Friday, September 20, 2013

Extremely Dumb And Incredibly Stupid

As I wrap up my current job and prepare for a new challenge, it's time to clean up some odds and ends I've had laying around my office and environs.

When I was editing coin magazines in Iola – no, wait; let me back up and mention how I wound up editing coin magazines in Iola.

I had been working for an ad agency in Wausau, Wis., that one day decided, Baltimore Colts-style, to move 200 miles south to Milwaukee and not tell me. I came to work one day and there was a sign on the door reading, “Moved to Milwaukee. Sorry.” Moved to Milwaukee? Really? After I created “The Wausau Center Mall Polka”[1] just for them? That’s gratitude.
After the unemployment ran out I was like Alexander the Great, weeping because there were no more worlds to conquer, advertising-wise. I really wanted to work for Krause Publications in Iola, Wis., because KP was local and did magazines about baseball cards. So I pestered the heck out of the HR guy until I got an interview for an editorial-assistant position on World Coin News – not Baseball Cards magazine by any stretch, but the proverbial foot in the door.
During the interview, and sometime before he told me the starting salary was 14[2], the HR guy asked me, “Do you collect coins?”
“Of course,” I said. I didn’t tell him my coin collection consisted of a half-full penny folder and a Band-Aid box full of dinged-up silver dollars, worn-flat Liberty quarters, Canadian beaver-back nickels, and a couple of bus tokens worth a total of $17.50.
That was the clincher. I was officially on the staff of World Coin News, and not too many months later, when the editor received a higher calling, I was named editor of World Coin News.

It was a position of not insignificant prestige in the numismatic community, because it attracted weirdos like Mountain Dew attracts hornets.

My favorite was The Mighty Shane Vickers. I’m guessing that was his full name, like Neil Patrick Harris, because whenever he wrote he never called himself anything other than The Mighty Shane Vickers.
Anyway, The (as I was fond of calling him in those days) once wrote me and demanded that his face be put on a coin emblazoned with the legend “I AM THE MIGHTY SHANE VICKERS,” and the coin shown throughout the national nightly news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, and NBC.
I don’t know what he thought I could do about it, and I don’t remember what terrible calamity he promised if his request was not carried out. It may have been something like, “Grant my wish or I will star in a Wonderful Pistachios ad.”

Naturally, we turned over The Mighty Shane Vickers to the authorities, who later made him Secretary of the Interior under George W. Bush.

The point of this autobiographical rambling is that The Mighty Shane Vickers was the victim of bad timing. If he could have waited another 10 years and learned to hit left-handed he could have had his face on a coin, and he wouldn’t have had to enlist some schlubby $14,000-a-year man to make it happen. Pinnacle would have done it for him. He still wouldn’t have been any closer to Peter Jennings, though.

I haven’t been to the National Sports Collectors Convention in more than 15 years, but I’m guessing that a card company still sponsors the exhibitor badges.
I look at this one and see two things: a stable of great SkyBox brands driven into the ground by the phine pholks at Phleer in Philly, and Tom Goodwin.

I’m not sure what message is being sent by putting Tom Goodwin on my exhibitor’s badge. It either means I’m extremely good at being extremely fast, or that I’m a one-time hot prospect reduced to being a one-dimensional role player most skilled at riding the pine.
I’m going with the first explanation, though the second one is certainly in play.

There’s a genre of cards from the ‘30s that show pulpy art of pulpy subjects. The most famous of these sets, G-Men and Horrors of War, look like grade-school comic-book pictures of Chinese babies having their heads blown off, printed on the inside of a cereal box and cut out with scissors. If Topps put Lamb of God in charge of its non-sport division and hired Shane McGowan to do quality control, this is the outcome you’d expect.
The guess is that Dart Flipcards was striving for that look with its Vietnam War set, but made the mistake of opting for quality and restraint over death-metal bands and toothless drunkards. The white cardstock (not a good thing in this case) shows every detail of the overly sketchy artwork (not a good thing, volume two). The card copy is bilingual but Canadian-polite in both languages (not a good thing/pas une bonne chose). The overall look is distinctive but not good-distinctive. More like homemade-distinctive.
No one wants to open a pack of cards and see a crude rendition of a burning child running naked down a Vietnamese road, unless that’s what the subject matter demands. The Rape of Nanking was a brutal, despicable act that demanded a brutal, borderline-despicable card. Similarly, the crime-doesn't-pay message had to be hammered home in the '30s, because there was a growing body of evidence that crime paid a whole lot better than unemployment.
Dart opted to come down on the side of tact. The result isn't bad; it's merely wrong.

More from the going-away (you wish) files next time.

[1] Truly a fine piece of creative work, if I say so myself. Wausau was making a Great Leap Forward with the construction of a downtown mall, and the city had hired our advertising agency to do the creative. One day my boss walked into our spacious-yet-dingy office above the King’s Knight discotheque in west-central Wausau (or WesCen, as all the cool folks called it) and said, “We need a mall jingle.” I went home and with my guitar and keyboard created a paean to the revolutionary shopping experience that was the Wausau Center Mall, and set it to the tune of “The Laughing Polka.” (Don’t ask me why I knew “The Laughing Polka.” If you spent any time in central Wisconsin in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you knew polkas.) I can remember one of the verses went,  “Oh when I was a little boy so many years ago/I used to love my shopping, and shopping wasn’t slow/But now I have a place to go that’s just like way back when/I shop the Wausau Center Mall, where shopping’s fun again,” and was followed by a chorus of, “Oh ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha” etc. (They didn’t call it “The Laughing Polka” for nothing.) With this piece of sterling songcraft in hand I went back to work, walked into my boss’ office, and said, “I’ve got it – the perfect jingle. It fits the demographic, it works in the slogan, and it’s catchy.” Then I played her the jingle. It probably took them a week after that to get everything packed up and moved to Milwaukee.

[2] Thousand dollars a year, not dollars an hour. That distinction tripped up my buddy Phil LaFranka, who wound up taking a pay cut to come to KP, but I always thought the HR guy was not entirely to blame in Phil’s case. There’s no way Phil could have driven into Iola, Wis., population 925, past the millpond and the JBJ Store and the abandoned pickle factory and say, “Yeah, there’s a place here that’s gonna pay me 14 dollars an hour to strip ads into shoppers.”

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