Since shipping those Cruel Summer Funpacks involved digging deep into my immense collection of trading cards, I’ve spent the past week drowning in paperboard nostalgia. With even the really old sets still being easy to find, I guess I’d overlooked just how much they used to mean to me.
I needed to maintain a good supply for the orders, but I eventually broke down and opened a few packs. Really, there’s only so many times you can handle sealed packs of Gremlins 2 cards and not open them. Unfortunately, “a few” became “many,” and soon enough, my stock was effectively halved.
Well, here’s my chance to justify those impulses: A look back at twelve ancient trading card sets, as told by the best cards from various packs!
DC Cosmic Teams, 1993
A lucky break for me, since unless they made one for Kid Eternity, this is literally the only card in the entire DC Cosmic Teams set that I’d want. I don’t have too much experience with Neil Gaiman’s work, but I read the shit out of Death: The High Cost of Living, where Death – represented as a milky white, adorably perky goth – becomes human for a day. (To better understand the value of the souls she reaps, or something like that.) Death is solely responsible for that sad phase of my early teens, when I wore an enormous, gaudy ankh everywhere I went.
Pick up the graphic novel if you get the chance. It works well even if you know nothing about “that universe.” Plus, it comes with a condom tutorial that features Death shoving rubbers over bananas. Really.
I’m shocked that this set hasn’t become more of a meme in today’s “scan every old thing you can find” internet culture. Impel’s “Laffs” cards featured all of our favorite characters from ABC’s TGIF lineup… or at least the ones from Full House, Family Matters and Perfect Strangers.
It sounds a silly idea for trading cards, but the TGIF lineup really was that big of a big deal. I’m not sure if this translated into trading card success, but for what it’s worth, if you let me choose between Nolan Ryan’s rookie and a card with Balki and his sheep doll on it, I’m picking Balki without hesitation.
“Lt. Gen. Kelly”
Desert Storm, 1991
I didn’t just “collect” Desert Storm cards – I over-collected them. A lot of us did. Everyone thought that they were destined to be worth a fortune, which, of course, was a surefire way to guarantee that they wouldn’t be.
They’re all-fact, no-fluff cards based on the heroes, vehicles and gadgets of Operation Desert Storm, and it’s taken me twenty years to realize just how strange it was to base a trading card set on that. Topps was savvy enough to donate a portion of the profits to war vets, but that didn’t stop every criticism. Well, duh. “From the company that brought you 2000 barfing Garbage Pail Kids, it’s… Colin Powell!”
Norfin Trolls, 1992
Man, did ANY of the thousand attempts to make Troll dolls “more than just dolls” work out?
The Norfin Troll phenomenon was the weirdest thing. The dolls became hugely popular for a while – they really were everywhere – but the “feel” of that popularity never seemed like a “craze.” There were exceptions, but owning a ton of Troll dolls didn’t necessarily mean that you were a “Troll fan.”
At least, that’s my theory. And it helps explain how Troll dolls could’ve been so popular, while everything else based on Trolls… kinda wasn’t.
Anyway, the trading cards put a bunch of thematically-dressed Trolls in everyday situations, with results that ranged from “cute” to “disastrously easy to take the wrong way.”
Dick Tracy, 1990
I’ve mentioned my love for Dick Tracy many times before, usually to the response of one stray golf clap barely audible in the distance. Look guys, it has nothing to do with Dick Tracy. I couldn’t care less about Dick Tracy! I love that movie because of its amazing villains.
Itchy was my favorite, mostly for his fashion sense. (Thick glasses and a cobalt blue trenchcoat make an incredible pair!) But beyond Itchy, the hidden truth is that Dick Tracy wasn’t really fighting a bunch of colorful gangsters. He was fighting MONSTERS.
Most of the villains had a disfigurement of one form or another, but a few seemed positively inhuman. Pruneface, of course. And The Brow, with his forehead full of belly fat. Even bit players like Influence looked like something out of The Twilight Zone.
Yeah, those characters looked the same way in the comics, but on film, they turned this supposed action film into something deliciously sci-fi. At the top of the “monster” heap was Littleface, a guy with miniaturized facial features on an otherwise normal-sized head. Since I’d generously estimate that he had four seconds’ worth of screen time, I’m very thankful for this sticker. It’s nice to get a good look at Littleface without needing to rewind a bunch of times.
“Donkey Kong Rub-Off Game”
Donkey Kong, 1982
These weren’t “trading cards” in the traditional sense. Each pack included a few sticker cards, along with a few of what’s shown above: Neat little games where you had to coin-scratch your way to the captive Pauline!
