Trading card vendor and Non-Sport Update contributor Michael Beam declared Dart Flipcards’ 1998 Titanic set as his favorite Cheap Treat. Mike’s remarks, posted in NSU's online Web exclusive feature, signify there may be many hobbyists who appreciate the non-fiction set as a genre, particularly when the premise piques a collector’s interest.
Our culture prefers amusement over education. Entertainment-based card sets rightly dominate the non-sport industry. A hot television property, for example, carries multi-faceted avenues through which a manufacturer may exploit its product. The non-fiction set, based on an historical topic, current event or other theme, offers considerably less possibilities for hobby notoriety unless the depicted subject has somehow captured the public’s imagination. Entertainment cards sell amusement and distraction; non-fiction cards offer education and information.
It is ironic, then, to consider a global news event that shifted the foundations of the non-sport field. The 1991 Gulf War, and the Topps Company’s coverage of the conflict, had been the flashpoint that blazed the trail into the modern collecting era. Desert Storm, released within days after hostilities commenced in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, led to considerable publicity for Topps. The news divisions of the three major television networks practiced “gee whiz” journalism with respect to the Desert Storm cards, especially in reporting the alacrity of the product’s general release.
Prior to the Gulf War, the trading card medium had been equated with sports, chiefly baseball. The dichotomy had been established and reinforced since the mid-1970s with the advent of sports collecting conventions and the surging values of baseball cards. To the general public, Desert Storm composed a new riff in picture cards, and its melody enticed the multitudes.
Soon, the Great Offensive of ’91 took place. When the dust settled, no less than a dozen manufacturers printed Gulf War sets. New firms such as Lime Rock International, DSI, Inc./PPK Products, and Historical Images joined the established players Pro Set, Pacific, and Dart in depicting the campaign. Collectors were inundated with cards of President George H.W. Bush and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, along with repetitive imagery culled from sources utilized by most every other manufacturer. A glut of Gulf War cards became manifest at sports collectors’ shows, trading card stores and retail outlets. By the autumn, Desert Storm and its army of recruits were still on the battlefield, but with no new grounds to overrun.
Topps’ Desert Storm sets, and all other Gulf War issues, did not single-handedly initiate the expansion of the non-sport industry. Improved trading card manufacturing processes, developed in the late 1980s, also provided a significant boost. The new technologies afforded an environment that enabled established firms and startup companies to produce cards easily, cheaply and more efficiently than ever before.
The non-fiction genre became an expedient means through which the small business group could engage the hobby and perhaps earn profits. However, a typical documentary set, with low or non-existent licensing fees, never guarantees substantial sales figures. In 1991 alone, an inordinate number of misfires were recorded. Some topics were intriguing: Christopher Columbus, World War II propaganda posters and nature sets were marketed and generally well devised. One firm, though, proposed a series on Chinese dog breeds, but the set’s content had been too esoteric to go beyond a solitary promo card.
In those heady years, both before and after the Gulf War, non-fiction cards offered many delightful surprises that transcended the profit motive. Extraordinary trading cards would surface from even the most rudimentary of subject matter. When Sears, Roebuck and Co. conceived its first Craftsman Tools set, the collectible’s objective centered on furthering sales of the retail giant’s line of precision tools and power equipment. Between 1992 and 2000, eight sets were printed. The cards themselves featured obverse photography that existed steps beyond any imagery displayed in a typical Sears hardware catalogue. Company spokesman Bob Vila lent his name to a series of tips and advice on the card backs regarding the proper usage of the depicted tool or apparatus. Sears’ management of the series observed evolving hobby developments by including chase cards in subsequent releases and, later, Wild Card coupons endorsed by Vila.
The exploding non-sport industry led small, nascent firms to explore and exploit familiar themes found in many vintage card collections. Transportation, specifically aircraft and automobiles, provided an impetus for new merchandise.
