Thursday, May 6, 2010

When Topps Cards Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd

This is a story of two journalists – “writers,” I suppose is more appropriate, since who journals any more, and for what? We’re all bloggers now, or solo crowdsourcers – who I’m sure have never met. Their circles are further apart than the front and rear wheels on a Toronado. One is my old friend Tracy Hackler, who now controls crowdsourcing and blogger channeling (with monthly forays into that Edison-cylinder technology known as magazine publishing) for Beckett Publications. The other is Jeremy Clarkson, who writes brilliantly on autos for the Times of London (which, like any good media consumer, I read online, for free).

Tracy tweeted the other day that Topps was back in the football-card business. I had heard this from other sources (all electronic, all for free), but it was good to hear it directly from an expert. It felt so much more comforting, so much more like a bowl of Sugar Jets, which General Mills doesn’t make any more because it doesn’t have to, because a bevy of cereals do what Sugar Jets used to do and do it better, without having to put a free Amazonian dartgun in every box.

I suppose since this is tangentally at least a football-card blog I should say something about Topps being back in the football-card business, and I have this to say: Great. I also hope Kenner brings back the Close ‘n’ Play. Oh – but it would have to bring back the 45, and maybe the 78, and it would have to make kids believe the iPod Touch was never invented.

See, I am the parent of a newly minted 11-year-old boy, and while his stash of cool consumer electronics is limited to a couple of 76-channel walkie-talkies with a 36-mile range (so he can talk to his brother in the tree house 20 yards away) he had a birthday sleepover a couple of weeks ago, and his friends’ stashes are not confined to 76-channel walkie-talkies. They brought over zero football cards, though they all play football; instead, they produced from their duffels a veritable Best Buy of iPod Touches, smartphones, and Nintendo DSis, and I have to say: I want them all. If I were a kid I would want them all. I would want all of them and all of the games that go with them, and I would not care any more about football cards than I would about a stick and a hoop.

(This is not quite the case with Pokémon cards, however. I edited the world’s largest Pokémon magazine during the first wave of the Pokémon invasion, and I have to say I never thought Nintendo would still be churning out Pocket Monsters more than a decade on. I praise Japan for being Japan, an ever-springing fount of wackiness, and I give Nintendo heaping Cool Whip mounds of praise for perpetuating the storyline and working the videos and tying them back into the games and creating new and engaging characters and nailing the promotional tie-ins and designing the games and just everything. As a product built to engage the modern consumer, Pokémon is better than football. There; I said it.)

This brings me back to Jeremy Clarkson. In this week’s review of a jellybean-shaped projectile called the Citroën DS3, Clarkson writes, “Designing a car to look like something else from the pages of history is not sensible. It would have been like designing a CD player to look like a turntable. Why would you do that?”

Well, you do that to lessen the shock of transition, but if your product is cool enough you needn’t bother. The iPod wasn’t designed to look like a Walkman. My old Nokia and an iPhone are chalk and cheese. And I don’t want the Walkman to come back, I don’t want my old Nokia to poke its little Finnish head out of a landfill, I don’t want a Close ‘n’ Play revival, and now that there’s Madden and ESPN and Pro Football Reference at the swipe of a finger over an iPod Touch I don’t really care that Topps is back in the football-card business.

Nothing against Topps. It’s just that football cards don’t work any more.

No matter what you want a football card to do, something else does the job better. As an expensive way of delivering cheap gum, a pack of 5 does it much more efficiently. The gum’s better, too. As an entertaining builder of young imaginations, football cards are better than those execrable kids’ books featuring magic baseball cards but not as good as a handful of pine cones and a rubber band. As a handy way of conveying sports information to kids, the iPod Touch has it all over the football card. You want Chris Pizzotti stats, pictures, video? They’re on the Touch, and it fits in your pocket. As a statement of modern design, even when football cards were at their best they were never much good. An Olds Delta 88 ad will tell you more about the styling oeuvre of the times than a ’61 Fleer, and it fits in a pocket, too. These alternatives may not make the same chattering sound in your bike spokes, but there I always thought a seven of diamonds had it all over a Volney Peters.

The only thing a football card might still conceivably work at is making a fiftysomething man not feel irrelevant. And there’s something that works better than a football card at that, too. Viagra.

