Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Art of the Sheet

Advertising is becoming more vulgar, in case you hadn't noticed. K mart wasn't even attracting spiders to its stores until it rolled out a video called "Ship My Pants"; now I have it on good authority that spiders flock to K marts, and occasionally even bring their own fly guys. K mart followed up this Citizen Kane of quasi-vulgar, semi-viral disgusting-discount-store videos with another called "Big Gas Savings." So if K mart were writing this blog, the title of this post would just be the tip of the mushy brown iceberg. But since K mart has absolutely nothing to do with this blog aside from providing 85.2 million Topps Collectors' Edition boxed sets as lovely parting gifts, we return you to our regularly scheduled post.

I was checking out a rival blog at the behest of my buddy Sparky. I don’t do this often; I believe it’s a big ocean with more than enough complete ignorance of our existence to go around, and I won’t pick on yours if you won’t pick on mine. Besides, I gave up reading for Lent.

Anyway, this person’s blog basically ridicules the poses and designs found on individual cards. It’s a lot of fun and really well done and good for them, but I occasionally (okay, make that rarely) aspire to more.  I could spend the rest of my natural days, plus a few of the unnatural ones, shooting the fish in the bottom of that barrel. To me the aggregate is much more interesting. Any cardmaker is going to goober out a stool sample when faced with an 4-A shortstop who just was traded from the Astros to the Expos for Don Bosch and a player to be named later, or a product manager whose sister-in-law does this groovy painting thing where she imagines steroid-fueled sluggers as Shetland horses (“My Little Phony,” she calls it). It’s when an entire set or series of sets is redolent of the cattle barn at the Trempealeau County Fair that you have to question the motivation of the … uh, cow-makers.

Speaking of cows and their byproducts, leave us examine the promotional sheet issued by Fleer in 1993 to promote its football set. If you were around the business at all during the Handful O’Landfill era you remember these sheets and scores of others just like them. They were the main way cardmakers built demand for upcoming products. The idea was that the promo sheet would get out in quantities limited enough so that demand built for the promo sheet and its subsequent card set without the sheet being flat-out unobtainable. This was a tightrope much skinnier than the hawser Nik Wallenda strung across the Grand Canyon, and in the end most of the cardmakers wound up plunging into the abyss, with nothing to break their fall.[1]
In 1993 Fleer made two different football products – Ultra and this. In case you couldn’t tell, this was the base product. And while a lot of lips in those days were swearing that the base-level products got as much attention as the high-zoot stuff, a lot of hands were being held behind backs with fingers crossed.
There’s really nothing bad about these cards per se. In 1993, this passed for a pretty nice base set. Back then we were screaming for action shots – shots of football players playing football – that were in focus, and with the most prominent player in the photo being the player featured on the card.[2] We wanted full-color backs with something of interest on the flip side, stats that meant something and copy that wasn’t just conspicuous consumption of black ink. We also were minimalists when it came to graphics but we weren’t fanatics about it, though we were whole-namers and not fans of the last-name-only movement.
(Incidentally, this sheet is a perfect example of why we are not last-name-onlyites. The names of the players on this sheet are Young, Walker, Lohmiller, Greene, Heyward, Jones, Smith, and Byars. Two are Hall of Famers and instantly recognizable – Emmitt Smith and Steve Young. Three are recognizable if you were following football in 1993: Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, Kevin Greene, and Keith Byars. But Jones and Walker? Is that Adam Jones and Antoine Walker? Kenny Jones and Kenny “Sky” Walker? Homer Jones and Herschel Walker? Steve Jones and Scott Walker? Well, no; it’s Ernie Jones and Kenny “Ground” Walker, neither of whom spring immediately to mind when considering the NFL landscape of the early ‘90s. In fact, they are so unresponsive in the springing-immediately-to-mind department that I had to check their pulses, and then see who the heck they were. Ernie Jones caught 38 balls for four TDs in 1992, a performance that put him only 70 short of Sterling Sharpe for the league lead. Kenny “Non-Sky” Walker had 1.5 sacks in 1992, his last season in the league -- though, as his card back takes pains to remind us, he was the second deaf person to play in the NFL.)
So let’s recap the players that Fleer used to build a tidal wave of undeniable, irresistible demand for its namesake product among collectors:
·         Arguably the greatest running back of all time;

·         Arguably the greatest quarterback of all time;

·         A borderline Hall of Fame pass-rushing linebacker/defensive end;

·         A durable journeyman running back;

·         A pass-catching third-down specialist;

·         The fourth-best receiver on a 4-10 team;

·         A kicker; and

·         A defensive end who was pitched as the NFL’s wholly inadequate answer to Jim Abbott but was out of football after two years, 16 starts, and 4.5 sacks.

