Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Shiny Spanky CCGs

There's a number of cut points in the Handful O'Landfill era, but few so pronounced as the one between the time when you could print the picture of anyone in an athletic uniform on a slab of cardboard and have it sell, and the time you could print a picture of any vaguely Japanese character on a piece of cardboard, be it sketchy and saucer-eyed and samuraied with acute angles for shoulders or round and pink and Jigglypuffy, connect it tenuously to a game of such labyrinthine complexity that not even the designers could play it properly, and sell it like it was the Apple iBacon. Those were the days when the CCG – collectible card game – was in full flower, driven like Vin Diesel with a Dwayne Johnson chaser by two fantastic properties: Magic: The Gathering for the so-called grownups and Pokémon for the presumed-to-be-kids.

Pokémon in particular had it nailed. It was a CCG based on a cartoon that was based on a CCG that was based on a cartoon that was based on a CCG that was based on a lengthy conversation with a 4-K class. It occupied the sweet spot equidistant from anime and the sword-and-sorcery line of Games for Dorks, it had a bottomless supply of characters that took their inspiration from the pop culture of three or four different cultures, and its creators obviously had access to pharmaceuticals so mind-blowing that you could give yourself a concussion just thinking about them. It was the coolest thing to come out of Japan since the Teisco May Queen.[1]

CCGs like Pokémon had some real advantages over sports cards, especially if you signed the checks that tied to an actual account. Best of all was that most CCGs were constructed from more-or-less intellectual property. You could spend moodles on a Marvel or DC or Tolkien license for your CCG, but why would you want to when you could hire an overactive imagination off the street and create your own saucer-eyed World of Weird?

This obviously did not stop people from spending moodles on Marvel, DC, and MLB CCG licenses, but that was just a manifestation of their unbounded belief in their own infallibility. Marvel Overpower in particular was the Facebook Phone of collectible card games.

However, let the record show that not every CCG built out of intellectual property was Pokémon or even Pokémon Lite, and not every spiky-haired anime hero was a pocket millionaire. For every Pokémon or even a modestly successful property like Yu-Gi-Oh there were scores of properties that were tried and found wanting.

Sailor Moon was a particular favorite. Now before all you animites start doing huffy breaths at me, let me say that I like Sailor Moon. I do not love Sailor Moon, because that would be borderline weird. I like Sailor Moon. I admire Sailor Moon. I edited a long, long story on Sailor Moon for the magazine PoJo’s Pokémon, and I found the story arc fascinating. Sort of like Galsworthy where everyone has a magical power like Shiny Spanky Uterus. [2]

About halfway between Yu-Gi-Oh and Sailor Moon was a property called Cardcaptors. Cardcaptors had all the pieces of a successful Japanese crossover hit: There were plenty of episodes of an animated series in the can, there was a trading-card series and a CCG – heck, the whole premise of the series was built around cards – there were plush toys and keychains and board games and a modest hillock of licensed properties, plus tie-ins with AOL and Kids' WB, and a website, and this cool rating chart that showed that Cardcaptors trailed only Pokémon (though by almost a two-to-one margin, admittedly) in the ratings of kids' anime series.[3]

Given all that, what could possibly go wrong?

Upper Deck got the card license, for one thing.

For all its success in sports cards Upper Deck had the Touch of Lead when it came to non-sport. Its modus operandi was to throw obscene amounts of money at properties just to keep someone else from getting them, sit with its head in its collective hands and wail, “What are we going to do with this?”, and then take the first harebrained idea that came along. It was like the writers’ room for Your Show of Shows, where Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Mel Tolkin, and Carl Reiner fought for gags – only after hours, when all the writers were gone and just the janitors were left.

For instance, Upper Deck got the license for the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, then the top-rated TV show and dead-solid No. 1 licensed property for card-buying, weapon-toting, helmet-wearing pre-adolescent boys, and devised a super-high-end set that only the kids of Texas Rangers could afford – and we’re talking position players here. None of these situational lefties.

Upper Deck got the Looney Tunes license, hired Chuck Jones, merged it with Major League Baseball and the Upper Deck stable of superstar endorsers, and came up with a set of storyboards for grade-Q cartoons and a series of awkward situations involving Ken Griffey Jr. and a duck.

