The rise of Funko Pops as a pop culture phenomenon is a story rooted in desire.
That human characteristic manifests itself in so many different ways, but for toy collectors, the desire to escape from the present and relive the far simpler past is the backbone of their hobby. Ask them why they collect toys even in their adult lives and you’ll get different versions of the same answer: “It reminds me of my childhood.”
That nostalgic tug is a big reason Funko Pops are so popular these days. Unlike most toy lines that have a specific demographic of customers, Pops’ ability to cut across all these demographics is one of its biggest selling points. Age, gender, class—none of those matter, because the single greatest appeal of Pops is its ability to tap into the desires of everyone.
Like every watershed toy line that has come before it, Funko traces its roots back to far humbler times. The company itself was founded in 1998 by Mike Becker, who, at that time, was only interested in creating a bobblehead of Big Boy, the iconic mascot of the American food chain.
Eventually, his line of figures—Wacky Wobblers—grew to include some notable cartoon characters, including Popeye, Betty Boop, and Casper. Funko had some success in its formative years, but it never managed to break out of that proverbial glass ceiling the way Becker hoped it would.
After some years of tepid success, a burned out Becker sold the company to Brian Mariotti, who to this day remains the driving force behind the the company’s incredible growth.
It would be far simpler and easier to believe that Funko began etching its name in the toy and collectible industry the moment Mariotti took the helm as the company’s proverbial top dog. But, like Becker before him, success didn’t happen overnight.
As the story goes, Funko used the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con to debut a new vinyl version of stylized plush products once known Wacky Wobblers. They came in plastic clamshell casings and featured a glow-in-the-dark Green Lantern, Batgirl in a black costume, and two versions of Batman in a blue costume, one of which had a metallic finish.
Funko called them Funko Force 2.0, and while the initial response for these four vinyl figures left a lot to be desired, nobody knew at the time that these same figures would effectively become the pillars from which today’s Funko empire would be built on.
Playing with the big boys
Sean Madrazo and Basti Golez, owners of two of the biggest Funko Pop retail stores in the Philippines, are two people who are acutely aware of how the Pop scene in the country has evolved over the years.
Madrazo, who owns Big Boys Toy Store, didn’t exactly know what he had when he first started selling Pops. All he wanted was an item that could attract customers. “Retailers, especially those in the toy and collectible business, always have to work with an element of risk,” Madrazo says. “It’s a hit-or-miss business. There’s no telling if a specific toy would turn into the next Beyblade and become a huge hit or fizzle out like Capital Critters.”
For his part, Golez’s objective in bringing in Pops was to attract more customers. “I was looking for a product that would appeal to everyone. Funko, particularly Pops, had products like Big Bang Theory, Pop! Rocks, and other Star Wars lines. I thought the variety there could attract the general public.”
Both eventually took a chance on Pops because the line had potential. If for nothing else, seeing vinyl figures of Batman, My Little Pony, and Breaking Bad's Walter White in his white skivvies sitting side-by-side in their shelves was more than enough to drive people into their stores.
Funko Funatics Philippines, one of the biggest toy and collectible communities in the country today, began under similar circumstances. There was no hype behind it. What it did have was a small group of dedicated collectors who found tremendous appeal in Pops. One of these collectors is Nikko Lim, the founder of FFP, who, like Madrazo and Golez of toy shop Kramer, witnessed first-hand the dramatic rise of Funko Pops in the country.
“Before Funko took off in popularity here in the Philippines, only a few stores here sold them,” he recalls. “If any of us needed any of the exclusive items Funko was offering in SDCC, we either had to order them online, or ask people in the States to get them for us.”
Slowly though, collectors grew in number, in part driven by the introduction of Pops in stores like Big Boys, Kramer, Toy Kingdom, Maxi Collector, and Hobbiestock. As more and more characters came into the market, the diversity of collectors grew with it, most of whom joined FFP and Philippine Funko Pop Collectors, another local community of OG origins.
In a lot of ways, the relationship between the growing number of Pop collectors and the retail stores that offered them became the driving force that ignited the Pop craze in the country.
“As the community grew, more retail stores started offering Funko Pops in their stores,” Lim explains.
It certainly helped that Funko itself started growing its own catalog of lines. Star Wars and Disney became major lines that offered characters like Yoda, Darth Vader, Winnie the Pooh, and Mickey Mouse.
Funko also started producing Marvel and DC characters. Characters from '80s cartoon franchises like Masters of the Universe and Thundercats were also released, as were iconic TV and movie characters like Robocop, V from V for Vendetta, the Pulp Fiction duo of Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, and the whole lot of Game of Thrones.
Just like that, Filipino toy collectors suddenly had nostalgia within reach.
It started with one Pop
Ask any Pop collector worth his or her salt on how they got into collecting and most of them will give you variations of the same answer. One Pop—that’s all it took before the itch started to surface.
DJ and restaurant owner Marlo Naval is considered one of the original Pop collectors in the country and his start at Pops followed a similar trail. “My first line was Series One of Game of Thrones,” he recalls. “I bought Daenerys Targaryen, and I was drawn to them right away.” Soon enough, the Mother of Dragons was joined by the likes of Ned Stark, Tyrion Lannister, and Khal Drogo.
Naval is referred to in the community as a “completist,” or someone who goes to great lengths to complete lines he starts. To this day, he’s one of only a few collectors who has a complete line of Game of Thrones and Star Wars, arguably two of the most difficult lines to complete because of how valuable some characters within those lines have become.