Underneath some of those golden circles were fireballs and barrels, and if you uncovered three of them, you lost. Course, since this was all played under the honor system, there was nothing keeping you from pretending that the fireballs missed.
I’m just now realizing that the Pauline from Donkey Kong was the same Pauline who got trapped in the bonus stage in Nintendo’s Pinball. Even compared to other damsels in distress, Pauline had a rough go of it.
“The Gremlins Are Back!”
Gremlins 2, 1990
Ah, Gremlins 2 cards, which remind me of another reason why collecting these things was so worth it. I love Gremlins 2 as much as I’ve ever loved anything, but at the time of the film’s release, there wasn’t much merchandise to help me celebrate that love. It was the same way with lots of movies and shows that I obsessed over. The best (and sometimes only) way to “take it home” was through trading cards.
I collected the whole set, of course. One neat thing was how the cardbacks explored the Gremlins’ personalities in ways that the movie only hinted at. (The set was also our chief resource for learning their official names. Remember: Daffy, George, Lenny and Mohawk were never called by name in the film.)
“The Oozeman Cometh”
MMPR: The Movie, 1995
Meet Ivan Ooze, the “special” villain from the first Power Rangers movie. He was a monstrous purple dude who used hypnotic slime to enslave the citizens of Angel Grove. (Read that last sentence twice, because it goes a long way in explaining why Ivan Ooze was fantastic.)
My one complaint about this card is that it represents Ivan in his “carnival wizard disguise,” when he tricked kids into thinking that his slime was a safe, fun thing. Ivan’s normal appearance was much cooler, because there was no stupid hat to hide the apparent dead squid on his head. He looked like the lovechild of Ursula and a Facehugger.
Baseball’s Greatest Grossouts, 1988
Arguably the most obscure set featured here, Baseball’s Greatest Grossouts collected a bunch of monster-or-mutant baseball players with goofy names.
The ‘60s art style suggests cards that are decades older than they actually are. I don’t know how I missed these in the late ’80s, because despite my constant “haha sports” talk, I certainly collected baseball cards, and I definitely would’ve collected baseball cards that replaced the Mets with gnarly, drooling Satans.
Dinosaurs Attack, 1988
“Good words about Dinosaurs Attack cards” will be nothing new for anyone who’s read me long enough, but I couldn’t write about random trading card sets and not mention the arguable granddaddy of ‘em all. In this twisted series, dinosaurs (dinosaurs with a terrible mean streak) are thrown into modern times, where they maim and eat everyone in sight – and in full gory detail.
You’d think that’d be enough to carry a series of cards, but nope, it got worse. There were all sorts of Hellraiser-level torments at play, perhaps best exemplified by a card where a dinosaur “blips” into our timeline directly over another human being, merging their bodies into some hideous thing straight out of The Fly. (The set also included what I still consider to be the most unsettling trading card ever made.)
There was a cohesive story within that set, with a definitive start, middle and end. Dinosaurs Attack cards were gross and bizarre and not for every audience, but I’ve never seen another set make such great use of the medium.
“Bill, Ted and Death”
Bill & Ted’s Most Atypical Movie Cards, 1991
I love Bill, Ted and especially Death, but this set represents one of my most hated trading card “movements.” I was never fond of the evolution to high-gloss “sophisticated” cards, which seemed (and were) more expensive, but lacked the charm of the simpler cards, with their rougher backs and more easily dented corners.
It wasn’t just a resistance to change, either. When trading cards started to look like this, the drawn art, the little touches and the clever blurbs all took a dive. There were exceptions, but it’s like we traded all of the “unspoken positives” for the sake of slicker photos.
Course, maybe I should can it with the gripes. After all, this card depicts the scene where Bill and Ted play Battleship against Death. Hell to the yes. Honestly, William Sadler could break into my house, stab me with a fork and set fire to my prized possessions, and I’d still forgive him for every trespass. HE PLAYED DEATH IN BOGUS JOURNEY.
Batman Returns, 1992
I’ll spare you another ten paragraph study of why Batman Returns is the best “Batman thing” ever, but in summary, it is. And Catwoman is a big part of why.
When the movie came out, I was just entering that terrible period when I felt like an awkward nobody at best and a victimized doormat at worst. I’d like to think that every kid went through the same. So here was this woman who was basically an adult version of us, and just when life’s bullshit hits a fever pitch, she snaps, and morphs into someone wittier, braver and a hundred times more athletic. In a strange way, Catwoman gave me hope!
(And I’d still pay good money for a neon “Hello There” sign, casually modified to say “Hell Here.” What was groan-inducing for some seemed so awesome to the eleven-year-old me.)
Boy, this turned out to be a needlessly long article. Hopefully you just looked at the pictures?