Monday, September 26, 2011

Action Pecked

I absolutely cannot believe that I’ve gone more than a year in Handful O’Landfill without featuring Action Packed. It’s like being locked inside Donovan McNabb’s head and not noticing all the room.

If ever a cardmaker not named Pacific Trading Cards was worthy of a marquee spot in HoL, it’s Action Packed, if for no other reason than its cards take up twice as much space in a landfill because they’re actually two-two-two cards in one. The cards use two pieces of cardboard, one embossed to mimic the outline a featured player (the “Action”) or sometimes surrounding players (the “Packed”), and one affixed to the back to keep the derriere of the embossing process from showing through.

The idea was that the embossing would make the photograph pop – literally. The only way Action Packed could have taken that to the next level would have been if the cards made their own field in the microwave.

However, as I pointed out in the last HoL, any mechanical means of displaying action on a collectible short of a flipbook (and no one collects flipbooks) runs head-on into an immutable fact: the technology doesn’t work.

Sportflics didn’t work. SkyBox basketball (remember the other swoosh?) didn’t work. Upper Deck holograms didn’t work. And Action Packed didn’t work. They didn’t work so much that you would have thought that, like the appliances in the Nissan ad, they ran on gasoline. Or wood. And got their power from steam.

As failed technologies, these products were the trading-card equivalent of mechanical television. Back in the early ‘20s, there were two parallel tracks of television development. One used electrical means to transmit images from one place to another. The other, mechanical television, used a whirling disk and a photoelectric cell to transmit images. It wasn’t quite wooden scaffolding and gnashing gears, but it was a positively 19th-century solution to a 20th-century challenge. And in what should have been a lesson for mechanical-action trading cards to follow, it didn’t work.

What the cathode-ray tube did to mechanical television, the CD, DVD and computer did to the trading card. And no one except the holders of a billion-odd Sportflics, UD holograms and Action Packed cards really minded.

In Action Packed’s case, collectors were saddled with a bunch of thick, clunky cards that didn’t stack, balked at going into nine-pocket sheets, separated easily, and were the card of choice only if you pursued all your collecting activity in caves.

Still, Action Packed took this pre-Phoenician technology and made something of it. It rode a combination of reasonable print runs and the occasional inspired side set (like the All-Madden Team), built a modest market share, and then sold itself to Pinnacle Brands, the original cash-flinging, buy-high trading-card capitalists, at the absolute peak of the baseball-card tsunami.

Pinnacle turned its back on the obvious Sportflics-Action Packed combo, diddled around with the technology for a couple of football-card seasons, kept PR w√ľnderm√§dchen Laurie Goldberg and jettisoned the rest, like so much flotsam over the side of the Titanic.

This is the long way ‘round to this column’s topic, but understanding Action Packed’s place in the trading-card cosmos in the early ‘90s will help put into perspective the actual subject of this column. Or not.

To reprise: In the early ‘90s football cards have been strapped to a Saturn V and 2 million tons of thrust are propelling them into orbit. Action Packed is on board. So in the midst of this explosive growth Action Packed assaults the market with … birds.

Birds? As in Falcons, Ravens and Eagles?

Not exactly.

Cardinals, Blue Jays and Orioles?

Uh, no. Not really.

Thrashers?

Un-unh.

Hawks?

Sorry.

Ducks?

No … well, yes … well, let me explain.

At the absolute apogee of its existence Action Packed made cards of real birds.

In other words, when other cardmakers were going football-basketball-baseball-hockey, Action Packed went football-birds.

Looking back, I wonder what the hell Action Packed was thinking. At the time, I went, “Oooh … birds. On cards.”

Specifically I said this: "If you're a bird-card collector you are absolutely going to drop your binoculars over these Action Packed bird cards. The 84-card (approximately) set lacks the trademark Action Packed embossing but instead features the world-renowned bird art of Roger Tory Peterson. He's the Roger Clemens of bird art, if that's any help, and Action Packed's got him.

"He really does some great work on these cards, too. His technically perfect depictions of birds on the card fronts is matched by slick color backs which describe where the birds breed and winter, what they eat, what their song is like, where they go for a real good frosty mug of root beer, and any other distinguishing characteristics.

"The set is broken down into Bird-Feeder Birds, Owls of America and Birds of the Sea, and to be honest, they're all exceptionally beautiful cards. Action Packed's regular cards should look as nice as these.”

These really are darn fine cards of birds. Maybe Player’s Cigarettes’ Birds and Their Young cards have the edge on Action Packed by virtue of their fine-jewel size and elegance (and a bitchin' album), but Action Packed certainly showed it was capable of creating an extremely attractive card set.

Of birds.

And that’s where this reverie breaks down. Action Packed threw every last bit of faux-action-packed technology it had into these cards and wound up with Owls of America on really thick cardboard. It’s like making the perfect cup of gruel. All the elements may be singing in harmony like the Beach Boys, but it’s still bloody gruel.

There really is no market for Action Packed bird cards these days, and that’s fitting. There shouldn’t be a market for these cards. They don’t frame well, they’re not worth trading, there’s no chance that the Rose-Breasted Grosbeak rookie card will take off or the Lesser Scaup will be elected to the National Bird Hall of Fame, and the chase, such as it is, isn’t worth chasing.

