a byproduct of making caustic soda.
“Apart from that, it’s also a plastic that on its own is not so useful because it tends to be quite brittle,” he said. “It tends to break down relatively easily. So it needs quite a lot of additives, other chemicals, either to make it flexible or to make it resistant to ultraviolet light and to stop mold growing on it. So these vinyl toys can tend to be cocktails of a whole range of different chemicals all packaged in what’s already a very problematic plastic.”
PVC also has a large carbon footprint because making chlorine, and the acetylene that is mixed with the chlorine, is an energy intensive process.
“If you were to put something of an equivalent weight to its carbon footprint next to it, I imagine it would be substantially bigger than the Funko Pop itself,” Santillo continues. “If you look back up the supply chain from something that looks like a kind of neat little plastic colored thing you find a whole lot of big industrial chemistry that generates a lot of waste, uses a lot of energy and creates something that is going to well outlast most of the people that are buying these things.”
And exactly how long might that be? I’m visualizing my little Mad Max crumbling in the Aussie wasteland again.
“Depending on conditions it could well be centuries,” Santillo said. “I mean we are now and have been for some time creating plastic artifacts that could well become archeological, because [nobody thinks] well hang on a minute, what happens when we no longer want them?
They will degrade physically and sort of break apart, but that can add to a problem because it then leads to greater dispersal of smaller fragments of plastic. The fact that you can’t see it anymore is isn’t the solution.”
I tell Santillo that that I asked Funko whether Pops! could be recycled, and their PR director told me they couldn’t “at this time.”
“Well that’s interesting because what that suggests is that there are many different grades of vinyl within each toy. That would mean it would be a nightmare to separate it all out and try and recycle it or the different additives in different bits. Probably also the colors in the different parts as well.”
Santillo is understandably keen to stress that neither him or Greenpeace know exactly what Pops! are made of—so much of this is conjecture on his part, but based on years of research into plastics and similar consumer objects. He’s also keen to stress that it’s this lack of knowing —and Funko’s refusal to tell anyone—that makes Pops! so problematic to him.
“I would think that the responsible approach for Funko to take would be to be completely transparent with what’s in their products…and what you should do with it at the end of its life. It’s a transparency issue, and they should have a far greater responsibility for these things after the point of sale.”
Before I get off the call, I ask Santillo about the thing that’s been bugging me over the last few days. The vinyl that Pops! are made of and the vinyl that records are made of: is that the same thing?
“Yeah,” he answers. “It’s the same stuff. It’s just processed in a different way.”
Suddenly I’m gripped by a vision of my precious record collection, broken, abandoned and scattered through some post collapse wasteland, leaking microplastics into the water table.
“Really, at the end of the day, these are either going to stay there forever and completely destroy the environment or it has to go to incineration,” Adrian Midwood, executive director for the Canadian arm of non-profit Plastic Oceans told me over the phone. “Which, in a contained area and on mass, can be used to create energy. But most incineration is just really to get it out of our environment and make sure it doesn’t exist anymore.”
Midwood is professional sea captain and scuba diver, originally from Vancouver. For most of the last decade he’s been working with Plastic Oceans on strategies to both limit the amount of plastic ending up in our oceans, as well as ways to mitigate the damage it does. Before talking to me he seemed to be unaware of Funko Pops!, and seemed pretty alarmed when I explained to him what they are.
“I mean personally I don’t see the point in these sorts of things,” he told me, in no uncertain terms. “I think we really need to shift away from all of this throwaway stuff. Basically, I would just look at this as crap. It serves zero purpose. And I don’t even understand how it brings anyone any joy. It’s just marketing, it baffles me. I mean we’ve got so much crap. And if you look at the footprint of these things, it’s not just how it’s going to stay there till the end of time. But all the packaging, and the shipping, and the distribution. Yeah. It’s a pointless item.”
“[W]hen you used to go over to your friend’s houses, you would see records or VHS on their bookshelves and you would know what they were into,” Jessica Piha-Grafstein, Funko’s Director of Communications and PR, told me when I asked her what purpose she sees them filling. “And now they have Funko Pops!. So it’s a way for you to express what you love and it’s actually a really good conversation starter too, for a lot of people.”
