Thursday, August 5, 2010

Truly Comic

I am a sick chicken.

Not only do I engage in quasi-intellectual internal dialogues about trading cards, I engage in quasi-intellectual dialogues about trading cards with the people I hang around with, many of whom were in trading cards and are more desperate to forget than a lovesick legionnaire.

This is yet another reason why I have few friends.

I’m usually the one who kick-starts these conversations, my chums being rather hopeful that I keep my big yap shut, and so I started one the other day by asking, “Which property was more screwed up (and over) by trading cards: Disney or Looney Tunes?”

On the cusp of the ‘90s, as we watched trading cards spread from sports to non-sports like some sprawl of cardboard kudzu, we placed bets on which property would be the hottest next. Some bet on Marvel, some had Star Trek, but a surprising number had either Disney or Looney Tunes.

The reasons were obvious: both had compelling graphics – compelling graphics, hell; amazing art -- a huge fan base, and a sizable cadre of kid followers.

You would think that all Mr. Cardmaker would have to do was slap some of that pop-culture-classic art onto cardboard, tart it up with gold foil or serial numbers, create a high-end version for the adult fans, spray it out to mass retail, and then sit back and watch the cash roll in – right?


Let’s not answer that question; instead, let’s look at Looney Tunes.

Now, Warner in all its various incarnations hasn’t had a handle on Looney Tunes since Jack Warner died and Speedy Gonzalez got painted with the Lester Maddox brush. Warner wants Looney Tunes to be mainstream again, but doesn’t realize that what made them mainstream was their unwillingness to be mainstreamed. If the Dubya-Bush really wants Bugs Bunny to be relevant, it should paint him as he really is: as a better-drawn South Park character with a cleaner mouth, bigger ears, a better sense of comedic timing, and a playing field as big as your imagination.

Warner’s ongoing ineptitude was made more ironic by the fact that while WB was airbrushing the Looney Tunes characters into the cartoon equivalent of Cream of Wheat it gave Steven Spielberg the green light for Animaniacs, soon-to-be-classic cartoons that had all the rough-‘n’-rowdy characteristics of the very best Looney Tunes, save for a certain depth in backgrounds that’s gone forever. In the age of the Animaniacs, Looney Tunes characters were like comatose shells being lapped and slapped and given hot-foots by Yakko, Wakko, and Dot.

Still, in the late ‘80s Looney Tunes were the Michelle Pfeiffer of non-sports franchises, and everyone from Lime Rock to Collect-A-Card to Metallic Impressions to SkyBox to Topps wanted a date. After much deliberation, Time Warner gave its baby's hand to ... Upper Deck. The ax murderer.

It did make a limited amount of sense, if you were cashing the checks.

Upper Deck at the time was the world’s hottest sports-card company, bringing new technology to the collecting masses in the same way that Burger King brought the Whopper to the lost tribes of the Amazon. However, its non-sports-card experience was zero. Its skills as a cardmaker were flinging wads of money at large moving objects, manipulating press runs, threatening licensors with personal appearances by Reggie Jackson, and Photoshopping Mike Alstott until the orange of his uniform and the green of the grass were colors seen only in Kool-Aid.

No matter. Upper Deck’s Big Idea for Looney Tunes was to bring Bugs Bunny and the gang into Major League Baseball. In other words, Upper Deck would make baseball cards of cartoon characters.

It gets better. After flinging money at Warner for the rights to the characters, and more money at MLB to use team logos on non-sport cards, Upper Deck flung one more pot of money and landed Chuck Jones, the most famous of the Looney Tunes creators and illustrators.

So to recap, Upper Deck – the world’s hottest card company – had a project on the table which united the National Pastime, America’s favorite cartoon characters, and the planet’s most famous animator.

The mind boggles at the possibilities.

And Upper Deck botched the works.

It’s hard to tell exactly where things fell apart. Certainly the holograms didn’t help.

