Saturday, October 23, 2010

Gotta Trash 'Em All

I’m not quite sure where trading-card manufacturers got their sense of humor from. Kim Jong Il, maybe.

With the exception of Topps, which had pop-culture coolness hard-wired into its chicle-powered consciousness, card companies’ attempts at humor have gone over as well as Jackie Mason at the Umm Al-Quwain Dairy Bar.

I know why, and I’ve known ever since I first met the guys behind Fleer. In those days Fleer was run by a bunch of characters straight out of Dickens – I mean, straight out of Dickens, right down to the quill pens and knee breeches -- and they were trying to keep up with Wacky Packages. And with what? The hopelessly hopeless Baseball Weird-Ohs. CB Convoy Code. Jet Set Stickers.

Fleer showed same sort of creative comic thinking behind the German killer joke in the classic Monty Python sketch -- which is about what you’d expect from a bunch of Bartleby-the-scrivener types from the land of the scrapple and the cheesesteak.

If Fleer had done this in Veterans Stadium instead an nondescript industrial pile they would have been booed.

The problem with funny trading cards is the problem with Fleer trying to be Topps: ancient gummakers have no idea what’s funny to kids. It’s completely beyond them. It’s like handing an iPhone to Benjamin Franklin and telling him to call his girlfriend in Paris.

And this doesn’t simply apply to gummakers; makers of trading cards from the Handful O’Landfill Era were equally clueless.

Lime Rock’s Mad magazine set, for instance, took the most relentlessly hysterical magazine in history and reduced it to a hopeless mélange of cover art and teensy-weensy Spy Vs. Spy comics. It was like Reader’s Digest condensing The Great Gatsby by cutting three pages out of every four, and printing the remainder in single-spaced four-point type.

And then there was Pokémon. I have great admiration for the makers of Pokémon cards, because they’ve been able to convince kids to collect cards of half-baked pieces of neo-Shinto environmental bric-a-brac (a rock? A lily-of-the-valley? A sparrow?) with powers that rank just above exhaling on the Ability-O-Meter.

In any other milieu these characters would be as collectible as janitors – and yet Pokémon has kept it going for 15 years! Topps can’t get anyone to buy a LeBron James card more than once every couple of years, and Pokémon has kids lining up for yet another Shellder.

Naturally that sort of success raised the cackles (thanks, Duke) of the cardmakers who paid millions of dollars for the right to make Roland Melanson cards only to find that no one wants a Roland Melanson card, not even Rollie the Goalie.

Chief among the raised-cackle crowd was Pacific Trading Cards, whose president, Mike Cramer, by-God vowed to do something about it. And the name of this pre-emptive nuclear strike? Pukey-mon.

There may be a non-sport parody set more mean-spirited, more clumsily executed, more ugly on so many levels than Pukey-mon, but I haven’t seen it. If you took the most evil political attack ad imaginable – “Russ Feingold wants to send American jobs overseas so he can elect Iranian terrorists to the Supreme Court,” along those lines – and had its creators make a Pokémon parody set, it would still lack the putrid tang of Pukey-mon.

Consider this set’s construction: one-toilet, two-toilet, and three-toilet chase levels. Names like Blewchow, Yuhorrid, Upchuckmander, Starpee, Hitmongroin, Crampy, Gastricate, and of course, Yuk. The deathless slogan, “Time to flush ‘em all.” The value statement, "A new low in trading cards." The disclaimer, “These cards are a parody and are not authorized or licensed by the makers of Pokémon. In fact, Pokémon makes us puke.” And, finally, the irresistible sales pitch, “Pukey-mon cards have no purpose, value, or reason to exist; therefore, everyone will want to collect them.”

Talk about biting off the hand that feeds you. At the shoulder.

Regardless of your station or how much skin you have in its game, you have to give Pokémon props. When the rest of the collectible card world was falling apart like a ’99 Hyundai, Pokémon kept interest, kept collectability, and kept making money, and did so largely by selling pictures on cardboard to kids.

Pukey-mon is a cardboard hissy-fit thrown by a cardmaker spurned, seething with jealousy at the thought  of some stupid monster game stealing away his kids from his crown-shaped, die-cut Shyrone Stith pictures.

Eric Clapton got jealous of George Harrison and produced “Layla.” The Beach Boys got jealous of Sgt. Pepper and made Pet Sounds. Beyond that, there aren’t many instances of raging jealousy producing great art – especially when the jealousee is something of a hack to start with. You don’t have to look any further for proof than Pukey-mon.

I’ll be back next time with more examples of not-quite-comic cards extricated from the landfill. And in the meantime, here’s a memo to Mike Cramer: If you’re going to make stuff for kids that they really want, grow up a little yourownself.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pros And Cons, But Mostly Cons

Of all the unfortunate souls who came into the trading-card market with a handful of cash and left with 100,000 cases of pictures on cardboard, the two most unfortunate categories are those who came with the wrong product and those who came into the market long after Fonzie leapt Shamu. Which would make the uppermost-unfortunatest those who came late and wrong.

