March 10, 2008

Card Critic Review: 2008 Topps Heritage

Before I get into how much I like 1959 Topps (it’s by far the most brilliant Topps design of the early years, embracing jazz, beat, and a post-modernist pop culture sensibility within the staid, confines of baseball; plus it’s one of the few American card designs that was blatantly copied for a Japanese card set (1967 Kabaya Leaf, image shown from Rob's Japanese Cards)), I want to be perfectly clear about one thing: if it were up to me, this would be the last edition of Topps Heritage.

I have a few reasons. First, what does the word heritage mean? My cheap-ass dictionary has its meaning as valued objects and qualities such as cultural traditions, unspoiled countryside, and historic buildings that have been passed down from previous generations. So then by this definition, when exactly does the ‘unspoiled countryside’ era for Topps end? I think it has to end with 1959 (that’s when Fleer came on the market and stole Ted Williams). You could make a case that Fleer showing up in ’59 meant the same thing to Topps as the Bowman competition from 1951 to the buyout in 1955, but Topps/Fleer didn’t end the way Topps/Bowman ended and besides, Fleer is now owned by Upper Deck. You could also make the case that Fleer showing up really didn’t (and shouldn’t) mean very much when we’re talking about Topps Heritage, but I think that simply because there was competition (and that Topps doesn’t now own that competitor), no matter how hard Topps tried, their countryside was no longer unspoiled.

Second reason: If Heritage doesn’t end with the Fifties, it’ll end up being a runaway train. I’m a big fan of Topps design from the Sixties all the way up to 1978, but will collectors really want to go for Heritage ’78 in 2027? Maybe I’m in the minority, but I want Topps to be more original than Heritage by then. As a rejoinder to this point, there was an oft-maligned brand a few years ago called Upper Deck Vintage. These sets came out right when Heritage debuted, with Upper Deck pilfering the Topps design vault for three years worth of sets: 1963, 1965 and 1971 (and there was a fourth set, in 2004, but now I can’t remember what that set was supposed to emulate). The point of adding this is that you’ll get no argument from me that Heritage sets featuring these three designs wouldn’t be gorgeous, but Upper Deck’s beaten them to the punch. If anything, Topps should retire the name ‘Topps Heritage’ and call the remaining sets ‘Topps Classic.’

Third reason: A set like Heritage has to toe the line like other sets in today's variation-crazed environment. The intentional misprint and variation are enjoying renewed popularity these days at One Whitehall Street. No brand or set is safe, and Heritage is no exception. Black backs, misspelled names, alternate team uniforms—it’s a lot to pay attention to, especially in addition to the requisite Chrome, Refractors and black-bordered Chrome parallels, plus all the other inserts. And the short-printed cards, mustn’t forget about those… In the end it’s all so tiresome, you know? It almost feels like you have to peel away all these layers just to get to the set.

And that’s the rub: Heritage should first and foremost be about the set, but because it’s Topps (which is almost approaching a mid-Nineties-Fleer level in terms of number of different inserts competing for attention), and because it’s been created and released in the company’s current bells-and-whistles-and-hidden-shit environment, it’s not about the set.

Out of the four shrink-wrapped boxes sent over from Dave and Adam’s Card World (part of the D & A agreement with The Blog), I’ve opened three. Do I have a set? No. Should I? You’re goddamned right I should. 72 packs in and I’m missing at least 50 cards, plus God knows how many untold variations. And that’s just the base set. What’s the deal with that? For set builders, getting an insert in a pack means getting one less card towards completing the set. Add in a healthy amount of doubles and triples—anybody need a Russell Martin?—and very soon you’re in my position. In any case, even if this isn’t the last set we see out of Topps Heritage, it’s definitely the last new set I’ll collect.

It’s good to end on a high note, you know? For all the crap I just spewed about the inserts, the base Heritage ’59 set holds high notes in spades: The classic design; the checklist homage; the team card checklists; the titles of the combo cards; the color spectrum on the fronts; the return of the facsimile autograph; the stealth airbrushing; the rookie parade; the modern green on red (and even black on red) of the backs; the cartoons; the curves and e.e. cummings sans serif Helveltica typography in the spotlight on the front; the squares and straight lines dominating the backs. Even the photographs (usually a Heritage low point) are consistently sharp. The only noticeable drawback for me is the Heritage logo on the front. It seems larger within this design than it has in years past. It’s too bad they couldn’t have relegated it to the back or done it as a watermark.

I also like that the Topps photo editors didn’t shy away from going with photos that show just how pissed off, high or completely out of it a given player is, which rings true to the original photo choices made in 1959. A large number of players squinted their eyes and contemplated the universe in the original, while today's players all seem to be thinking You want me to stand look/stand where? It's great.

Tonight I re-read my review of 2006 Heritage, and while I had high hopes going in for that set and came away disappointed, it thrills me all the more that this year’s set is a winner. It’s a perfect way to retire a brand.


The Football Card Blog - Tony said...

I can see the Topps Board Room right now...

"Hmmm...continue with a brand that's done well until we drive it into the ground, or go back and come up with a new set from scratch?"

I'm guessing that 2008 won't mark the retirement of Heritage.

suterb said...

The 2004 set was based on the 1954 Red Heart set.