Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mush, So To Speak

Sometimes the problem with cards is not want-to but how-to.

Now Comic Ball -- that was a want-to thing. Comic Ball had more creative talents behind it than a Beyonce album. It assembled the maker of the world’s most collectible trading cards, the world’s largest media conglomerate and the best animator in cartoon history, fed them carloads of cash, and in return got Ishtar. Or for those of you needing a more recent frame of reference, The Last Airbender, Jonah Hex, and The Losers, remade as musical comedy.

It wasn’t that Upper Deck didn’t know how to make good, honest collectible cards. Whoops -- scratch that. It wasn’t that Upper Deck didn’t know how to make collectible cards. It was all about making collectible cards. And color correction. And slipping cases off the loading dock to certain very special dealers.

It was just that for whatever reason -- creative meddling by Warner Brothers, shuffling the project to the new kid, the person at Upper Deck in charge of collectibility being out that day -- Comic Ball was three years in the wilderness with Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck, and nothing to eat but haggis.

Harness Heroes, on the other hand, was 180 degrees removed from Comic Ball. Harness Heroes was created by a printer and someone who knew something about horses, possibly one in the same but most likely not. You can tell that a printer had a hand in it because when you look at the quality of the paper and the printing embellishments it screams “sample book!” Speaking as someone who has spent the last three years trying to convince local printers that trading cards need to be printed on paper at least thick enough to not fit between your front teeth unless you are Lauren Hutton, with Harness Heroes the printer was driving the bus. Or the starting gate, in this case.

And that brings things around to the Iditarod set.

Most of you have likely never heard of an Iditarod set, but take it from me, they’re all over Nome.

The set shows the sled-dog racers who compete in North America’s most grueling sled-dog race, and relax fans of large soulful eyes, each a different color: It shows sled dogs too.

The set is an extremely curious mix of Big League Cards and cards inspired by Big League Cards, which is like being inspired by a ABBA karaoke record, but that criticism aside, the non-Big League Cards parts of the Iditarod set were screwed together admirably. The fronts are on the front and the backs are on the back.

The makers even took a huge step toward ensuring collectibility by having the people pictured on the cards autograph their cards.

Only half of them signed their cards on the back.

I’m sorry, but this is like putting the senator from Louisiana in charge of raking tarballs out of the Gulf, minus the entertainment value inherent in his explanation of how building a four-lane highway from Lafayette to Shreveport helps the oyster beds.

Did the Yankees’ clubhouse boy sign “Best Wishes, Babe Ruth” on the backs of the 8x10 glossies? When you walk into a really old Holiday Inn, the kind with a lounge, and look at the autographed pictures of the Captain and Tennille impersonators on the walls, are they autographed on the back? A pleasant thought for certain, but in general not bloody likely.

I really do like my pictures of Libby Riddles and Joe Redington Sr., the “Father of the Iditarod,” a title which leaves him only 49.85 states behind George Washington. I really like the fact that they’re autographed. But I really would love them if they were autographed on the front.

But I know I’ll be swimming with the oysters before that happens.

Friday, August 13, 2010


Does any guilty pleasure make us guiltier than watching two people smack the nasal discharge out of each other?

That must be the case, because over the last 60 years we’ve come up with allowable ways to indulge our habit while simultaneously painting boxing, the most natural and dramatic form of this pleasure, as brutal and inhumane. First it was pro wrestling, Gorgeous George Edition, and we convinced ourselves this was okay because it was only acting, and besides, Gorgeous George had his own perfume. How serious could that be? You put the sleeper hold on a guy who has his own perfume, it’s because he had it coming.

Then it was cartoons, and we convinced ourselves that was okay because cartoons were ostensibly for kids – but if they were ostensibly for kids, how come Tex Avery’s women all looked like they stepped off of the nose of a B-25?

Then it was football, with Hardy Brown and the snot-knocker and Night Train Lane with the clothesline, and we convinced ourselves that was okay because they were wearing protective gear, and besides, it was a game, like foursquare or tetherball.

Then it was wrestling again, Da Crusher Edition, and you couldn’t convince anyone that Baron von Raschke’s Claw could hurt a chipping sparrow, much less the ever-capable Kenny Jay.

Then it was cartoons again, then hockey, then wrestling again, the Ric Flair Edition this time, and then football again, and now it’s ultimate fighting, which has to be okay because one of its stars is named “Kimbo,” and there’s never been a violent anything where one of the major stars is named Kimbo. No matter that Kimbo will be walking around with a cranium full of guava jelly by age 40, if he’s not drooling his way around town in a power chair; boxing is worse.

More people profess a liking for Ron Santo as a broadcaster than like boxing. If boxing had a Facebook page it would be more friendless than the guy who was just pulled over for marinating a live cat in his trunk.

Furthermore, boxing titles are now like newspaper awards: If you place a sufficient amount of money in this box you can have one. And it isn’t even necessary to spell all the words right.

