Friday, July 15, 2011

Zany and Zanier: The True(ish) Story Of Zany Cards, The Set That Never Was

What if they built a trading-card set and no one came?

Actually, that is not the question of the day, since they have built lots of trading-card sets to which nobody came. I have a drawer-full of such cards, and to prove it I reach into said drawer and extract … the “I Am Quaid!” card from the Pacific Total Recall set.

(Funny; he doesn’t look like either Quaid, On-the-Run Randy or Dennis. He looks like Matt Damon after he got into the bacon. But I digress.)

The question of this day is rather, “What if they didn’t build a card set, and someone came anyway?”And that in a nutshell is the story of Zany Cards.

Zany Cards were simultaneously a reaction to and a pointed comment on two phenomena: the explosion in the non-sports-card market that occurred at the fin-de-siècle stage of the Handful O’Landfill era, and the proliferation of trading-card publications that occurred slightly before.

Just sitting here, with only my bookshelf of periodicals to guide me, I can rattle off more than a dozen names: Sports Collectors Digest, Baseball Cards, Sports Cards, Trading Cards, Non-Sport Report, Collector’s Sportslook, Mary Beth’s Collector Card World, Mary Beth’s Pokémon, Baseball Hobby News, Baseball Card News, The Non-Sport Report, Canadian Card News, Canadian Sportscard Collector, Investor’s Guide To Trading Cards, Beckett Baseball/Basketball/Football/ Hockey/ Pokémon/ Non-Sport … and on and on.

In general I bemoan the death of magazines, but in some of these cases, particularly the cases I edited, I make an exception. I read the things I wrote in those days and feel bad for the trees.

What bound these publications together, besides staples, was that they depended on a price guide for their existence. This was because 80 percent of the people inside the trading-card bubble collected cards because they were sure they could sell what they had for more than they bought it for. When that proved not to be the case, the trading-card bubble collapsed, and there it remains, in the pop-culture equivalent of Haiti.

The problems with price guides were twofold: Card sets were flying in from all directions, and in those pre-eBay days, establishing a market price was difficult, especially for chase cards.

The usual method of establishing a market price was to have a panel of dealers price a list of cards. The price-guide editor would then average the dealers’ prices, knock off 10 percent because the dealers always tacked on 10 percent, knock off another 10 percent because dealers were as much wishful thinkers as anyone, and publish the values in a price guide.

You can feel the time lag pulling your butt to the ground, or maybe it’s just the Coldstone Creamery you had for dinner last night. After compiling the pricing list, sending it out to dealers, getting back their responses, reacquainting them with the real world, putting them into type, putting the type into print, and hustling the print to the newsstand, three months or more could have passed. And someone could have watched Total Recall all the way through in that amount of time.

There were ways around the time lag and the bewildering assortment of releases coming from all over. You could make up prices. And ambitious blokes could copy prices off of someone else’s price guide.

Was it done? Not with every card in every set, but certainly on the extremes, with rare old cards that had a limited market, and worthless new cards that had no market. A Dart Flipcards Vietnam War common was going to be worth three cents regardless of whether you had a pricing panel price it or you cribbed the value out of Tuff Stuff. Conversely, if one dealer in the world has cornered the market on Al Demaree Chicago Cubs cards, pretty much what he says goes, and he’s going to tell you what he told Krause. The price is the price.

On one hand, it’s flattering that a competitor thinks enough of your prices to steal them. On the other, it’s damned annoying to do all the work and have some cheap mag that calls itself authoritative crib off of your exam.

This was the situation confronting Cards Illustrated.

Cards Illustrated was a short-lived (1993-96) non-sports periodical spun off of the Chicago-based comics mag Hero Illustrated, a well-meaning and reasonably entertaining pub but no Methuselah itsownself, having a lifespan similar to CI’s, only shifted ahead a few months.

CI was edited by Krause Publications veteran Don Butler and, according to Butler, “it was a reaction to the whole booming non-sports-card industry. We were trying to be as irreverent as we could while still being informative. Our attitude was like, ‘We can't believe how goofy this whole thing is, either.’"

More than most, CI succeeded. It was plenty irreverent – one issue’s margins were plastered with the one-man malaprops called “Dukisms” – but the information was solid. Butler had spent many of his Krause years editing price-guide publications and knew how to put out accurate, useful pricing information.

When a typo crept into one of Butler’s CI price guides and inflated the price of an obscure issue, that was news. When it reappeared verbatim in the price guide of Tuff Stuff spinoff Collect!, that meant war.

