Death By Vinyl
The Fall Of Geek Retail Under A Tidal Wave Of Tat
The following is a formalised rant by Rock Lobster, and it in no way reflects the opinion of ShemWorld; especially not Mike as he is apparently quite the fan.
You may have noticed something sinister going on down at your local comic shop. A dark entity lingers, waiting to suck the very life essence from the franchises you most cherish, before dressing itself in their skin. All the while spreading inexorably outward, consuming all it touches, bounded only by the confines of the store, until that too eventually dies, wasted away to naught by the cancer nurtured within.
I am of course talking about Funko Pop, the geek-chic vinyl nuisance that has seemingly become the stock-in-trade of every retail outlet to ever take even a passing glance at the comic book and collectables market.
Now don’t get me wrong I don’t have an issue with vinyl figurines, I even own a few myself. However, I do take issue with this never-ending tide of homogeneous tat that seems calculated to destroy all retail space it enters. Funko are by no means the only offenders (more on that later) but they are by far the worst.
The most obvious tell of their nefarious intent, and the thing that first highlights their potential as a destroyer of stores is the packaging.
A Funko Pop retail package consists of a glossy card box, about six inches tall, four and a half inches wide and three and a half inches deep, (or about 150x110x85mm in new money.) On this is printed the “Pop” branding along with an assortment of other logos and emblems pertaining to whoever’s IP is currently being milked. Not forgetting, of course, the all-important Funko Pop number blazoned in large, heavy type in the top right corner. Also on the front is a stylised, “flattened” depiction of the figure contained within. This has of course been cut in half; the content of the box being largely irrelevant.
Occupying a portion of the front and part of one side is a clear acetate window. This window, rather small and hemmed as it is on all sides by a large swathe of card, demands not only that these boxes be displayed width-ways, face forward on the shelves, but that they be bathed in copious amounts of light; preferably from the front rather than the above, despite convention suggesting otherwise. This is all necessary to illuminate the malformed vinyl fetus within; just in case the number, name and half-arsed sketch hasn’t sold you on it already.
Now I’m just talking from personal experience here, but your average comic book store, despite being a temple to the graphic arts, is a rather poorly lit and generally dingy little rabbit warren of a place. This lends a very nice atmosphere to the hunt for buried treasures, or as somewhere to take a breather from the daily hustle and bustle. However, it is far from ideal for displaying badly designed retail packaging.
“Now Mr Lobster” I hear you say, for purely rhetorical purposes “why all this moaning about poor packaging? Is it that your eyes are failing you in your old age?”
Well firstly, yes; fuck you.
Secondly… this brings us neatly to my next bone of contention.
Funko Pops are pretty damn homogeneous; well beyond the point of laziness. This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen the prodigious rate at which Pop’s are churned out. A cursory glance across the range will lead you inexorably to the conclusion that there is some “master armature” from which artists are encouraged to deviate as little as possible, lest someone accuse them of creativity. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if more than a few of these are literally cast from the same mould; making them as we say in video game parlance, re-colours. And so, it is that a Pop’s number is by far the most distinguishing feature.
About numbers; we come to what is from the retailer’s standpoint, the greatest pitfall: There are literally thousands of the things. And he (for it is seldom she; the BBC informed me that female comic store owners are so rare a beast as to be worthy of the news) is expected to cater to all tastes. Marvel for the Marvel fans, DC for the DC crowd, anime for the weebs, and an assortment of classic horror, comedy, cartoon and post-ironic action movie stars for everyone else. Of course, he must also keep up to date with the latest Pop’s, lest his regulars become disenfranchised and elect to spend their allowance elsewhere.
At time of writing, one website lists 41 scheduled for release in July, and it is already August.
This is the nightmare reality of Funko. Whole racks of shelving devoted to displaying the hundreds upon hundreds of SKU’s, an inventory management system given over entirely to the ingress and egress of mass produced vinyl abominations, and an ever-greater fraction of cash flow diverted to maintaining stocks.
Once a store enters the Pop spiral it’s lost in a never-ending game of throwing good money after sunk costs. Watching from the counter as the boxes creep furtherer and furtherer from the corner they were allotted, displacing all in their wake. All the while your dreams of retail independence slowly succumb to the reality that you are now a sales rep; warehousing faceless toys for a faceless corporation.
POP! You’ve gone bankrupt!
You start a fire sale on your huge stocks of Pop’s, and like viral spores they spread into the hands of young consumers. Those who ordinarily would never dream of spending £15 on a batman doll, are now looking at that number on the front and wondering how many more are out there, and how pleasant they would look lined up neatly on a shelf?
It is ultimately this “gamification”, the retail therapy skinner-box, and the subsequent need to incessantly push the happy button, that has led to the demand for these toys. They are the uncountable infinity of collecting. “Gotta catch ’em all”; except they are released faster than your disposable income can service your desire to own them. Like someone setting out to watch everything on YouTube, it’s unattainable – but by no means unattemptable. The barriers to entry are oh-so-low, and that warm fuzzy feeling of standing your latest acquisition in regiment with his friends in your display is simply delightful.
As I alluded to earlier, Funko Pop are the worst offenders, but they are by no means the only culprits. With the UK’s only major video game retailer; the aptly named GAME, either unwilling or unable to compete in the market that it should have had monopolised, the modal video game retail space is ‘actually’ half a short aisle within a large Tesco, buried between the bed linen and the Blu-Rays.
This half-space will again need to cater to all comers, Sony, Xbox and Nintendo et al sit cheek to jowl, jostling each other for space as fortunes rise and fall. But there is yet still something else. Skylanders, Amiibo and Disney Infinity clamour for the attention of young gamers. These little quanta of pocket money DLC all have their charges well trained. The little drip-drip-drip; “got to get the next one”, “ooo they’re doing version 3 now”, “software has always been a service; never something you own.”
Parents know to relent early; it’s a toy, it’s a game, it’s only a few quid. The impending hissy-fit really isn’t worth ruining your Saturday over.
This of course puts the squeeze on everything else; Those half isles become thirds, the Big N assortment becomes a Top 10, then a Top 5 before finally being ejected entirely, in favour of the other consoles, and of course, a few more Skylanders.
There has been a long-standing gripe within the gaming industry, from developers and publishers alike; particularly when it comes to used games sales. It’s along the lines of “your game has got 2, maybe 3 weeks on the shelf. After this, if you haven’t made your money, you’re fucked.” I imagine there’s a similar paradigm within comics retail; you only get so long until you’re relegated to the limbo of alphabetised boxes. Making way for more Marvel, and becoming discoverable only by those dedicated enough to leaf through hundreds of other tombs. Either way something must give. We risk losing one of the few places we can wear our fandoms, tastes and passion for art of all flavours with pride, and delve deep into the archives in the hope of finding the rarest of treasures amongst the dusty, dimly lit shelves.
[Rock feels quite strongly about Pops – Ed.]