Upper Deck got the license for Valiant Comics, at that time the most collectible comics marque in the business, and produced a stinking dungheap. It definitely captured the Valiant oeuvre but didn’t sell a lick.

Upper Deck formed a non-sport division, called it Pyramid, and employed a director who – thanks to former Cards Illustrated editor Don Butler for the deathless image – kept his office door closed constantly for fear that someone might ask him to produce a card set.

So let’s review: Upper Deck, a successful sport-card company with the non-sport track record of Rich Kotite and a non-sport product manager whose best position was hiding under his desk, secured the license for a Japanese collectible card game that came with its own popular animated series, ready-made licensed products, and a storyline that involved collecting and playing with cards – trading cards. How could Upper Deck possibly screw up this one?

Here’s how: Cardcaptors involved epic battles just like Yu-Gi-Oh, with cards just like Yu-Gi-Oh, and a TV series just like Yu-Gi-Oh and licensed products just like Yu-Gi-Oh, but its lead character was a girl.

Oops! Just heard a pin drop.

The chief Cardcaptor was named Sakura, and she and her friend Li worked with Kero, keeper of the Clow Book[4], to defend the cards and … and something. Harness their magic, I guess. Most anime series involve someone trying to harness someone else’s magic. There must be an awful lot of magic running around Japan unharnessed, and that’s got to be a big problem in such a small country.

Anyway. The Cardcaptors material also mistakenly plays up the fashion angle. “Fashion-savvy Sakura sets the trends!” it proclaims, and adds, “With a different battle costume in every episode of Cardcaptors, Sakura’s sense of style is unmatched.” That was probably a mistake, seeing as the costumes look like something the Statue of Liberty would wear if she went to a lot of coming-out parties dressed as a fairy ballerina.

In Japan, poor cute little backwards podcar-driving Japan, the idea of women – girls – as action heroes is well-accepted. They aren’t sidekicks and don’t need sidekicks, save for the occasional magical cat. America, big burly manly truck-driving God Bless America, isn’t ready for girls starring as Ash Ketchum or Ben 10. That sends the wrong message – and besides, not every American girl under the age of 10 has a Barbie yet. Never mind that Cardcaptors as a story concept was more charming, more entertaining, more satisfying on almost every level save the decibel level than Yu-Gi-Oh. Never mind that Upper Deck could have tried something really radical and marketed a collectible card game to girls. Nope. Instead of pushing the envelope Upper Deck threw in the towel. Cardcaptors was done almost before it was born.

We love to talk about the magical times, the times the stars line up and produce something so much greater than the sum of its parts that we’re dumbstruck. The Wizard of Oz. The Great Gatsby (the book, thank you very much, Mr. Luhrmann). The eponymous Warren Zevon album. Key lime pie. But for each one of those there are scores of unruly stars, of seemingly random points of bright light that never quite managed to get things lined up. Cardcaptors is one of those. But you know, if they had gotten everything lined up I wouldn’t be talking about Cardcaptors today. You would.

[1] Here. Or for Jim and Sparky and the rest of you automotive types, this.
[2] As God is my witness, that was the literal translation of one of the StarSailors’ powers. I thought it would get more logical as my wife got older but it didn’t.
[3] The ones it beat, in case you’re wondering: Dragonball Z, Digimon, Sailor Moon, and Gundam Wing. So not exactly the Miami Heat.
[4] The names didn’t help, certainly.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Have a Snot Sip, Rex Menu, Or Stoney's End

It was either write about these cards I found inside my desk or place my head on the aforementioned desk and nap.[1] You decide which was a better use of my time.

The technology is staggering (by 1990s trading-card standards) behind this SkyBox eX card, the more highly evolved version of the E-Motion card we pilloried months ago. The front is a mirror image of the back, yet nothing is reversed. Grant Hill’s jersey reads “PISTONS”  front and back, not “PISTONS” and “SNOTSIP.”[2] Even the writing on the basketball reads appropriately front and back. Near as I can figure, a graphic artist worked hours on each card un-backwardsing everything that went backwards when the image was flipped. It’s like building the Great Pyramid of Cheops with Macs.

It’s a gobsmacking little trick, but so what? Trading cards were the collectible equivalent of the Princess phone when this card came out, and this particular card wasn’t going to halt the slide to the abyss.