As Piha-Grafstein told me this things suddenly start to fall into place. My vinyl record collection served two roles simultaneously—it was both a medium for distributing and playing back music, and a collection of physical objects I could fill my home with in order to project my interests to others, to signify who I was. People could flip through my records and learn something about me, or at least about the identity I’d constructed for myself and was trying to project. It’s exactly the same as people who fill their homes with books to show that reading is an important part of their lifestyle, or movie fans that fill shelves with DVDs, Blu-rays and VHS tapes.
But now increasingly we don’t use those physical media anymore—print books are the last hold-out, with ebooks only accounting for 20% of all books sold, but the story is very different for movies and TV shows, where streaming and digital downloads have largely made physical media a very niche product for the truly hardcore collector. So if you’re a Marvel, Star Wars, or Game Of Thrones fan how are you meant to signal it to the rest of the world? You can’t exactly hang your Disney+ or HBO Go subscription on the wall. Enter Pops!, here to put a physical manifestation of your digital entertainment on a shelf for you.
Anneke Garcia, a Pops! fan from Salt lake City, sees this manifestation of the online into meatspace go even further.
“I’m online a lot, I’m all over Twitter and Facebook and stuff, and I can put pictures, I can put avatars, and people know who I am and what I like,” she told me over Skype. “I can have my CD collection, all my favorite movies, people can know that by going to my profile. But in real life, you don’t have an avatar, you don’t have a profile photo. But my desk at work is very carefully curated.”
It’s a fascinating idea, that as our media has migrated to being digital so have our identities and our ability to signify them. Look at that wall of Pops! in your local store and it’s clear that they share enough aesthetics with the visual language of our online platforms that it starts to feel like an invasion—or maybe a colonization—of the real world by the digital. There’s something in the design of Pops! that instantly calls to mind video game sprites, chatroom avatars, animated gifs, emojis, and Tumblr art. And while this is probably as much the nature of the pop culture zeitgeist as it is a conscious design decision, it feels like there’s certainly some agency in how and why people buy the Pops! they do. We spend so much time crafting and curating our online presence to project a virtual identity, one that isn’t bound by the boring restrictions of reality, why wouldn’t we want to let it bleed into the physical too?
Take Garcia, for example. She has a collection of eight Pops!, (which is, according Piha-Grafstein, a very typical number) all connected very closely to her and her husband’s interests. There’s a couple of Overwatch characters, some Star Wars and Doctor Who characters, and her favorite rock star Sting. She’s also got one of Alex Trebek, because Garcia also happens to be a four-times Jeopardy! champion—her header image on Twitter is a photo of her with Trebek on the show. “This is my collage of who I am, but in the real world,” she told me.
For other fans though, using Pops! just to transmit your identity isn’t enough—they’ve graduated to the collecting of the Pops! themselves being their identity. Search for Funko on Google, Instagram, or YouTube and it’s impossible to avoid them—the Funko superfans, posting images of their homes where unboxed Pops! are stacked from the floor to the ceiling, videos of them raiding Target to hunt out new deliveries, or of them unboxing their subscription boxes. There’s a whole community-turned-industry where the most hardcore fans—increasingly being referred to as ‘Funko Influencers’—host podcasts and YouTube videos, report from toy fairs, and even get invited to big franchise movie premieres.
One of these fans is Tristan, an 18-year-old from Ontario, Canada. His YouTube channel Top Pops has over 200,000 subscribers, and he runs it full time from his parents’ home, although he’s also taking a video production course online. “I needed to stay home and study online so that I could keep going with my YouTube channel,” he told me over email. “I felt that if I left and went to a traditional college/university that I would lose my subscribers and video views.”
