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.

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