In that respect it’s a lot like a car ad. There’s a class of car ads that consists of footage of vehicles navigating ever more absurd settings – up the sides of walls, careening through pinball machines, whipping down the intestinal tract, dodging chunks of City Hall in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, plowing merrily through in the bowels of hell, outacting Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible movies, crossing the Atlantic, appearing suddenly in the middle of the battle of Yorktown – but in the end it’s just a car driving. You could have saved yourself $5 million, given the nice CGI man a day off, filmed a Chevy Malibu cruising down Grand Avenue, and sold just as many cars. Same here. You could have just put a nice Grant Hill picture on a nice piece of cardboard and sold as many Grant Hill cards as this double-positive piece of legerdemain.[3]

Note that I chose not to remove the protective film. That’s because I know what’s underneath.

One of my sons’ elementary-school classmates was named Jamyz, which always struck me as a particularly cruel hip-hop joke. For the record, I feel the same way about Mozaics.

The best way to describe Stoney Case is that he’s Tim Tebow without the athleticism, which begs the question: What was Signature Rookies trying to accomplish by making a trading card of him, paying money to have him sign it, and then attempting to market it as a collectible? There was no market for autographed Stoney Case cards, no pent-up demand for Stoney Case cards that built all through college and was only waiting for his matriculation(ish) from New Mexico to burst to the surface, and furthermore there was no path in professional ball that could have elevated him from emergency-starter status or make him anything other than the kind of quarterback that you tell, “Just hand off the damn ball."[4] The CFL didn’t want him, for Pete’s sake, and in the absence of the Lingerie Football League the only way things could play out was for Case to hold clipboards for four years, get thrown into the breach and found wanting (four TDs and 15 interceptions in 20 games, six starts), take a tour of several training camps and tryouts, and then pick up his career as a high-school football coach or insurance agent. He came and went, and like a Looney Tunes witch leaving bobby pins in her wake, he left behind this autographed card for us to remember him by.
I think I’m going to throw it away now.

Long before Jeremy Lin and Yao Ming there was the Upper Deck Chinese Basketball Alliance set. Call it prescience; I call it throwing crap on the wall to see what sticks.[5]

Unlike previous attempts to foist an outmoded technology on the lucrative Asian sports-collectibles market, the Upper Deck CBA set made no nods or winks to western markets. Well, other than the usual Upper Deck stuff, of course. In Taiwan, your chances of buying this set were slightly less than getting a good plate of pompano en papillote, while your chances of finding these cards at any church-basement show from Perth Amboy to Petaluma were greater than the odds of finding at least one attendee who thought “Old Spice” referred to nutmeg.

Given that, this set’s raison d’être grows fainter with each passing day. Because there is not a shred of English on these cards and no one in my pod reads Mandarin, I have no idea who these players are and what their relative goodness level is, other than to assume if the best you can do as a professional athlete is land on a team with the first name of “Luckipar,” you are probably not a professional athlete that needs to be immortalized on hundreds of thousands of cardboard rectangles. A simple line in a program will suffice, thank you.

That begs another question: Why is this person smiling? He is living in a foreign culture, eating dogs and eyeballs (and sometimes even dog’s eyeballs), he doesn’t understand the language – he can’t even tell you what it says on his shirt, for crying out loud – the beer tastes like soybeans, and he’s about 5,000 miles away from even the absolute worst franchise in the NBA, playing for a team so bad that not even Dexter Cambridge wants to play for them. I’ve got an idea: maybe it’s rictus. 

What’s better than a picture of a smiling basketball player in a jersey he can’t even read? A team-logo card of a team no one’s heard of, written in a language no one can speak, describing the glorious history of a franchise that can’t be very glorious, seeing as it only was in existence from 1993 to 2000, max.[6]
Turns out the team name was wrong on both counts. It wasn’t that lucky and it was way below par.

