Funkos Don’t Deserve Your Hatred

In early November, toy company Funko — creator of top heavy dolls and other delights — went public to help pay off its $320 million in debt.  It stumbled a bit at first; stock prices dropped 41% from their initial value of $12 a share, the worst drop for an IPO in 17 years. Some pundits bemoaned that these giant-headed bug-eyed toys had oversaturated the market.

Lately, though, it’s recovered some of its rep. Several investors, like Goldman Sachs and Bank of America, have instead declared Funko to be well positioned in a growth industry. Funko hasn’t gone international yet, after all.

I speculate more on the business side of things, but The Avocado isn’t a business rag. Yet. (Ring ring, mods. How do you feel about a potential subcategory called “Avocado Business Insider”? Eh? Ehhhhhhh?)

In the middle of Everett, WA, is the Funko HQ, one of the few bright spots in an old downtown that doesn’t look like it’s changed since the 1970’s.  It’s surrounded by brown brick buildings, rusted elevated walkways, and cracked asphalt.  The historical building, which once house a Bon Marche department store and a Lutheran college, became Funko HQ just this year.  All the signage look like it’s straight out of the 1950’s.  Especially charming is the chocolate-and-cyan vertical lighted sign with a spinning crown on top.  The metal awning in lined with giant life-sized Funko dolls from Magilla Gorilla to Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok gladiator gear.

Inside is something of a pop culture museum.  In one room, you can see a gargantuan diorama where Godzilla smashes through a subway train.  (Are the people inside the cars screaming to God while he looks in on them?  Perhaps.) Across the hall, the walls are decorated to look like ice.  It’s the ice planet Hoth, and if you step into one of the caverns you can look up and see Funko Luke hanging from the ceiling.  In yet another room, you can sit right next to an Adam West in the passenger side of a Batmobile while statues of Burt Ward and Yvonne Craig flank you to the left and right.  There’s even a little cafe (still to open) where a Funko Willy Wonka presides like a benevolent, sweets dispensing giant and flanked to the left and right by his minions from Five Nights at Freddy’s.

The ever popular Dirty Homeless Girl Funko.

The large indoor playground is ultimately there to make you buy things.  The Adam West display stirs your deepest nostalgia while also advertising the action figures of the same that are on the kiosk right next.  While you’re taking a picture with Dorbz Han Solo, maybe you’d like to take home one of the lovely Porg bobbleheads that all the kids are all about these days?

I won’t like to you: one of the biggest reasons I’m into Funkos is the local angle.  The business has been great for my city.  I do know some folks who work there.  And from what I have picked up from chatting with the local comic shop owners, these figurines with big eyes, tiny noses, and no mouths have done a pretty good job getting people through the door.

Funkos, though, have attracted a lot of hatred.  It’s hard to isolate why, but if I were to hazard a guess it’s their inescapability.  Step into an American bookstore, comic shop, Hot Topic, or nerd paraphernalia store, and you will eventually reach a wall stacked high with these dolls staring back at you from their beady little pupils.  Inescapability breeds resentment, and resentment breeds long blog posts wondering aloud about these terrible monstrosities.

From the piece entitled “Funko POP! Figures Are a Blight Upon Humanity“, Bob Mackey of USGamer gets in this dig about the toys’ ugly aesthetics.  And also that this might be cultural appropriation?

Perhaps the most offensive element of Funko POP!s is how poorly the brand as a whole tries to cop a popular aesthetic. At first glance, POP!s appear to be copying a generic but specifically Japanese “cute” style–because if you’re trying to make a cute thing, why not borrow from the culture that practically made “cute” a science? But, upon closer examination, POP!s don’t capture that Japanese style at all, and instead come off more like something out of those “How to Draw Manga” books written by white people.

House of Geekery takes umbrage with the collectible aspect and compares it to the Beanie Baby fad (that was 20 years ago, let it go, man):

People, some smart people with a history of making good investments, bought them up as they were marketed as ‘collectables’. (sic) Suddenly the bubble burst, interest dried up and nobody would buy them. Some could argue that they’re still rare and worth something for that, but you’d be pressed to find a buyer. At best you’ll end up an online joke like the divorcing couple who had to be supervised by a judge while they sat on the courtroom floor and divided up their Beanie Baby collection.

Finally, Geek Pride just doesn’t get some of Funko’s many offerings:

It seems Funko POP!Vinyl have got their fingers in nearly conceivable franchise from the Marvel Universe to the TMNT and Back to the Future series and everything in between. They have over a thousand licences for merchandising but I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was the introduction of The Golden Girls  toys. Seriously?! Is that something that really needs to be franchised and merched ?!

This is just another example of pop culture eating itself.

I’ll address that last complaint first.  It’s the easiest.