Boxing has certainly hit itself with a right cross. Gone are the days of the Sweet Science, when Red Smith and Bill Heinz fell over themselves in composing panegyrics to the likes of Beau Jack and Sugar Ray and Jersey Joe. Maybe the sportswriters went overboard in their praise, but just as you can close your eyes and imagine the spectacle they described, Firpo falling through the ropes and Max Baer, his big right hand numbed to the elbow, fighting for his own survival against Joe Louis, you can fast-forward your thoughts and imagine the extent to which television diminished it. It took the smoke, the sweat, the smell, and the spotlights and reduced it to two small, flat images beating on each other in a square. It sold beer and razor blades, but at a huge price.

Well, at least boxing cards had nothing to do with the sport’s downfall. Boxing cards peaked at the turn of the 19th century and have been declining ever since.

Blame it on the audience. Boxers sold the product when the product was tobacco. Chewing gum? Not so much. The kids who had money to spend on a card-gum combo didn’t go to sleep with visions of knocking out Jack Dempsey dancing in their heads. Those were the dreams of the desperate, the street kids, the potato diggers, the kids with cardboard in their soles and chips on their skinny shoulders.

But for the last 130 years seemingly everyone has taken their poke at boxing cards.

Topps has taken several swipes, in the ‘50s and now. Goudey threw a few boxers into its Sport Kings set, and Leaf did boxers in 1948, so the field has not gone unplowed. And naturally, the heady atmosphere of the Handful o’ Landfill days convinced plenty of fledgling cardmakers that a pot of gold rested at the end of a rainbow-colored squared circle.

Never mind that the '90s were to boxing what Kansas in the '30s was to sustainable agriculture. Let’s start with Brown’s Boxing Cards because they sound so … well, friendly. Sort of like Grandma’s Boxing Cards.

Unless the product being sold is pickled, or meant to be enjoyed while listening to sitar music, calling something “so-and-so’s this or that” is not a good indication that this is a ready-for-prime-time player. The only exception to this is Madison’s Lively Stones, which is a gospel band comprised entirely of trombones. I’m not sure what to do with Madison’s Lively Stones.

Or Brown’s Boxing Cards, for that matter. In the great folk-art panorama of boxing issues domestic and imported Brown’s Boxing Cards were the painted plywood cutout of the bending-over grandma, bloomers and all. They were grade-Y cards of grade-Z fighters – what Joe Louis used to call “The Bum-of-the-Month Tour” – so they were better than you had a right to expect, but ultimately not very good at all.

After Brown’s came AW, which invested the money it didn’t spend on Rocket Ismail and the Canadian Football League on boxing cards. All told, AW Boxing was as fine a set as one could make for $14.25 Canadian.

Next up, Kayo. Kayo will be given its full measure later, when we tell the heart-stopping story of the Spring Professional Football League press release, but suffice it to say that Kayo did for boxing cards what Little Sun did for sportswriters: treated them extremely well to no effect. Kayo was the set that took in the mysterious lodger believing him to be the king in mufti, fed him the fatted calf, plied him with the old claret, and put him up in the feather bed, only to find in the morning that he was just a petticoat salesman from Dorset. Kayo cards looked nice, showed a reasonable assortment of fighters, included some Leroy Nieman art cards, sported a clean-but-unspectacular design, and had attractive, fact-filled backs, but had nothing after that first punch. Kayo couldn't answer the question I still can't answer: What’s the proper follow-up to a set full of big-name fighters – another set full of big-name fighters? How many Buster Douglas cards does a body need? For Kayo, the answer was a resounding, "One, I guess” – and then it was off to make skateboard cards. Love the kangaroo, hate the business plan.

Finally there were Ringlords. Ringlords had all the production values and all the big names, and a license from the quasi-official World Boxing Association besides, which even back then was worth more than a Ph. D. from the University Of The Spare Room Above The Drugstore. Even now the names in Ringlords resonate, in part because some of them are still fighting: Evander Holyfield, Julio Cesar Chavez, Hector Camacho, Pernell Whitaker, and the big daddy of them all, Muhammad Ali.

Ringlords threw a ton of money at boxing cards with the restrained logic of a Liberian presidential election. It sold its product as a complete set only – a recipe for disaster even back then – pegged the price at Fleer Flair levels, put an image of what appears to be a sleeping weimeraner on the box cover, and had no idea of what to do for an encore. Rarely was such a high-end set so justified in failing so abjectly.

I have nothing against boxing or boxing cards. I believe that submitting yourself to a left hook in return for the right to deliver an uppercut to the jaw is a valid career move. The boxing cards that came out of the Handful O’ Landfill days are certainly better and more justified than the Harness Heroes set. But the companies that made them didn't appear to be thinking clearly.
Maybe it was the last shot to the guzzle that did it.

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.