Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Happy Caplan Christmas

Let us pause a moment at this time of year to remember some of the good folks that have passed through the card business, and laugh a little at their cards.

I first encountered Allan Caplan when we started doing consulting work for SkyBox in the mid-‘90s, though my partner Dean had known Allan before, from Dean’s days as the advertising manager for the highly late and constantly lamented Baseball Cards magazine.

Dean warned me about Allan. “He’s something else,” Dean said. “Wait ‘til you meet him.”

I didn’t meet him first; I heard him.

There’s something about the way Allan Caplan greets you over the telephone that’s unique in the way that red-bean-sandwich-flavored Kit Kats are unique. You have to be ready for it, and even if you’re ready for it you may not like it.

“Hi, Kit,” Allan said when he called the first time, drawing out the “I” in “hi” like homemade caramel, and talking in a sort of Mean Streets patois but higher-pitched, so I understood right away why some people called him “Uncle Al, the kiddies’ pal.”

So he said, “Hi, Kit,” and then he said, “this is Allan Caplan.” He always said, “this is Allan Caplan,” stretching the syllables until you could read a newspaper through them, no matter how many times we talked, as if there could be another who talked with that peculiar mix of elasticity, gentleness and Brooklyn.

I don’t remember the question he asked me, but I’m guessing it was unanswerable, because that’s the way Allan’s mind works. He’s a marketing genius; he knows more angles than a geometry textbook, and if he called someone for help in those days it was either because he needed one of us to look up some arcane fact (good business in those pre-Google days) or the question couldn’t be answered.

Plus, I think he liked talking to a couple of Midwestern hicks who laughed pretty easy.

Allan was somewhere in that gray area between trusted-and-valued consultant and employee, and he was in charge of most of the SkyBox’s non-Star Trek non-sports cards. He had a key role in developing the original Marvel Universe cards, and he played a crucial role in the development of movie cards for Disney and others.

That means he takes at least a little culpability for Pagemaster[1] cards (though I don’t know what role he had in picking that lhasa apso of a license), and a whole lot of credit for the non-sport-card business as it shaped up through the ‘90s and into the 2000s.

Allan used SkyBox and all those non-sport sets to figure out The Formula, the exact mix of chase, autographs and other elements that would deliver collectibility and value to the buyer and profits to the seller, and once he had The Formula perfected, Allan took a couple of key people, left SkyBox and started Inkworks.

Inkworks did good work. I have a mess of its sets on a bookshelf behind my guitars, and they’re arguably the best base-level non-sports sets of their times. Inkworks did the best James Bond set, the best Elvis set, the best Simpsons set. They're perfect examples of The Formula in action.

Here’s what I mean. I just pulled my SimpsonsMania set off the shelf. It’s housed in a deluxe binder (extra, from your local Inkworks dealer or direct, via an on-pack offer). The base set consists of white-bordered cards that parody conventional trading cards; for instance, the set’s first card, Comic-Book Guy, has a word balloon with “Worst trading card ever” coming out of his mouth and his favorite aroma (“The smell of Mylar in the morning”) inset in the right-hand corner. There are puzzle cards, Wacky Packages ripoffs (my favorite: “Barnacle Bill’s Home Pregnancy test – just add urine”), a chase featuring comic artists’ reinterpretations of Simpsons characters, a mod day-glo chase, and fold-in inserts, all for less than $2 a pack – with a full set in a box guaranteed.

Given everything else that was on the market then and now, that’s value. Hey, it’s still pictures on cardboard, but it’s pictures on cardboard done right. It’s the difference between Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and generic. You can see and smell and taste the difference.

The other thing I love about Allan Caplan is that when he ran Inkworks he kept Christmas well.

A couple of years ago I cleaned out the Christmas-card bin and blogged about it here. In that piece I showed two Inkworks Christmas cards and talked about how Allan talks, but in the meantime I've found a couple more Inkworks Christmas cards to share.

Everyone signed this holiday card from 2003, including Godzilla. That’s his John Hancock in the lower-left corner. The thing I like about this card is that it doesn’t promote anything – except perhaps Inkworks in a snow-soft sort of way. It’s merely a Christmas trading card from a trading-card company. It’s like a bakery sending a Christmas card made out of bread, or an advertising agency sending a holiday greeting made out of weird.

Even though this card works the commercial side of Christmas Street I like it anyway. After all, few things say Christmas better than a come-back-from-the-dead gumshoe appearing (so to speak) in a wretched movie starring Gabriel Macht.[2]

This card also points up Inkworks’ greatest flaw and its eventual undoing. The company lacked the wherewithal to go after the slam-dunk licenses with the built-in fan base, so it had to bet on the come on licenses that either were dormant and underappreciated (e.g., Bond) or properties that could go big and develop critical mass (like the Buffy The Vampire Slayer spinoff Angel). The Formula also got a little tired after 10 years of constant use.

Let’s not dwell on that now. Let’s join hands with this cardboard card of a cardboard character and gaze up at the holofoil Christmas tree and sing.

Have a grand ol’ Landfill Christmas, everyone.

[1] Talk about a movie that vanished from the planet. They don’t show The Pagemaster anywhere. You can’t even buy it for $5 at Walmart. I can understand why, but they still show Land Before Time XI: Invasion of the Tinysauruses without an ounce of compunction.
[2] A movie so bad that Roger Ebert remarked memorably, “There is not a trace of human emotion in it. To call the characters cardboard is to insult a useful packing material.”

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