Was Tuff Stuff repossessing CI’s price guide? As a test, the next CI price guide contained an additional set heretofore found in no other price guide: Zany Cards.

Zany Cards were a total fabrication, a figment of the collective imaginations of the Cards Illustrated staff that first appeared as a gag in the March 1995 issue, where Butler and staffers Shawn Reilly and Rob Holly mused over 1994’s non-sport sets.

That entry, wedged between the entries for the legitimate sets "Hooters 1994" from Star International and "Winnebagos" (not the Native Americans or the lake) from TCM, went like this:

Suit Boy Entertainment
Zany Cards
• 49-card factory set featuring black-and-white stills of circus chimps, Billy Barty, dead aliens and other weird photos, all with "funny" captions. A signed-and-numbered edition with a foil-embossed Were-Rat card (3,000 sets) was also produced.
ROB: "Viking Kirk" was the coolest thing since the Enterprise went through the Delta Shield (will go through the Delta Shield? Aaah, forget it). Makes me glad I got a phone. 4 gums.
SHAWN: I cried when the alien died after the long illness, but other than a few chimps in skirts (is that my mother-in-law?), this set is a disaster. 1 gum.
DON: Showing the covers to hard-to-find early issues of Limp 'n’ Squint (the Billy Barty collector magazine) was cool, but the shots of guys pretending they're flying by flapping their arms and pictures of people getting swirlies just doesn't do the trick for me. Must be seen to be believed. 1 gum.

“We decided to sneak in a set that included some of the stupidest, pointless and tasteless ideas we could think of,” Butler says – “and it still didn't come close to some of the other sets released that year.”

“It was a completely logical reaction to our goal of having each of us — Shawn, Rob Holly and I — review and rate all 210-plus entertainment sets that came out in 1994,” Butler continues. “Why not drop in a fake listing of something so ridiculous that even completists would get the joke? Our readers got it.”

The competition didn’t. Within months of Zany Cards appearing in CI’s price guide, they showed up in the Collect! price guide, Limp ‘n’ Squint ‘n’ all.

It was a fitting honor for a set with a pedigree from the tar pits of American popular culture.

“I shared an office with Hero editor Frank Kurtz,” Butler says. “This guy was a true pop-culture junkie, and he did have pictures of chimps on tricycles, monkeys in space suits and dogs with hats in our shared office, so he had expertise in Zany Cards source material. The four of us brainstormed for about 30 seconds to come up with the most illogical card set of all time.”

Kurtz added subtle shadings to the Zany Card premise.

“[Kurtz] had this 1970s video clip of a commercial with a boy eating cereal or something, then beating his chest like a gorilla,” Butler says. “He used screen grabs of this kid in Hero in different spots – you know, like ‘Mike Allred's Madman comic is Ape-Kid approved!’ -- and so we figured Ape-Kid would be a fine addition to Zany Cards.

“Frank had also convinced a couple of comics professionals to help him mock up this Billy Barty fan magazine called Limp 'n' Squint, which was full of these over-the-top, fawning articles on Barty's roles in movies like Sigmund the Sea Monster and Under the Rainbow. It was one of the funniest satire pieces I've ever read, and it was perfect for Zany Cards.”

Butler and his staff even worked out the original 49-card sequence with crazy captions on the front and senseless summaries on the back.

“One card had the Ape-Kid screen grab with the caption ‘Ape-Kid Goes Bananas!!!’ and the back went something like, ‘Children who imitate simians often wear cardigans and sport bowl haircuts. Send three wrappers and $4.44 to the address below to receive more cards and further information,’ or something similar,” he says. “Another card was a photo of a Godzilla Aurora model with its tail glued to the top of its head and the caption, ‘Bill Doesn't Know Which End Is Up!!!’ I think the list got tossed out with all my Menudo, Lois and Clark and Rock 'n' Roll Dead cards.”

Suit Boy Entertainment had an equally deep backstory.

“Suit Boy was Joe Funk, the office manager for Sendai/MVP Media [the publisher of Cards Illustrated],” explains Butler, currently a catalog editor for Eastbay. “He really had no connection to Zany Cards, but it needed a publisher and Joe fit the bill, since he gave the impression of being laconic and insane at the same time.”

Given the fact that Zany Cards could have existed but could easily have been proven to not exist, the question lingers: What did Tuff Stuff-slash-Collect! know, and when did it know it?

Answers are hard to come by.

“It wasn't my fault,” says former staffer and current FHM editor Scott Gramling. “I was working that month on Hooked on Tuff Stuff – I mean, Tuff Stuff Jr.”