Stockbroker Chris Bautista is also regarded as a prominent figure in the local Pop scene. Like Naval, Bautista is a completist who bought his first Pop figure—Iron Man—from, all of places, a Scandinavian country on the other side of the world. “I was assigned in Norway at the time,” he said. “My friends and I got bored one day, so I went inside Gamestop and saw the Pops.”
Upon returning to the Philippines, Bautista went on a mission to collect every single Pop from the Marvel line. It took him almost a year to collect more than 200 of them, but ultimately, he got to the finish line. His accomplishment even reached the ear of Funko, who promptly recognized Bautista as a “Marvel Collector Corps. Superfan.”
Origin stories like Naval’s and Bautista’s are common in the local Pop community.
Singer and entrepreneur Carmina Topacio didn’t even know about Pops until she chanced upon them while surfing the internet looking for The Walking Dead memorabilia. “I was surprised to see that they had so many different lines,” she says. “I went on the internet one day looking for TWD merchandise and ended up searching for stores that sold Funko Pops in the country.”
Topacio eventually got her hands on her first Pop: Hershel Green. She hasn’t stopped since and has even taken her passion to a whole new level by opening Spotlight Collectibles, an online store that caters to requests from other local collectors who are looking for store-exclusive Pop figures from the US.
The business side of collecting
The rapid ascent in popularity of a specific product opens the door for some kind of business opportunities to take shape. Topacio’s Spotlight Collectibles isn’t the only online space of its kind that offers similar services. There’s Kiko Toys, Bully Boy Collectibles, Toy Bucks, and a spate of other online sellers that have made a good business out of selling hard-to-reach Pop figures.
The business side of collecting is all-too-real in the Pop community, where the monetary value of some characters can go up to thousands of dollars.
Granted, there’s no intrinsic formula that determines which characters become expensive over time, but seasoned collectors will eventually get a feel of value trends. Knowing the business side of collecting has become native to being a part of this community, even if it wasn’t always the case.
“When I started in 2014, even the numbered exclusives—those that traditionally come with stickers that denote their limited quantity—sold for less than Php 1,000,” Nadal recounts. “Now, some of them are worth up to Php 15,000!”
Vaulted Pop—the kind that Funko retires for good (for the most part at least)—are more likely to appreciate in value than new releases. Numbered exclusives are also fast-tracked for value appreciation, thanks in large part to the law of supply and demand.
As more collectors come into the picture, the demand for vaulted pops or numbered exclusives rise. The fact that their supply is capped by the nature of them being vaulted or numbered means that some collectors will pay a premium for them, be it from retail stores or from fellow collectors.
“This is a business now for a lot of collectors,” Golez says. “You can see customers picking out boxes, buying multiples, and hoarding certain characters because some Pops really do appreciate in value.”
All these factors have sparked the local Pop scene, effectively turning it into one of the biggest and most vibrant toy and collectible hobbies in the country. Brick-and-mortar stores like Big Boy’s and Kramer have become go-to places among collectors looking to score the latest releases or get some good deals on recently retired Pops. Other stores like Filbar’s and Hobbiestock have similarly thrived on the back of offering Pops to consumers.
“[Pops] used to be just a regular item for us,” Madrazo says. “Now it accounts for a huge chunk of our sales.”
Golez shares the same sentiment, saying that in his store, Pops are his most popular toy line. “Everyone buys because there really is a Pop for everyone.”
A lot of collectors have even been wisened to the buy-sell-or-trade craft of the community. Funko Fanatic Philippines and Pop ‘Til You Drop, another local Pop community, have separate groups on Facebook—Funko Trading Philippines and PTYD BST, respectively—that are solely dedicated to transactions among collectors.
So-called “meet-ups” have become weekend staples for Pop collectors too, be it to buy a Pop, sell one, or trade in kind. The sight of seeing people holding a blue and orange eco bag with Big Boy’s identifiable sumo wrestler logo has become a popular way to identify a Pop collector. If he or she is lugging one around, chances are the contents inside it are Pops.
Such a scene has become all-too familiar among Pop collectors in the country. It’s a testament to the growth of a community that, according to Lim, shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
“Here in Asia, the Philippines arguably has the biggest and most active Funko community,” he points out. “Funko Funatic Philippines events are even supported by Funko, with exclusive Pop Tees or even Philippine-themed Pops like Aswang, White Lady, and even Manny Pacquiao.”
Starting in Pop collecting is easy. It’s cheap, accessible, and there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with having a complete line. But the real trick is to be smart about it.
“Don’t be impulsive in what you buy,” Topacio says. “Compare prices and make sure you take advantage of the trading groups.”
Established collectors like Franz Adrian Sy, another prominent OG in the local Pop scene, adheres to a few guiding principles. “Stick to the characters and lines you really like and set your financial priorities because the hobby could get expensive when you start going after rare and vaulted characters.”
Sticking to these reminders is a good way for collectors to get their bearings in check when they start diving into the Funko Pop ocean. Arguably the best reminder though comes from Naval, who has been around the local Pop scene longer than most collectors. “It’s one thing to enjoy the hobby of collecting,” he says. “But what really sets this community apart are the relationships that are born from it.”
Communities like FFP, PFPC, and Pop ‘Til You Drop have all embraced the notion that they’ve become more than just a group of collectors who share the same passion. They’ve become families in their own way.
“Helping each other in the community is one of the best things about being a part of it,” Sy says. “It’s all about supporting each other and the camaraderie builds from there.”
Gole adds: I’ve made life-long friends out of a lot of people in the community. It's become more than just about the Pops. It's become more about the friendships that are born from having similar interests. That’s really what’s made this community so much fun to be a part of.”