There was a certain point in the history of the card industry when cardmakers had a fascination with holograms that in the annals of demi-sport weirdness can only be matched by Madonna’s thing for Alex Rodriguez. That’s because these early holograms were simply pieces of shiny paper on which you were told an image of Wayne Gretzky or Ken Griffey Jr. or Bugs Bunny resided.

The images weren’t there, of course, but if you stared at the shiny paper long enough you could convince yourself they were there. It was the sports-collectibles equivalent of seeing the Virgin Mary in a screen door.

Upper Deck’s Looney Tunes line – dubbed “Comic Ball” – rolled out with holograms and a set of promotional cards that had a print run in the squillions. Packs of Upper Deck Comic Ball promo cards were sent home from the hospital with newborns, and dropped from planes to convince the Taliban to quit beating up the Russians.

The cards appeared to have been dashed off by Chuck Jones in between mustache waxes. They were a series of storyboards depicting a Bugs Bunny baseball cartoon that never happened, for a very good reason: It was abysmal. It did to Looney Tunes what Sly Stallone did to Judge Dredd.

There's a reason why there aren't any trading-card sets of storyboards outside of Comic Ball. Storyboards are naturally sketchy and by definition chopped up. They’re a cartoon in shorthand, and as such, represent one frame out of a thousand.
Putting storyboards on trading cards requires that they be chopped up further, then dropped into packs.

It’s to Upper Deck’s credit that it realized a random assortment of chopped-up storyboards dropped into a pack would be as logical as the lyrics in a Shonen Knife song. Upper Deck’s solution was to tell collectors which cards were in a pack. Pack No. 1 had cards one through 10, pack No. 2 had cards 11-20, and so forth.

That solves the problem, all right. It also totally scotches any possibility of selling more than nine packs to any single buyer – because once you have one of these sets, believe me, you don’t want another. And that caused a bit of an issue because Upper Deck back then didn't stop the presses until a million per ran off the line.

Okay, but does it work? Viewed in sequence in nine-pocket sheets, as it should be, the unicellular plot moves along logically. Bugs Bunny throws his eephus ball, Porky Pig does color, Yosemite Sam swings three times at one pitch, and you’re done.

And that's another fly in the holograms, because you truly are done. There's nowhere to go other than to chop up another cartoon, and another, and another, and if the cartoons aren't any good or don't make sense the set is lost.

A good trading card stands on its own merits, except when it shows Mickey Abarbanel. Someone can slip a trading card into a trick-or-treat bag and it can be savored in between bites of Lik-M-Aid. But a Comic Ball card needs other Comic Ball cards put in order to make sense.

That was just way too much to expect of collectors who were used to instant gratification card-by-card, weren't used to non-sport cards and weren't blown away by the production values of Comic Ball.

Undaunted and with bills to pay, Upper Deck soldiered on with Comic Ball. Its Other Big Idea was to intersperse athletes from the Upper Deck stable with Looney Tunes characters. This concept placed Ken Griffey Jr. and Wayne Gretzky in close proximity with Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam, and if it in any way inspired Space Jam then it's really hateworthy.

One can only imagine the hilarity that ensued at the photo session when Kid Griff was told, "Okay, now you have to pretend you're playing catch with Bugs Bunny." And Junior sold it as well as MC Hammer sold Cash For Gold.

The fact that Upper Deck completely blew the pooch with Comic Ball was pointed up in 1995, when Topps did an Animaniacs set. Eight cards and a sticker in each pack, irreverent humor, good fun, less than a buck.

Upper Deck tried too hard with Comic Ball in the same way that BP tried too hard to get oil out of the Gulf of Mexico. You can't even give UD bonus points for trying, because what it was trying to do was idiocy. It reflected the arrogance of the era, and of a company that thought it could do no wrong.

It could, though. It could take the National Pastime, America’s favorite cartoon characters, and the planet’s most famous animator, and turn them into mush.

Not even the Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator could have pulled that off.

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