And the hectic nature of the card business at the time spilled over into the trading-card publications, according to Collect!’s editor at the time, Larry Canale.

“I arrived at Tuff Stuff Publications in late 1993 and spent my first several months acclimating myself to and editing Tuff Stuff, so my plate was full,” says Canale, now the editor-in-chief of Antiques Roadshow Insider. “I do remember the second or third issue of Collect! kind of coming out of nowhere in mid-1994 and wreaking havoc on our production department. I likely started getting immersed in Collect! sometime in late 1994, and even then, I'm positive I wasn't doing any line-editing in the price-guide department.

"I'm not trying to pass the buck; I would take responsibility if I knew anyone on our staff had knowingly copped a listing without fact-checking," he says. "But honestly, I'm not even sure I had dug into Collect! at that point in time. I barely remember my wedding anniversary and what I had for breakfast this morning, never mind a price-guide controversy from 17 years ago. In fact, I don't even remember Zany Cards being mentioned in our post-mortem issue reviews. So the price-guide editor who stuck it in Collect!'s listings quietly pulled it out.

“At the end of the day, I don't know how many different conclusions you can draw other than the idea that a price-guide editor made the mistake of using Cards Illustrated as one of his sources without fact-checking. That was known to happen in our market from time to time, and it went in all directions. Heck, I remember a mistake here and there in Tuff Stuff's price guide that got picked up by competitors.”

There are two small codas to the Zany Cards story. The first is that Zany Cards were not alone. There was a second Zany Cards issue, albeit by a different (fictitious) publisher.

In the March 1996 issue of Cards Illustrated, right after Krome Productions' Lady Death II set and right before Sannco's Police Cards Series III, appeared the following:

Monkey Wrench Productions
Dumb and Zanier

• The 53-card series, a quasi-sequel to 1994's Zany Cards (apparently the original owners "forgot" to pay the printers and restarted under a different name), included more tasteless cards of obese people in underwear, two-headed cows, tuba bands, 1940s nudist flicks and other goofy photos with "funny" captions. Two levels of chase cards were included: a series of three hand-stamped cards of a woman in a wheelchair hitting a pinata (1:13 packs) and four foil-embossed cards featuring scenes from high-school auto education fatality films (1:3). Five-card packs had a $1.22 SRP.

ROB: The only reason it gets one gum at all is for the card featuring Dr. Shrinker in what's possibly the worst screen grab ever. After high school, I never thought I would see shots of road accidents ever again. I was as wrong as this set. 1 gum.

SHAWN: Euphoniums and trading cards don't mix. Surprises in the pinata — that's entertainment. 1 gum.

DON: Ten times more tasteless than any Mother Productions set. The "Chimps in Space" subset was crazed, as was the four-card "Bob the Blob Wears Bloomers" series. "Michael Dunn vs. Billy Barty Wrestling Match" was nothing more than cut-outs of grainy publicity photos. More covers of Limp 'n' Squint, the Billy Barty collector mag?!? The production quality is the worst. Must be seen to be believed. 1 gum.

FRANK: Not as funny as the previous series, though I enjoyed the historical chimp photos and the chihuahua wearing an oversized sombrero almost beyond my ability to comprehend. All it needed was the Hippo Hurricane Holler and I'd have been in heaven. 4 gums.

Dumb and Zanier lived a much shorter life than Zany Cards.

“I’m not sure if Dumb and Zanier ever appeared in other price guides, because Cards Illustrated folded two issues later,” Butler says.

A shame, because the Zany Cards sets nearly went magazine-viral.

“Zany Cards got a mention in another non-sport price guide – the one run by the husband-and-wife team for the ‘serious collector,’” Reilly says. (That would probably make it Non-Sport Report, since the other husband-and-wife pub, Baseball Hobby News, rarely played in the non-sport sandbox.) “That publication never listed a price. It had Zany Cards with a question mark and asked if anyone seen the cards.

“But, you know, Zany Cards had to be seen to be believed,” continues Reilly, currently the development director for the city of Chilton (Wis.).

“We kicked around the idea of producing a set for each year for our own amusement, but figured it'd be too costly for an in-joke,” Butler says. “Plus it would have verified the fake listing in the other price guides, which would have defeated the purpose. Maybe we'll do an online set of Zany Cards and claim that we found [them] in one of the co-owners' foreclosed house.”

Though no one ever saw them, they still believed. Zany Cards had some pretty strong juju.

And a Magic Motion Limp ‘n’ Squint chase set would have totally rocked the house.