[1] An activity that requires a mouthguard, apparently. For those of you who don’t know, I work at a dental-insurance company, and because of my position I receive oral-health tips periodically. Today’s tip included a list of sports for which a mouthguard is suggested. The actual list included discus-throwing and skiing; the list we came up with added bocce, synchronized swimming, and falling asleep at your desk. So I should be wearing a mouthguard while typing this, just to be on the safe side.
[2] There’s a thought, huh, McLauchlin and Seals?
[3] Though speaking of post-apocalyptic stuff, isn’t it amazing that Grant Hill is still at it, creating separation from defenders and burying the fallaway 15-footer? He’s hit the same shot on Steph Curry and his dad. I swear, he’s the NBA’s very own post-atomic cockroach.
[4] So naturally he started games for Detroit and Arizona.
[5] Or, alternately, I call it someone at Upper Deck saying, “we should do a CBA set,” and forgetting that there was a Continental Basketball Association already alive and well (or at least, as alive and well as anything with Isaiah Thomas running it can be) in the United States.
[6] The league history (at is semi-fascinating, though. The first player to score a point in CBA history was named “Rex Menu,” which leads one to believe that Marvin Barnes chose his new alias at Denny’s.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Kenny Make Davy Go Boom-Boom

The trading-card business was like preschool. You had people who played by the rules and people who did everything they could to get around the rules.

Here’s what I mean about preschool. My daughter and son went to the same preschool at different times. My daughter was a model citizen. She colored when she was supposed to color with the colors she was supposed to color with, ate her breakfast when she was supposed to eat her breakfast, took her nap when she was supposed to nap, sang when she was supposed to sing, and wore her reindeer antlers and Rudolph nose during the Christmas program, just the way she was asked. In return, she got two cookies and a glass of punch at the end of the program.

My son, on the other hand, would only color what he wanted to color with his two favorite colors – black and dark blue. He didn’t eat what he was supposed to eat when he was supposed to eat it. He hated napping, hated singing more, and refused to wear reindeer antlers or a Rudolph nose at the Christmas program. In return, he got dragged out of Stevens Point Pacelli High School without a glass of punch or even one cookie. (I ate his cookie. It was mighty fine.)

In the trading-card business there were companies that acted a lot like my daughter. They showed the logos the right size in the right position except for the occasional airbrush, they included all the players they were supposed to include and did not try to slip a Kevin Maas card into every set they made, they made reasonable(ish) quantities of their products, they didn’t cut backdoor deals with certain distributors, they paid their bills on time, and in return got a glass of punch and two cookies – one from the league and one from the players’ association.

Then there were the companies that took their behavioral cues from a four-year-old snot. They didn’t give a hoot about logo and licensing restrictions, they had no compunction about shoehorning a hockey player into a basketball set and a football draft pick into an all-time-great-bowlers set, they made limited editions of 4 million and slipped cases out a back door the size of the Colossus of Rhodes, they paid on whims (and were pretty much whim-proof), and in return they got punched. Or they ought to have been punched.

And – oh, look: Here are some Classic World Class Athletes cards.

Let me get the good things about Classic out of the way. Classic had a vertically integrated business model that John D. Rockefeller would have loved. Classic took trading cards into shopping networks, formerly the bastion of floral polyester dirndls, clad aluminum cookware, and back-acne preparations. Classic added a sense of urgency and value to draft-pick cards.[1]

On the other hand, Classic circumvented every rule and regulation, and made David Stern go boom-boom all over his booster seat, to make cards of professional athletes without securing the approval of the appropriate licensing bodies. It made limited editions with limits in the millions, it cut deals that made the Shark Tank look like the Guppy Bowl, it specialized in nearly authentic autographs, and it had a lucrative make-your-own-promo-card operation that basically ruined the promo-card market.[2]

Given all this, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Classic was headed by perhaps the most annoying person in the hobby.[3] Ken Goldin looked like the love child of Mark Zuckerberg and Beaker from The Muppet Show, and talked like Gilbert Gottfried with a mastoid. He had the habit of calling into the Home Shopping Network when his products were being schlepped, posing as “Ken from New Jersey” and uttering rapturous notes on his cards’ quality and value. He was the biggest shyster in the land of shysters; people dealt with him with one hand holding their nose and the other clutching their pocketbook, but deal with him they did, because he had what they wanted.