So when you combine an obsolete 19th-century technology with a subject that has zero collector value, what do you get? Steam-powered barbed-wire cards, for one. And the Action Packed Birds set, for two.

If you hand me some cordwood, I’ll see what these barbed-wire babies can do.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Motion Vs. E-Motion: A Debate Not Worth Debating

There ought to be enough material in the stuff that actually made it into production in the Handful O’Landfill era that I shouldn’t have go dumpster-diving through all the products that were deemed to be even more unsalable than Fleer Stars ‘N’ Stripes, butSkyBox E-Motion hit me amidships this morning and I thought it was worth mentioning, though still not worth producing.

I know; SkyBox (Fleer/SkyBox, technically) E-Motion really did exist, and such an existence. E-Motion was the Verve Pipe of sports-card sets, leaping from high-demand hotness to Repack Central faster than Usain Bolt with a singlet full of yellowjackets. It was a mediocre-but-expensive, conceited-and-confused product, as coherent as Ochocinco on Twitter, that wandered from sport to sport and configuration to configuration looking for an audience, and when it didn’t find one it was shunted off to a cable channel where they run marathons of reality shows featuring former heavy-metal singers shooing cockroaches out of doublewides. Hypothetically, I mean. Actually, Fleer/SkyBox just stopped making the thing. It was just as well. I had seen more than I’d ever wanted of Dante Bichette’s lighter side – and let me tell you, that side is pretty damn broad.

As plopped onto the market, E-Motion meant “emotion.” It was jam-packed with players tittering, grimacing, guffawing, and screwing up their faces like Max Patkin on a G-force simulator, accompanied by appropriate (or not) adjectival phrases: “slammin’,” “kiddin’,” “the heat,” “smilin’,” “punishin’,” “flyin’.”

Showing (I feel like saying “showin’,” for some reason) mid-grade Winnipeg Jet Dave Manson not skating really but slowing down and raising his stick in preparation for heading to the bench, and accompanying that with the word “soarin’,” represents a height of surrealism in the trading-card biz – an industry less firmly grounded in reality than Michelle Bachmann’s American History 101. It makes Finnegan’s Wake seem as matter-of-fact as a dishwasher-installation manual.

However, as it was originally planned, E-Motion was going to emphasize the “motion” in E-Motion. It was going to be a motion-card set.

The phrase “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” was never big in the trading-card biz. It was as alien as the word “budget.”

SkyBox conveniently forgot that Sportflics, the motion card that led its market niche, was Pinnacle’s very own pair of concrete Nikes, emblazoned with "Sweatshop" down their sides.

It’s not that Sportflics were execrable. That’s why God made the Star Company Sam Horn set. Kids liked Sportflics and would buy them … if they weren’t the most expensive base-brand product on the market, which they had to be because of the technology involved.

I’m using “technology” loosely here, the way I might if I were talking about advancements in the whoopee cushion. Sportflics used a heavy plastic lens to produce either a 3-D effect (insert index finger in mouth, pop cheek, make circular motion in air with finger) or a fraction of a second of motion (repeat previous action, add monotonal “wow,” toss small amount of confetti in air).

This wasn’t that long ago, but today the idea that a trading card could enthrall the masses by performing either of these parlor tricks is as alien as the notion of people running out of movie theaters because they see a moving image of a train barreling toward them. Technology – real technology – has made these low-fi trading-card technologies obsolete as a barrel stave. They don’t generate the slightest panglet of nostalgia. They’re just sort of dusty and sad.

Regardless, SkyBox believed it had secured the rights to the motion-card technology of all motion-card technologies, a technology that would capture on a card two full seconds of action.

Today we cue the yawns. Back then it would have been news akin to Semisonic getting back together. (Right; because you can’t get enough live versions of “Closing Time.”)

There was one small problem with the SkyBox E-Motion technology: It didn’t work. The one prototype card that received semi-wide circulation – showing, fittingly, Trent Dilfer – featured about a second of blurry, double-visioned game action, or the way Monday Night Football must have looked to Don Meredith.

There was no way even SkyBox, even at the pinnacle (scratch that. “Zenith”? Scratch that. “Summit”? Taken. “Peak”? Nope. Oh, hell; we’ll stick with “pinnacle”) of the shove-it-out-there era, was going to go to market with a motion set that showed two seconds of Teletubbies through a glass, darkly.

Still, SkyBox had a multisport license to produce a set called “E-Motion,” and licenses were gold – or at  least, highly polished hematite. Furthermore, SkyBox had a product on the schedule, with presales and everything, and presales really were gold. With the motion a no-go, so to speak, SkyBox reverted to Plan B, a/k/a The Adjective Plan.

The E-Motion cards you see clogging up the commons bins are the byproducts of that executive decision. You can think all you want, “What would have happened had SkyBox actually made motion cards?”, but it’s an academic question that falls in the forest with no one to hear it. It absolutely, completely does not matter.

Except, maybe, to the guy who had to come up with the adjectives.