Military aircraft enjoyed extensive photographic coverage courtesy of Top Pilot. Mike Godwin, a design engineer for the U.S. Navy, published Top Pilot Aircraft Mach 1 Cards in 1989. Subsequent issues dealt with combat helicopters and cargo jets. Other releases reveled in the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels squadrons. Most of the 20 titles produced by Godwin’s Top Pilot company contained less than 20 cards per set, which were distributed either in packs or limited edition complete sets.
Collect-A-Card presented the hobby with several muscle car issues in the early 1990s that highlighted the Chevrolet Corvette and other high performance vehicles. Another Collect-A-Card title, Chevy (1992) contained photography of the GM line from automobiles dating from 1911 to the present day. Further, Dream Machines, a two-edition effort by Lime Rock, examined collectible cars and restored vintage autos.
Richard Matthews, founder of Bon Air Collectibles of Richmond, Va., exhibited heavy lifting capabilities on behalf of the non-sport pastime. Matthews’ Fire Engines, a four-series run that debuted in 1993, answered the call with borderless imagery and foil-stamped obverses. Later, Bon Air paid tribute to the 20-ton schooners of America’s asphalt seas through 18 Wheelers, two 100-card sets comprised of tractor trailers found roaring down the nation’s Interstate highways.
TCM Associates countered with the super-heavyweight vehicles of Caterpillar. Two series of Earthmovers (1993-94) captured monster tractors, bulldozers and steamrollers in action and at rest. (With striking incongruity, baseball legend Bob Feller, perhaps a spokesman for Caterpillar farm equipment, contributed pack-inserted autograph cards for both sets.) Finally, the two-wheeled legends of Harley-Davidson appeared via Collect-A-Card in three series depicting the All-American motorcycle.
Non-fiction sets were not limited to photographic illustrations. Art works of the commercial level and also at the plateau of fine art frequently documented an historic event or nostalgic icon of 20th Century society. In these mid-1990s projects, such diversification into more sophisticated imagery constructed a stalwart foundation (along with the fantasy art collectibles of this period) upon which sketch card artists would later emerge and play a major role in the non-sport hobby.
Another Collect-A-Card offering, the Coca-Cola Collections (1993-95) reproduced vintage illustrations commissioned by the soft drink bottler throughout its history starting in the 1920s. The cards were backed with historical narratives and trivia relating Coke’s impact on business advertising as well as providing context on the beverage’s place within U.S. culture and also around the world. Comic Images released Art of Coca-Cola in 1999 featuring works by Norman Rockwell, Charles Dana Gibson and other renowned painters. The most recent Coke series, Coca-Cola Holiday, had been published by Comic Images in 2001.
Coca-Cola’s rival, Pepsi, had been given similar treatment by Dart Flipcards starting in 1994. The base sets for Pepsi-Cola Collector’s Series 1 and II depicted the soft drink brand through period art work, and also contained imagery of assorted vintage artifacts and marketable goods. Both issues were augmented by chromium chase cards. Pepsi-Cola Premium (1996) supplied the hobby with 72 mirror board finish base cards along with two foil chase card series. Dart concluded its run with Pepsi Around the Globe in 2000.
The liquid refreshment sub-genre received a buzz of sorts when the Coors Brewing Company self-published a 100-card issue in 1995 imparting the history and popularity of Colorado’s most famous beer. Three insert sets accompanied Coors, along with a foil-etched phone card and a special Coors Field Inaugural Season card available only through the purchase of the set’s binder.
The ubiquity of non-fiction trading card releases through our hobby’s expansion years most likely would not have been possible during any other era. With the development of inserts – autographs, fabric swatches sketches, relics and other factory-contrived rare cards – the documentary set lost its allure. Industry contraction forced small firms operating on the fringes to be forced out of the realm as the marketplace transitioned toward established, and more profitable, entertainment-based collectibles.
Apart from the titles discussed above, there exist other non-fiction sets that harbor important niches within our pastime’s current collecting era. All are eminently affordable and most remain easy to locate through established vendors and Internet auctions.