What they wanted did not include the 1992 World Class Athletes set, by the way. This is somewhat ironic, because World Class Athletes were about as close as Classic came to making a semi-legitimate set. This was Classic’s attempt to gather the best athletes who weren’t parts of leagues or covered under blanket licensing agreements and put them into a set. Sure, there were some of the usual Classic suspects (Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, and Desmond Howard and Rocket Ismail), but there was also Pete Sampras, bless his curly-topped head, and Bela Karolyi holding (in an appropriate fashion) two tiny gymnasts on his shoulders, and the twin decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson, and Muhammad Ali and Oscar de la Hoya, and Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson, and even professional volleyballer Bob Ctvrtlik , because what’s a set of world-class athletes without at least one vowel-challenged tall guy?
Classic is long gone but Goldin is not, much as you may have rather wished for the opposite outcome. Goldin Auctions recently sold a T206 Honus Wagner card, and is currently caught in the middle of the dispute between Kobe Bryant and his mom over Kobe’s high-school uniforms and other memorabilia from his early days that he said he didn’t want but now doesn’t want sold.

After dealing with Barry Bonds’ mom, I have this advice for Ken from New Jersey: Wear a helmet. And if it comes down to the mom or the mamba, take the mom. And the points.


The essential lie here, of course, is that there is no way this set represents Baseball’s Best anything. The player is acceptable – a Hall of Famer in name, thanks mainly to one great season spent scaling the Walls of Ivy. But the photo is pedestrian, the design is execrable, the backs are poo, and the distribution model renders these cards worthless from the getgo.
Baseball’s Best was made from 1987-88 and sold as a boxed set in McCrory’s stores. Been to a McCrory’s store lately? Know anyone who goes to McCrory’s, or ever went to McCrory’s?

McCrory’s was a rookie-league version of Woolworth’s. Still struggling? Okay, try this: It was a Dollar General with notions. We won’t get into what kind of notions.
There is also no redemption in the knowledge that the set's full name is “Baseball’s Best Sluggers vs. Pitchers,” because the sluggers don’t really face off against the pitchers, and if they did pity the pitchers, especially Joe Dawley.

It’s ridiculously easy to buy a sealed Baseball’s Best set. It’s the baseball-card equivalent of buying a bottle of Thunderbird.[4] In fact, it’s easier to buy a sealed set than an open one. Speculators bought thousands of the sets when they came out and hung onto them, waiting for the inevitable price rise that became all-too-evitable. And it’s hard to move even a thousand sets when demand is sitting at the half-set level.
These speculators are easy to spot. When you visit their homes, look inside their walls. The insulation has a common motif.

Of all the lame attempts to create a collectible during the Handful O’Landfill era, this is the one least able to walk without assistance. I’m ashamed to have even a single card in my pseudo-collection, but the only redemption in this mess is that I once had a full set. And my house is warmer than it used to be.


Last time I mentioned how holograms work better with three-dimensional objects than with objects that are not currently 3-D, like Babe Ruth. Here’s proof.
This 1994 Upper Deck Motorsports Salutes Jeff Gordon card features a really neat Gordon hologram, and you know why it’s so cool? It’s because Upper Deck put Jeff Gordon in a special studio and shot him from all angles, like they were taking an X-ray. And then when they created the hologram they kept the image small, to keep it from getting too diffused and indiscernible.

The result may be the best hologram card ever, but you know what? I still don’t care. It’s an Upper Deck NASCAR card, and when you’ve seen one NASCAR card you’ve pretty much seen them all. No other sport has as much of its sportness taken away in the card-creating process. Noise? Smell? Skill? Spinouts? Slap fights? Nope, nope, nope, nope, and nope. They’ve been replaced by rednecks on headsets and long, loving shots of sponsor logos.

I never thought I’d say these words, but here goes: If only this were a bowling card.


[1] It’s 50-50 as to whether this is an asset or just a fact. Sticking lighted matchheads into your skin hurts. That’s a fact, but it doesn’t make me want to buy matches. Classic had a Huey Richardson card available within a couple weeks of the 1991 NFL draft. That’s a fact, but it didn’t make me want a Huey Richardson card. It made me want to curl up in a corner with a blanket over my head.
[2] Not that it shouldn’t have been ruined, but still.
[3] It would have been a contest, though. A real contest. It would make The Voice look like a bulldog beauty pageant.
[4] As Townes Van Zandt talked/sung in “Talking Thunderbird Blues,” “Among the strangest things I ever heard/ Was when a friend of mine said, ‘Man, let’s get some Thunderbird’/ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He just started to grin/Slobbered on his shirt, his eyes got dim/He said, ‘You got fifty-nine cents?’”