So the guy is upset that apparently we’ve hit a nadir when we’re making Golden Girls collectibles.  How is this a bad thing?  Are collectibles supposed to be limited to, say, people who are really into Batman?  So what does that leave the Golden Girls fans?  Should they be banished to just buying collectible plates?  No they should not, because collectible plates suck.

Lots of people are into a lot of different things.  They don’t have to all be into superhero characters, Star Wars, or Transformers… which were the only times you could reliably find a figurine of anything.

Any collector should know that having a physical object is something like a bond of acceptance.  Just knowing that there’s a Golden Girls figurine out there?  It makes you feel like you’re part of a club.  You —  theoretical fan of Rose, Blanche, Sophia, or Bea Arthur — get a warm fuzzy feeling in your nethers that you’re not the only one out there who enjoyed that show with an obsession that knows no earthly bounds.

Besides, if you’re going to be complaining about Funkos that have been bafflingly franchised or merched, you should check out what I have.  The magic of Funko is that they dabble in geeky passions that, frankly, other geeks find rather beneath them.  Which is why… I’m the proud owner of Elizabeth Keen and Red Reddington from The Blacklist.  I couldn’t help it.  The fact that Funko made figures for an NBC procedural show detested by nerds and aimed at “serious adults” made me smile.

The true Justice League, with Keen and Reddington.

Let’s move on to the aesthetics.  One commenter set his sights on the Harley Quinn Funko.  (Two of which I own.)  The Funko version, he says, features an “interchangeable faceless design” and compared it to a porcelain Harley he owns, which is “an artistically designed figure made in porcelain that captures the personality of the character”.  Fair cop.  There’s something else about that more detail Harley, though.  There’s no way I could ever take it work without attracting odd glances from female coworkers and perhaps a nasty note from HR.

That’s one of the best thing about these dumb little things.  The are all work appropriate.  Walk down the aisle and cubicles and you’ll often see someone displaying their passions in Funko form right at their desks.  A Wall-E here.  A Twilight Sparkle there.  And hey, is that a bobblehead Porg?  (That would be my desk.) By abstracting the figures — that is, similar faces with very simplified features — Funko created something that’s nerdy… but not too nerdy.  Once you start adding detail, it’s at best something that might be too fragile for the rough and tumble corporate life, or at worst induces severe eye-rolling.

Besides, the abstraction works in its favor.  There’s a reason a lot of pop culture vloggers have Funkos looming in full view.  Other than because they got free promotional material from nerd subscription services, that is.  Funkos are so simple that they can be recognized from a distance.  The figure is distilled to the symbolic basics.  Even if someone is standing 30 feet away, the can see the item and think to themselves, “That person’s into the Tenth Doctor.”

Yes, I’m a slave to the Disney marketing machine.

It’s a social device.  Funkos show people your passions without have to worry how to organically bring it up in conversation.  This is why it’s better than Beanie Babies.  What does having a beanbag cow tell anyone?  That … maybe cows are your favorite animal?  Ah, but if you have a tiny statue of Eleven from Stranger Things, that attracts people who’ve also watched the show and now knows that they can talk about superpowered kids and Demogorgons without looking like a weirdo.  We live in a world where pop culture has become more compartmentalized and entertainment has become more niche.  Putting your interests out there, outside of an internet setting, is important.

Besides… I don’t think they’re ugly.  Funkos are beautiful in their simplicity, sometimes surpassing even the busy designs of their original inspirations.  I have a Funko of Drift from Transformers: Age of Extinction.  I have no great love for that movie, nor do I like Drift that much.  (The version that appears in the Transformers: More Than Meets The Eye comic is far more appealing.)  I picked him up from an FYE because, damn, he’s got some great looking samurai armor.  In original form, he’s a confusing cluster of Michael Bay shiny metal parts.  In Funko form… he’s elegant in his simplicity.

And finally, there’s the collectibles aspect.  I’m not one of them.  Oh, sure, they exist.  I’ve been to Comic Con,  I’ve seen the lines for Con exclusive “zombie Barb” or whatever.  But those people exist in every collector niche.  It’s no different than someone trying to score a rare Megatron Generation 2 repaint or a Malibu Stacy with a new hat.  (By the way… I had to check if “New Hat Malibu Stacy” was a Funko.  While Simpsons Funkos exist… this does not.  Ring, ring, Funko HQ!)

Are these guys getting scammed by people selling rare Funkos for $10,000?  I don’t know anyone who’s ever bought one, so I have no idea.  I do know that there’s a limited production run on things, but whatever.  I’m not losing any sleep that I didn’t pick up Sean Penn from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Most of us aren’t buying these things to save up for our kid’s college education.  It never crossed our mind.  We get them because they’re fun to look at and because no matter what your interests are, there’s probably a Funko out there that speaks to us.

Though if you are collecting in hopes of reaping that sweet, sweet cash: be nice to the employees, OK?  There are some folks around here who’d appreciate it.