Well, there was also the centerpiece card reading “Fleer ’93 Football – A Game In Every Pack,” a semi-truthful statement when you consider that almost every NFL game has a couple of superstars, some decent players, some marginal guys, kickers, and someone who will be out of the league shortly.
The promo-card business is a crapshoot, as proven by the previously ridiculed cards of Scott Chiamparino and Kevin Morton. The whole enterprise looks even sillier through a 20-year lens. But even given all that, I would choose the ’93 Fleer football promo sheet over the Fleer Ultra X-Men promo sheet that came out a year later.

Don’t get me wrong: I like comics. I like comic art. I like comic art on trading cards. I like Marvel comics. I like the X-Men. I like comic art of the X-Men on trading cards. I like comic art of the X-Men on trading cards with a side of fries to go with that shake. But I do not like this promo sheet, Sam I Am.
Here’s why: Look at this sheet. Where do your eyes go? If your eyes are like mine, they go into the back of your head and stay there until it’s safe for them to come out again. There’s so much to look at that you don’t look at anything, and everything is a different color. Beast’s blue is different from Angel’s blue which is different from Iceman’s blue which is different from the blue in the center of the card that serves as a background for the product logo in – you guessed it – a different shade of blue. Hulk Green is different from the ectoplasmic green that serves as the background for the X-Men Gold Team cards, which are, yes, green. There’s Magneto red and Bishop red and Archangel purple and Jean Grey pink (which really, really ought to be a contradiction) and two Storms that don’t really look much like one another, since one looks like a possessed Lady Gaga in a silver bodysuit and the other looks like a possessed Beyonce in a silver bodysuit.[3]
I could have cut this sheet into nine pieces and ridiculed each one separately, but had I done that there would have been nothing to ridicule. This box of Cracker Jack would have contained eight nice-looking comic art cards and a prize.
Sometimes we get so engrossed in the search for stupidity that we overlook the excellence. Sometimes the stupidity is in the presentation. And given that I’ve just spent 1,200 words talking about Fleer promo sheets, sometimes the fricking stupidity is right here.

[1] More or less. As my son observed while we watched Wallenda battle the winds and praise the Lord, “He’s got something to break his fall. Rocks.”
[2] Seems obvious I know, but even Jim and Sparky would be amazed at how many times this didn’t happen.
[3] Neither being a stretch, sartorially or cerebrally.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The So-Called Collectible of My So-Called Life

In the late 1800s, when horsecars were giving way to streetcars and horses were yielding to horseless carriages, New York City took to putting horses’ heads on trolleys in an attempt to dupe the horses into thinking these new contraptions were actually horse-related and not the robotic vacuums of another day.
The horses would have none of it, and good for the horses. But it wasn’t exactly unraveling the genome for a horse to determine that a 16-wheeled, wooden-bodied, anticlimbered thing with windows, seats, a uniformed attendant, and a big, clangy bell was not a fellow traveler.
The point for this column is that new technology doth make fools of us all, and because none of us are able to fully discern the extent to which a new technology might break us out of our habit box, we clothe the new stuff in the old stuff to make it less threatening at the same time we dress up the old stuff to make it look more like new technology despite its absence of, you know, new technology.
I had this conversation today with the head of marketing for a small quasi-tech company that plays in the same space as Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, and other howitzers, only with people instead of microchips and algorithms. “We’re doing the same thing that the phone company did 30 years ago,” he said, “and we’re trying to pass it off as groundbreaking.”
It is in that spirit of half-truthiness that we present the 1995 Super Slam this is my life™ series.

