Sunday, January 9, 2011

Peanuts To You -- And You And You And You And You And You

Many months ago, when this column was a mere wee stripling of a refuse-disposal site that only dreamed of become a sprawling, stinking landfill, I asked which trading-card license was more screwed up by its licensee: Looney Tunes or Disney.

I now realize the fallacy of that comparison, in that there were so many other licenses that were Dunkirk – and not merely Dunkirk, but Dunkirk at the Bay of Pigs – compared to those two.

There was Star Wars, reduced by Topps to the level of Shaun Cassidy and Welcome Back, Kotter. There were the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, jacked up to levels of chase and expense by Upper Deck so that the only people who could afford them were the Expense-Account Kids Of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills. There was Marilyn Monroe, which was sold out to someone who knew how to make good-looking cards but whose idea of how to distribute them was – uh, can we get back to you on that? There were rock 'n' roll cards, which will be covered in more detail in a later column, but suffice it to say that at their core they make as much sense as a Stadium Club Anarchists set; Dr. Suess and The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes and Tom and Jerry, which were never made on any scale but should have been; and Dinotopia and Pagemaster and Campbell's Soup and Angel and Berestain Bears and stop me somebody, which never should have been made but were.

Honestly. Never a day went by at good ol' Professional Hobby Consultants when the phone didn't ring with some breathless printer on the other end over the moon at the news that they had just received a license to make UPS or Australian Box Lacrosse or Cop Rock cards and asking us what the hell they should do with it.

"Ask for your guarantee back," we would tell them, which is one of the reasons why I drive a 16-year-old Volvo.

And then we have Peanuts.

Making a good non-sports set is not like building a jet-powered skateboard with a bread knife and a block of wood. There's a formula that you follow, like making Rice Krispies treats, and if the ingredients are of sufficient quality you get a decent 150-card set out the other end. Kids like it, collectors like it, everyone makes a little ching, and you move on to Image vs. Valiant, where everything blows up like the ammo dump in The Fighting Seabees and you get to go back to printing the cute ducky-patterned tapes for Huggies.

The formula doesn't hold your feet to the fire too often, but one thing it absolutely insists on is that you never sell the cards as a complete set.

Think about it: If your whole business model is based on repeat purchases, why would you sell your entire product in one chunk – no matter what you charge for it? It would be like buying a Honda and getting not only this Honda but the next three, all for not much more than the price of one.

Hand-in-hand with that, like The Black-Eyed Peas and sampling software, is the Schwarzenegger-like recommendation that you put something in the product occasionally to keep people coming back to buy more. They're usually called "chase cards," though we used to call them "pretend-valuable cards."

If you don't sell your entire set in one chunk and your pretend-valuable cards are oooey enough, you might even be able to sell Image vs. Valiant. But don't bet the pressure-sensitive labeling machine on it.

Needless to say, the Peanuts set ignored both these venerable pearls of life-enhancing wisdom. And the product stunk.

It would have stunk more if someone had actually seen it. In terms of reaching an audience, the Peanuts set got out less than Howard Hughes in his Las Vegas years.

The 33-card Peanuts "Preview Collection" could have been assembled by anyone with a pair of scissors and a set of Crayolas. Consider the card selection: Picture of Charles Schulz, "first beagle on the moon" panel, Linus in the pumpkin patch, Boy Named Charlie Brown poster, scene from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, Snoopy on doghouse, Lucy holding football, Charlie Brown tied to tree by kite, Linus sucking thumb.

The entire set – it hurts too much to call it a set, so instead we'll just call it "the entire box of cards" – is like that. It's a Cliff's Notes version of a trading-card set shorn of continuity or meaning or any possible reason to buy the product.

You look at this set and wonder: This was Peanuts? This was the most popular and influential comic strip in history – bigger than Dick Tracy, Pogo, L'il Abner, and Little Orphan Annie combined? This sired the most-watched TV special in history, a No. 1 pop single, two balloons in the Macy's parade, a long-running Broadway musical, a dozen best-selling books, several movies, a blimp?

It's not possible. It has less oomph than The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

At this point, after viewing the laundry list of sins this product commits against trading-card orthodoxy, you ask, as any reasonable reader of a column titled "Handful O'Landfill" ought: Who is responsible for this mockery?

Uh, that would be Tuff Stuff Productions. The then-publishers of one of trading-card collecting's most popular periodicals. An organization founded and staffed by trading-card experts.

Let me say right here that I'm sure Tuff Stuff Productions did not think up the Peanuts Preview Collection itsownself. It undoubtedly had help from the Schulz estate and United Features Syndicate, the same sort of help Bugs Bunny provided Yosemite Sam when he was in a dark room full of dynamite and asked for a match. Licensors can be helpful like that.

But some of the blame also falls on the Stuffers for not walking away or at least threatening very strongly to walk away from a promising license when the desired end product is a box of cards.

Despite all of this -- and there is a whole lot of this to not spite, starting with its relentless trivialization of one of the most important culture-transforming phenomena ever crammed into four panels on the funny pages --  the Peanuts Preview Collection does not represent the ultimate manifestation of the screwed-up license. Not as long as Valiant Comics are in the world.

Rest easy, Snoopy. X-O Manowar is on the case.

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