Space Shots (Space Ventures, 1990) The first non-sport set of note to exploit the new regime of trading card publishing methods, Space Shots appears as a close relative of Upper Deck’s first baseball card efforts in terms of formatting and texture. The semi-gloss obverses feature spectacular photography culled from NASA’s files. Along with portraits of U.S. astronauts from the 1960s and the next generation of space shuttle pilots and mission specialists, the set vividly depicts in-space views of the Earth and Moon, along with the rocket boosters and other hardware that launched America into the space race. Developed by Edward White III, son of the astronaut killed in a 1967 launch pad fire, Space Shots served as a memorial to the crew members of Apollo 1 and the space shuttle Challenger, which exploded after lift-off in January 1986. Pack-inserted entry blanks for a “$150,000 Space Trivia Challenge” enticed both young and adult collectors to read the card backs and answer 25 space flight history questions. The entry form contained columns for four proposed Space Shots series; unfortunately, only three were to surface in release.
Enduring Freedom (Topps, 2001) With their corporate offices within walking distance of the World Trade Center, Topps employees had been unwilling eyewitnesses to the Twin Towers’ collapses and the resulting chaos in lower Manhattan. One week after the attacks, publishing director Jerry McCarrick and senior editor John Williams proposed Enduring Freedom to company chairman Arthur Shorin. The project had been green-lighted immediately, and most likely became a single-minded experience for all who worked on it. The seven-part 90-card set contains no graphic imagery seen incessantly in the days immediately following 9/11, but does reflect balanced coverage through Associated Press photography. In an NSU article, this writer declared media coverage of Enduring Freedom had been exclusively positive, but the statement is imprecise. Criticisms centered on the release itself, and also the inclusion of cards depicting Osama bin Laden and Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat. Enduring Freedom exists as both a chronicle of 9/11 and a recapitulation of American ideals. As far as Topps capitalizing on the tragedy, Inkworks president Allan Caplan, whose firm printed a series of patriotic stickers, spoke words that perhaps echoed the sentiments of the industry as a whole. “We don’t make flags, pins or banners, but we love this country, and we wanted to show it through our product,” he said.
Vietnam Fact Cards (Dart Flipcards, 1988) “The purpose of these Fact Cards is not to glorify war, but to provide some insight and stimulate discussion of a war which very few understand.” With its mission statement declared, Dart’s first-ever collectible proceeded to cover a topic that remained an open wound for those who fought in the conflict and others who opposed it. No single historical work, let alone a card set, may adequately convey the issues, the politics or the emotional aspects of the Vietnam experience. However, for the collector, Vietnam remains an important document of an era that nearly tore a nation apart. Shepherded by Dino Frisella and his business partner Stewart Sargent, the project became their master’s thesis in trading card production and distribution. Vietnam’s chief strongpoint resides in its narrative, which traces the war’s roots from the Japanese army’s evacuation after World War II, the rise of nationalist Ho Chi Minh and France’s colonial occupation of Indo-China through 1954. The obverse art work is more impressionistic than graphic and does not transmit the full impact our collective memories retain of “television’s first war.” This lack of visual realism had been rectified when Dart published Vietnam Fact Cards Series II, comprised exclusively of photographic imagery, in 1991.
Native Americans (Bon Air, 1995) Matthews told NSU he commissioned this set as a fact-based artistic project for counterpoint to the fantasy art issues that dominated the market at the time. Native Americans is a profound achievement through concise editorial exposition and the magnificence of its imagery. Through the eyes and brushes of Zina Saunders, each card demands scrutiny for the attention given to the detailed portraitures and the background research devoted to recreating battle scenes. Though not truly a documentary set, Saunders undertook artistic license in depicting many Native American leaders who either lived prior to the invention of photography or whose likenesses had never been captured artistically. Some cards reflect the brutal measures the U.S. government and white settlers carried out in forcing America’s first inhabitants into submission. As such, the 90-card set, due to graphic imagery, has always been intended for mature collectors who grasp history even within a most disquieting and shameful context.