The coming of computers and the rise of the internet prompted all sorts of horse-on-the-streetcar moments in the Handful O’Landfill omniverse. Upper Deck and Topps experimented with “virtual cards” that included perhaps a scrap of video and some pseudo-collectibility. Topps created a “stock exchange” for its eTopps cards, and if you find it ludicrous that people would pay real money for a computer image of a nonexistent card that could in theory be sold in its nonexistent computer-image form to someone else at a real-money profit to you, you’re among friends.
The interesting thing about these virtual cards of Midre Cummings was that for the most part they were designed to do exactly what a real card of Midre Cummings would do, which is lay there inert. If you interacted with paper cards by reading their stats, putting them in alphabetical order by team, and checking them off the checklist, you had far more up-close-and-personal contact with them than you could possibly have with one of the online models.[1]
Online cards have largely passed from the firmament, leaving behind only slivers of RAM, but other cards from the low-tech-dressed-up-as-high-tech side of the street were not so lucky. We’ve touched on some of these cards and their pathetic attempts to show demi-realistic action or create the impression of perspective or depth. Sportflics, Upper Deck holograms, Donruss Die-Cuts, SkyBox E-Motion, and the Pro Set Young Indiana Jones 3-D cards all failed to one degree or another. To the extent that any of these products are collectible, it’s not because they created the sensation of reality or movement out of pictures on cardboard; it’s because they were so poorly received in the marketplace that they’re nearly (but not nearly enough) nonexistent.
In that hierarchy, the Super Slam this is my life™ series might be the nearly nonexistentest of the bunch. I have not seen any of these outside of the samples you see here, not that I go looking for them. As the quite late Steve Goodman astutely observed, “Don’t go lookin’ for trouble/Trouble will find you.” And in my world, trouble takes the shape of a die-cut Jack McDowell set on top of a picture of Jack McDowell.
Members of our department had to assemble custom boxes the other day for a promotional mailing, and I was amazed at the ingenuity in design that can turn a flat piece of cardboard into a tight, solid box with a parcel shelf, a goodie well, and a cutout for a USB drive. I do not have the same sort of admiration for the Super Slam this is my life™ series.
I suppose my feeling has to do with the relentless low-tech approach followed in creating these. As mentioned before, the Super Slam this is my life™ series overlays a player photo with the same photo only die-cut, and then encases the Piazza sandwich in a heavy silver checkerboard border. The McDowell "variant" (if you can call it that, since it has just as much claim to being the original deal as the Piazza card) features two heavy black borders surrounding a heavier silver checkerboard border. Regardless of your choice of variant (and as far as variants go, I prefer Hasil Adkins:, these are what Action Packed cards would have looked like if they had been designed by A-Ha and not some grumpy dude from Chicago.
The card back is scarcely larger than a normal card, but is packed to the gunwales with unreadable answers to unreal semi-questions, including “Earned Money As a Kid.” In Piazza’s case, he earned money as a kid driving truck, which if it wasn’t one of those battery-powered John Deere kiddie trucks is plumb full of interesting legal implications.
Is there more? Of course there is. Once you whip out the 10x loupe you learn that among Jack McDowell’s notable ancestors is Eddie Keane, a one-armed minor-league second baseman, and that his favorite song is his own composition called “Reinvent.”[2]
Obviously the Super Slam this is my life™ series did nothing to stop the computer/internet/eBay onslaught. In that regard, it wasn’t someone holding a flower standing in front of a tank in Tienamen Square. It was an ant clutching a grain of pollen perched on a flower held by someone standing in front of a tank in Tienamen Square. It got squished beyond recognition, but the tank? The tank rolled on.

[1] This relationship between hard and vapor copy is virtually identical to most print magazines and their on-pad counterparts. While the on-pad magazine offers the most potential for interaction, most actual interaction takes place between the reader of a print magazine and the printed piece itself. And call me a fuddy-duddy, but I have yet to see the virtual magazine that can be rolled up and used in a pinch to cudgel a trespassing wasp.
[2] This revelation, along with the facts that McDowell’s favorite color is magenta and his favorite place to eat is Chicago’s Taco & Burrito Palace, is tempered by McDowell’s statements that his favorite athlete is Roger Clemens and his favorite show is American Gladiators. A complex one, that Black Jack.