Sorry, it’s not good enough for something just to be. It really does need to work. A couple of years ago I was doing a story for The New York Times on the Bathtub Nash. The Nash was sort of the SUV of its day. The seats folded into beds, the trunk was huge, it was marketed extensively to hunters and anglers, and it looked like a plumbing fixture with wheels. I visited the world’s No. 1 Nash collector who showed me his Bathtub Nashes, and like the iPod Touch, I wanted one immediately. As Clarkson wrote this week, “I wanted one more than I don’t want lung cancer.” And then I drove it.

God, it was wretched. Shifting was like prying up the floorboards with a crowbar. The steering was less responsive than Courtney Cox’s forehead. You prepared for your next stop immediately after pulling away from the last stop. The steering wheel was an embroidery hoop, and the dash was mostly chipped painted metal except for the spot in front of the passenger’s seat where it said, “Your Obituary Here.” No wonder people equated driving with sport back then. There was a 50-50 chance you would be killed driving the eight blocks to the Schulz Sav-O Center, going no faster than 25 all the way and meeting nothing more threatening than a diaper truck.

Much as I loved the way the Bathtub Nash looked and what it represented, I would not want one to do what it was put on Earth to do, which is be a motor vehicle. The only thing it could still function as in the modern world would be lawn sculpture – but, oh, the rocker panels are made of Sun Chips bags, so it doesn’t work as that, either.

It’s not quite the same with magazines. Currently there is nothing that presents pictures and words together better than a magazine. An iPad may get there, and as soon as they stuff all the back issues of The New Yorker into it I will have one. There are 35 years of Guitar Player magazines in a room in my house. Would I like to have all those issues in a package the size of one of those magazines, and have it be searchable, so when I’m looking for that review of the Peavey Classic amplifier I don’t have to spend an hour and a half looking for it? Yes I would, very much. I would also like to have every Topps football card made in the last 60 years on an iPad. Make a note of that if you would, Mr. Eisner. When an iPad gets to that stage it will work better than a magazine and they’ll largely be gone, too, except as ersatz Viagra for the recently irrelevant, and Mr. Hackler will be over here with me. The only problem may be when Apple decides that everything has been digitized and nothing remains in print and paper, and it decides to charge me $2 billion to turn the digital page. That’s when I slap the “This Machine Kills Fascists” sticker on my ax and go to work.

Things change, and while fans of the old stuff hate that, it’s the only way to get from a tube TV with a six-inch screen to a 52-inch flat-panel. It is totally fitting and proper that football cards go away. The people who made cards during the wild days of the ‘90s have accepted that, because they’re smart people. I called the roll of the bright, funny, wonderful people who populated the card business during that time (and I know I’m leaving out so many) – Sherry Wallace, Frank O’Connell, Bill Bordegon, Keith Wood, Shawn Reilly, Kurt Iverson, Chris Dahl, Jeff Morris, Don Butler, George White, Baron Bedesky, Michael Cleary, Julie Haddon, Jeff Kurowski, Brad Bartlett, Scott McCauley, Bill Jemas, Victor Shaffer, and on and on – and almost all of them are out of the business. That list now includes Allan Caplan and Martha Modlin, who shuttered Inkworks at the end of last year. Tracy still does great work at Beckett and Dean Listle holds the torch at Krause Publications, but they’re not only in cards, they’re in magazines that write about cards. I worry about them.

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,/And God fulfils himself in many ways,/Lest one good custom should corrupt the world,” Tennyson wrote, and I suppose that’s as good an explanation as any of why football cards don’t matter. I wish Topps well, and Tracy and Dean better, but I think it’s time we knocked football cards into a cocked hat and adjourned to the bar for a Red Smith – a vodka-and-tonic, no fruit. Just the vodka and the tonic and the ice. It’s a much more appropriate disposal than football cards for a bunch of irrelevant old guys, content to run our hands over the past until it’s smooth.

1 comment:

  1. The 90's were a great time to be in the trading card business, with all the bright, funny, wonderful people Kit mentions; I had the privilege of working with most. Hard to argue the point that an iTouch can give you everything a trading card can, in a much smaller, more user-friendly package. As long as you have electricity. And yet...the thrill of opening that pack and pulling out...your favorite player or comic book character, and then showing it and discussing it (too loudly) with your friends. Cards generate more focus and attention in a group, and do more to fire the imagination than watching literal video clips. I've been out of the business for more than a dozen years now, but I still think that. Alas, Kit is correct in his points, and my position is that of a very small minority...until the electric grid fails!