I have many favorites in this category, many of whom we will meet over the next several weeks. But because I have them in the upper-left corner of my desk, close to my heart but even closer to my John Gordy-as-Potzie card, let’s start with America’s Most Wanted cards.

At first blush, America’s Most Wanted cards sound like a reasonable idea. Take cons from the popular syndie TV show and slap ‘em into packs. The cards spread the word, maybe bring a few perps to justice, and hey! There’s a gold-foil chase besides.

Even in that brief description the essential silliness of this product rears its head. While trading-card history has its share of criminals on cards, O.J. included, most of those cards were luridly colored comic-book panels. When you bought GUM Inc.’s G-Men and Heroes of the Law cards in 1936 you weren’t buying the J. Edgar Hoover rookie and a lenticular mug shot of John Dillinger where you tilt it this way and get a sneer and tilt it that way and get … well, less of a sneer. You were buying an off-register depiction of a running gun battle with blood spurting out to there and women screaming and Chevrolet sedans careening around corners tilted on two wheels – and what kid doesn’t want to open up a pack of trading cards and get one of those? Think what they could have done to Cinderella trading cards, and that’s just one example.

The truth is my limited vocabulary is tested and found wanting when compared to the breathless prose on my lone pack of America’s Most Wanted Trading Cards (Inc.). Leave us start at the top, where the pack reads, “The most wanted fugitive card in America.” The lack of hyphens is not a problem with your computer; rather, that was a play on words, you sillies. Wanted … cards … get it? Leave us not to wonder why the cards are fugitives. Get me a Woodchuck and let’s press on.

Below the large gold eagle and a script “Most” lifted off the back of a ’59 Caddy, there’s the word “Wanted” in all caps in a type face usually seen on packing crates – you know, the kind where they stow dead bodies. Then, at the very bottom of this Wuthering Heights of card packs, we get down to where the rubber meets the road: “1992 Premier Edition. 7 Randomly packaged Fugitive cards. Youth Awareness. Tribute or special cards. 1 Missing Child card. 1 Sweepstake card."

The bountiful feast is almost too much to consider without weeping. Seven random fugitives and a Missing Child? And aware youths? And a sweepstakes? Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he’s giving away $400,000 to some lucky convict-card collector. If that doesn’t truly make these America’s Most Wanted Cards, it’s only because Lime Rock is giving away Justin Bieber in every pack.

And consider this, friends and neighbors: All this richness is just on the outside of the pack. We haven’t even come to the cards themselves.

Here America’s Most Wanted Cards pulls out all the stops, and we mean full and complete stops, officer. These cons get the full Cal Ripken treatment: Full-color card fronts, particularly nicely done on the card of that ruthless desperado, author Michael Werner. (Remember, child: Writing books doesn’t pay. Really it doesn’t.) And for those challenging cases where all the cardmakers have to work with is a black-and-white mug shot, an elegant solution: The photo is lovingly placed atop an impressionistic background of grafittoed walls or Imperial Valley main drags, and encased in silver-ink borders thicker than Rod Blagojevich’s hair. There’s gold foil for the “Top 10 Most Wanted” chase. The Youth Awareness cards? Say no to drugs, sonny, and lay off the Lucky Strikes. And finally, the piece of resistance: facsimile autographs. If you want the John Hancock of America’s top young Assault With A Deadly Weapon-er, it’s waiting for you in your next pack of America’s Most Wanted cards – only knowing these guys, it’s probably forged.

The backs build on the good vibrations of the front. The stats include convictions, outstanding warrants, aliases, and tattoos, and tell the truth: You really wish Topps would borrow this approach for the Cincinnati Bengals team set, don’t you? And on the bottom of the card back, where a mere sports trading card might show what Sam Bowens did in the Three-I League in 1959, America’s Most Wanted cards show the phone numbers of the state police in various states across the country. Talk about a public service: Should you see Osama bin Laden at Sam’s Club in Texarkana, you can simply whip this card out of your pocket, dial the Arkansas State Patrol, and send ObL speeding to justice before you’re out of the bulk-pasta aisle.

Gosh, for all the whole-wheat goodness in this set, collectors ought to be paying America’s Most Wanted Cards Inc. $400,000 for providing such a valuable public service.

Speaking of public service, I can hear the cries of the righteous, begging me to spare America’s Most Wanted Cards because they performed a public service. That they show fugitives from justice and missing children, there’s no question. But they charged you for the right to look at pictures of fugitives from justice and missing children, an activity you could perform for free at your local post office, not to mention exposure to miscreant authors and PSAs on the dangers of drinking amaretto sours on an empty stomach. If public service was a for-profit undertaking I would expect to see Jack Link’s hop on the bandwagon, dump the sasquatch, and in as somber tones as a seller of desiccated beef can muster, advocate its Teriyaki Steak Bites as the only known cure for Jerkytonia. And mean it.

Funny thing, but for the last 18 years the makers of America’s Most Wanted Cards have been underground, incognito. So officer, would you be so kind as to hand me that megaphone? Thank you.

Is this on? There we go. America's Most Wanted Card makers, please turn yourself in. Come home. All is forgiven. The statute of limitations has run out. And besides, I think I have a winning game piece.