He currently owns in excess of 1700 Pops! in his collection, though he says “that number changes weekly.” He tells me that he spends “a couple thousand dollars on Funko Pops on an average month. I 100% fund this with the earnings from my YouTube channel,” via advertising revenue and sponsorship of his videos. He recently started renting a commercial office space in order to house all his Pops!, and tries to post a new video every day. They’re slickly made little videos, colorful and cheerful, hosted by him and occasionally his brother. Often they’re advice videos, reviews of new Pops!, or reports from Funko events and toy fairs—but usually the typical Top Pops clip is of him, and his family or friends, shopping. Tristan and the rest of the Funko community call it ‘Pop Hunting.’
“I try to Pop hunt at least two to three times a week,” he told me. “In the summer, I definitely go more often as we have more time and the weather is favorable. I Pop hunt whenever I can as my viewers love to see what is out in the stores near me. Some of my viewers are from far away countries, and they do not have access to the stores that we have, so they especially enjoy seeing stores in Canada and the US.”
In the age of unboxing and ASMR videos the idea of watching hours of other people shopping probably isn’t that unusual, but I can’t deny that I find it weirdly jarring to sit down and try and watch. It’s not so much that it’s voyeuristic, and more than it feels like an unapologetically honest celebration of consumerism; a trip to your local Target but portrayed as a video game quest, a brave hunt for the rarest of Pokémon. A few short weeks after talking to Tristan rewatching the videos seemed to take on another layer of significance, as the global Covid-19 lockdown left billions of us unable to partake in our usual retail rituals.
But even before that, to this grumpy old man it looked like something from a dystopian science fiction novel, where citizens have to compete to prove they’re the most loyal corporate subjects by documenting their shopping trips to big brand stores. Tristan even has one on his channel where he and his brother buy out every single Pop! in their local Walmart. And it all looks the same to me, the same camera angles tracking first person down the same over lit aisles, through the generic spaces of cookie cutter global mall capitalism. Over and over again, as though time has been suspended by the hyperreality of consumer goods. It’s strangely Ballardian. My mind goes back to my non-existent JG Ballard vinyl figure. I can’t help but think he’d love it.
Watching them though, I’m reminded that time hasn’t been suspended, and I can’t not think of the geological timescales David Santillo had talked to me about. Tristan is clearly a smart and likeable guy, and at 18 has got his whole life ahead of him. I ask him if he thinks he’ll ever get bored of Pops! and want to move on to something else.
“I honestly do not think that I will ever get bored of them. Funko works very hard to always come up with new and exciting products,” he says. “I may at times shave some Pops from my collection, but I do not think I would stop collecting them entirely.”
What about their near indestructible longevity, though? How does he feel about the fact they’ll be around long after he’s dead?
“I am confident that the Pops! could be resold to other collectors, especially the older, more rare Pops!” Tristan says. He’s certainly got a point – some of the rarest Pops! are so in demand from collectors that they can sell for excess of $2000 each, though of course there’s no guarantee that such seemingly fad driven objects will retain that value for decades to come. But then Tristan also believes they’ll also have some more personal, especially as they’ve become such a central part of his identity: “I also feel that if I wasn’t around anymore my family would want to keep some as a memory of me and my passion for collecting.”
Again I think of my vinyl record collection, sitting in an attic on the other side of the Atlantic, unloved and untouched under layers of dust, abandoned by me because my life changed. And I think about how I never thought about those records’ futures when I bought each of them. For Brian Thill, an English professor and the author of Waste, this inability or refusal to think about the lifespan of objects is central to the culture of consumer capitalism, and has to be for it to exist.
“I think what you’re talking about is actually getting more to a gap in our ability to think beyond ourselves and our particular desires or interests, which is exactly why we’re in this environmental crisis in the first place.” Thill tells me over the phone from California. “We can’t think historically, we can’t think deep time, because we can’t think beyond our own selves or our own lives or our own interests or obsessions. [Products like Pops!] wouldn’t be even able to exist, you wouldn’t be able to market and commodify this stuff and hoodwink people into spending all their money on it if you hadn’t somehow created a culture where all of those questions you’re asking just don’t ever get asked.”
Thill compares it to our global inability to deal with nuclear waste, a subject he covers in his book. “[It’s less surprising] when the smartest scientific minds in the world don’t know what the hell to do with our own nuclear waste we created. If we can’t even solve that kind of problem, how do you begin to solve the problem of people thinking this is a good use of their time and effort to enrich Walmart and the Disney Company just so they can have a cool object on their shelf?”
