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.

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