The Civil War Card Set Series One (TimeTraders, 2000) In the early 1990s, America’s internecine conflict had been the subject of two Bon Air releases (depicting renowned generals and soldiers), a Famous Battles collection by Tuff Stuff and a Mort Kunstler art set from Keepsake Collections (a Comic Images subsidiary). None of the above were as ambitious or comprehensive as Rod Ferguson’s massive 200-card undertaking. Comprised of historical paintings, period photography and illustrations of maps and other documents, this boxed set could very well be employed as an elementary school teacher’s aid. Amazingly, the backs contain between 15 to 19 lines of narrative, with none of the prose considered to be wordy or academic in nature. Ferguson’s professional background centered in the souvenir gift industry, but his avocation as an amateur Civil War historian with no prior experience in trading card publishing starkly reflects on this set’s scope of accomplishment. The Civil War Card Set had been slated as a three-series run of issues, however its creator moved on to other ventures by the autumn of 2002, leaving the hobby with this singular, but impressive product.
History of the United States (Upper Deck, 2004) The names, places and dates contained in this extensive 300-card set will remind collectors of their grade school days. Of the 12 sub-issues encompassing this collection, Inventors and Inventions is probably the most engaging. The usual suspects are here: Bell, Edison, Ford among others are joined by lesser known innovators such as Robert Goddard (father of American rocketry) and Edwin Armstrong (developer of FM radio). Sometimes overproduction is a good thing. Upper Deck ran its presses overtime, resulting in scores of boxed sets that still flood the market today and may occasionally be secured for less than the added shipping costs. Of course, one is required to scan the secondary market to locate the four lower level chase series, along with the scarcer state quarters cards. History purists were no doubt appalled by some of the cut signatures that augmented this product. Unique presidential cursives included Washington, Jefferson and John Adams, as well as a one-of-one cut of Ben Franklin. But the base set stands tall as a preeminent non-fiction configuration from a manufacturer noted for altering the face of sports card production.
Phil Rizzuto’s Baseball: The National Pastime (Comic Images, 1995) Consider The National Pastime as a true orphan set. Baseball card dealers did not know what to make of this title; non-sport vendors and collectors generally shunned the issue due to its subject matter. Further, the lingering effects of the 1994 baseball strike torpedoed whatever hopes Comic Images may have harbored in drawing interest from the sports card hobby. Company co-founder Hank Rose told the author the reasons for The National Pastime’s emergence. Rose and Comic Images president Alan Gordon secured access to a small trove of rare 19th Century and early 20th Century collectibles, artifacts and photographs. The static imagery, Rose said, required the use of chromium finishes which provided needed enhancement of the obverse depictions. Healthy doses of fascinating data and trivia related to the represented image are found on the card backs. The 90-card set comes in two versions. The standard chromium set is supplemented by a parallel HoloChrome edition. The HoloChrome cards are, indeed, dazzling, but in the main, the end effects are negligible. Comic Images hired New York Yankee legend “Scooter” Rizzuto to be the point man for The National Pastime, with the broadcaster contributing pack-inserted autograph cards.
For the last 18 months, the non-sport card industry has reeled from the effects of the global recession. We have seen one firm exit the field; we have witnessed retrenchment by major sports card producing corporations; and we are spending fewer funds on a pastime that takes a back seat to matters of everyday living. And yet, we may find some solace in realizing that the surviving non-sport firms drive forward to build upon a hobby that is teetering, but will not disappear.
The continuance of business through challenging times provides an environment for new entrepreneurs to join the trading card publishing enterprise, despite the bleak picture the near future indicates. And it is doubly heartening that the documentary tradition continues today through the emergence of iCardz, whose president Dean Johnstone heads a Canadian partnership which released D-Day 1944, Canada at War last June. The first in a series that commemorated the Allied invasion of France during World War II, the didactic nature of D-Day, along with a future America at War title, is certain to enhance our hobby’s stature.
Johnstone’s team stands on the shoulders of those who came before, the non-fiction manufacturers that helped foster the modern collecting era.
Feature story by Scott Thomas for Non-Sport Update; (c) 2010 Non-Sport Update; Posting of this article on other websites without permission is strictly prohibited.