There’s a much-misused quote, popularized by Mark Fisher and credited to both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek, that it is “easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” It’s about how neoliberal capitalism has become a total, all-encompassing system, colonizing everything from our economies and political systems to our emotions and desires. It’s created a world where it touches and controls so much that it becomes increasingly hard to see past the edges, to imagine any alternative way of being or doing. Instead our only escape is to imagine collapses and apocalypses, deserts and wastelands.
Right now I can’t think of a consumer item that encapsulates this as well as the Funko Pop!. Produced in their millions from potentially toxic chemicals that can’t be easily disposed of, they feel timeless in the moment, like a never-ending or dating fad, while their physical structures will outlive us all. Societies might collapse and even capitalism itself will fall, but the Funko Pops!—crafted in part from the same ancient fossil fuels that will lead to the failure of our ecosystem—will outlive us all.
When I first sat down to write this article, it felt like the illusion was already failing, Funko-capitalism’s ability to suspend time being slowly revealed as nothing more than an illusion. On February 6, 2020. Funko shares plunged a huge 35 percent on the NASDAQ after the company shared disappointing results for the holiday season, and reported that they expected sales in the U.S. and international markets to decline by 9 percent and 8 percent respectively. According to a statement from Funko this was due to “the challenging retail environment” and “soft sales related to certain tentpole movie releases.” In other words, they’re partly putting the blame on JJ Abrams and the understandably poor reception for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. It’s one thing to sell tickets on the way into a movie, but if people didn’t like it then they’re not buying toys on the way out.
But then 2020 got weird and scary, in ways we’re all too familiar with. At first it looked like the retail lockdown was a disaster for Funko, with the company reporting a staggering 49 percent drop in sales in Q2 of 2020. Funko were quick to react however, moving their focus from third party retailers to a direct to customers model that saw them selling Pops! online during the historic boost to internet shopping the pandemic heralded.
“We were very fluid with our ability to move products from specialty where there was no mall traffic, to our direct-to-consumer,” CEO Mariotti told Yahoo Finance. “We went from only 200 of our own products [on our website] as late as June of this year, to now well over 2,000 products available on our website.” The result was an unprecedented bounce back, with sales booming in the second half of the year, and Funko stock continuing to boom into 2021.
Many of us hoped there would be a silver lining to the pandemic, a moment when—as the world seemed to be put on pause—that we could all take a breath, and take stock. That we’d start to collectively realize how complex, fragile and artificial the systems we live under are, and how they don’t always work in our favor, let alone for the environment. That we’d start looking at everything on larger scales—not just geographically, as we saw how easily a single virus could impact the whole world—but also temporally, as we realized how our recent actions could impact the environment for decades and centuries to come.
Sadly, by the end of last year, it felt like that moment would never come. People were not just scared and confused by the pandemic, but also exhausted by the changes and challenges to everyday life it enforced on us. Self-reflection started to look even more jarring and tiring, and instead much of the global population rallied behind the calls from both governments and corporations to get things back to normal. While tens of thousands took to the streets to fight for that normality to be more just, and millions more struggled with the harsh economic realities of the pandemic, tens of millions of others instead turned to consumerism and shopping to give them a sense of reassurance and familiarity. According to reports “indulgence” became the consumer buzzword, as we demanded more treats and trinkets to ease the pain and frustration of being trapped in our homes for months on end. And Funko Pops! were there for at least some of them, with new product lines not tied too directly to the whims of franchise fandoms, like the characters from that Netflix show you just binge watched, or even frontline covid worker heroes.
I stare back at the Mad Max Pop! here on my desk again. I think about how long it will last in the world, and how nobody has made any plans for anything that far in the future. I think about my record collection, and how sometimes I really miss it, and that perhaps if I can sort out my precarious career I’ll get it shipped over. Maybe I’ll take photos of it when it arrives, unboxing videos of me opening the crates after nearly a decade, and post them online. And I think about Max, my first ever Pop!, and probably my last.
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