Wednesday, October 5, 2011


The trading-card boom didn’t occur in a vacuum, though if it did it would have been easier to suck up the 8.4 million excess cards that flooded the market during its peak. And those were just the Gregg Jeffries cards.

The hangover from those days won’t go away. At least once a week I have this conversation with someone other than myself:

THEM: Are you still doing that trading-card thing?

ME: I have a basement full of cards. But they’re worthless.

THEM: Yeah, but I have cards of Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens.

ME: They’re worthless.

THEM: And a lot of rookie cards.

ME: They’re worthless.

THEM: And football and basketball too.

ME: They’re worthless.

THEM: Are they worth anything?

ME: They’re worthless.

THEM: You want to buy them?

ME: [sound of me gnawing off my own arm]

My friends in the comic-book business went through the same rigmarole with the comic books of that era. Almost all of them have at least one limp sleeve. One guy who was heavily into the business is down to half a lip and a medulla oblongata.

One of the huge advantages comic-book publishers had then that’s a major disadvantage now is that it doesn’t take licenses from leagues and players’ associations to make comic books. All it takes is a reasonably derivative idea, some India ink, a gum eraser, and the right kind of people. And a kiss on the cheek from Todd McFarlane.

As a result, new comic-book titles sprang up more frequently than new card sets throughout the early ‘90s. And for every worthy indie title blown onto a larger stage as a result of the boom (Bone comes to mind), there were 10 puerile concepts that commanded big bucks for no apparent reason than their gravity-defying high-school binder-cover babes were more gravity-defying than Archie for one, and anything Marvel or DC was laying on the table.

As art they were passable; as literature they were laughable; as pop culture they were execrable. Really. I would rather watch the promo campaign for Whitney for 58 hours straight than read a single issue of WildC.A.T.S. They were the literary equivalent of a Kia Rio tricked out to look like a Mitsubishi Evo: fast, flashy, loud, and buzzy, but ultimately poop.

Speculation in these hooters-and-shooters titles ran to insane, Nyjer-Morgan-on-Red-Bull levels, with the bulk of the speculation surrounding a couple of upstart publishers: Valiant and Image.

The Valiant titles included Harbinger, X-O Manowar, Rai, Shadowman, Eternal Warrior and Archer & Armstrong. Sound familiar? No? You haven’t been following the Mothergod story arc? You didn’t cry big weepy tears at the death of Bloodstone? Me neither.

The Image titles – Spawn, The Maxx, Pitt -- were much more coherent, seeing as they mostly featured the same character, a reconstituted Venom that really needs to herk and swallow.

I was tangentially in the comic-book business through most of the maddest days. I was the part-owner of a comic-book distributor that dealt in Valiant and Image, and in those days that was like being the guy with the pipeline to the Crown Royal during prohibition. Cartons of comics would arrive one hour and depart the next. I’ve been around slower-moving hummingbirds.

Seeing as cards were hot and comic books were hot it was only natural that these two hotties would team up in some way, and since the comic-book publishers weren’t big on putting cards in their books, the only option left was to put the books on cards. It was like the star point guard dating the cheerleader, only the cheerleader was actually a him and the point guard liked it that way.

Valiant and Image were two of the hottest licenses in non-sport cards, and you could literally feel the earth move when it was announced that Upper Deck had won the Valiant license, and had started a non-sports-card imprint called Pyramid in honor of the occasion. Maybe Vanessa Hudgens getting it on with Zac Efron had more oomph, but not much.

So imagine the card world’s surprise when the world’s most unscrewable pairing since chocolate and peanut butter produced crickets.

Okay, it produced a trading-card set – a couple of them, actually, from 1992-94. But no one came.

In the words of Jim McLauchlin, who covered comics and occasionally cards for the late and marginally lamented periodical Wizard and its much more lamented brother pub, Collectors' Sportslook, "Upper Deck got the license for Valiant about 12 seconds after Valiant lost all relevance. But Upper Deck had their big guys like Joe Montana and Michael Jordan signed to personal-services contracts, so they were gonna make those guys 'Secret Harbingers' in a chase-card set a la the Harbinger comic. That set never made it to light of day.

“Upper Deck [-slash-Pyramid] had Chaz Fitzhugh heading an entertainment-card division that had no entertainment cards. We guessed that he'd go into work every day, go to his office, close the door, and pray that no one knocked."

That might have been enough, but for comic books and cards in those days, enough was never enough. Fleer/SkyBox followed up the UD/Valiant joint plunge into the holding tank with Marvel vs. Wildstorm cards.

Wildstorm was the comic-book label founded by writer/illustrator Jim Lee. Lee specialized in pencilly guys with cheekbones on their elbows and girls with cushion-ride appendages and weapons the size of the Flatiron Building. As literature and art went, the average Wildstorm title was no Phineas and Ferb. Instead, it was no good.

But as Mae West used to say, goodness had nothing to do with it. Marvel, the Joe Montana of comic-book publishers (i.e., the only comic-book publisher that would do a Skechers Shape-Ups ad if the money was right), was crossing over with Wildstorm at that very minute.

The creative heat generated by the Marvel-Wildstorm pairing first turned on Al Gore to the dangers of global warming, and the cards sucked, too.

Okay, “sucked” is too strong. “Unnecessary” is more apt.

Hey, I can always stand another quality image of Captain America, or Spidey, or Golden Age Wolvie. But I am way beyond totally good on qualityish images of Brass and Backlash and Majestic and Grunge and Wynnona Earp. I don’t need to see them in the base set, I don’t need to see them in the parallel refractor chase, and I don’t need to see them on Clearchrome cards. You could have taken their images wherever they appeared in the set and replaced them with lampposts without changing the set’s impact. The best Wildstorm cards were the commons to the most insignificant Marvel character’s star cards. So what would that make a Wildstorm common? Exactly.

No kicks with the quality of the cards. They were as nice a bunch of comics cards as ever decorated the bottom of a two-for-a-penny bin. But they were as unessential as Brett Favre’s announcement that he was staying retired. All they did was off a few hundred trees, and Clearchrome plants.

It would be nice if Marvel vs. Wildstorm represented the death throes of the comics-cards syndicate, but it was actually just the tip-top layer in the vacuum bag. We haven’t even gotten to Spawn cards yet.

But soon, grasshopper. Soon.